One day, a successful business man in his thirties picks up a camera. Something inside him clicks (no pun intended), and a desire is awaked from deep within. As a result, he turns his world upside down in pursuit of his new found passion for photography and visual art. In short, he wipes his slate clean. He decides to leave a company in which he has a partnership. He sells his house. And he doesn’t even know if he’s any good. This isn’t a quirky movie plot. This is Chris Madsen’s life.Kita and Mandy were lucky enough to sit down with Chris in his office at the Utah Arts Alliance, where he creates visual art pieces from his photography shoots, and runs his new business, Square Pixel, LLC. He talked about the variety of techniques he uses to get his signature dark and cinematic looks. We also chatted about what drove him to make such a drastic change in his life, and how it’s paid off. We both agreed when we left that the man has guts of steel.
Chris: I would describe my photography as conceptual. It’s hard to describe because I don’t think my work is like anyone’s work. It’s a little bit conceptual, a little bit dark. I try to create images that will tell a bit of a story. They all have pretty strong feminine qualities to them.
Mandy: Yes, I noticed most of your work is of females. Is there a reason for that?
Chris: 99.9% of my work is female. I get a lot of inspiration from early Renaissance images. Just the curvy, beautiful women. Also, everyone seems to appreciate women, even women. 85%, if not 90, of my sales are to women. I don’t have very many men buyers.
Mandy: When did you first know that you were interested in photography?
Chris: I picked up a camera for the first time in my life about three and a half years ago. Something just clicked inside, like this was what I should be doing. I was partners in a company that I left, and eventually sold out my stock in. Got rid of my house, moved into an apartment, got a studio, and just kind of redirected my life. It was kind of late in life, but something just finally clicked.
Mandy: Were you into art in general?
Chris: Not at all. I had no interest in art. I mean, I had gone to school for graphic design, so I guess layout, but I had no real interest in art as a whole. I was never really into it. It was a major turning point in my life.
Kita: What made you pick it up then?
Chris: I think it was in the days of MySpace, when you could look at any photographer’s profile, and they always had tons of pretty friends. So I thought, “Oh, if you have a camera, then chicks dig you.” I thought it would get me a lot more dates, which has not worked still, to this day. But I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing.
Mandy: Did you have any goals when you first started?
Chris: Well, when I first started, I had no idea. I didn’t know anything about photography. So after a while, when I realized that I really enjoyed creating these scenes, my goal became to get something into a gallery. I probably had been shooting for less than a year, and I actually got the opportunity from Derek Dyer, the director of the Utah Arts Alliance, to display in one of their galleries downtown. So I took, I think, three pieces and ended up selling one of them. A pretty large one. This guy was a passerby. He was just walking downtown, by the gallery, and purchased it. So that really sparked something in me to know that someone, somewhere, picked up a piece of my artwork, paid for it, and is hanging it in his house, looking at it every day. You always kind of wonder what they’re thinking. So those were my early goals. Now, my goal is to make more, if not all of my living doing art. It’s gotten to be maybe 20-30% of my income, and my goal is to make it 100%.
Mandy: What else do you do?
Chris: I’m a freelance graphic artist. Mostly websites or retail packaging.
Mandy: So from the time you take a picture to the finished product, do you do a lot of editing?
Chris: Well, I shoot a couple of different styles. I shoot digital, and they tend to be very heavily photo-shopped. I can’t paint, but for me, I can sit down and create a scene the way I want to see it. So even the term “photographer” is one I use very loosely. I’m not so much a photographer as a visual artist. I do a lot of other things, like Tintype, and/or Wet Plate Collodion, which is a technique from the 1800s. I do Van Dyke Browns and cyanotypes, and I also shoot film, which, there is no editing process to. You get what you get. So, I kind of jump back and forth with technologies.
