Since mid-November and beginning with my story Secret Agent, the cover art for my stories has been created by John Michael Reefer, a multi-talented artist based in New York City. Recently, he took some time to share more about his creative process, and what other projects he´s got coming up. Below are some highlights from that conversation.
Christian Pan: You´ve been making these photographs with dolls for some time now. How did they all come about? What was the impetus?
John Michael Reefer: This creative journey started out of necessity. I had started making content with a few friends and neighbors around the start of the Pandemic. When the lockdowns went into effect, I got on Facebook Marketplace and bought some artist models, those grey alien looking ones. After a while, I wanted more human-like images, so I took the bus to Throgs Neck in the Bronx and picked up a Black GI Joe.
CP: Have you always had this interest in taking pictures?
JMR: I have been shooting since probably around the 7th grade. My first camera was a 2 x 3 Rolleiflex. I got a Hasselblad from an uncle when I was in high school, and I would say that my interest in photography really began to take off around then. I wrote graffiti, not very well or often, and I wanted to capture my work, show it off.
I attended Parsons School of Design in New York. I wanted to do the photography program but it was too expensive. So I did Fashion Design. After graduation I worked on 7th Ave. A chance favor for a friend got me into the theater. That lead to me working as a wardrobe supervisor, and then later as a costume designer, for some very iconic films. There I picked up the camera again, while working on some of what would turn out to be some classic films. I shot "selfies" before it was a thing, and behind-the-scene images. This iteration of my photography, with the dolls, arose out of the Pandemic.
CP: I understand you have a lot of cameras. How many do you have? And...why do you need so many?
JMR: I have about 60 film cameras and 15 digital cameras . It started innocently enough (laughs).
I wanted a lens for a camera. I found Shopgoodwill online early in 2019, bought a few things. Then I realized I could get everything I needed to make my own content. So sometimes I´d bid on a lot of 10 or 15 items just to get one thing. I gave myself a limit: $25.00 total in bid price, including shipping. And that's how i ended up with 75 cameras, 60 lenses, full audio package, 3 sliders, 8 tripods, 6 studio lights...all for under $600.00!
CP: With the cameras and the photography, there´s something very "old school" about your process of making these images. Why not just use the camera on your phone?
JMR: With a camera I have more control over the image . Some of this work is meant to be printed billboard size or projected. I am shooting in Medium format and large format 2x3, 3x4, 4x5 . You can't get the same depth that 4x5 gives you with a phone.
CP: I understand that you make all of the costumes for your characters in these "photographic tableaus", too?
JMR: Yes. The selection of clothing for GI Joe is all military. And anything that would be stylish enough to fit Ken would not fit GI joe. So, I just figured I needed to make outfits for both. Then Barbie's outfits are just....too expensive. And really terrible! So I had to make her clothes too.
CP: You´ve also worked a lot as a producer of films, television series, and music videos. Can you tell us a bit about how you got into that?
JMR: My origin story as a producer was serendipitous . I was working on a film as a wardrobe assistant, when the production ran out of money. I connected the producers to folks who helped them raise the money to get the film back on track, and that moved me up from wardrobe to producer . That was back in 1987. Been making what we call content ever since.
CP: Being a producer seems to be one of the most important yet mysterious components of any artistic project. What does a producer do?
JMR: I can tell you what I do as a producer. I read scripts. I listen to pitches. I raise the funding-- whether it´s from private investors, or network / studio executives. I draft schedules, assemble budgets....and I do all of this while trying to keep a roof over our heads, and food on the table. Which sometimes...does not happen. As an independent producer, you only get paid when you close the deal. No checks are ever written for "almost-made" projects.
CP: Are there certain kinds of artistic projects that you gravitate towards?
JMR: Projects that pique my interest tend to focus on people who are trying to find their way. Outsiders and misfits. Themes that run through the work I have done include family, redemption, love. Also sci - fi (time travel, space travel). Rebelling against the system or the status quo.
CP: Do you have any other projects coming up in the near future that you want to talk to us about?
JMR: Yes. In the past year I have been able to produce some new work. I worked with some buddies in New York to shoot a pilot for one of the streamers, as well as a feature entitled "Black Christmas"--which I believe will be streaming on BET+ this month, in December.
I am also developing projects for series television and feature films that we hope to pitch around town or raise the money ourselves to make in the new year. I am also part of a team producing a series for Israeli television, examining the journey of a young woman who is rescued from an honor-killing.