Photographer Profile - Blake Little: "Shooting honey is essentially like shooting glass"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 3, 2015

You might say that the art of photography is all about preservation—of history, of memories, of ideas. Blake Little  has just taken that idea and run with it, spilling about three thousand pounds of honey along the way.

The Los Angeles-based photographer’s new exhibition “Preservation,” on view at LA’s Kopeikin Gallery  from March 7 through April 18, features his images of human beings of all shapes, ages and ethnicities encased in golden goo. Glisteningly beautiful, the work has a powerful sensuality that prompts emotional responses, eliciting notions about beauty, entrapment, nature and the nature of art.

That was not Little’s initial intent, however. The project began in a more prosaic way, when he was photographing a man who, he says, looked like a bear.

“So I thought of shooting him like a bear—climbing a tree, walking like a bear, all the cliches, including eating honey and getting it all over himself,” he says. When Little looked at the images later, he was reminded of ancient insects preserved in amber. “There was,” as he puts it, “something intriguing about the whole thing.”

The work represents a departure for Little, best known for the portraits of Hollywood celebrities he’s been shooting over the course of a 25-year career, from Samuel L. Jackson and Glenn Close to Jeff Bridges and Henry Cavill. Originally from Seattle, Little came to photography after studying science at the University of Washington for a couple of unhappy semesters —“somebody told me I was good at it,” he says—and then finding satisfaction in the photo program at Seattle Central Community College. After graduation, he moved to LA and assisted a number of commercial and celebrity photographers, including Bonnie Schiffman. His big break came in 1985 when he photographed Tom Cruise, just as the actor’s own career was skyrocketing in the movie Top Gun. Early on, Little found his own creative voice: His celebrity pictures are about surface beauty—an important part of the Hollywood business plan—but also, he says, about what lies beneath.

“What I try to do with my celebrity portraiture is show an aspect of a someone that hasn’t been seen before,” he says. “I make them look good, but I want to find something more intimate, too.”

In his “Preservation” series, Little is also concerned with surfaces—shiny, multifaceted ones that both diffuse and reflect light. “Shooting honey is essentially like shooting glass,” he says. In the strictest sense, the images are also portraits, like his commercial and editorial work, but with an important difference.

“For me, when you’re taking a portrait of someone, it’s all about what they’re projecting through their eyes,” he says. “But with the honey pictures, the models’ eyes are almost always closed—it’s a natural reaction to the experience of having something poured over your head. So that experience, the physicality of it, replaces the emotion that I would usually get through my subjects’ eyes.”

A Bee Story

After his first intriguing visual experience with honey, Little called in another friend as a model and conducted further experiments. “At the end of the shoot, I told my assistant, ‘Hey, let’s just pour it over his head,” he says. “When I looked at the pictures, I was even more excited about what was going on in them.” He tried it again the following week on two models he found through Craigslist. “By then,” he says, “I realized I was going to do a personal project with this.”

Little worked on the series through 2012 and 2013, shooting all the images in his studio in three separate weeklong sessions. He was able to photograph an average of six models over the course of a 10-hour day using a setup that allowed him to quickly recycle the honey poured over each model—an important consideration given the cost of the stuff. In all, Little says, about 1,000 pounds of honey were used during each of the three weeks of shooting. (Go here  to see a behind-the-scenes video of one of the sessions.)

Working with the honey was not as difficult as you might imagine—Little says the sticky stuff came off easily when the models took hot showers. There were, however, occasional complications.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve got a bee story,” he says.

It happened on the first day of shooting for the project, with the very first model. “I was so excited to be doing this, and then one of my assistants said, ‘Ah, Blake, there’s a couple of bees in here.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want to hear about a couple of bees.’ And then 20 minutes later he said, ‘Blake, now there are 30 bees in here.”

Within an hour, Little had what he estimates were 3,000 bees in the studio, necessitating a call to an exterminator. (The bees were gotten out, not killed, notes Little, who suffered several stings.) It turned out that an assistant had thrown an item with honey on it into a dumpster outside, attracting thousands of foraging robber bees, some of which found their way back to Little’s studio.

Thoughts On Honey

Besides the new show at the Kopeikin Gallery, Little’s honey images can be seen in the monograph Preservation, the photographer’s fourth book. In a forward, Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, finds an ancient connection between honey and art, describing cave paintings in Spain that depict human honey gatherers. He also compares Little’s images with archeological photos of the plaster casts of Pompeiians killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

“It’s a conceptual parallel, because the bodies in Pompeii disappeared, leaving only hollow cavities in the ash that encased them,” Lapitan said in a recent interview. “Those cavities were filled with plaster to recreate the bodies. Through his use of honey, Blake similarly encases bodies—in this case actual bodies—but he evokes these frozen figures from the past.”

In his introduction, Lapitan goes further, pointing out the juxtaposition in Little’s work between honey—“the timeless, pure substance”—and human flesh that is prone to decay. ”The honey," he writes, “can distort and amplify forms, highlight physical perfection, engender repulsion, and suggest both immortality and death.”

The process of creation is also the process of discovery—the line that leads from a man who looks like a bear to the lost souls of Pompeii is not a straight one. But seeing how the series developed and how layers of meaning could be poured over his images the way he poured honey over his models is what satisfies Little most about his project. “The fact that I could take this random idea and blow it up into something that’s unique—I think that marks my maturity as an artist,” he says.