PHOTOGRAPHER Q&A: “I was excited by the idea of creating a cast of characters Elmore Leonard might have written about”

Cleary_NightMoves_04_Snitch_BTS  Dermot Cleary won’t ever forget a trip to Detroit, to photograph Elmore Leonard, it was the start of a relationship that would eventually become the inspiration of his latest creative project “Night Moves”, which has been getting much interest among creatives and Leonard fans across North America.  By bringing Leonard-inspired characters to life in a photographic tribute, Cleary created a world of dark, affable, larcenous types worthy of Leonard’s famous quote ‘The bad guys are the fun guys’.  The work, distributed via a purpose-built microsite and fine art prints, is slick, layered, and fun.

Tell us about Elmore Leonard

I was assigned by the London Telegraph Magazine to photograph Elmore for a feature, at that time I was just starting-out as a photographer and it was a huge deal for me.  He gave me an entire day and we really hit it off.  Afterwards, he used my name as a character in his novel ‘Mr. Paradise’ and he instructed his publisher to use my portrait on all his books going forward.  When he did a reading in Toronto we got together again, and kept in touch until he passed in the summer of 2013.  His writing style and the type of characters he created have stayed with me ever since I met him and I’ve always wanted to bring Leonard-esque ‘bad guys’ to life through my photography, this is the result.

What aspects of yourself do you see in Night Moves?

Ha ha, I don’t think so – at least not in a literal sense, but there are some interesting broad themes here that I identify with: the value of taking risks, and living outside the safe-lines most people stay within.  I suppose my relationship with the late Mr. Leonard would be the biggest example of putting myself in this project, his line that ‘the bad guys are the fun guys’ is really at the heart of this entire creative.

Night Moves has a dark and seductive quality, are these hallmarks of your style?

Partly. The end goal here was to create a standout self-promotional program for marketing myself as an advertising photographer to a broader audience, I felt the concept needed to have several qualities – it had to be commercially relevant, yet make an aspirational, creative statement at the same time.  It’s also the opportunity for me to take some risks creatively.  When I thought about what I most wanted to make and share with creative’s, I was excited by the idea of creating a cast of characters that Elmore might have written about, and this also provided an opportunity where I could shoot an uncommon idea, utilize some of my technical and storytelling abilities, while at the same time it could be really fun and entertaining for the viewer.

I also took visual influences, inspiration from: film noir, heist movies and directors such as Besson, Tarantino, Ritchie and Soderbergh, all share a common slickness and mood, a sexy quality, which are in large part why we enjoy that genre  – affable ‘bad guys’, being cool, in the shadows.

Each one of the photographs tells a story as though it’s a film frame. As a visual storyteller, how do you approach narrative in stills?

Narrative is such an essential element in telling a visual story, especially so in this project, I wanted each character’s vignette to evoke a moment from a hypothetical feature film.  At the same time, I give the viewer enough information to be able to extrapolate their own story.  I want them to to fill in some blanks without me literally laying it all out for them, for example there are several characters who could be the ‘big boss’, I know who that is, but I’m not telling.  I’m more interested in learning how the viewer sees it.

What do you hope a recipient will come away with, what do you want them to think about?

I want them to think it’s smart, beautiful and fun. I want them to enjoy it.  This project took many months from concept to completion, ideally, I want the viewer to come away with the impression that here is a distinctive idea and a helluva lot of care and effort, made for them.  This has been a labour of love, every stage of the process has been done to the highest standards of creativity and execution that I know.  Hopefully, it’s a bit of fun too.  If this lands on someone’s desk and they ‘get-it’ on any level, then I’ve included the right person in my mailing list.

What energy do you seek to create in a shoot, what sets it apart?

I work best with preparation and organization, Mise en place.  For my process this is very freeing, because once that structure is in place we can make the most of creative opportunities as they arise.  In a shoot I am working to establish energy that is loose and positive, where my subjects and team feel there is room for some spontaneity in the process, sometimes this is when we get to the best stuff.  On the other hand, I love a very defined challenge, as example, I was shooting with Jerome Iginla for a campaign a couple of years ago, he was wearing hockey skates on set and explained that because training camp started the following day, he could not stand in his skates for more than a few minutes.  We had a very ambitious shot list to get done, I placed my iPhone at his feet with the timer visible and set to the 20 minute limit he’d given us and I started to shoot.  We finished with one minute to spare. I believe there’s also times to not be too ‘precious’ about the process.

Where have you been travelling and what have you been shooting lately?

My last significant travel was to Western Mongolia, to continue my project ‘The Last Warriors’ with the famed Eagle Hunters, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done as a photographer.  At the same time it was the most rewarding. I’m looking forward to exhibiting this and my earlier work from Ethiopia.  Personal work whether it be commercially related, or otherwise, makes me a better photographer for my clients, I really don’t see any better way to get that kind of growth.

‘Night Moves’ can be seen at