Logan: Is it safe to say you have a flock
of chickens acting as models somewhere?
Barry Downard: Firstly, I need to emphasise
that no chickens were harmed in the making of
the books, in fact they all had a real good time.
Truth be told, the books were all the chickens'
idea. I awoke one morning to find a delegation
of disgruntled, bored chickens at the back door.
As you can imagine, a disgruntled, bored chicken
is not to be taken lightly, so, chicken philanthropist
that I am, I set out to resolve the situation
by finding some sort of stimulating pastime or
endeavour for them.
tried bungee jumping, macrame evenings, ballroom
dancing, watching Larry Chicken Live, but all
to no avail. Then one day whilst we were all sitting
around, idly paging through Italian Vogues for
inspiration, Carla (a real character of a chicken)
suddenly got the inspiration... modelling!
She had a bit of chat with the others, and before
I knew it, I had been presented with a manuscript,
plus ideas on art direction and photography. How
could I refuse? Plus I was faced with a whole
flock of them... and did I mention they were disgruntled
Logan: Photographing disgruntled and bored
animals probably wasn't too much of a stretch,
since you were at one time a fashion photographer,
Barry Downard: Er, fashion, yes. I enjoyed
the fashion photography because there was often
a fair amount of freedom/creative license, visual
storytelling potential, and you got to travel
a bit. (Fashion shoots in the Seychelles... I
really hated my job.) But as a born-again cynic,
I'm allergic to the whole concept of fashion (fashion
- facile - fascism?). I won't be drawn on your
implied correlation of "disgruntled and bored
animals" and models! Some of my best friends are
"disgruntled and bored animals".
Logan: Were you into photo manipulation
when you were doing fashion photography, or was
your work fairly straightforward at that time?
Barry Downard: It was mostly traditional
photography, with a bit of process experimentation
(cross-processing etc) as most of that period
was before I became computer literate. Once I
had discovered the joys of the Mac, I began to
dabble a bit with manipulation, but at that stage
I had lost the appetite for putting up with fashion
industry bullshit, and was enjoying exploring
new worlds of imagery. Disgruntled and bored animals,
Logan: Along with your children's books,
you've done a lot of freelance work. Is that where
your style developed the most along the way?
Barry Downard: I suppose that it's all
pretty much interlinked. My style probably derives
from my interest in non-verbal communication,
and the detail required to tell visual stories,
or set up the starting point for a story that
the viewer/reader can pick up and run with. I've
always tried to work as intuitively as possible
by letting feeling override the technical. A lot
of digital work relies too much on overt technical
Logan: You call your technique photo-illustration.
Did you ever have much interest in traditional
Barry Downard: Growing up in a non-arty
family, I was never exposed to art, and never
really explored it myself. Towards the end of
high school (secondary school?) I started drawing
and playing with hand drawn letterforms. My mom
thought I was pretty good. After school I had
to do national military service, and carried on
drawing to help pass the time whilst on guard
duty. Dodgy stuff it was. Then, I still don't
know why as I had no idea about the design/creative
professions, I decided to go to a technical college
to study interior design. This was before the
days of the Mac, so obviously I was exposed to
more drawing, and interior rendering and stuff.
I enjoyed it and was OK at it, but it wasn't my
strength... I could draw interiors, and natural
form, but was seriously dodgy when it came to
the human form. But interior rendering gave me
excellent grounding in perspective, and creating
the illusion of depth. I was much more interested
in photography (which was a secondary subject).
Logan: Did you ever play around with doing
photo collage or anything like that?
Barry Downard: (Silly version) No, I never
went to photo collage, I studied interior design.
(Straight version) Not really collage... I experimented
with printing multiple images onto one page, but
more like sequential comic style panels than a
collage collection of stuff.
Logan: Is there more-or-less a camera
always around your neck, or do you go seeking
images after you've got an idea?
Barry Downard: I don't normally carry
a camera with me, unless I'm heading somewhere
I think would have some interesting stuff to shoot.
But when I do have a camera with me, I tend to
shoot a lot of stuff which I think I might be
able to use one day. I also seem to have quite
a photographic memory, so I file away places and
things so that I know where to go should I ever
need to shoot. Sometimes I'll go looking specifically
for something, but I often find what I need in
my library of stuff I've shot over the years.
