Photography is arguably the most democratic of the visual arts. Armed with smartphones, everyone is a “photographer,” resulting in billions of photos being snapped each day. Photography has come a long way since the French inventor Nicêphore Niépce took the first photo in 1826, requiring cumbersome equipment, toxic chemicals, and lots of patience.
The daily deluge of images, commoditization of the medium, and plethora of photo effects apps can create a saturated blur of creativity. Without a doubt, some common imagery is magically altered, but its digital effect can become an overused veneer and feel “worn” in no time. However, in Catherine Balet’s book Looking for the Masters in Ricardo’s Golden Shoes, the transformation of old into new is brilliantly achieved and adds a clever twist on timelessness. Balet is a celebrated French photographer who, from 2013 to 2016, collaborated with her friend, muse, and model Ricardo Martinez Paz to pay homage to over 100 famous photographs and their creators. Contrary to the simple “replication” of an image, Balet relies on the readers’ memory of a great portrait and deftly reinterprets it with Ricardo standing in for the original subject.
These remarkable photos are the result of careful research, precise location scouting, meticulous styling, beautiful lighting, and expert camera skills. In an era dominated by CGI, Photoshop, and digital effects, Balet achieves impressive results with conventional techniques to reproduce the “spirit” of the original photo before computer-aided post-production. She matches the image format, light source, and exact background to create a solid foundation, then uses a computer to mimic color, film grain, or add a figure where necessary.
Of course, her collaborator Martinez Paz, contributes much to the final image with his golden wingtips. His chameleon-like ability to recreate the exact pose, expression, and mood of subjects, like Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, or Gloria Swanson is pure theatrical artistry.
While it helps to have some knowledge of photography’s history to fully appreciate Balet’s vision, the 120 images in the book include dozens of “iconic photos” that populated the multi-media landscape of the 20th century. An aspiring photo buff can experience a kind of double take when comparing a portrait by Irving Penn or Annie Leibovitz to Balet’s and Ricardo’s witty, boldly absurd rendition. The result is a whimsical tutorial on the history of photography, as well as introduction to lesser-known masters of the medium.
In Looking for the Masters in Ricardo’s Golden Shoes, Catherine Balet has created a lush object of desire. She and her publisher Dewi Lewis have painstakingly made a book that is a pleasure to hold, from its shocking pink cover, beautiful printing, and glowing, golden fore-edge. Although the book was published several years ago, I only became aware of it in July after receiving it as gift from a dear friend. When I pull it off my bookshelf ten years from now, it will still bring a smile to my face.
Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 A.I.G.A. medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.