Portraits

Who Wore It Better?

If you’ve ever met me or read any of my blog entries, you probably know that I believe photography is one of the best jobs in the world, and that I consider myself seriously lucky to be doing it professionally. Sometimes a portrait subject will ask what I’d do for work if I didn’t make pictures, and I honestly don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine breaking up with photography, or cheating on it with some floozy of a tech job. That said, however, it’s also true that like any relationship, the light can go out if you don’t occasionally stoke the fire. I don’t know any photographers, regardless of how much they love creating images, who don’t need to recharge their creative batteries from time to time with a personal project. So, it was in that keep-the-fires-lit spirit that I undertook the surprisingly entertaining extracurricular project of ruining classic paintings by inserting my face into them.  The process is pretty simple, but requires lots of attention to detail:

1.  Settle on a painting you'd like to debase. If you’re like me, the problem won’t be finding a painting you like; it’ll be narrowing it down.
2.  Photograph yourself. Obviously, it's crucial that the position of your head match the position of the portrait subject's head.  If you're off by much at all, you'll have problems when you get into Photoshop.  It's also necessary to match the lighting in the painting as closely as possible. Your facial structure will almost certainly be different than the portrait subject’s, so the shadows may not look the same and you may have to cheat the light around a little, but make sure the quality of the light is as close as you can make it. Last, try not be wildly amiss with your camera angle and lens focal length.
3.  Cut your face out (in Photoshop, I mean!) and put it into the painting.  Because everyone's head is shaped differently, odds are good that your face won't map perfectly over the existing one.  Parts of the face from the original painting will likely peek out from behind yours, so expect to clone the painting a bit to make it look right.  Color, contrast, etc. won't match either, so that will all have to be adjusted.  You'll also need to steal some texture from elsewhere in the painting and lay it over top, and you'll need to run some combination of filters (and probably the smudge tool) to make your face look less like a photo and more like it's part of the painting.  Frankly, I haven't done a perfect texture job on any of these images, but I've done it well enough to be happy.

And here are the images!  As always, click on any you'd like to see larger.
First is Ingres's 1811 portrait of Charles-Joseph-Lauren Cordier.  This was at the top of my list to try because it’s the cover image for my well-worn, unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, which I have fond memories of reading on trains while passing through Europe at the tender age of 19.  It's a pretty thrilling story. A sailor is arrested on his wedding day and falsely imprisoned in a grim island fortress for fourteen years, at which time he’s finally able to make a daring escape, recover the vast fortune left to him by a fellow inmate, and exact revenge on the men who conspired to destroy his life. You haven’t read it? Then what are you reading this for?! Get off your ass, get down to the library, and get back on your ass and read it.  And don’t try to cheat and watch a film adaptation, either—they've never made a good one.

The book begins during Napoleon’s exile, just before his return to power, so naturally I started looking at Napoleon.  This romantic portrait by Jacques-Louis David in 1801 was the first of five versions of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, and it's the one I liked the best. It strikes me as gleefully over the top.

That, of course, made me want to tackle the realistic version of the scene, as painted by Paul Delaroche in 1850.  In 1849, Delaroche was visiting the Louvre with a nobleman who had a large Napoleonic collection, and who commented on the implausibly grandiose depiction of the scene in David's painting. That’s right—he thought it was OTT too.  So, he commissioned Delaroche to paint a more likely representation of the crossing, with Napoleon on a mule.  (Incidentally, Delaroche didn't intend for the image to be at all belittling.  He was apparently a Napoleon fan, and didn't believe that his depiction in any way takes away from the achievement.)

Ingres again.  I came across this one while looking for the portrait of Cordier, and I'll be completely honest—I was drawn to this painting because of the hair.  Well, yeah…the sword too…but mostly the hair.  Mine is so fine and lifeless (like Scarlett Johanssonsnap!), but Ingres' childhood friend Amédée-David, le Comte de Pastoret?  He had some of the best hair I've ever seen.

Fun, right? Yes, it absolutely is, but In all seriousness, it’s also quite a useful technical exercise. Photographers have studied and emulated and just plain ripped off classic paintings by Old Masters since the inception of photography, and for good reason. Because if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. I was delighted to look through centuries-old European paintings again—reacquainting myself with some, discovering others—and it’s edifying to examine lighting to the extent necessary to recreate it. If you’re a photographer, I’d recommend it even more than reading The Count of Monte Cristo.

