“Taking pictures of something that just exists was never interesting to me,” says Michel Tcherevkoff. “I’ve always gravitated to photography that’s more illustrative in nature, where I can create my own reality — with a twist.”
Obeying that inclination has served the Paris-born photographer well.
One day in his New York studio, having just shot a series of cosmetic ads for Prescriptives (Tcherevkoff is internationally recognized for his skill at creating visual metaphors for clients including Canon, L’Oreal, Maybelline and Valentino), he happened to glance at a photo of a leaf he’d used in the shoot.
“The print was lying upside down on a table,” he recounts, “and I said — although no one was listening to me — ‘Hey, that looks like a shoe!’”
A Florapedal Fantasy
From that glancing observation was born Tcherevkoff’s latest project, “Shoe-Fleur,” a whimsical, inventive and, in its own way, rigorous fancy of flowers and footwear.
Inspired by the upside-down leaf, Tcherevkoff played with the image in Photoshop on his Mac, adding a heel and turning it this way and that until he’d created a shoe. When he showed the prototype to his agent and a few others, he says, “I got this terrific reaction. People kept saying, ‘This is so unusual’ and ‘You should try it again’”
With the wholesale flower market just four blocks from the building where Tcherevkoff lives and works, he was ideally situated to experiment with the organic materials he discovered there. “I bought all these flowers and leaves and started to shoot,” he says. “It was fun and pretty and just what I like — a total fantasy.”
One Flower = One Shoe
Although firmly rooted in make-believe, Tcherevkoff’s project was more than just a game. He applied the same exacting standards to “Shoe-Fleur” as he does to all his work, even electing to craft each invented shoe from a single variety of flower or plant.
“I decided early on that I wouldn’t mix different types,” he says. “Every shoe and handbag [most of the shoes in the book have matching purses] would be made from one particular plant or flower.” Tcherevkoff shot blossoms and stems, twisting and knotting and weaving and tying them to bring nature’s flora to heel as meticulously as a third-generation Italian cobbler.
And he listened. “Each plant spoke to me in a different voice. One was very light and delicate,” he says, “so the strap had to be thin. Another one said, ‘I am big and strong — I could walk for miles.’ From that I designed a more rugged shoe.”
“Shoe-Fleur” is organized into four collections, as is traditional for fashion shows: fall, spring, resort and bridal. “I used plants that were in season,” notes Tcherevkoff. “Now,” he says, “every time I look at a plant, I see a shoe.”
Tcherevkoff was manipulating pictures long before computers made it easy. “I did it all by hand,” he says. “I used wires and poles to hang things and make other things disappear. I did double and triple and quadruple exposures in the camera and the darkroom, and KODALITH dropouts and masks. I had this whole system I invented to create these intricate images.”
But as soon as Tcherevkoff saw computers in action he leaped into the digital age, and when he met the Mac he fell in love. “I worked on some early, expensive systems with proprietary software,” he relates. “So when the Mac came out, and I heard the price, I thought they’d made a mistake. I said ‘Goodbye Indigo...hello Mac!’”
Today Tcherevkoff’s studio uses six Macs to craft his still life and fashion photos, editing in Photoshop on a 30-inch Cinema Display.
The photographer balks at the thought of using anything but a Mac. “There’s not much comparison to be made, is there? It’s just so intuitive. Sometimes I think you guys can read my mind. ‘Hey, Michel will need that, so we’ll design it just for him. Oh and by the way, we’ll sell it to other people, too.’”
Tcherevkoff describes his workflow: “I’ll take a leaf, make it into a sole, bend it to make a heel or a strap, then shoot it.” He works untethered. After taking the pictures, “I walk over to my computer room and download the flash cards. Now, some art director might say that’s wasted time,” he says, “but for me it’s thinking time. I’m looking one or two steps ahead, getting ideas, making creative decisions.”
Once the image is downloaded, he plays with it in Photoshop. “I silhouette the element I’m interested in,” he says, “then I place it here and there. I ask myself, ‘What would happen if I shrink it, distort it, shear it?’”
He’ll return to the set, as needed, to capture new visual elements. “I might take a rose or a daisy,” he says, “and the first time I shoot it straight on. Then I might go back and customize it for what I’m building — say I turn it 20°, then 20° more, and so on, until it forms a collar around the shoe. Getting all the flowers at the proper angle, with the right lighting, creates a put-together ensemble.”
What’s For Dinner?
Like many creative pros, Tcherevkoff gets inspired in the wee hours. “The best time for me,” he enthuses, “is after all the assistants go home at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. I’m in the studio by myself, and I can work nonstop until 2:00 a.m.”
Partitioning a loft into studio and apartment eliminates commute time. “My wife will call over, ‘Are you having dinner?’ So I go over and eat something with her, then come back and get on the system, and I’m there, and I’m flying. Working next door, when I get an idea, no matter what time it is, I can execute it. That’s a major bonanza for me.”
Yet he never takes himself, or his work, too seriously. “This book is playful,irreverent, tongue in cheek,” he says. “It brings a smile to your face — which is exactly what I want my pictures to do. I just had the idea to make these light,fun, happy shoes.”
The “Shoe-Fleur” project came together so naturally, Tcherevkoff hardly considered it work. “It was so fun — to be honest, there was never any obstruction. The system was plenty powerful and the software worked fine.”
Still, he cautions, it’s important to remember where creativity comes from. “When people come to my seminars I tell them, ‘Remember, it’s your brain that’s in charge. Having all the tools doesn’t automatically make it better. And just because a tool is there, it doesn’t mean you have to use it. The principal goal is the picture: Make it nice.”
Tcherevkoff is ever restless, ever curious. “I’m always looking over that next hill,” he comments, “just to see what’s there. I guess that’s the creative mind — you never stop searching. I see a reflection on someone’s glasses or a window, or I notice a detail of clothing or the shape of an object, and I think, ‘What can I make? What looks good? I could take this, and this, and this, and make something of my own.’ I’ve been doing that forever — I guess you could say that’s my leitmotif.”
He considers his toolbox part of the creative experiment. “I’m always pushing the boundaries with the software, the printers, the color,” he says. “I’ll make one print with a normal profile, then I’ll try a different one, where I exaggerate the color, print it on a different kind of paper, and so on. I call that provoking mistakes — and I do it on purpose. I go all the way to the edge, then I come back just a little. If it’s too much for you, it’s probably just right for me.”
Yet he never takes himself, or his work, too seriously. “This book is playful, irreverent, tongue in cheek,” he says. “It brings a smile to your face — which is exactly what I want my pictures to do. I just had the idea to make these light, fun, happy shoes.”
He’s hooked on the high he gets from working. “When the twinkle in my eye is not bright enough,” he muses, “or the flame in my belly is not hot enough, I get that creative adrenaline from doing a little more, going for something new. I’m a junkie in that way — I love the rush. My clients laugh at me, because when I’m excited by something I dance around the studio. But it has to be fun for me. If it’s not fun, forget it.”