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Stanislav Petera – An Interview on Photography and Life


Stanislav Petera is known as a creative photographer who pays a great amount of attention to postproduction. His team makes photos with a dreamy feel, which could sometimes be compared to graphics of computer games or to paintings. He has recently done several big photographic projects. Last year he shot a calendar for the National Drug Headquarters and this year he made a calendar for the Army of the Czech Republic – parachute jumpers from the town of Chrudim, to be more specific.

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Hi Standa, let’s start with your photographic beginnings, shall we? How would you describe your first attempts to take pictures?

Since I was a child I was fascinated by adventurous stories – be it in books, films or travellers’ stories. I wanted to experience the same stories myself and talk about them afterwards and I put all my efforts into that. I was a Scout since I was a little boy and together with my parents we did a lot of travelling around the world, so I kept coming across various interesting people and ways of life. When I came to the age when people are supposed to start earning their living, the first thing that appealed to me was graphic design. I was fascinated by the purity of good typography and the fact that it is possible to convey and evoke emotions through colours and shapes.

However, with time I found out that it is not possible to use design to tell longer or more comprehensive stories and this is what led me to photography. It was when I had just come back from a quite long way in India. I went there to study yoga and my then girlfriend, a French photographer, kept convincing me that I could be a much better photographer than a designer. So I bought some technical equipment without really knowing what I was doing. I had no idea how to set the camera, lights, composition or basically anything. But step by step, the camera became my working instrument, I learned how to pose and communicate with people and even lighting was no longer Greek to me.

I started receiving commercial offers which went from small to big ones and all of the sudden I realized that I am actually earning living by making photos. At that time my aim was to do fashion shooting for one of the prominent Czech magazines – Elle or Dolce Vita. This became true after a short time and I started shooting for them on a regular basis. However, I still felt that I actually didn’t know what I was doing. No one had taught me how to use lights, I knew styling only by hearsay and together with friends I learned how to retouch by the trial and error method. Back then I was already quite successful in the Czech Republic but I decided to let everything be and go studying to Paris.

How did the opportunity to learn from well-known photographers in prestigious fashion magazines appear?

Having spent a lot of years travelling and learning various disciplines from people from all around the world I found out that the procedure is basically always the same as it was for the first time with the photo. As soon as I realize that I feel an urgent need to learn yoga, for example, I think about where to find the people that know it the best. And then I simply buy a ticket, I save several months for studying yoga and in a while I stand behind the door of Indian yogis and keep knocking on the door before they start teaching me. When you come with a genuine desire to study, only few teachers will send you home. And that’s what I did in Paris as well. I bought a bus ticket (I wouldn’t have fitted all my equipment into my airplane luggage), I took all money I had saved and rented a flat in Paris. Then I just went from one photographer or photographer’s agent to another one and offered my services as a retoucher, until they hired me.

What is the difference between photography in the Czech Republic and in France?

When I was in Paris ten years ago, as for fashion photos the main difference was that everyone there knew what they were doing while all I did was improvising. Fashion was born in France and Italy, it has a long history there and all photographs, stylists and even assistants study it, they kind of have it in their blood. They are able to talk about delicate nuances of poses or styling and they know exactly what they want to express by a photo. I have never come across with that in the Czech Republic but I believe that times have been changing. We already have Czech designers and photographs that studied abroad and the photographic scene is becoming way more professional.
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What are your demands regarding photographic equipment?

People keep asking me about what camera I use. To be honest, I think that this question does not really make sense. Having a better camera does not mean making better pictures. The best you can achieve is a picture with better definition or dynamic scope. It is important to understand that a camera is just a technical equipment capturing a scene, an action or a story. The number of megapixels or EV is actually not so important. What is much more significant is the scene itself, its composition, people’s clothes, the way people are able to identify with the story, whether I managed to find a suitable location, and finally also emotions that come out of it. As for the equipment, what I consider the most important is reliability and speed. The equipment must not slow me down and I have to be able to trust it, so that I could concentrate on the photo itself.

What cameras and lenses do you use?

It changes a lot and I do not insist on any particular brand. I look and think in a wide angle, I like to have enough space in my photos, so my favourite focus is somewhere between 24–35 mm. My favourite lens right now is Sigma 24/1.4 ART and the camera I use is 50mpx Canon 5DS R. I believe this is the first reflex camera that can really compete with medium format resolution. In practice, such an extreme resolution is useful for montages that we do. We can now print them on larger formats than we used to. But otherwise I believe that it is a photographer that makes a great photo, not a camera.

I know that you used to work with world international brands of lightning equipment. Now you make photos with Fomei strobes. What difference does it make for your work?

