Happy Friday! March is practically over, and to close the month with a bang I am stoked to introduce and share the latest addition to Thee Blog’s Interview series featuring my extremely talented and good friend, UK based Photographer, Maria Carmel. Maria’s enviable background and professional experience includes names like David LaChapelle, Russell James, Victoria’s Secret, a reality show and even Paula Abdul. Yup, imagine all the stories and gossip… After meeting her last year and learning more about her background, I had to bring her and share her inspiring stories as well as her fun, fresh, witty and awesome personality. Thank you again Maria for being such a great sport and sweetheart!
I discovered Maria and her work through a VH1 Photography Reality TV Show called The Shot (which she won) and since then, I’ve been a fan of her style, talent and great attitude. I had the pleasure of connecting and meeting Maria last year, and I must say she is one awesomely cool, sweet and fun lady! During one of our initial chats, I was blown away by Maria’s professional background and enviable experience, which included an internship, which then turned into a Production Coordinator position working for David LaChapelle, yes, THAT David LaChapelle! mentoring by Russell James, shooting the Victoria’s Secret Angels and even some Paula Abdul as well as American Idol. I’m telling you, this talented lady has done it all! I couldn’t just not share these awesome stories, so I invited Maria for a fun interview in which we could dig a bit deeper, chat and share some of her work, experiences and newest projects.
So, without further ado, here’s Maria’s fun and inspiring interview which I know you will enjoy. Thank you again Maria, you rock!
Welcome Maria and thank you for accepting my invitation. It is a pleasure and a treat having you as a guest and I am sure everyone reading this interview will enjoy it as much as I am. I know we’ve been talking about this interview for some time already, and I am excited we’re finally here! So, let’s get started…
For those readers out there not familiar yet with your work, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background?
Hi! Thank you for the kind introduction, I am super excited to talk to you guys. Well, my name is Maria Carmel, originally from LA, now splitting time between there and the UK. I’m a Scorpio…lol
Actually, I am the oldest of 6 girls, have a great family – my mom is an artist and a teacher, dad is a writer and in sales. My life and the people in it have always been artistic, I guess it is rather fitting that I ended up making a living out of it – I was never the conventional type.
I am married to Nick Bentley, a filmmaker and musician, and we have the cutest (best) kid in the universe, Jackson. We also have a sassy dog named Ludacris. Our life kinda rules.
OK, so, let’s set the record straight. I ‘met’ you as Maria Carmel back in the day, but I know you also go by Maria Bentley. Is there a difference or purpose for both names?
Maria Carmel is my professional name – for fashion. But with studio 1208, I am Maria Bentley because we are a husband and wife team.
I first ‘met’ you back in 2007 when you were part of the cast and the winner of VH1’s The Shot. A lot has happened since eh? You’re married, have a beautiful boy, moved to England! Tell us more…
Gosh, SO much has happened since then! Well, yes, I won the show and pretty much from that point, it has been a crazy rollercoaster ride. Lots of ups, some downs, tons of important lessons learned, and a deeper love for photography has grown. I feel like I have matured so much since then – I was so green on the show, which ironically, could be the reason I won.
As I mentioned in my intro, you come from an artistic family, and have an amazing and enviable work background (and stories!). From Paula Abdul to Russell James and David LaChapelle. So, let’s go back in time…
Whoa. So many stories – some I can’t even tell you, legally, lol! I will try to give you the Cliff’s Notes version, so your readers don’t hit the snooze bar on me!
You’ve been on your own and traveling across the country since you were pretty young. Do you think this has helped you become who you are today? Tell us about your adventures.
I moved out when I was 17 – I got in a fight with my parents, they told me the classic “If you don’t like it, you can leave” line. Well, they went grocery shopping that day, and when they got back, I was gone. It wasn’t very nice how I did it, and I wish I could change it, but at least my parents and I can laugh about it now…I’m pretty sure I have some gnarly kid karma coming to me for that…
I was ready to go in some ways, but in other ways, I should have enjoyed being a carefree teenager a little longer. Being independent at an early age has definitely helped me to become who I am today. I have accomplished a lot, but I also had some bad habits hold me back since I was figuring things out on my own. There was some definite learning the hard way for me, but a lot of fun too.
You were Paula Abdul’s personal trainer, roomie and then personal assistant when you were 21. How did you get this gig? And the inevitable question, how was it to work with Paula?
