Drenching beautiful naked women in multicoloured paint and melted chocolate. Is it art? Brazilian photographer Gabriel Wickbold will convince you that it is, once you see his self-initiated series Sexual Color. Aside from flesh and paint, his work is certainly ingrained with passion, energy and honesty. And after talking to him for just a short while, it's clear that his personality is too.
"That's pretty much us, here in Brazil," grins the 26-year-old from S£o Paulo. "We're really passionate about our stuff here, and I try to bring a Brazilian way of thinking to my work, with passionate colours and a lot of love. It's been really weird for me, because my work has been getting this international credit, and people from all kinds of places have been getting in touch. I've actually only been working as a professional photographer for two-and-a-half or three years now, so everything's just happened really fast. The internet has helped a lot," he adds.
Bloggers might have spread the word about Sexual Colour around the world, but it's hard graft in the studio that's behind Wickbold's rise in prominence within Brazil's creative community. Four days a week he's busy with client commissions, which include anything from work for bands and music labels to leading fashion houses. The rest of the time he spends on his ambitious fine art photography projects.
Surprisingly, he actually has no photographic training whatsoever. For Wickbold, this is an advantage: "I picked up some tips from my photographer friends, and made a research laboratory in my studio," he recalls. "Every day I discover how to do different kinds of lighting. But for me, it's about much more than the perfect lighting setup. It's about the perfect vibe."
There's a very simple logic to his approach: Wickbold feels that if he'd studied photography, he wouldn't be experimenting. Developing his own way of doing things has given his work its own look and feel. "To get the same results, if I'd trained, I would do it in the same way that other people have already done it," he shrugs. "Instead, I'm always trying to find different ways to get a desired effect, and it's a unique way of doing it because I'm teaching myself the process from scratch."
Prior to becoming a photographer, Wickbold held down various other creative jobs. For a while he was in TV broadcasting, he's tried writing poetry and he was also a music producer, with his own studio, which enabled him to meet lots of DJs and bands, and taught him some transferable creative skills that he now applies to his photography. "Producing music is actually really close to photography," he proposes. "It's all about directing the musician; telling them how to experiment with feelings and translate that into music. [Portrait] photography is similar, because you're directing a model, trying to make her or him translate their feelings into a picture. That skill is particularly important for me nowadays, because I do a lot of photography for music clients, so I've learned to translate songs into images."
His past life in the music industry also helped him to establish his photography studio. Many of the musicians he'd worked with encouraged him to pursue this exciting new career path, and ultimately became his clients - which kick-started the business. Through them, he continues to enjoy access to a broad range of potential clients in the Brazilian music scene.
His ambitious experiments with paint, lighting, skin and digital photography in Sexual Color have paid off as well. Part of its success in Brazil was down to the fact that models for the series included Brazilian television stars, including Adriane Galisteu, Didi Wagner, Fernanda Paes Leme, Adriana Bombom and Daniela Albuquerque. Inevitably, this attracted a great deal of national media coverage, and it helped add high-end fashion to Wickbold's arsenal, alongside music.
The series also caught the eye of Brazilian jeans brand Puramania, leading to Sexual Color X Puramania97, a series of fashion photos that appeared in Vogue Brazil. Models wearing the clothing - pretty loosely, it must be said - were photographed as they were doused in paint and ink. The texture of the fabric brought a new visual element to the Sexual Color theme, and the photos appeared across an eight-page spread.
Another Brazilian fashion brand, Julia Faro, was also impressed with Sexual Color. Instead of capturing paint splashes, they wanted water to shower their models. "They looked at my profile and said, 'We'd like to do something with water, do whatever you want.' That's pretty much it," he says of the blank-canvas art direction he received.
Whether the models are doused in water or lurid splashes of paint, it's essential to build the right atmosphere in the studio. For Wickbold, this is as much a part of the process as setting up the lighting, pressing the shutter or editing shots in Photoshop. Clients might be on the set too, seeing how it's going and reviewing the images as they're sent to his Mac. While he can rarely predict what the results of a shoot will be like, he does provide the key references that he'll be working from, and tries to keep things as chilled-out as possible during the day so the creative juices flow as freely as the paint.