I think that I’ve gone through an evolution with photographic equipment just like all photographers. For quite a long time I used to think that a better camera is a guarantee for better photos. Then I bought a better camera and nothing happened, so I went on buying expensive lenses and after that I tried more and more expensive lights. I ended up having five extremely expensive generators, which I used… until four of them burned during shooting… just after the warranty had expired. I had to send them abroad so that they could be repaired and then pay hundreds of thousands Czech crowns for the repair. The lights came back after three months and I decided to sell them immediately. This moment made me think about it and I figured out that expensive equipment really does not make significantly better photos and that reliability is much more important for me. At that time I looked for reliable lights with a great service. In these two categories Fomei has no competition in the Czech Republic. For the last six or seven years I’ve been working only with Fomei lights and the most beautiful thing about them is that I do not have to think about them at all, I do not have to worry about them, I can just focus on good photos.
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Taking photos is not the end of the job. On the contrary, it is where the main creative work begins. With whom do you cooperate on postproduction and why?

Let me just correct you a little bit – we start the main creative work long before shooting by thinking up the whole concept, making plans and drawing storyboards. None of our larger shootings is done by chance. We have an exact plan for every picture, we know what the composition will look like, what colours we want to use and what the light will be like. Once the plan is ready, shooting and postproduction are just technical phases which bring the project to a successful conclusion. For the last two years I’ve been working with Jirka Kubík and I really enjoy it. Jirka used to be my student but he understood my workflow very quickly and was able to fit in it perfectly. He is good at the things I am not good at and vice versa. Right now we work on most projects together and I think we complement each other well both in terms of our skills and our personalities. I hope our cooperation will last for a long time.

Have you and Jirka been thinking about shifting your style into a more complex whole such as working on a film or creating a computer game in your style?

People ask us about that from time to time but to be honest, we have neither capacity nor knowledge for that. We are quite successful at establishing cooperation with other interesting people, we take part in various cooperation projects. So far it’s a secret, so I cannot talk about it just yet.

Could you tell us a few words about the photographic school that you run?

When I came back from Paris, a lot of people asked me how I edited photos. After some time I got tired from answering them individually and decided to organize the first seminar on advanced postproduction. It was a great success. Back then no one taught advanced techniques. I carried on in organizing seminars and gradually the LGA brand developed. For some reason people think that photography is a mysterious and mystical discipline for which you need talent, luck and connections. I do not think so and therefore I try to teach and pass on all my knowledge. I want to show people that the only secret of a good photo is simply to never give up.
Now we held two one-week intensive trainings a year: the first one is focused on commercial photography with all its disciplines, the other one is a special course for retouchers. During the time of LGA’s existence in the Czech Republic, we have trained a lot of very successful photographers and retouchers. I hope that we will continue with this work, their achievements make me really happy.
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What do students master in your courses? Could you introduce us to some of LGA students whose creations have been so successful that they have been able to make their living by photographing?

What’s nice about the one-week seminars is that they usually completely change the way people view photos. When people take part in our fashion and advertising photography training, they usually learn for the first time that photography is not an isolated discipline and that there is a set of disciplines organically linked one on another. First of all, we need a plan, a concept to be able to make a perfect photo. We then take the concept to individual pieces, we find locations and models, plan lighting and postproduction. Once all this has been arranged, all you need to do is to take the picture. No matter how good the lighting is or how expensive the lens is, if you don’t have a good model or if you don’t know how to retouch the photo, the result does not correspond with the effort you put in. When people complete our course, they have an overview of individual disciplines, they know how to use lights and how to pose, how to organize a large shooting and how to edit photos. The rest is up to them.

This winter we are organizing an exhibition together with our successful students, so I don’t want to reveal too much in advance. Come and have a look.

Let’s now talk about some of your photographic projects with a certain message that already have their fans. You shot a comprehensive project for the National Drug Headquarters. The result is a calendar for 2016. How would you describe preparation and implementation of this photographic project?

Jirka and I came up with the NDH calendar as the first big project. We agreed on donating the proceeds to a charitable organization (Foundation of Policemen and Firemen) and we thought that we could use it as an opportunity to work with a longer series of photos. As with any project, we first made a plan, drafts of individual pictures and found a location. The whole story about the action against drug dealers is set in a frosty winter night and we wanted the atmosphere to be rather dark. We achieved that by hard dramatic lighting (we used about 8 Fomei battery flashes with reflectors and a beauty dish) and by postproduction. The photoshoot itself did not take too much time - we made six photos in one afternoon – but the postproduction took a whole month.
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We must not forget to mention another calendar of yours with the topic of Rapid Arrows. It must have gladdened the hearts of those who have read books by Jaroslav Foglar. I know that your team spent quite a lot of time working on it. What would you say about your depiction of Rapid Arrows?

The book’s dark alleys of the Shades were a matter of the heart for us. Both Jirka Kubík and I grew up reading Foglar’s books, so when we first discussed the idea of shooting something from the Shades, it didn’t take much time for us to decide that we were in. At the very beginning we spent a lot of time studying books, original films and a series, so that we knew how the Shades were approached by fellow filmmakers. The next step was to get models and gather clothes and props. Barrandov film studios were of a huge help to us as well as our relatives who searched their attics for old torches, ropes and bikes. Finally, we spent a lot of time looking for locations. At first we wanted to shoot the whole series right in the streets of the city. Then we found out that the Shades exist only in our heads and we had no choice but to change the plan and put several places together. To achieve the fairytale-like atmosphere we again used lighting (we used Fomei battery flashes with big softboxes, umbrellas and colour filters) and then postproduction in which we coloured the whole series into night tones. We spent about two whole months working on the series but we are really happy about the result and I think it is one of the projects that will be in our minds for a long time.