Logan: For something like a chicken, where
they aren't big fans of holding still unless they
are sleeping, how many pictures do you have to
take before you get just the right image you're
Barry Downard: As any photographer will
tell you, you need to build a relationship with
your model, and I have developed a great rapport
with my chickens! But with any animal (or children)
photography, you start with the understanding
that you will only catch what is provided, and
not necessarily what you want. The final image
is of necessity only an idea, which then is nudged
along to work with what you get. So you watch
carefully, anticipate, and get ready to grab what
shot you can. In any case, you just keep shooting
and then take the bits that work, and stick them
together with computer glue. The rest you store
away for possible later use.
Logan: Along with chickens, you've done
a bit of art involving cows. Did you grow up on
a farm, or were animals something you grew to
Barry Downard: I grew up as a city boy,
and only moved out to live in the countryside
when I was a forty-something. I'd always enjoyed
having dogs and cats around, and have always had
an interest in animal welfare, and conservation
issues. In fact I generally prefer animals to
humankind, or as Tom Waits says, "There's one
thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing
kind about man". I'm now surrounded by dairy farmers,
and observing cows at close range, I became surprised
to notice how much personality they have (cows,
not dairy farmers).
Logan: At what point did you look at these
images you were making and decide to use them
in a storytelling manner?
Barry Downard: The very first (what is
the "very first", and why would "very first" be
any different to just "first"?) image I scanned
into my brand spanking new Mac was a black & white
shot I'd taken of some cows. Fiddling with Photoshop
for the (very) first time sent shivers up my doobrie,
and a new universe of possibility presented itself
to me. (Adobe aren't paying me to say this by
the way.) As mentioned, I had always been drawn
to exploring the storytelling potential of images
(and groups of images), and I could see that I
now had the tools to explore further.
Logan: Was illustrating The Little
Red Hen a fairly easy decision then?
Barry Downard: My agent had presented
Simon & Schuster with a rough version of a story
I had written and had mocked up. They weren't
sure about that story, but liked the visuals,
and they suggested taking an old traditional tale
and giving it my visual treatment. Little Red
was their idea, and I could instantly see the
potential for some quirky stuff.
Logan: What was the gist of your story
that you had written?
Barry Downard: It was about Cairo Chicken,
a chicken who was a born entertainer. She didn't
just hatch, she "jette'd" out of her shell like
a cross between a Vegas showgirl and a ballerina.
She's bored to tears with traditional "roost and
scratch" barnyard life. One day the ballet of
"Chicken Lake" comes to the yard, and she realizes
her destiny is to be an entertainer with her own
roadshow. The story was eventually picked up by
Milk & Cookies Press (iBooks/Byron Preiss Visual
Publications), and the name was changed to "Carla".
They had a problem that Cairo was too middle-eastern,
and "would be difficult to pronounce". Huh? (Research
note: I checked to find that there are around
5 towns in the USA named "Cairo".)
Anyway, it was published and distributed just
before BPVP fell over in a cloud of Chapter 7
bankruptcy in early 2006. It's out there folks,
and apparently selling, although I'm not seeing
any of the moolah.
Logan: After they gave you the word go,
how long did it take you to complete the full
Barry Downard: Simon & Schuster gave me
the "go" on The Little Red Hen and that
took me about 3 months.
Logan: Did you get a chance to rework
the story of The Little Red Hen, or did
they just want to use a previous version for the
Barry Downard: Because it is a traditional
tale, there are several versions. The publisher
found a version that they
liked (and which I presume had no legal implications),
and I worked with that. My next book for S&S is
The Hare & the Tortoise, which I've retold.
Logan: For a story that you write and
do the pictures, like Carla - do you try and develop
them together at the same time?
Barry Downard: Yep, I have a constant
tussle in my head between words and images. (As
Elvis Costello once said, "Great to visit, but
you wouldn't want to live there".) I usually have
the overall idea of where it's likely to go (both
words and imagery), but I find with the technique
I use of comping photographic images, that letting
the imagery and words bounce off each other leads
to quite a fun evolutionary process. I just follow
along behind and pick up the good bits.
Logan: After you've played about with
the words and pictures a bit, when do you decide
that you are done? Digital manipulation seems
that it would have the curse/blessing of being
ever open to more toying, so setting the mouse
down seems like it could prove difficult.
