Alex Photopaint in his Element

Cheyne William Armstrong, Image courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Cheyne William Armstrong, Image courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Do you mind looking ugly?” is an unsettling question coming from anyone pointing a camera at you; it is positively discouraging when the photographer in question specializes in beauty. I make a mental note to cross out modeling from the list of careers I might try when my mid-life crisis hits in earnest and then pose for Alex, who wants to test how my camera renders skin tones.

I had arranged to meet Sintawee Sittirangsan AKA Alex Photopaint at his office in one of Darlinghurst’s back lanes. The “office” turns out to be a fancy computer crammed in his kitchen’s back corner. We had planned to go out for drinks but he has a bad cold and our common interest is photography so we get straight into shoptalk and spend the evening looking at pictures and discussing the weird and wonderful world of fashion photography.

I am familiar with Alex’s work from what he posts on the net and from attending the same course at the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP), in Paddington. At the time, he bowled the whole class over with a stunning assignment shot of an amateur model taken with cheap lights from the local hardware store. The tutor, an old fox with an eye for talent pointed him towards portrait photography and, in the two years since I last saw Alex, he has become the photographer of choice for Sydney’s male models when putting together their portfolios.

I wonder aloud where he finds his clients and how he markets himself and he says simply that clients find him more than the other way around. What started with a handsome friend (Nathan Kelly) needing help showing off his good looks became an eye-catching portrait of a gloomy angel with wings of fire. The image, powered by Facebook’s networking might, kick-started the careers of model and photographer alike. Alex is so engrossed in his work that he refers to that first photo shoot as the beginning of his life.

Nathan Kelly with Fire Wings, Image courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Nathan Kelly with Fire Wings, Image courtesy of Alex Photopaint

We browse through his early work and I spot an excellent shot: it is a barren stone staircase after a storm; the night lights reflecting onto the wet surfaces make them look shiny and rather beautiful. I compliment him on the image and he answers pointedly: “Yes, but what for?”. He then logs onto Google and searches for his name. A host of pages from DNA Magazine’s blog pop up, each one showcasing one of Alex’s clients. He opens a few and points proudly to the viewers’ counts, which run in the thousands. It is a good point: a creative pursuit requires mastery of the chosen medium, a vision and, most of all, an audience. I recently set up my own website and I am planning to print greeting cards with some of my images and I understand well the urge to have one’s work viewed. What is it for, otherwise? He points at something else on the computer screen: each and every picture of a client carries his website address. “These guys are going places”, he says, and wherever they go, I go with them”. I did not study marketing at university, I specialized in finance, but it does not take a degree to appreciate how, being watermarked on a pair of healthy-looking buns might do wonders for one’s brand.

The aforementioned buns lead us to talk about nudity: Alex chuckles recounting how embarrassed he felt at first taking the shots. “I am Thai, you know, I was not used to the display of so much flesh but the clients wanted sexy images and seemed comfortable taking their kit off…” I have no difficulties believing him: taking one’s shirt off might not be an original strategy for a gym bunny at the beginning of his modeling career but an effective one, I suspect. Lily Allens says it with harsh clarity in one of her songs: “…// And I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless / Cause everyone knows that is how you get famous /…”; and I can easily see how his clients would feel comfortable being scantily clad in front of him: for all his steamy pictures, there is not an ounce of sleaziness in Alex; when he gets behind the camera he loses his shyness (but not his kindness) and becomes surefooted to the point of stubbornness. He is totally absorbed in what he is doing and that, I am sure, makes the people working with him feel at ease whether their shirt is on or off.

Cheyne William Armstrong, Image courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Cheyne William Armstrong, Image courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Another image that sparked an interesting discussion is a headshot of a blank-looking dude. I find it inexpressive and that gets Alex going: “But that is the look I am going for! It took me hours to get that blank expression”. He digs up the RAW files and here he is: the same handsome dude (Cheyne William Armstrong) frowning, smiling, sneezing, looking insecure at first and then positively bored and then eventually, displaying a full set of relaxed facial muscles and a blank stare. I find looking at the dud shots comforting: they make this modern-day Adonis appear human, which is the problem, I guess. “They need to look like objects” insists Alex and pulls out a glossy fashion magazine; he flicks through the advertising pages and there they are: one blank stare after another selling Gucci, Prada, Dior and all their lesser cousins. A hint of a frown is all they can afford; anything more would spoil the image and the model’s prospect of getting more work. I take his point but wonder whether a fashion brand brave enough to show off its creations on models looking less like dummies and more like sentient beings might be successful in attracting the public’s attention. Neither of us is Donatella Versace so there is little point in debating my wishful thinking; I ask Alex, instead, what might be the next challenge he takes on. He says that he wants to work in high fashion and, with a team of skilled makeup artists, a growing pool of female clients and his trademark determination, I reckon he will be working for Vogue before my son starts preschool. There is a snag though, the beauty industry is highly segmented and most of Alex’s clients are Bondi Beefcakes who might look unforgettable in Speedos but are too bulky to ever work for Zegna. Alex’s portfolio might need a bunch of tall, lean, good-looking guys and a few more ethereal female beauties for him to crack the dressed segment of the fashion industry. If you have got the right looks and aspire to the glossy world of fashion, start practicing the blank stare and then give him a ring.

Time flies and what was meant to be a quick drink ends up being a four-hour fascinating conversation. Throughout the evening, Alex’s description of his photographic journey keeps reminding me of Ken Robinson’s “The Element”. Robinson’s pivotal point is that finding what it is that we are both good at and passionate about, unleashes our creative potential and makes us happy. His book is peppered with examples of all sorts of successful people who, having discovered their gift, deploy it to astonishing effect. Alex Photopaint’s story is unfolding much like one of Robinson’s textbook examples; watching him “swim in his element” is nothing short of delightful.

Alex Photopaint, Image Courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Alex Photopaint, Image Courtesy of Alex Photopaint

Maurizio Viani

Alex Photopaint’s website: http://www.alexphotopaint.net/
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