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Interview w/ former Playboy photographer David Mecey

David Mecey

For more than two decades, David Mecey served as a staff photographer for Playboy Magazine and has since become one of the world’s premier beauty and fashion photographers. David’s work has appeared in magazines worldwide, including German and French editions of GQ Magazine. As well as numerous prominent swimwear andlingerie catalogs.

We sat down with Mecey, ahead of the two photography courses that he will be teaching for Samy’s Photo School on November 14 –  Sculpting the Body with Light and The Beauty of Boudoir -, for an interview about his career and photography techniques.

David Mecey

Q: Describe the moment where you knew that photography was going to be your life’s work.

I began back when it was only about film in every phase of photography. At the time I was just recovering from a bad motorcycle accident, where I could not walk for a year. I was just out of college when the accident happened and everything was put on hold. 

In college, I was a music major and photography wasn’t even a thought to me. I’m also an artist so, during my recovery, I showed some of my artwork to my doctor. He told me I should buy a camera because it would be easier to photograph someone than to make them sit for a portrait. So, I did. 

It was literally only days after picking it up and playing around with it that I felt there was something special about it. After getting back my first pictures, I decided I would take it seriously. I purchased several ‘how to’ books on photography and began to teach myself the basics.  I began to experiment and try new things, which I continue to do to this day.

Q: Have there been any other photographers who influenced your career? If so, in what way?

There are a number of shooters whom I have admired and who influenced me. Probably the single greatest influence was a Playboy photographer, Richard Fegley. Richard basically created the beautiful ‘glamourous’ style lighting for Playboy’s heyday years of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. 

He used light modifiers in unconventional ways and placed lights where you might not expect to have them. This was something that burned into my brain back when I first went to work for Playboy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. 

His influence was what set the course for my own style of beauty light which I continue to try to finesse and grow even to this day.  I too put lights in places most people find peculiar along with using them in ways they are sometimes not designed to be used. Taking chances and experimentation is the best way to learn and grow a person’s work.

Q: What was the subject of the first photo you remember taking and which camera did you use?

The subject that probably set the course of my photographing women was doing a portrait of a client’s daughter back in the late 70’s in Texas. I had only been shooting a couple years when I began to reach out to local businesses in my hometown to gain work for my photography. He owned a factory that made various steel components for industrial uses, which I would photograph for him.

He called to ask if I might photograph his daughter for a Christmas present when she was home on her college break. I agreed. I was stunned by just how pretty she was when she arrived for the sitting, which right then set me on fire to do a fantastic shoot with her. We shot in a garden area, among the flowers as a backdrop. 

I remember that even then, I had already gained enough knowledge to do the shoot of her in an open shaded area, with her facing a building which was serving as a slight reflector. The light was beautiful and soft and gave her a gorgeous glow. I remember shooting Kodachrome for my film type as I had read ‘all the magazine shooters used Kodachrome’.

The shoot turned out fantastic and it was while I was looking through the viewfinder of my Canon Tlb 35mm film camera that I knew photographing women was way more fun than photographing steel parts!!!

David Mecey

Q: You are no stranger to having your photography featured on a magazine cover. Which of your many covers have you found to be the most satisfying and why?

I’m so proud to say that I have had a large number of covers. From photo magazines to trade pubs to catalogs to so many of Playboy’s foreign editions over the years. As with all of my work I don’t have just one favorite of anything. However, I do have a ton of favorites of everything I’ve done. 

As for covers, probably the ones that were more of what I enjoy and call my ‘own’ are those for catalogs companies with whom I’ve worked. From the sportswear fashion stuff to the swim or lingerie, these are where I feel my work has shined and really get the most compliments.

Q: What do you think are some portrait photography clichés? Do you attempt to avoid them altogether or approach them with enough originality to make them your own?
I’m trying to think of what a portrait cliche might be? Oh, maybe the chin resting on the hand? Ha!

Listen, if the light is gorgeous, the subject super relaxed and looking fabulous into the camera or off to the side, if the photograph works, it’s not a cliche to me. It’s all about relating to your subject to a point they feel completely and totally at ease with you. It’s then that you will capture them as the real person. 

You always hear, wow, that looks just so candid you must have tricked them or something. Actually, no, you’ve made them feel comfortable, they’re relating to you or simply having a good time. If you time it correctly, you’re capturing them as themselves.

It’s a collaboration, always in photography, between photographer and subject. Be it a portrait at a consumer level to a professional model.

Q: What is the last question you ask yourself before you push the button on the camera to take a photo?

Hmmm, I’m never questioning myself or talking to myself when I shoot. My focus (no pun) is always on the entire image with the ‘look’ being most important. I’m always scanning for best composition while also watching the light on the face and the movement of the body, arms, hands, feet, etc. It’s a constant scanning and watching what is happening within an image and it’s a non-stop show for the photographer to watch, see and capture what’s in front of them. You should always have everything already lined up ready to go before you even begin to do a session. No questions need be asked if you are at that place in a shoot.