Portrait Shoot: Artefact

A few weeks ago, I returned to Artefact's office to photograph new employees.  I'm not sure how many photographers they've used in the past—I haven't done all their photos—but it was the fourth time they've had me, and as ever, the shoot was a total pleasure.  I do standard headshots for them, but every employee also gets a unique, quirky photo that showcases his or her personality and/or interests.  It is SO much fun.  The people are great, totally game, and their ideas for their personalized portraits are fun and creative and an absolute joy to bring to life.  Here are a few of them, and of course a couple obligatory photos of me taking photos.  Feel free to click any you'd like to see larger.

I should pause for a minute to give special kudos to Jefferson for his image, which was inspired by Arrested Development.  If you haven't seen the show, or have but didn't catch the reference, click here.  And no, we didn't have a sheep.  He added that later, and did a wonderful job.

Let it be known that I can, should the situation arise, be called upon to give juggling lessons!  Ultimately, Courtney opted for the balancing image above, but still.  We had fun.
(Thanks to fellow photographer Josh Huston, who assisted me and took these behind-the scenes photos.)

Jewish in Seattle: Oscar Olivier

It was a privilege to photograph Oscar Olivier for Jewish in Seattle late last year.  He is a refugee from the Congo and an inspiring figure, and if you have a moment, you should really do his story justice by reading the excellent article by Emily Alhadeff. We made this portrait in Des Moines, where he lives.  Neomi, the art director, wanted something that looked dramatic but we didn't have a location and the weather wasn't cooperating.  It was a mighty bright, happy day outside (albeit still chilly—note the very stylish cardigan).

So we hit the beach—can't go wrong with water and a good sky as your background—and utilizing a little day-for-night camera and lighting trickery, we made it look a bit more moody.  I was really pleased with the result.  Below is my favorite image, along with Neomi's select as it appeared in the magazine.

Jewish In Seattle: Fashion Feature

A short time ago I was contacted again by Neomi Rapoport (art director of Jewish in Seattle), this time to ask me about shooting a fashion feature for a holiday issue of the magazine.  "Do they really mean to be asking me?" was my first thought, as I'd never claim to be a fashion photographer and do not, in fact, even feel that I'm particularly fashionable myself.  I was nevertheless totally happy to do it, of course, because it's fun to branch out and do different things, and I'd never pass up the opportunity to work with Emily (editor) and Neomi.  And wouldn't you know it?  When you have a great location, art director, model (Devon at SMG), stylist (Emma Ranniger), and HMUA (Kathy Evans), it turns out you wind up looking pretty good.  Especially when you have lovely clothes as well, provided by some of Seattle's finest designers.  Here are just a few images from the day's shoot, beginning with my personal favorite:

And then, because there was some question at the magazine about fashion for the cover, we did a few photos in my studio depicting different takes on honey and apples.  I quite liked them all.

Life imitates art

I shot the image below very recently, and I kind of love it.  The model, a really charming kid named Derek, was an absolute pleasure and sat very patiently while my super talented makeup artist Erika Seward did her work with him.  He actually was pretty delighted with how rough he looked when she was finished, as I'm sure I would have been.

We shot at Derek's home with a borrowed bunny and stun gun.  The bunny's name is Mr. Thumps, and yes, of course the electricity leaping between the contacts on the stun gun was made in Photoshop.  I know better than to hand an 11-year-old a stun gun with the battery in it, thank you very much.

The photo is awfully funny to me on its own, but I think it's made even more entertaining by the story that came out of Portland shortly after I shot it.  Seems a 22-pound house cat attacked a family, forcing them to dial 911 from their locked bedroom.  No kidding.  To be fair, though, it does sound to me like the family had it coming.  The baby started it all by pulling the cat's tail, which earned him a blood-drawing swipe to the forehead.  Then the mom's boyfriend kicked the cat away, and that apparently is where things really went off the rails.

Me, I just enjoy it when I shoot something that turns out to be timely.

For those interested, the photo was lit with a 4-foot by 6-foot softbox from camera left to mimic daylight through a window.  A silver bounce to camera right filled in shadows a bit, and I used a smaller box from 3/4 rear, camera left, for a rim light.  Camera was set at ISO 100, f/5.6 at 1/60 sec.

Superhero sneak-peek

You're right.  I don't blog often enough, and I'm sorry about that.  The infrequency of posts isn't indicative of infrequent happenings, however, and I'll use this first blog entry in a while to demonstrate that fact with a sneak peek at a personal project I've recently undertaken.  It's a conceptual series about superheroes that I've been shooting these past several months, and am continuing to shoot.  The central question of the series is: What is everyday life like with a superpower, and what would superheroes do in a city without crime? All of the photos so far are composites of many more than just a couple photos, so each is fairly labor intensive and most have involved several individual shoots.  Here are a couple of the images I've done so far—I hope you get a kick out of them.  As always, feel free to click on them to view them larger.