Well, when I was 21, my little sister was a semi-finalist on American Idol. She was only 17, so she needed a legal guardian on set… ‡ME! At the time, I had been competing in Fitness (one armed pushups, back flips on ESPN – yeah, that was me) and had just placed 10th in the USA. I was a personal trainer and met Paula Abdul at Idol – we became fast friends, and she asked me to start training her. I accepted, of course! About a week into it, Paula fired one of her assistants and asked me to fill in because she trusted me and knew I could handle it. I accepted, of course! Well, long story short, we became roommates, I stayed her personal assistant and actually, the last time I was in Miami was at MTV Spring Break with her! Crazy Times. I need to get back to Miami…
So, you were in College for, let’s say a couple of years, but were not sure what your passion was. How did you discover Photography and when did you apply for Art School?
Haha I was actually in college for about 7 years total…usually, people like this are called…doctors! I was paying for it all myself, so I needed to work my 3 jobs to survive. It took a little longer than usual, but I got so much life experience outta the school of hard knocks!
Photography had always been on my radar. I remember my grandpa having a really cool camera and taking lots of pictures, as well as my aunt taking me to her photography class in college a couple times. We always had lots of pictures around, and I actually made tons of videos growing up with my sisters. We were super poor though, so I never had a camera. Even to this day, I laugh because at 19, I went on an amazing trip to Lebanon with my best friend for a month, and only took disposable cameras!!! *shakes head*
It was unfortunate that my high school didn’t offer photography – perhaps I would have fallen in love with it sooner? This is something I would love to change if I become that monetarily successful someday.
I was 23 years old when I got my first phone with a camera on it…a Sprint flip phone with the tiniest camera/screen on it. I was obsessed. I took over 5,000 images on that thing – it was the one thing that I did consistently everyday, no matter what was going on. I knew that I wanted more, so I decided to go for it and enroll in The Art Institute of Philadelphia – 3,000 miles away from my comfort zone. I was 25.
And then, it happened. How did you meet David LaChapelle? And how did you become his Production Coordinator? – Before you answer, I must admit that I admire/hate you for this ;)
David LaChapelle was my total photography hero when I was in school. In fact, I distinctly remember sitting in Barnes and Noble for hours, looking through his books in absolute awe. He changed my life! I knew my style wasn’t like his, but I just completely respected it, and it opened my eyes to the fact that anything was possible. We met because of my little sister Ashley (same one from Idol). She had been cast in the Nip/Tuck ad campaign, and David was shooting it at his LA studio. I happened to be home from school on my summer break when the shoot was happening, and my sister brought me along. It was mind blowing. I ended up speaking to him (staying cool) and using my biggest pair of steel balls, I just straight up asked him what it would take to become an intern there. He looked really shocked that I would ask, and then he said to me “It’s not gonna be easy”. I looked him right in the eye, and without any hesitation, said “It better not be”. He hired me on the spot. I decided that I needed to take this opportunity, even if it meant that I wasn’t finishing my degree. I was back in LA as fast as I could be. Spent a month as an intern – working for free, and then was promoted to Production Coordinator – working for $125/day. Life was perfect. I was dirt poor, but living the dream.
How was it to work for such an iconic and talented Photographer? BTW, anybody that has worked with David LaChapelle is obligated to share experiences, gossip and lessons learned.
It was a trip working for someone like David. There is always something going on, always some kind of drama happening, someone getting yelled at, always someone famous around, and a lot of tense / stressful situations. I felt like it was my equivalent to working with Andy Warhol at The Factory.
Being a part of a studio like this taught me a lot about how I wanted to conduct my own business and shoots, the importance of team work, and what kind of boss I did and didn’t want to be.
Not sure if you noticed, but I love to talk… I learned the importance of being quiet and listening not only with my ears, but with my eyes. I learned to anticipate people’s needs, and see what my own needs would be as the ‘head honcho’, one day.
One funny bit for me, was when I got hired, the studio manager specifically told me to make sure that I tried to look “ugly” for work everyday – no makeup, and to never wear anything cute or tight. No problem – I would have worn a burlap sack, or shown up naked if they asked me to! I have met lots of cool, talented people by working there – had to do lots of strange tasks AND I have seen a lot of crazy shit!!!
Oh! I have also been in a LaChapelle photograph (my claim to fame!) It was for a GQ spread with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. In the image, Marilyn Monroe has just murdered them both. I am Marilyn’s body – ok, her mid-section. David didn’t like how the Marilyn impersonator’s tummy looked in the dress, so he had me suit up, stuff my boobs, and re-shot me to composite into the shot. I felt pretty important, and it is something I can show my grandkids one day…”See her stomach – that’s MINE!!!”