David Mecey

Q: You’ve played a fictional Playboy photographer in a made-for-TV movie called Posing. How did what you were asked to portray compare to the routine of a real life Playboy photographer?

Wow, yeah, that was truly an incredible moment in my life. To be honest, it was sort of the other way around. The director and producers were watching me work with Lynda Carter during a scene, which was a recreation of a photo shoot with the character she was portraying. Whom incidentally, I had photographed in real life for Playboy.

Anyway, after watching me direct her, talk her through this ‘faux’ PB shoot it was after that they approached me and asked if I would play the photographer rather than the actor they had hired. They said they wanted me to play the part AS ME, not any other way. They said they wanted authenticity, rather than dramatic license. So that’s what I did and it was just an incredible few weeks of my life, let me tell you!

Q: ‘Sculpting the Body with Light’ is the name of the class you be teaching on November 14th at Samy’s Photo School. How much of the success of such photography is reliant on the comfort levels of the photography subject? What tips or suggestions do you have for helping to put a subject at ease with the process?

Sculpting with Light will be an exercise in light and shadow. To me it’s going to be a super way to show dramatic light for a figure study. 

Again, it’s gaining that person’s complete trust before beginning the shoot. You discuss the wardrobe, their comfort level, while also showing them samples of other work, hoping they will see they are in good hands. Winning over a subject is so important. It’s done with not only your work but also your personality. Something I’ve always put forth front and center. I want them to see me as who I am; a person very passionate about their work. 

Which then brings them into a place that makes them want to be a part of that same mindset. Once you can get them to that place then it’s again a matter of taking your time to guide and direct them while also making sure you keep the excitement of the shoot high.

Q: Over the period of such an established photography career, you will have seen a tremendous amount of technological changes to even standard pieces of equipment used by professional photographers. What is one change in technology over that period that you feel has been most helpful to your photography? Conversely, is there something you insist upon doing ‘old school’ even though there is now a more ‘advanced’ way of doing it?

Ha! Nice question. Well, first of all, digital has completely changed the face of photography. Not only allowing so many to be able to participate but also how its even perceived by the public and, more importantly, the clients out there. So many have begun to dismiss a lot of what photography was during its film days as cliche. By that, there is no longer a need for someone to know extensive lighting knowledge, simply how to set your camera on ‘P’ for professional (kidding).

Yet, there has been a dumbing down,to an extent,of what gorgeous photography is, or can be, by only using the camera’s workings rather than creating a lighting environment using multiple heads, reflectors, diffusers, etc. Yes, there can be nice pictures done on the low-down. However, there is still a place for those who have mastered lighting in very technical ways that mimic the most intricate lighting environs one might see. From moody, gorgeous light in an incredible penthouse to light that spans an entire concert hall, knowing how to create that look with a large number of power packs and heads should never go away.

Now, getting back to your question,the computer has been most beneficial as a piece of equipment for the photography of today. I’ve been using Macs since the mid-90’s and they have been the work horse that I’ve felt has changed the face of photography as much as digital cameras. Even more since it contains the software to not only present an image but to retouch it as well.

As for old school, I still shoot using compact flash cards as if they are rolls of film. I HATE tethering. Though of late I will admit, I’ve begun to use my iPad as a tool similar to having a client watch the computer monitor while tethered. It’s using my iPad to show each image as I shoot it wirelessly using CamRanger. A super cool piece of equipment that allows you to create your own private network on a shoot so that the client can hold my iPad and see each shot as it pops up. I don’t have to work about tripping over the tethering cable or pulling it out of the computer. Ha! And the client is very happy seeing the pictures flash before their eyes.

Q: Has photographing people for a living impacted how you look at people in general when you are just walking around in everyday life? Do you catch yourself framing or lighting them in your mind? If you do, is your mind doing it in color or black and white?

To be quite honest no, I don’t put people in lit scenarios when I’m out in the real world. But what I will admit I do, is I watch how women move, stand and sit. I’ve done this my entire life as it is a perfect basic posing guide for ‘real’ poses. It’s something I began to do early on in my career.

I still find myself noticing certain things as a ‘basic’ way for women to interact while doing those things in life. How they lean against a wall, turn a leg or foot, lean back against a wall, sit, walk, etc. It certainly helps to give you a nice repertoire of basic poses if you will do that. Without looking like a weirdo btw! I don’t stare I simply catch a glimpse and move on.
Oh, in color by the way.

Book your spot on David Mecey’s courses at Samy’s Photo School now on the following pages. Spaces are filling up quickly. So, book today to avoid disappointment.

Sculpting the Body with Light featuring David Mecey –  November 14, 9:00 a.m. to Noon

The Beauty of the Boudoir with David Mecey – November 14, 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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