May the 4th with Dale May

6 Photos

Dale May, a New York based celebrity photographer’s new series, LEGO WARS, is a photographic study of popular culture, commercial advertising and nostalgia.

May moved to New York City to study fine art and photography at Parsons School of Design and in 1993, and moved out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he currently lives and has his studio.

Dale May, View larger

What got you started in photography? How did that lead you into the work you do today with hyper-realism and celebrity portraits?

I’ve always loved the transformative ability of photography. With painting or illustration, we understand that it’s an interpretation of the subject through the artist’s hand but with photography, the camera captures what the lens sees.

It’s literally, reflective light, passed through a lens, being captured by film (or a digital sensor). I have always been excited about the idea of pushing that reality, through lighting and more recently, with Photoshop.”

I used to get this hyper-realistic look by using studio lighting outdoors. Later, I began experimenting with compositing multiple images, in Photoshop.

These techniques have proven to be invaluable when shooting musicians and celebrities. Many times, you are given 15 minutes with a celebrity, during a press junket and quite often, it’s in a hotel suite that might not lend itself to the concept of the shoot.

Sometimes, you have to shoot bands backstage, in a hallway, right before they go onstage. When I photographed Elizabeth Banks, I had to fly to LA but the Magazine’s feature was all about New York, so I had to add the New York backgrounds in post.

Elizabeth Banks, courtesy of Dale May.View larger

In one sentence, describe your photography.

I capture the essence of the subject, in a bold, iconic way, through a visual narrative.

How did you decide on the concept of Lego Wars, and why?

I had been looking for a personal project that I could do on my own, in between Ad jobs. I had plenty of ideas but nothing was really inspiring me. The one thing I’ve learned over the years is never to wait for inspiration to come to me. I’ve found it’s the process of creating that can inspire the greatest ideas.

One day, I was testing out a new macro lens and needed a small object to photograph. I chose my Lego Stormtrooper Keychain and decided to treat it as I would any other big celebrity portrait. Something clicked when I saw that first image. This tiny plastic toy was transformed into something special. It came to life and it felt like he was looking back at me. This is what inspired me to create X-ray versions of Star Wars Legos. The more I played around with them, the more ideas came to me.

What IS the concept?

My LEGO WARS fine art series is a photographic study of popular culture, commercial advertising and nostalgia. My intent was to revisit these timeless plastic toys, creating a new way for generations of all ages to appreciate these toys together. I felt that the entire piece of art should resemble the high polished glossiness of the subject itself, so the images are printed very large, face mounted with acrylic and rear mounted with aluminum Diabond, creating a slick, contemporary look

How does, or does it at all, differ from your day-to-day work?

In one sense, it’s a complete departure. I don’t normally shoot still-life and most of my shoots are large crew productions. However, if you reference that one sentence description of my photography I gave you, it’s exactly what I do day-to-day.

What is your approach in shooting your celebrity portraits?

My first goal is to fulfill the needs of the client, whether that be a Magazine or TV / Film Production. They will usually present you with a concept they are trying to achieve.

As a photographer and often times, as a fan, I want to capture a part of them I haven’t seen before. We all have a perception of who these celebrities are, from their films and from the press. It’s fun to play along with or even contrast those perceptions, which is not always possible with a portrait of person who is unknown. If I were to photograph Johnny Knoxville from Jackass riding a Donkey, you might get the joke but if I photographed my friend Bill on a donkey… well, that still might be pretty cool but you get the idea.

The other part of my approach is being incredibly prepared. Many times, you only have 15-30 minutes with a celebrity. There isn’t time to experiment on set.

Daniel Day-Lewis, courtesy of Dale May. View larger

Often times, I’ll do lighting tests days before. For my Daniel Day-Lewis shoot, I only had 10 minutes with him for a cover story, so I set the lights and backgrounds up in a way that I could change my position in the room, to create three different looks, without Daniel having to move much at all.

If I shot him straight on, there was a flat lighting with blue background and if I move to his right and shot his profile, the background was black and he was now side lit, without changing the lighting. After that, I moved him 5 feet to a window and used the natural light with a second camera, already set for that lighting.

What is your typical workflow, process, from idea/project conception to finished product?

My workflow may change according to the job. In advertising, all creative is discussed before hand and story boards are created to illustrate the ideas.

I will often prepare a treatment, discussing my lighting and approach to the project. The appropriate team will be hired to facilitate the look we are going for and most times, I’ll handle the post production myself

That said, I have the ability to create concepts after the fact, based on the outcome of the shoot. When I photographed Jared Leto’s band, Thirty Seconds To Mars, I only had a short amount of time with them, in a hotel room, right before they were to play a music festival in Pensacola, Fla.

All of the bands and crews on the festival were staying at the hotel. We had no idea which hotel room we would be assigned or what it would look like. My stylist brought a ton of amazing clothing, not knowing what the band would be comfortable wearing.

In the end, my concepts were inspired by the clothing, which had a futurist, warrior feel. Being able to create backgrounds in post gives me the freedom to adjust my concepts based on unexpected moments. If the job calls for adding backgrounds in post, I prefer to shoot those backgrounds before shooting the talent, so I can adjust the studio lighting to match the background but I’m comfortable changing my workflow to match the needs of the project.

What are some of your favorite portraits/projects/artworks created by you to date?

Lego Wars, is a very personal project that has opened me up to the world of fine art. It’s always amazing when you do a project for yourself and it’s so well received by the public and art community.

Working with Jared Leto, Seth Meyers and Elizabeth Banks were all memorable shoots for me because they really took an interest in the shoot and were willing to invest themselves in the concepts. Some of my favorite jobs have been when the art director has taken a chance and hired me for a project that he didn’t see in my portfolio.

I shot a pharmaceutical job without any medical work in my portfolio because the AD saw something in my work that would translate to medical. Now, I’ve been doing a lot more of that kind of work. I give my all to every shoot I do but it means a lot when someone is willing to take a chance and see something in you that you have yet to do.

Best known for his richly stylized, character-driven, conceptual work, Dale May has captured some of today’s personalities, including Charlize Theron, Seth Meyers, Christina Aguilera, Moby and Gene Simmons. He can be reached at

The series is currently available for viewing at the Samuel Owen Gallery in Greenwich, Conn.