This was a composite of seven shots in total.  Can you tell what they are?  Oh, you don't want to play that game?  Okay, the first is the cityscape—it's downtown Seattle as viewed from Smith Tower, a 38-story building from 1914 that until 1931 was the tallest building west of the Mississippi, and until 1962 was the tallest building on the west coast.  (I actually hosted pub trivia for years so forgive me if you're not interested in the factoids, but I think that's kind of cool...right?)  The second shot in this photo is also part of the cityscape—the tallest building, the one at both edges of the frame.  I added it for the sake of composition.  The third shot is the flag blowing in the wind, which I thought just added a nice touch.  The fourth and fifth shots are the superhero and her cape.  The sixth shot is the building on the left, the one she's cleaning.  It's a building a block from my studio, which I shot from a ladder at ground level.  I just kept the frame and replaced the windows with my own reflections.  The last shot is the sky, which I actually shot about a year and a half ago while on a road trip.  The "Capitol City Times" sign on the building was added in Photoshop to tie this shot in with the other shots in the series like the one below.

How does an indestructible person get a haircut? I found this wonderful barbershop while scouting downtown.  It's called The Stewart Street Barbershop, and the owner, Steve, couldn't have been more generous when I asked if I could shoot in his shop.  Nearly everything in the shop was as I shot it, although I did add every element (except the pole) on the wall behind the models.  And while I did have my superhero model hold an actual magazine, I mocked up a back cover and shot my own image for my new front cover.  The sparks, of course, were all made in Photoshop, as was the shop decal on the window.  And speaking of the window, the scene outside was shot about a mile and a half away on a different day.  In reality, a bus stop is outside the barbershop, and it didn't work for the photo.  Replacing the scene outside the window meant replacing reflections in the window—the barber's back, the sparks, the barber's pole.  All in all, this shot was a fair amount of work, but as I've said before, I really enjoy the details.  And I really like this shot.

As I say, these are just a couple—there are more already and there will be more in the future.  I'm really looking forward to going more in depth on the making of each photo, and to bringing the whole series to the blog and the site when it's ready.  In the meantime, I'll be offering peeks here and there, so please check back when you think of it.  Thanks!

Blood Squad!

I don't really enjoy horror movies, but...I have been a fan of the improv comedy group Blood Squad for years—since early 2007, I think.  They're straight-up amazing, and I don't say this of many things, but I couldn't enjoy them more even if squirrels were involved.  (I really get a kick out of squirrels.)  The next time you're in Seattle, if you have the good fortune of timing your visit during one of their runs, you should really make good on that opportunity. Blood Squad consists of founding members Elicia Wickstead and Brandon Felker—both longtime improv performers and instructors—as well as Molly Arkin and newcomer Jon Axell.  All four are incredibly talented and together form an improv group quite literally unlike any you've ever seen.  Blood Squad builds their funny out of the horror movie genre(!), and they do it in a long-form improv format.  That means that at the start of each performance, the group takes a suggestion from the audience for a horror movie that's never been made (say, "Killer Prom at Murder High" or the very festive "Santa Claus Your Face Off"), and then they just...go.  And not for a series of short sketches, like ten minutes at a time, but for an entire show running somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 uninterrupted minutes.  Each group member invents several characters to play, and every one of them enjoys a full story arc during the course of the performance.  They narrate character, set, title, and action descriptions from the improvised "script", and when the time comes, they off themselves and each other in the most graphic (yet not) ways they can dream up.  It's all done without sets, props, costumes, or anything else typically associated with theater or film, though they do usually have a guest at the side of the stage performing improvised mood music during key moments.  It's the kind of thing that's hard enough to do without worrying about being funny, and these guys are effortlessly hysterical.  Every.  Time.  I swear I never get tired of watching them pretend to kill each other, and seriously, I can't recommend them more.

I think it was in 2007 that I introduced myself and asked if photography was of interest to them in their promotions.  They had been using, and would continue to use, brilliant illustration and design work done by local artists Devin Sheridan and Alex Thomas.  That worked really well because the shows in each of their runs are unified by a single horror sub-genre (summer camp slasher, haunted house, psycho hillbilly, zombie, etc.), and Devin and Alex would draw up a poster for each theme.  It worked so well, frankly, that I actually wondered if they'd be interested in having photography.  It was decided, though, that promotional images of the actual group would be good too, and so it happened that Blood Squad and I collaborated a little later in the year.  That's when we came up with the morgue headshots below, which I still love today.

