Paying tribute to old masters’ paintings

Award winning Melbourne photographer Bill Gekas talks about his muse, 5-year-old daughter Athena, and pushing boundaries with portrait photography

Bill Gekas is not a pioneer in what he is doing; well, that’s what he says. A self-taught photographer, with no studio other than his living room, he has never attended any formal photography training. Yet his name appeared first last year on the list of winners of the most prestigious international photography competition, The Loupe Awards. It doesn’t really get any better than that.
The media attention this Melbourne-born Greek Australian has attracted in the last two months has been surreal, with articles about him published from Dutch newspapers, to Greek magazines, the Daily Mail, The Age, CNN Turkey and ABC.
And the art work that attracted this attention in the already very saturated photography industry were Gekas’ portraits inspired by classical paintings.
His words – that he hasn’t pioneered anything new – now make sense. Photography evoking old masters’ paintings, from Rembrandt to Vermeer, has already been used for commercial and fashion purposes. But what hasn’t been done before, and what makes Bill and his 5-year-old muse daughter Athena unique, is the appealing father-daughter artistic collaboration.
Bill’s interest in photography started about 15 years ago. It wasn’t a profession for him, but more a very keen interest. An unusual portrait he took in 2005 led him to start refining this specific style, to recreate the old masters’ atmosphere and the lighting style they were famous for. Since then, he kept going back to those paintings and then the milestone happened – in 2007 Bill and Nicoletta’s daughter was born, Athena. What was supposed to be a couple of nice, classically influenced portraits of their daughter unintentionally became a series of portraits, inspired by Dutch paintings of yesteryear.
“What we noticed was that there was a lot of interest and appeal by other photographers, other people in the arts industry about it. So after a few months, the project took a complete turn. It became a portrait of a child rather than a portrait of our daughter. She is a protagonist in a story to be seen. And the project continues until now,” Gekas tells Neos Kosmos.
The Gekas’ portraits of a child will unmistakably remind you of old Dutch masters’ style from the 17th century. For Gekas, this specific period was an inexhaustible source of inspiration as it’s the type of art work that has stood the test of time, and is still appealing to a lot of people.
“People keep going back there and looking at the famous paintings,” he says. “I think between 500 years ago and now, a lot of that has been lost due to the technological changes. But the concept is still the same.”
And with new admirers always trying to find the direct connection of Gekas’ portrait and Dutch masterworks, none of his work is an exact replica of a painting. It was only their style that served as inspiration for Gekas.
“However the illusion is that you think you have seen that before and that it’s a recreation. There is a similarity, but it’s different – it’s a fusion of ideas and inspirations,” Gekas says.
The inspiration equally comes from a mixture of other things – movies, other pieces of art and music.
“It’s the matter of doing this conceptual type of work, where we’re recreating the atmosphere, we’re recreating the lights, the richness that these portraits have. It’s not about taking someone else’s idea and recreating it. It’s about fusing a lot of what you have seen, creating something and calling it your own.”
The process of creating a photo inspired by classical painting is not an easy process. With the majority of photos being taken in their home, the shooting session requires furniture to be moved, a creation of backgrounds, and illusion by using special lighting techniques. But the credit has to go to Bill’s wife Nicoletta, who is playing the role of scenographer, make up artist and costume designer. That is when drawings from Bill’s sketch book, from imagination, blossom into creation. The accurate period costumes that 5-year-old Athena is dressed in for photos are often really nothing more than just three pieces of fabric put together to create an illusion of a costume.
And when it comes to, probably, the youngest muse ever, who started posing in front of her father’s lens as a two-and-a-half-year-old, it’s all about keeping her amused.
The trick her father found in order to keep his model interested and in front of the lens was to make the photo shoots snappy. In other words, of the three weeks it takes to prepare that one portrait, the photographer only has 10 minutes to capture Athena’s attention. After that, the muse is gone.
“She loves it, while in front of the lens, as all girls in that age group love it when you give them a chance to dress up in a fancy costume. I will tell her what facial expression I want her to have. After 50 or 60 shots, it’s only 3 to 4 of them where the right emotion is seen,” Gekas says, emphasising the importance emotion has in photos. Even when the lighting is good in a shoot, the props are good, and the colours, if you don’t have the emotion, you have nothing, he adds.
“If you look at the old paintings, 500 years ago, you will see they had a lot of emotion in their face. They weren’t just smiling, they were very sombre, and these were very emotive type works. It’s just a matter of recreating that, of creating something a bit more unique than what’s currently out there in the photography industry.”
“Emotion is what I want to achieve in photos. The most important thing is that when somebody views these photos, they don’t see a photo of Athena. What they see is a portrait of a child; it is a reflection of themselves when they were children. That’s very important and that comes from emotion. A lot of people look at it and even though they don’t know the model in any way at all, they react to it on personal level.”
With numerous awards he has won in international competitions in the last two years, his many admirers and world media will be waiting for Bill Gekas to add the attribute ‘professional’ in front of ‘photographer’.
“For me it was never about winning, it was more about playing on the same playing field as these major photographers,” Bill says.
At the back of his mind, when a good moment allows it, is to shift from successfully running a business in a completely different industry to being a full-time working photographer.
“This industry is very saturated, you have to be unique and stand out, and I think I have that. So now it’s all about finding the right moment,” Gekas concludes.
Until then, the award winning photographer will be looking forward to his trip to Greece, where he will be working on a photography project. And the next project to involve his muse and model Athena is most likely to come true nowhere else but in Ali Pasa’s castle in Bill’s parents’ native Ioannina.
To see more work of Bill Gekas, visit his website www.billgekas.com