Chris: You have a photo shoot. There can be a lot of time in that if you have to travel somewhere. My process from there would be to come back and go through the images. There may be several hundred from a shoot. And what’s different from a commercial photographer, or someone who is shooting glamor, I’ll shoot five hundred images and I’m really only looking for one or two to work with. I’m not creating an entire series. I’ll go through and find the ones I like, and I’ll start editing them. I can typically spend four or five hours on a single image. You can end up with two hundred layers on a Photoshop file. I really kind of just geek out at that point. I’ll have my music on and just really get into it. And sometimes you get hours into it, decide you’ve created some garbage, and delete it. That happens pretty often. So once you have the image created then it’s basically just getting it printed and framed.
Kita: So how did you learn those older techniques you do?
Chris: By just making stuff up. I probably do so many things wrong, but it works for me. I would buy books, YouTube videos; ask a lot of questions to people who were in the industry. But a lot of it comes down to making it up. For me, there’s not a typical editing process. I would say there are maybe one or two things that I tend to do consistently, but most things I’m constantly just making up.
Mandy: You mentioned women already; do you have any other main inspirations?
Chris: Well, I think women’s curves are beautiful. I think a woman, her body can be so mysterious, but I wouldn’t say that my inspiration really comes directly from women. It comes from a lot of stuff. It comes from movies, music videos, when I’m editing, the music I’m listening to, the person that I’m working with, and what I’m seeing in them as I’m working with them. So inspiration comes from so many places. I’m inspired by a lot of other artists. I spend a lot of time looking at other artists’ work that I admire.
Mandy: Do you ever collaborate?
Chris: I’ve used pieces for inspiration, or I’ve used pieces in the images, like jewelry, like Carrie Wakefield. But as far as an actual collaboration where we sit down and work on the piece together? No. I’d be open to it, but one thing about my process being so scattered and inconsistent is that it does make it harder to do that.
Chris: I think Salt Lake as a whole is a very fickle and unsupportive place. I think the art scene is definitely improving. I’ve noticed it from having a lot of friends in local bands and all the art stuff here, people just don’t support like they do in other places. When I’ve been to gallery shows in other states, people are pretty excited about it and want to support it. In Utah, you have those people, but not as much. Also, Utah is a very clique-y place. You have this little group of artists here, and that little group of artists there, and they don’t really communicate. They don’t share ideas; they’re not as friendly with each other. There are a lot of big egos in Utah.
Mandy: What would you say is your biggest obstacle?
Chris: I think every artist will wrestle with wondering if he’s creating good enough work. You become very self-critical as an artist. You’re putting your work out there to basically be ripped to shreds by the public. Basically, the better you get and the more known you get; the more people want to tell you vocally how much they hate you. In a way, you know when you start having more and more haters, you know you’re making some waves. It still doesn’t feel good when someone doesn’t like your work, because you’re putting your heart and soul into it. I think every artist deals with that. And then financially, I’d love to travel more, and shoot bigger concepts. I’d love to have more gear. It’s definitely not making me rich. But it is helping me with my income.
Mandy: Are the people in your life supportive?
Chris: I actually have a lot of people in my life who are very supportive. And actually it’s really nice, because I was in my thirties, late thirties even, when I decided I was going to be an artist out of nowhere. And my family has been very supportive, and I have a lot of supportive friends. I was lucky enough to have met Derek Dyer with the Utah Arts Alliance, which is where my studio is. It’s a very supportive environment. You’re around a bunch of creative people who care about art.
Mandy: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
Chris: I have no idea. I worked in manufacturing before I did this. Before that, I worked in construction. I’d probably just be designing. That’s okay, it’s not a bad thing to do for a living, but it doesn’t inspire me like art does.
You can check out more of Chris’s art here:
October 18, 7-10 pm – An October Evening multi-arts show – Salt Lake Masonic Temple, 650 East South Temple, Salt Lake City facebook.com/anoctoberevening
November 1, 5 pm-12 am – First Friday Las Vegas – Downtown Las Vegas Arts District firstfridaylasvegas.com
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