The first question people usually ask photographer John Hesketh after seeing his work is, “How is it done?”
An explanation is certainly in order because the closer you look the more difficult it is to tell. Some of his photographs, such as “Ascention” and “Self Portrait,” have a ghostlike quality, reminiscent of a journey through the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, which coincidentally is very close to where Hesketh was reared.
The emphasis is on the eerie in many of Hesketh’s photographs, which are on display through the end of October at Rizzoli International Bookstore & Gallery at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
Also included in the exhibit will be some of Hesketh’s earlier work, in which he starts with a color image, then breaks the picture down into three color components with black-and-white separations, then manipulates the separate images by scratching and mangling them. He then reconstructs the image on a copy camera with red, green and blue filters.
“Ascention” shows an empty wheelchair, with a pair of high heels on the ground, eight ghostlike feet walking up a ladder and a shadowy figure in the background.
While the photographs may give the appearance of darkroom manipulation, the real work is done with the camera. Each image is shot on one piece of 4-by-5-inch film with an average exposure of 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Most of Hesketh’s photographs are shot in his back yard using household props, although he occasionally enlists the use of a neighbor’s yard. Hesketh’s 16-by-20-inch Cibachrome prints are so out of the ordinary that they might seem like something of Andy Warhol’s.
“Primarily, what I’m doing is taking the images and assembling them with green, red and blue filters,” Hesketh, 33, said. “With those filters plus some white exposure, I go in and paint the objects with flashlights.
“If you look at the picture ‘Ascention,’ what I’m trying to do there is deal with a passing in our family. A lot of it has to do with that--with a transition. It was a passing of my great aunt. She was like a grandmother. But a lot of it was coming to terms with what you do with someone’s spirit after it’s gone and how it affects you afterwards.
“A lot of the words have to do with the exorcising of old ghosts or feelings I have, good or bad--old ghosts in the sense of memories that we have.”
Hesketh was born in Lakewood in Los Angeles County and grew up in Anaheim. His father was a photographer and owns Photomation Photo Lab in Anaheim. Family folklore says John was born the day the lab opened.
In 1975, he started a slide department in his father’s lab and learned various techniques of mixing artwork, typography and photography. He learned how color reacts to film and in 1980 he went to work for Abracadabra Slide Production in Santa Ana, where he develops slide presentations for corporate clients.
One of Hesketh’s favorite photographs is “My Neighbor’s Dream.” It shows a face that rises out of a pool table. He came up with the idea after one of his neighbors recalled a dream to him.
“A lot of the images might sound a little morbid,” Hesketh said. “But they’re done to confront people’s sensibility about where they are by using everyday things such as suburban icons--a pool table, a ladder or a television set. It gets back to the central theme, where I’m trying to deal with my life here in suburbia.”
Hesketh has to be meticulously organized for this style of photography, as some of his shoots can last up to seven days.
“Many times, what happens is that the exposures go for about an hour and a half--one half-hour for each color,” he said. “All the shots are done at night. Sometimes you don’t get the shot on the first go, so you have to reconstruct the scene and make the necessary variations to make the correct exposure for the desired effect.
“The trick is to keep it organized in your head, to know that when you go over it with blue and go back over it with red (that) it’s going to be magenta,” he said. “After a while (the right exposure) becomes more of a feel. It becomes more like painting because the exposures are so long.”
Photographs by John Hesketh are on view through Oct. 31 at Rizzoli International Bookstore & Gallery, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Admission: free. Information: (714) 957-3331.