Glass meets Dave Ma, the photographer behind Ballantine’s latest Artist Series

“HERE’S a tip for you,” says Dave Ma, sitting on a heather-covered hillside in the Scottish countryside, not far from where the director and photographer shot his series of aerial images for the Ballantine’s Artist Series. “Go up to the top floor of the Tate’s new wing; there are unbelievable 360-degree views of London and almost nobody up there.”

 

jmh-davemaportraitballantines-9728-2Dave Ma

I’m here to meet Ma; we’re spending a few days in Speyside, which boasts half of the distilleries in Scotland, and staying in Ballantine’s rambling country estate. There have been four-course dinners, tweed kilts and dinner jackets, and live folk music in the drawing room. Did I mention the Scotch whisky? As one dram ends, another begins. And just down the road, alongside the heather-covered hillside, we’re being given an introduction to drone photography to simulate, as best as possible without loading us all into a helicopter, the full experience of Ma’s aerial images for Ballantine’s Artist Series. So far, so good. Well except on my remote control’s viewfinder.

Ma slips into director mode as my drone hovers aimlessly in the air. “Why don’t you go have a look at that crater over there?” he suggests, pointing at something shadowy in the distance, and sure enough, as I approach it, the screen fills with interest and a composition that’s not half bad. “Once you’ve found your location with what you need, or something interesting and defining, then it becomes a matter of composition and what you want to say with that composition,” Ma tells me later, although now I’m channeling most of my creative energy into not crashing the drone.

jmh-davemaportraitballantines-1004658Dave Ma in his studio

Ma was born in Australia, relocated to the UK in 2003, but now lives in LA. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find him there. His work takes him all over, from Chernobyl to Tonga. He’s photographed big-deal musicians including A$AP Rocky, Skrillex, Diplo and Grinderman, and directed music videos for Bastille, Jagwar Ma (band member Jono Ma is Dave’s brother) and Delphic, but it’s his extensive collaboration with Foals that he’s probably best known for.

“I met Foals when they were an unknown, unsigned band and asked them if I could come out to their barnyard studio outside Abingdon to photograph them recording demos.” The rest, he says, is history. He ended up going on tour with Foals, taking photos and filming them on the road, eventually, later, doing press shots and directing their music videos, too. “We just met each other at the right time and then grew up together.” That was ten years ago.

jmh-davemaportraitballantines-1004757Dave Ma in front of his artwork for Ballantine’s

“At that time, I was obsessed with going out every night to gigs and finding new bands and trying to soak up as much as possible,” says Ma of his early forays into music photography and London’s live-music scene. “London definitely had a massive impact on the amount of band photography I was doing. It’s the most incredible city for music and small, hidden clubs and bars where every night of the week there’s something happening.”

But going back even further, the first gig he photographed was American post-hardcore band Fugazi in the nineties. “The venue didn’t allow cameras so I shoved the lens down one sock and the body in the other and got them past security,” Ma recalls. “I parked myself on the barrier and fired off two rolls of black and white film. They weren’t great, but they were my photos of a band I loved, and I was completely hooked on it after that.”

jmh-davemaportraitballantines-1004722Dave Ma in front of his artwork for Ballantine’s

A natural development from live photography, Ma started moving towards portraiture. “I’m drawn to the interesting one-on-one dynamic you get from portraits – especially if you’re photographing someone who has an interesting look,” Ma explains. “I like the challenge of trying to capture something in a single moment that says something about the personality of the subject. I admire photographs that do that – because you weren’t there and you don’t know the context, but the image says so much with the way the subject holds himself, and his interaction with the photographer.

“I was at the William Eggleston exhibition [at the National Gallery, London], which you should go to if you have the chance, and there’s something incredible about some of his portraits. One of them shows two women at the end of a long night out just sat on a couch. One’s lying down and the other one is consoling her. Without knowing the full context, I wanted to know more. A single frame made me care about these two women. There’s a power in that.

jmh-davemaportraitballantines-9731Dave Ma with one of his photographs for the Ballantine’s project

“With portraits you have to extend yourself outwards. But landscape photography was one of my first loves. Landscapes tend to be a singular, lone moment where you’re finding something for yourself.”

His first series of aerial landscape photography was used as Jagwar Ma’s single artwork. The pictures, taken from a commercial airline, were inspired by Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which has a methane-rich atmosphere and an orange hue. “I was going back and forth between London and LA so much and there’s this run coming in over the desert into LA where it’s just these incredible shapes and maybe a single road or a single building,” says Ma. “I would start to take a lens with me on these flights to try and photograph bits of the landscape.” Back on terra firma, he would take the shots he’d taken standing on his window seat about 30,000 feet in the air and “push the colours into weird places to create a landscape that could be from another planet”.

These are the pictures that led to the Ballantine’s-Dave Ma partnering. The Ballantine’s Stay True philosophy struck a chord with Ma, who has always been influenced by the offbeat, the passionate, the outsider. And he was inspired by another aspect of the world’s second most popular Scotch whisky: “It dawned on me early on how similar a good whisky on a Saturday night is to listening to a timeless album; they’ve both been dreamt up somewhere far away, created uniquely over time, and then travelled all the way to whatever bar or club you’re in when you happen across them.”

jmh-davemaportraitballantines-1004852jmh-davemaportraitballantines-1004722Dave Ma in front of his artwork for Ballantine’s

For this project with Ballantine’s, Ma was particularly interested in the heritage and the journey whisky takes to end up in your glass, so he went about exploring the River Spey and its vast tributaries in Scotland, the home of Ballantine’s, strapped into a seat harness, half hanging out of a helicopter, camera in hand. The resulting photographs show the very life blood of the region. “There was one area where the looping streams all formed what looked like a heart from the air, just sitting at the centre of this incredible valley surrounded by endless mountains,” Ma recalls. In fact, he unofficially calls these images his sonnet for a bicuspid valve.

“Bum on the edge of my seat, feet hanging out on the little platform below, I looked down and it was like I was standing on the printout of a map,” says Ma. The capture of the map below his boots shows dramatic, hulking landforms, snaking bodies of water and an exhilarating amount of wide open space. “The thing with the UK is that you’re never more than two fields away from a village, which has always been a weird thing for me coming from Australia where there can be so much of nothing,” says Ma. “But since we were in a really isolated part of Scotland, I made a decision to bring that aspect of isolation into the shots; to have those endless rolling hills going off to the horizon.”

There are another couple projects of his dealing with isolation that also appeal to me. Trona  is a short film about love and teengagers in a small town in California [population: 1,739]. But it’s old-timer Bobby Chastein who’ll steal your heart. While the video for Foals’ Spanish Sahara  is as beautifully bleak as the song’s lyrics – and a snow-capped Scotland provided the location for this video, too. And you must take a look at his music video for Delphic’s This Momentary. Shot in Chernobyl, it focuses on the elderly former residents who have moved back into the exclusion zone.

I leave with a bottle of Ballantine’s 12 Year Old – “the romanticism around a drink crafted with patience always grabs me,” says Ma – and a list of movies to pore over, exhibitions to make me feel something and music to lose myself in. If that isn’t an inspiring pairing, then I don’t know what is.

by Natalie Egling

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