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As a part of the last series of photos you’ve presented a sample of a calendar made for the 43th Parachute Battalion Chrudim of the Army of the CR. Your photos from Mongolia capturing the combat atmosphere are definitely worth mentioning, too. At first let’s talk about the calendar for the Army of the CR, shall we?

The calendar for parachutists from Chrudim was one of the biggest and most amusing projects I’ve ever done. The battalion commanders contacted us after they had seen the calendar with policemen – they wanted to do their best to have an even better one. The series tell a story about an action of parachutists in a foreign country. They have to fly to the place, jump out of the plane and get through a difficult terrain. In the end, their divers blow up a strategically important dam. The series was really magic for me because the photo shoots were very diverse. We spent four days of taking photos in different elements, some of which were extremely technically challenging. For example, to take a picture of the jump out of the plane we needed a permit from the minister of defence and it took half a year to get it. While shooting I myself had to have a parachute and I was hanging by one arm half a meter from the end of the ramp of the plane. We used a drone twice, one photo was shot under water and we also went over a dam by boat. I loved the fact that the army was able to provide basically anything I could think of. The result is a calendar the proceeds from which will go to the Military Solidarity Fund and therefore I can be happy about the pictures as well as the fact that they can serve this purpose.
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Mongolia. A big country with a big history and with a relatively low population right now. How did it go there?

Try to imagine that you want to take a photo capturing Mongolian hordes from the times of Genghis Khan. Of course it’s not possible in the Czech Republic, so you buy a ticket, fly to Mongolia, recover from the time shift – and then? First of all you need an interpreter because Mongolians speak only Mongolian. If you manage to persuade him that you aren’t a crazy person but a photographer and explain what your intentions are, you’ve almost won. To take the photos you need a location, models, costumes and some equipment.

The first step is finding the location. You get on a 50-years-old Soviet microbus (I’d rather not tell you about how I got the microbus and the driver) and you bump across the steppe for two days to find a place where drivers and the countryside could go well together. Once you’ve finally found the place you come back to the town and you persuade the director of the local theatre that y

ou are not crazy (again) when you need to borrow all costumes and weapons they have. Then you come back to the location with a full microbus.

You enter the best decorated yurt and approach the chief horse handler. You explain to him that you are not crazy (again) and he’ll start going from one friend to another. It takes the whole afternoon but eventually, half of the village on horses gathers in front of the yurt – from ten-year-old boys to sixty-year-old grandads. With the help of the interpreter you explain once more what your intensions are and even though two thirds of the message are lost in translation, the photo shooting is already at an arm’s reach. You arrive at the place (the Mongolians on the horseback), everyone gets dressed and is given a weapon. You explain your vision (again). The only trouble left is that you have a lot of Mongolians on a lot of horses and that you need the main model to run closely around you with a sabre. The vision is clear, it has been described and everyone seems to have understood it but it takes several attempts before we really understand each other.

Well and then you lie on the ground, half a meter from a horde of screaming Mongolians with weapons and there are stones flying into your lens, so it may be the right time to admit that you actually are a bit crazy.

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You spend hundreds of hours at your computer during postproductions. I assume that you need some quality rest to be able to carry on being creative. How do you relax?

I haven’t been able to relax a lot recently. A year ago our beautiful twin girls were born and since then I’ve been on the go. I used to spend some time by practising yoga or by travelling but now I want to devote it to the family. It’s a joy and I want to enjoy this period as much as possible. But when there is an opportunity to have a rest, I usually go abroad. I love the Nordic landscape, so I quite often spend my free time by going on long treks in the wilderness of Alaska, Greenland or the most northern part of Europe.

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How do you feel after coming back to the dense reality where there are cars, emails and all the other things of today’s world? Are you able to switch yourself on again soon after you’ve come back home?

The transition in the opposite direction is much more difficult for me. When I finally get far away from people, it takes two to three days for my head to slow and calm down. Only then I start perceiving where I really am. Getting back is easier, there is no calming down and speeding up is something I am quite good at.

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It seems that for quite a long time people have been realizing that life focused on consumerism and consumption is empty and does not lead anywhere. Today there are plenty of coaches and spiritual preachers. You have some experience with meditations and you go on long marches in places where there is no chance to meet anyone. What about your spiritual development? Where did you start and where are you now?

Since I was a little boy I’ve been wondering how the world actually works, how I work, what is inside me and how much exploration can be done. I have tried everything: meditations, martial arts and finally yoga, which represents the best system for me. I’ve spent quite a long time in India. At first I studied with one teacher in the South but then I wanted to get to the very roots and for some time I lived in a cave in the Himalayas. However, I found that being an ascetic was not for me and that I missed my family and my wife and I came back to life. What I practice now is a sort of a light version – I do yoga because of the physical health, peace and perspective it gives me. I’ll wait with intense practice until the children are older and settled at school, so that I could go away from the everyday hustle without hurting the people around me.

Thanks a lot for the interview.