L.A. based photographer Mike Dempsey, aka @mikesbutt on Instagram, works from a place of anticipation and risk through his gravity-defying photos. From the fascinating, funny and peculiar, to the just plain WTF, Dempsey’s popular Instagram feed is filled with people performing all kinds of captivating stunts, such as planting a ninja-style kick to a skeleton’s face, slipping on banana peels and chasing after flying bowling pins. And as for the handle @mikesbutt, it was the first thing he thought of, and it stuck.
However, he’s not capturing paranormal activity or death-defying feats. These bizarre aerial photos are created through a form of digital magic, though a large percentage of his work is produced as practically as possible. I had a chance to speak with Dempsey and gained further insight into his fascination with stunt photography, his artistic process and collaboration with other artists, as well as his overall love with the endless talent in the world of photography.
In The Beginning There Was…. Skateboarding
A Connecticut native, Dempsey grew up skateboarding and developed a keen eye for a good skate photo. His fascination eventually turned into a love of the “reveal.” Dempsey explains, “I love how skateboard photos allow the audience to assume a beginning, middle and end, while also showing the risk involved. Most of the time the photo is triggered at the height of a trick and you can see where the skater is going to land. I enjoy the gravity and the reveal of this, and try to incorporate that into my photos. I have been studying mostly moving images for the last 10+ years, but only recently realized my passion for stills.”
This fascination carried over into Dempsey’s current work of placing models and actors in precarious, dangerous and sometimes dirty situations. They become tangled in fences, fall down steps, plant their faces in the ground and trip over objects. Good times. But it all makes for stellar shots.
Inspiration Behind “Chin Music” Photo
The photo above, dubbed “Chin Music,” really caught my attention. When asking Dempsey about the inspiration and story behind the moment, he explained it was a collaboration between him and a skillful light painter named Darren Pearson. “We were in the Salton Sea driving (a state park in California, Sonoran Desert region) and wanted to do a few photos of flying babies interacting with whatever Darren could come up with. He does a lot of skeletons and dinosaurs, so we decided to kick a skeleton in the face. The blood was a really nice touch on his end.”
Through Dempsey’s gravity-defying photography and Pearson’s light painting technique of spinning a glass prism in front of a camera while shinning light into the lens, they were able to capture “Chin Music” as well as the “Grab Your Mother’s Keys” photo shown below.
Dempsey’s Techniques, Strategy and An Intervalometer
What’s Dempsey’s “secret sauce” in getting the perfect shot? “There’s Photoshop involved when practicing the gravity defying techniques. However, I like to be as practical as possible though, so if I can get my subject to physically jump or fall off something, I know I’ll get a real reaction in their faces and in their clothing. My two most commonly used tools are stunt mats and ladders. I’ll have my actors jump onto a mat or balance on a ladder; this way I get a real fall and then only have to paint out a mat or a ladder. I’m getting better at Photoshop though, so who knows what’s to come.”
Dempsey also uses a camera attachment called an intervalometer. This attachment controls shutter intervals over a set period. This allows him to capture multiple frames each time his subject jumps, catching the moment they appear suspended in mid-air.
What The Future Holds
Dempsey shared some final thoughts on his work and his love of how photography continually evolves and changes: “My future plans with photography are just to keep experimenting, and to collaborate and to continually be inspired by others. There is endless talent in the world of photography and I love watching how people evolve. Outside of photography, I am inspired by everyday kindness. I am surrounded by amazing friends who constantly impress me and keep me creating. I am currently working on building a series, a few of them actually. Nothing is definite yet, but they will involve dogs and skateboarding.”