XWHY Meets: Dave Ma, creator of the Ballantine’s ‘Artist Series’ Whisky Bottles

If you don’t know the name, you’ll certainly know the work of Dave Ma. He’s a genius working across both film and stills, leaving his own unique stamp on everything he touches. Ma has captured the likes of A$AP Rocky, Bastille and Diplo in his time and has had a longstanding relationship with the Foals that continues to evolve.

As with many artists, Dave Ma does not have just one home but instead, spreads himself across London, Sydney and LA. His latest collaboration with Ballantine’s Whisky however, had him playing tourist in the highlands of Scotland and taking to the skies for an aerial shoot at 8,000ft from a helicopter. For most this would be a wild, life defining moment, but for Dave this is just another in a long line of amazing opportunities that allow him to showcase his talents in a non conventional way.

We caught up with Ma to talk about his special artist series designs for Ballantine’s Whisky, his relationship with the Foals and of course future plans.

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What was your first love?

You know what, I guess music. Discovering old tapes around the house and taping stuff off the radio then carrying it all around in my Walkman from age 7 or 8. That was my first life changing obsession. Just music.

Who did you look up to as an inspiration when you were younger?

It’s an obvious and tired answer now, but I guess the first person was Kurt Cobain just because I was the right age and that whole indie mentality really hit home for me at a young age. It was more than the music too. It was the whole outlook on life, the DIY thing, the anti-macho, social tolerance thing. And then by association I just got deeper into the whole aesthetic of the 90s punk rock scene. A lot of Chicago bands on labels like Touch and Go, and all the cool photographers like Steve Gullick and DIY artists making all the posters and album sleeves like Jay Ryan and Jeff Mueller. It all came at the right time I guess.

Also just being a kid in Australia, these bands were all so far away, and it all held a lot of weight anytime news or articles came out because it wasn’t readily available on the internet everywhere. An interview would drop and you would read it and re-read it and you’d stick it on the wall and you’d look at the photos or you’d watch the music videos over and over, and that would be the only way you got to see what these bands looked like. That’s how I got into music videos – literally taping them off tv.

All those smaller bands made me really appreciate the reality that if you wanna go to the other side of the world to do something just for the love of it, you totally can. They were living proof of that.

How did you start out in photography? 

I started out photographing bands and concerts I was going to as a teenager. I’d been given a hand-me-down Nikon SLR by an uncle when I was about 14. Took a darkroom course at high school and started taking my camera to gigs. It was all very pure. Just bands I liked and a desire to capture them. The first gig I photographed was American band, Fugazi in about 1997. 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. I parked myself on the barrier and fired off two rolls of black and white. They weren’t great, but they were my photos of a band I loved, and I was completely hooked on it after that.

How did your relationship with Foals develop?

When I moved to London I became obsessed with the amazing music scene. London, has such an abundance of incredible music and bands are just playing every night of the week and it was just evolving and changing, Foals were one of the bands I happened to come across and immediately knew there was something incredible about them, I was hooked. At the time, I was into taking photos of bands and capturing their worlds and Foals were just one of those bands I naturally started to hound down and I’d go and take photos of them not just playing gigs, but where they recorded, or go on tour with them and get an insight into who they were and the world that they existed in.

You’ve also worked with A$AP Rocky; how did that come about?

Those were editorial shots for Time Out. I’d photographed Skrillex and Diplo for a previous cover, and the shoot went really well so they asked me back for Rocky. I was really excited about that one. He has a great look and a natural energy in front of the camera. Every frame was unique. I love personalities like that. It makes the work a lot easier and surprising. He was great in the film ‘Dope’ too.

How would you describe your style?

Visually, it can vary a bit on what the project is or what I’m filming or photographing but I’d say there’s always an experiential discovery process; I love the process and being on location, so there is a documentary realism going, it can be hyper-real but still feels grounded in the reality around us.

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Can you give us more detail on how you shot and created each of the shots for the Ballantine’s Artist Series? 

For the Ballantine’s Artist Series I decided to approach the project in much the same way as I used to with bands – basically by getting to know the history of the brand and how the end product gets created. I was interested in the heritage and the journey a whisky takes to end up in your glass on a Friday night. This meant exploring the River Spey and its vast tributaries in Scotland, the home of Ballantine’s. So we jumped in a helicopter and went exploring.

I mainly shot digital, alongside a few rolls of infrared film. Unfortunately, the temperature was so cold at 8,000 feet in an open-door helicopter that the infrared film was fairly unreactive and the images felt too flat. So I ended up working with the digital images I shot, which was invaluable for this project.

What made you choose the colours for each tin? What was the thought process and inspiration behind each of the three designs? 

In post I wanted to push the images away from the green landscape of the Scottish Highlands so they would have an otherworldly feel to them. It ended up being a process of manipulating layers into different wavelengths so that each colour felt complimentary. The blues and reds became apparent as an interesting way to view the landscape and tied in nicely with the fire and water process during the whisky production. They also referenced the earlier ideas I had explored with the infrared film, but took them further in a more satisfying way. I started viewing the landscapes much like old Chinese watercolours that my family had hanging up in our house – the way the mountains and valleys in the distance appeared as fading layers on top of each other.

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What was it like shooting in Scotland, how did it compare to your ‘usual’ music-related shoots? 

It was cold! Honestly, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. The doors opened, 60mph winds gushed in my face, my fingers started going numb. It was just a big blur of adrenalin – beautifully juxtaposed with the jaw-droppingly serene landscape below.

What’s the main difference between your photography and your moving image work?

I think I approach them both quite differently in some respects. I mean obviously the motivation differs depending on the type of project, but you’ve got to be passionate about something. Stills – I appreciate the smaller, one-on-one aspect. With a moving image it’s a bigger beast, and becomes more collaborative. It’s nice to switch between the two from time to time. I think I’ll always have a camera in my back pocket.

When your career is based around art and visuals is there ever a moment you aren’t creating concepts in your mind?

Sure, you gotta have some down time and just live a little. But, I’m constantly distracted by things I find interesting. Which is usually where most projects begin in some way.

Are there any artists you would like to get access to or collaborate with?

Of course. The list would be infinite; I wouldn’t put one person above the other. And it changes week to week. Like the collaboration with Foals, it has to be a natural collaboration. I’d have to say this week: ‘PJ Harvey’. It had been a while and I’d forgotten how much I love her work. I recently spent a long haul flight listening to the entire back catalog on from start to finish. Mind blown all over again.

If you decided to take on Hollywood, who would you like to be the lead in your film and where would the film be located?

Benicio Del Torro is incredible. All of those early supporting roles he did, yet he’s the one you remember. He would be an incredible person to work with. Where would it be set? In a desert town in California. Worlds away in a dry valley town that’s so vast and there are so many little odd places. I’m drawn to that. I love the sense of isolation and lawlessness, moving beyond the boundaries of society, where anything is possible.

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