How did being LaChapelle’s Production Coordinator affect your life, career, goals, and your perception/knowledge of Photography as a career or business?
It has given me an undeniable amount of street cred! I am always one for new and once in a lifetime experiences, so to me, it was incredible, even the not-so-great moments. I had to think on my feet 24/7 – organizing, scheduling, damage controlling, managing, delegating. I had to be everywhere and know everything – I was also the boss of the interns! As I mentioned before, I also learned the value of teamwork, and I do believe that in many ways, photography is a team sport. There were about 60 people on every shoot at LaChapelle, which blew my mind at first. That is a lot of people, but everyone, even the interns, were so important, and those iconic images would not come to life without a team of experts. What do they say – “Surround yourself with the best, and you’ll be the best” I think that’s how it goes…
Let’s talk about ‘The Shot’. As a Photography lover, I found this TV show addictive and full of inspiration. It was like watching a combination of America’s Next Top Model + Project Runway (it even had some good drama!). We got to see fashion and editorial projects from a different perspective and learn about all the effort and hard work behind these shoots.
The show was great, and I am really glad that you (and a handful of others) liked it. Unfortunately for us, it was on the wrong network, so it didn’t shine like it probably could have. Funny thing, it has actually been shown in something like 12+ different countries! The only reason I know this, is because I get emails from people when they see it. It is really neat to connect with people like that. I want to say that the show was pretty unrealistic in so many ways, but that is the nature of reality TV. It is great to know that I can handle complete manic craziness and not lose my cool (too badly).
How did you end up in this show? And how was your TV experience?
Craigslist!!!! Haha, really! I had just been promoted to Production Coordinator at LaChapelle, and was making a little bit of money (better than nothing as an intern!!) but was broke as an f’in joke. I was searching on CL for anything photo-related to make some extra cash – mostly, so I could actually pay my rent. I stumbled upon the listing and thought it was interesting, but dismissed it, because I literally had the job of my dreams, and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. That Scorpio focus and determination!!
A few months later, I ended up leaving LaChapelle to try and make it on my own. Back on CL, I saw the listing again, and thought OMG! Fate. I guess it was…
I remember watching the show and always cheering for you (and I’m not just saying this because I know you) not to mention feeling jealous for the incredible opportunity and the benefits it came with, like meeting, working and learning from the great Russell James. How was Russell as a host/mentor?
That’s really nice, thanks! Gosh, Russell – where to start? He is an amazing man. His talent as a photographer and director are only a small part of what makes him so special. I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to learn form him, work under him and that he had the patience to put up with me. I can’t say enough about him – I hope to be as great and charitable as he is one day.
And how could I not mention working with the Victoria’s Secret Angels!!! (a Photographer’s dream). You shot two of my all-time favorite VS ladies, Marisa Miller and Alessandra Ambrosio. In fact, your Alessandra photo made the cover of the 2008 VS Swimsuit edition catalogue! Did this blow your mind?
It still blows my mind! Even better, VS gave me a second cover for Swim 2008, which was such a great moment and achievement for me. Working with the Angels was a dream come true, and I would like to think that I will be in that situation again in my lifetime.
Please tell me Alessandra and Marisa were nice and not bitchy divas?
The ladies were fantastic to work with. Honestly, so nice and (no joke) as beautiful and perfect in real life. Makes you feel incredible about your 5’4 self…lol. Everytime I see them anywhere, they always say hello and ask how things are.
BTW, Thank you for the Marisa photo! Once you told me you were sending a ’special one’ for me, I knew immediately which one it was :)
As I mentioned earlier, you were the winner of the show. Besides a great experience and incredible exposure, how did the show change your life as a Photographer?
Well, I was able to buy my first professional camera and equipment, which was the biggest moment in my professional life. I actually cried when I got my camera! (Don’t judge me, people!)
Beyond the monetary benefits, it gave me a huge boost of confidence that I could achieve anything I wanted to. The show taught me to trust myself, and even more, it taught me that ultimately, photography is less about your equipment and more about your eye, and your ability to translate your vision into reality.
Now, let’s go back to the future/present. You and your husband Nick created a Photography+Filmography Studio called STUDIO 1208. How, where and why did you decide to launch your own business?
