In fact, the origins of the style may be attributed to a stroke book of genius. "I paint and sculpt," says the 34-year-old Belair, "and a lot of my own imagery is sexual imagery; I used to make collages out of girlie magazines, figurative things with parts of different people. It was fun, because while they had a photographic quality-they were made from photographs, after all-they reflected my own ideas about how people could look. Then, a couple years ago, came the computer thing; I had a friend who had a 3-D design program that I immediately fell in love with. So I rented a computer, got as much RAM as I could in it, and I said, 'OK, here's Photoshop, if I were to buy a computer would it do anything besides applying some overall filter to an image and making a goofy computer thing?' I started playing with that sort of collage technique. Instead of cutting out pictures from the magazines, I scanned them in, started playing with people, and I eventually realized I didn't need the magazines at all, I could use my own pictures, and one or two would do, where a whole magazine was needed for a collage."
Belair, who does all his own Mac work, did a James Bondish fashion layout in a combined shoot for Vibe and Germany's Tempo magazine, which appeared as "Shaken, Not Stirred," in the September '95 Vibe. There was no blatant facial distortion here, just figures of different sizes and some cool, heavily armed samurai chicks. Then, in the February '96 issue, Belair and Vibe art director Diddo Ramm freaked out with "Bazooka Pop," themed, "When fashion meets Japanimation." This collection of radically enhanced, tattooed Asian riot grrrls was so different, you couldn't be sure what you were looking at; they could have been upholstered dolls found on some satanic version of the Home Shopping Club broadcasting from a pirate TV station off the coast of Malaysia.
"It's interesting," says Belair, "because at first it was a struggle. I went over to England because Vibe seemed to be the only people here who were interested in the style. Everyone else seemed to think it was grotesque. Maybe I was asking the wrong people. 'You can't do that to people, it looks like bad plastic surgery,' whatever. Everyone was freaking. Then, once Vibe came out, people were jumping on it. I love it."
But don't think for a minute that this is Belair's only style, or even his signature style; he's shot plenty of "straight" portraiture, including Dean Cain, Charlie Sheen, Cameron Diaz and Christian Slater (a cover) for Us, and he's one of the original contributing photographers at Vibe, where he's shot, so to speak, a posse of rap and reggae dudes. He has no desire to be pigeonholed as the guy who makes big eyes, and he's deliberately refraining from giving the style an artsy name or any name at all. He also refuses to make too fine a distinction between his computer-enhanced work and his other work: "New York called me up to ask me if it was OK to credit me for 'photo illustrations.' I said, 'No, they're photographs.' I still think they're photographs," despite the fact that they may include nonphotographic elements, says Belair. The New York work includes objects created in a CAD program as well as some "painted" elements, and in other cases entire backgrounds may be generated on the computer, but what the hell, this is the digital age.
"Now I'm using mostly Live Picture," he adds. (For more on this program, see last month's Creativity.) "Photoshop is very slow-I have 136 megs of RAM and I'm still tapping my fingers quite often, just waiting. Live Picture, on the other hand, is a resolution-independent program, it doesn't rewrite the file every time you make a major change. It also has a distortion tool that I haven't found anywhere else-it's very intuitive. I still enlarge and reduce things in Photoshop, but subtle changes, like the curve of an arm, are done in Live Picture."
Belair is from Stoneham, Mass., and he studied photography at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but he says he got much of his inspiration from The Pittsburgh Filmmakers, an independent production facility, where he met the likes of Werner Herzog, Robert Altman and "a lot of really good photographers." After college he got a job in The Darkroom, a Pittsburgh photo lab, where he started a gallery, the Blatant Image, with some other employees, and they showed their own work; at that time Belair says he did mostly portraits, "but I was concerned with movement back then and there were a lot of longer shutter speeds and grainy films." He moved back home, got a job in nearby Boston assisting two photographers, then headed to New York around '85 and got a job assisting fashion photographer Lance Steadler for nearly four years. "It was a very different way of shooting," Belair recalls. "Back in Boston they'd carry around a truckful of gear to shoot a portrait. The first time I shot with Lance, he handed me a bag of cameras, picked up a bag of film and said, 'Let's go.' I said, 'Like, wow, where's the stuff?' He said, 'We're holding it.' He taught me that you can find light."
After Steadler, Belair went solo, and right now things appear to be assembling themselves quite nicely, thank you. He's got computer-angled assignments lined up with Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, says his New York-based rep, Michael Ginsburg, as well as pixel-free gigs with Sony Music for the Fugees, a Miramax film poster, and British beer and fashion campaigns, among others. Someone