Henri Prestes’ photography caught our attention because of its painterly quality, an extraordinary ability to convey mood and hint at a much bigger story, and several landscapes familiar to anyone who’s traveled around Portugal during foggy weather.
Henri has put together a photo series we agreed was appropriate for the month when Portugal celebrates a reawakening from an authoritarian regime while making strides getting the country out of the COVID-19 confinement: Spring. He also told us a little about how he came to where he is now.
Where did you grow up, and how long have you been based in Santarem?
I grew up in a small town called Guarda. It’s located in the interior region of the country, near the Spanish border. I have been in Santarem for the last 10 years.
When and how did you become interested in photography? When and how did it start evolving into a serious pursuit?
I became interested in photography about six years ago. At the time, I was working as a commercial cinematographer, shooting small commercials for local companies, and I took photography as a way to develop my compositional skills, and to improve my awareness of different lighting situations, as it’s one of the skillsets you have to be really in tune as a cinematographer to be able to produce interesting images.
But then I started shooting stills at night, mostly with long exposures, inspired by Todd Hido’s book House Hunting, and I completely fell in love with the medium: the way it allows depicting narrative moments with just a single frame — and being able to express myself without having to rely on so many external variables like other mediums was really liberating. It was just me and the camera, and the motivation to explore my surroundings.
I began taking photography seriously about four years ago, when people started to engage with my images on my social media accounts, which was something I never expected when I first started sharing them. People all over the world wanting to purchase my work made me realize that this could be something I could pursue as a career. Social media really helped me reach an audience that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and I’m extremely grateful for it.
What are some of your influences, aside from Hido?
In addition to Hido, there are two photographers that I’m deeply inspired by: Gregory Crewdson and Justine Kurland. What I love about their work is how all three are able to show hints of stories in their images where we can clearly understand something was happening in the before and after moments of each shutter press, and we’re transported to these alternate realities they create. And also, from a technical perspective, just the sheer brilliance of their visual aesthetic that’s so unique to them — that’s something I strive for with my images.
Where are some of the places you have photographed in Portugal? What have been some of your favorites, and why?
I mostly photographed all over the interior region, through the more secluded countryside and its small villages. It’s where I find myself comfortable and I always keep going back because there are always new interesting scenes that capture my attention, especially during the winter and autumn seasons. The way the dense fog envelops these places, transforming them in an almost otherworldly way. In fact, when I show my pictures to residents of these areas, they never figure out that these are the places they’re so used to living in because the weather conditions are so transforming, and I find that interesting to explore.
My favorite place is certainly the snow mountain region, Serra da Estrela, and its surrounding villages (Penhas da Saude). Here in Portugal, we don’t get a lot of snowfall, so it’s always a special event to go up there to shoot in these areas.
What’s your typical gear set-up?
I work mainly with a Nikon D850, a zoom lens 24-120, and usually my main 35mm lens.
Do you ever shoot film?
Yes, I used 35mm film for a very short time. It was more of an experiment, but I feel it’s a bit cumbersome and slow for my current process; I prefer shooting more organically, capturing as many shots as possible, going at it from different angles and approaches, only thinking about selecting them when I’m sitting in front of the computer. With film, you have to be patient and more intentional with each shot, and that’s why I respect and admire photographers that still use film today — but digital has just too many advantages for me to let go of it.
What part does post-processing play in your work?
It’s a big part of my process. Taking a photo, to me, that’s just the initial sketch, an idea that will only take real form with the editing process. I enjoy manipulating the light and colors, pushing and pulling them around so the photo can better reflect the emotion I want to convey to the viewer. I try to not go overboard with it and lose some sense of reality in the images, but to me, any art is about transforming reality through your vision and not transcribing it as it appears.
How has your dive into photography changed the way you approach your commercial cinematography?
I don’t do it anymore, I’m fully doing photography at the moment, but every cinematographer can learn a lot from this medium and also vice-versa; most of what I know about framing and light I learned from cinema. I think all visual mediums can absorb knowledge from each other. When people ask me how to improve at photography, I tell them to analyze other mediums like movies and paintings, to try to reverse engineer how they set up a scene, how the characters are framed, the perspectives they use, what type of lighting for each mood, color use, etc, it’s literally all there. As a photographer, I keep learning new things all the time by doing this kind of study frequently.
Are you in any upcoming exhibits around Lisbon?
I had planned my first exhibit in Portugal last year but unfortunately, the pandemic hit and so I’m still undecided when I’ll be able to do it.
Do you have a monograph coming out?
Yes, I’m currently working on a book with all the work from the past couple of years. Update November 2022: The book is out, see below.
Where would you like to photograph?
I’m planning on shooting a series in Eastern Europe, mostly in countries like Ukraine and Russia, which have certain environments and architecture that I find very intriguing, especially the more isolated parts of the region. In a lot of ways, and even though we’re so far apart, I think we as Portuguese have a lot of similarities to the citizens of those countries, and I find that fascinating as well.
Where can those interested view and purchase your work?
They can purchase limited prints on my official store https://store.henriprestes.com.