As you mentioned earlier, a lot has changed for me in the last year! When Nick and I got pregnant with our son, Jackson (the most interesting baby in the world), our lives needed to change a bit from how they were…I was a Fashion photographer, living a crazy here, there and everywhere life with no real responsibility. Nick was in a touring electronic rock band…nuff said. We knew we had to make some changes, but make it more of an adaptation. I think that you need to have your kids fit into the life you have already created, not create a different life based around your children. Does that make sense? We just didn’t want to lose who we were just because we were gonna be parents. So, we decided to build a business around our family and call it STUDIO 1208, named after our loft/photo studio in downtown LA. Nick had already been doing video for a while, including on my fashion projects, and music videos, so it was totally natural to combine forces.
Considering your background in Photography – LaChapelle, James, Victoria’s Secret, Fashion Labels, etc. – what drove you to specialize in weddings and maternity?
Truth, I always dissed wedding photographers (in my mind). Perhaps I was on a fashion high-horse, or I had the wrong idea or a bad taste in my mouth. I just saw it as the cheesiest form of photography there was. Now I am one. YIKES.
Before you all judge me, I want to say this – I was only half wrong, and here is why… Wedding photography CAN be the cheesiest thing ever – we have all seen exactly what I am talking about. It can also be one of the most beautiful, real moments in time you could ever capture. It is really hard to be good at, like really, really hard! I now have major respect for the genre, and ultimately, I want to shoot weddings because I really take the responsibility seriously, and I want to try and give people the most beautiful heirlooms they could possibly have. I approach every wedding just like I would a fashion shoot – location scouting, inspiration, and I talk to my clients a lot. I want to give everyone a one-of-a-kind experience. The second I start defaulting to doing the same shots for every couple, or not feeling complete joy when I watch two people so in love, I am out. Fact.
Maternity felt like a natural progression for me, even before I had a child of my own. I like to shoot maternity from a fashion mentality, as if I were shooting a lingerie campaign. It is super intimate, and can be so sexy if you want it to be. I have always been in complete awe of a woman’s pregnant body – I love to celebrate that, and wish more women would be comfortable enough to get maternity portraits done. I got naked in mine outside in broad daylight, and I love them!
Time to put you on the spot. What are some of your favorite Photographers?
Henri Cartier Bresson, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Irving Penn, James Nachtwey, Sally Mann, Ellen von Unwerth, Herb Ritts, Diane Arbus, and Mary Ellen Mark are some of my most loved and respected. You just earned even more cool points in my book for mentioning the amazing James Nachtwey!
Any advice you would like to share with all those readers, Photography Students or Photographers trying to get some exposure or make some contacts out there?
#1 You have to learn how to walk before you can properly run, but never, ever stop picturing yourself running. Fast.
#2 Learn the rules so you can break them.
#3 (and perhaps most importantly) Be undeniably good.
Ok, so that was general advice, not necessarily what you asked, so I should answer that question too… networking is an interesting thing. It is so important, and if you are out of sight, you are usually out of mind. To get people to notice you, you need to keep making work, and you need to get that work out there, whether it is online, or putting a show together, or creating wheat pastes of your images and posting it up all over your city. Don’t be afraid to ask questions from people you look up to. Surround yourself with people who are better than you – learn from them. And when you finally get in front of the person you admire the most, or want to work for, have something to say.
Any crazy plans for the near future or projects you would like to share?
Well, we are really excited to just have won Wedding Photo of the Year in the UK for our image of the couple kissing on the infinity pool! We also have a feature hitting stands in April in Brides UK, which is not only our first physical publication for wedding stuff, it was the first wedding we ever shot together as STUDIO 1208. We are so, so, so excited about it!
Nick and I are still doing fashion work also, and have some things in the tail pipe that we can’t say much about quite yet, but are working hard to bring them to fruition. And last, we have a long-term personal project that we are working on, which is really about community outreach and involvement. I can’t wait to have something to show – maybe you will have us back when it is ready?! - Abso-frakin’-lutely!
So many more plans for us – I would love to do TV again in some respect, would love to create a program for kids to get them excited about photography, would love to start a photo-therapy program for Autistic children, and maybe one day, host seminars to help other photographers and have a couple books published. My ultimate goal, though, is to be in love forever and parent a successful, kind human being.
Thank you again for your time Maria! You’ve been nothing but extremely cool since we cyber-met last year and it was a pleasure having you as a guest. Thanks for always making time to chat, exchanging emails or links and for a fun/inspiring interview! I look forward to having you back here soon! :)
Diego, thank you so much – the pleasure was all mine. It was really fun re-visiting the good ole days and talking about the great big future. xx
Check out more of Maria’s work:
In the meantime, you can also check out some videos…