A few years ago, David Vance offered to take my picture. He e-mailed me to congratulate me on a new publication, and didn’t like the picture that was appearing with my column—a candid shot taken from some opening night party. Obviously I was flattered—who wouldn’t be when a world famous photographer offers to take your picture?
A few weeks later, I went to his North Miami studio and got the full David Vance treatment. His studio includes a fully equipped hair and make-up room—turns out that in addition to his expertise with a camera, the man is a whiz with concealer and wields a mean mascara wand and curling iron. When it came time for the camera, he posed me naturally, and made slight adjustments to the tilt of my chin or the drop of my shoulder. It was easy to smile, because he made me feel beautiful. And when he sent me the photos, I understood the genius of David Vance. He made me look as beautiful as he’d made me feel.
Now it’s a few years later, and on the mornings that follow late, sleep-deprived nights, I look in the mirror and wish I had a mask of that gorgeous portrait from David Vance that I could wear over my real face.
“I tell people, when you get up and don’t feel right, wear your 8x10,” Vance says.
Vance had a memorable introduction to his chosen field.
“I liked to draw and paint, and my parents freaked out,” Vance says. “When I was 14, they decided they would veer me toward photography because it was more commercial, so they bought me a dark room kit from Sears.”
Using whatever camera was around the house, Vance began taking pictures as a hobby and became addicted to photography.
That inauspicious beginning lead Vance to a successful career as an in-demand photographer. His editorial work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Men’s Health, Interview and Rolling Stone. He’s done commercial work for Revlon, Rolex, Sony, Miramax, Lions Gate, St. Martin’s Press and Coco-Cola, among others. And then there are the portraits, which reads like a who’s who of the entertainment industry: Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia, Bea Arthur, Johnny Mathis, Sophia Loren, Ricky Martin, L’il Wayne, Luciano Pavarotti, Eli Wallach, Hal Holbrook, and athletes Chris Evert, Billy Bean, Don Mattingly, Greg Louganis, Mitch Gaylord and Dan Marino.
Vance, who was raised in Miami, opened his studio here after graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology. Influenced by fashion photographers Horst P. Horst and Richard Avedon, and great Hollywood portrait photographers like George Hurrell, he began photographing the actors and actresses appearing at Coconut Grove Playhouse. He concentrated on commercial photography at first, in an era where advertising dollars flowed freely.
But a few years ago when the commercial work fell off, Vance decided to concentrate on artistic photography. His latest book, Heavenly Bodies, is divided into two parts, Gods and Mortals. The Gods section features otherworldly photographs of models as angels and saints, while the Mortals section feature humans with beautiful bodies.
Vance says the ideas for the ethereal images in the book are influenced by his love of art and his Catholic upbringing.
“I wanted to do some kind of surrealistic images, and I have this imagery in my head of all this religious art, so I tapped into that,” Vance says.
And then there’s the story of the dead bird. He’d been looking for wings to use for photographs, but couldn’t find anything he liked in his price range—the standard White Party wings were not going to cut it.
“I was on my roof and I there was a dead dove or pigeon or something—I don’t know what happened to it but it was dead—so I took its wings and I dried them and I saved them and they live on in my photos,” Vance says. “Some people think it’s bazaar, but I would cut the legs off chicken to cook it, so it didn’t feel much different from that.”
Vance credits computer technology with helping him translate the images he sees in his head into the photographs.
“I refer to my work as impressionistic, because I don’t think any one image is a representation of anything, because we look at things as they’re moving,” Vance says. “When I photograph people, I’m looking at it like it’s a film. I’m looking at everything, and then I get a feeling, and impression of what it is. I’m going to correct the photograph to suit the impression I have of it. If you want reality go look in a mirror. You don’t need me for that.”
Vance’s work can be seen at Dennis Dean Galleries in Wilton Manors through the end of February. The exhibition includes photographs from The Woods, a book Vance published in 1996, as well as Heavenly Bodies, and some photographs that he did for a musical that correlated Mathew Shepard with the Passion of the Christ. The exhibition also includes new photos from an upcoming book called Erotic Dreams, which Vance will soon present to his publisher.
Vance believes Erotic Dreams pushes the envelope of his previous work in nudes.
“I’ve been very conservative up to now, in the kind of things I would present and the way I present them,” Vance says. “And while I’m keeping the whole thing within the same sort of vision that I have, I’m making it more explicit. It’s a statement. I started thinking about the idea of sexual liberation and sexual freedom and people being comfortable with their sexuality. It’s time to break free of that puritanical harness that we’ve grown up with.”
Vance laughs when he speaks of the explicitness of Erotic Dreams. “I’m giving the people what they want.”