"If I ever feel any tension in the air, I'll just say, 'Chill out, we're going to get it, don't feel tense.' I'm like the joker, making people laugh and feel comfortable," he grins. "I think one of the main roles of the photographer is to conduct energy throughout the whole set. If you have somebody with bad vibrations in the studio, you have to make everybody else feel relaxed and say, 'Let's do it.'"
Wickbold chooses to shoot with a Canon EOS D5 Mark II body, which he likes because it's light and easy to use. It has a good pixel rate when transferring images to the computer - the number of megapixels per image isn't as important to him as how quickly images can be transferred, reviewed and worked on while on a shoot. Besides, a good lens matters just as much as resolution: his lenses of choice are Canon's 50mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2.8, both fitted with ultrasonic motors, used at fixed zoom.
Wickbold's past experience in the music industry again proved useful when it came to buying lighting rigs for his studio: "I already had a music studio here, so I knew the process," he explains. "It's trial and error: you buy poor equipment and try it for a while, and then buy other equipment that's a bit better. Then you buy equipment a third time and finally think, 'That was the one I should have got in the first place.' So when I started in photography, I went straight to a friend of mine who was working on big ad campaigns here in Brazil and said, 'Hey man, I want to buy equipment once, so please just show me the best thing for getting results.'"
His friend recommended using Broncolor lights, and Wickbold went all the way to Switzerland to purchase the kit. He insists it was worth the effort: "It's made a huge difference, and has shaped the light quality in my work."
While he's shooting, he's constantly exporting the images to his computer, where he tweaks them in Photoshop on the fly. He's developed over 200 colour profiles to apply to RAW files, most of which boost saturation and augment textures to make them more striking. Wickbold also enjoys playing with contrast, so his foregrounds are rich in colour and texture, while backgrounds often drop away to complete darkness.
"I'm more of an art director than a photographer, because I'm constructing an image in so many more ways that are really beyond the light meter," he says. "When I bring different make-up, a different scenario, and a whole way of building things, I see myself as a really constructive photographer."
Alongside the highly fashionable commercial work that Wickbold is becoming known for, he follows his creative muse by shooting a lot of art-orientated photography. When he first became a photographer, he decided to tour Brazil, capturing images of its more characterful inhabitants.
"I travelled 10,000km by car, taking pictures all day long," he recalls. "I was getting inside people's houses, starting conversations with them and trying to learn a little bit about their reality. At the same time, I was getting close-up portraits that captured people's faces in a different way," he goes on.
"It can be easy to do a portrait sometimes - people's eyes carry so much information - but at the same time it's hard to actually get that close to the person. That's what I was trying to do with this project: get really close to the subject, and focus on getting their eyes as sharp as possible."
Wickbold's recent series Animals revisits his favourite medium - paint - but approaches it from a much more abstract perspective. He added drops of paint and ink to plastic film, and laid it on top of a booming subwoofer to see how the vibrations would distort the coloured liquids. Armed with a macro lens, he began seeking out interesting shapes that occurred randomly.
"It's like that old game you used to play as a kid, when you try to find the shapes of animals in the clouds," he explains. "It's all very abstract, something that was part of my background growing up, because my mother used to be an abstract painter. I was always seeing her doing this crazy stuff, and trying to explain it. I felt like I was doing something like that, but even more colourful."
In true trademark style, he ramped up the colour saturation on his favourite shots, and had the 'animals' printed out onto giant 1m x 2m canvasses that he feels would liven up any stylish modern apartment.
His latest artistic endeavour is a work-in-progress follow-up to Sexual Color called Sex Fashion. Like its predecessor, it's a study of the female form - but with delicate fabric in place of vibrant paint to create some beautifully graceful silhouettes. As we go to press he's already shot three sessions, and continues to experiment with a broad variety of different techniques.
Wickbold is keen to tour both Sexual Colour and Sex Fashion around the world, and is also considering relocating his entire studio when the time is right. "I'd like to leave Brazil and really go for it, travelling to New York, France and maybe England too," he reveals, but he's not going to let his passion run away with him: "I can't just leave the work that I've been getting here in Brazil to go on an adventure in Europe," he smiles. "I need to build some good contacts and get set up properly to make sure it all succeeds."