Barry Downard: One of the critical keys
to using Photoshop is "Knowing when to stop".
I think that's probably critical in most media,
but it certainly is in Photoshop. The determining
factor for me is when I feel that the communication
is right. That comes from the old "left brain,
right brain thing"... it's gotta look good, and
it's gotta tell the story. But you're right, there's
an awful lot of awful Photoshop work out there
that gives Photoshop a bad name, and me a hard
time, as a lot of art directors hear the word
"Photoshop" and immediately ping me with scepticism
based on their previous experience.
Logan: Do a lot of your story ideas come
directly from imagery? Looking at a scene or picture
and imagining around that?
Barry Downard: Ideas often come from an
instant where something happens, or something
is said/seen and some sort of juxtaposition occurs,
it all gets swirled up and out of context, to
spark something all of its own. The best ones
usually creep up unannounced, and unsought. My
Carla's Famous Traveling Feather & Fur Show
story started as a thought around a series of
"Dances with Chickens". That led to a mock poster
for the ballet "Chicken Lake" (with Margot Fonthen
and Rooster Nureyev)... and an AD at Penguin (NY)
saw that and said that there was a story waiting
Logan: Are you in a position then where
story possibilities are quite plentiful, or do
you weed them down and try to find ideas that
work best as a full story?
Barry Downard: I think story possibilities
are all around, if you're open to the available
stimuli. I've got all the words... I've just got
to get them in the right order! There's a constant
process of stirring around, and figuring out if
the idea is strong enough, and substantial enough.
Logan: Overall, what is the appeal for
you to get these story ideas out to kids? Were
you around kids who enjoyed stories, or were you
remembering your own enjoyment of them?
Barry Downard: I have a great interest
in animal welfare, and biodiversity conservation
issues, and I've got some sort of idea of hopefully
getting kids to look at animals as equals. My
dedication in The Little Red Hen is about
loving, caring for, and respecting animals, "...
after all, animals are people too." My Carla Chicken
book's dedication is to "... animal-friends everywhere".
Apart from that, Tom Waits puts it well with the
line, "innocent when you dream". I've had some
great emails from schoolkids who have found something
special for themselves in the books, and that
is worth more than money to me. I actually grew
up without many storybooks around, and I was always
playing soccer. I'm finally catching up, as I
have acquired a tasty selection of kids' books,
which I enjoy from the illustration and story
point of view.
Logan: Do kids pick up on that at all?
What do they usually react to?
Barry Downard: I think so, although I
admit that it may well be more of a subliminal
thing. I think that one of the biggest problems
for animal welfare is that humans are largely
brought up to regard animals as "things", rather
than "differently-abled fellow inhabitants". I'd
like to find a way to portray a link to animals
that would encourage more empathy, and that goes
beyond the typical Disneyfication of anthropomorphism.
I don't know if I'm getting it right, but it's
a work in progress. I find a lot of reaction to
the detail that is there for those that want to
Logan: Have you had an opportunity to
do readings of your books at libraries or anything
Barry Downard: Nope. But living in South
Africa probably accounts for that. The market
here is so small, that the distributors find it
barely worth their while to engage with it. The
responses I've had in personal letters from schools
in the US would certainly encourage me to make
the effort to visit schools and libraries, if
I lived there.
Logan: For the Hare and Tortoise tale,
what are you doing with the story to change it
Barry Downard: Unlike Lane Smith's brilliant
Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,
the motto is still the same. I've just set it
in a more contemporary paradigm (now there's a
word!) by surrounding the race with all sorts
of media and marketing hype. The race gets TV
coverage on "Don Key's Wide World of Sport", and
there's a "Carrots-R-Us" billboard in there somewhere.
Flash Harry Hare is also the modern branded sports
personality, complete with designed logo brandname,
and printed up PR "hero sheets" for the fans,
and a "Bunnies dig me" high tech running vest.
Logan: Did you have to go out and find
a rabbit and tortoise, or can they already be
found on your farm?
Barry Downard: Ah, the models. The tortoise
is actually a combination of a very detailed resin
model, and some elements of a real live tortoise
(with some human elements thrown in for effect).
I've only ever seen one tortoise on my property,
one time a couple of years back. He has since
vanished. Blink and you miss! As for the hare...you'll
have to wait and see...