With a new official group member and the departure of Michael, Elicia got in touch in September and asked about the possibility of doing a new shoot to reflect the changes.  The idea this time was to photograph them in the woods somewhere, near dusk or at night, with the four of them emerging or having already emerged from a grave.  They'd look dashing and done up, yet still bruised and battered (beautifully done by hair and makeup artist Jana Hutchison), and looking either annoyed and inconvenienced or simply non-plussed and blasé about the situation.  I liked the concept a lot, but it was clear right away it wasn't the kind of thing we could just casually shoot.  More on that shortly, but first, here's the final image:

If you're interested in reading about the production of the shot, then by all means read on.  If not, have a great day and don't forget to see Blood Squad.  Their next show is at the Balagan Theater at 8pm on December 22nd.  Be there.

So, when Elicia presented the idea to me and asked if it was do-able, I did the same thing I always do (the same thing any photographer does, frankly) when asked to do a shoot that poses problems not encountered before.  I said, "Sure, absolutely, totally" and then set about figuring out how to do it.

As is often the case, one of the first things to sort out is finding the right location.  We wanted something that appeared remote but wasn't.  We wanted trees, but we also needed a good amount of open, uncluttered ground.  In my mind I had this idea that they were buried on the crest of a hill that looked out over nothing but wilderness, and that they stood out against this dark and sort of ominous sky.  I was sure such a place existed but had no idea where to find it, and knew that wherever it was, it was likely to be far enough removed from Seattle city limits that shooting there wouldn't be practical anyway.  And who knew if we'd get good clouds on the day of the shoot?  Pretty much right away I struck the possibility of finding a perfect location that had everything.  What made the most sense to me was finding a suitable foreground (one with trees, open space, and a clear horizon line) that I could drop in front of a totally new background of mountains, trees and sky, which I would shoot later. Seattle's Woodland Park was a no-brainer to check out (although honestly I wish I'd thought of it a little sooner), and it did in fact have a great spot with scattered medium-size trees and lots of bare earth.  Well, almost bare—there was the small, half-hour matter of raking away several inches of fallen leaves.  When I saw it, though, I knew.  If I were going to bury someone, or four someones, I'd definitely do it there.  Here it is, in a photo taken after a brisk raking.  Yes, that's a dog park in the background.

You might notice a couple changes I made to the foreground in Photoshop, namely the removal of the two trees on the right.  Behind and to the left of the main foreground tree is another tree just barely peeking out, which I also removed because it was visually confusing.  To the right of the main foreground tree is another, slimmer tree that I nudged left a little bit so it would frame Brandon and Molly a little better.  And then I copied the main foreground tree, reversed it, and put it in the far right of the frame to balance out the composition. The background image of the trees and sky I found while scouting in Sand Point.  At the top of a residential street, I could stand on my poor car's roof and shoot a clean skyline above the houses.

I darkened the sky, of course, and flipped the image horizontally.  The reason for the flip was to make the light part of the sky line up more closely with the rim lights on the Blood Squad members, as though a setting sun were creating them.  I had to carve up the background a bit and shuffle pieces of it around, hiding the seams behind the trees in the foreground image.  That was necessary to make the treeline coexist with everybody in the shot, and not intersect in a distracting way behind anyone.  I also made the treeline dip down behind Elicia so her broken shoe would stand out against the sky.

After location, the second issue was the nighttime nature of the shot.  You're not going to have an easy time shooting something like this if you actually try to do it at night because, well, all your light is gone.  Duh.  When every last bit of natural light is gone, you're left to bring any and all the light that you want and to try to work in the dark, which doesn't work very well at all.  To do it at night would mean filling in considerable shadows and dimly lighting a pretty large area, and good luck with that without big lights on lifts.  The simple(r) answer is to shoot during the day, and manipulate the color and density later to make it look like late evening.  Here's the shot with all the shading, but without the nighttime color layer.

I went with the Profoto 7B for lighting.  I love my Paul Buff Einstein monolights, which I use for most things and would have used for this, were it not for the fact that I needed more output than their 640WS.  I lit everyone from camera right with a four-foot octobank at the top of a rather high stand, and used a softbox from camera right, about three-quarter rear, for a rim light.  The ambient light from the afternoon sun filled it all in.

Opting to shoot in a park meant the hole in the ground would be a problem too.  I didn't want to dig a hole in a public park without asking but at the same time, I didn't much want to ask, either.  It didn't seem like a lot of good could come from that, so it made more sense to me to shoot Jon elsewhere.  We laid some dirt down on the ground at the park to make a burial mound, photographed that, and then after shooting outside moved the party to my studio.  Jon was great, and ran through a series of expressions and actions that were as entertaining as they were varied.  Really, just the kind of model you want.  Here's an outtake showing the studio setup for the hole shot:

I copied the camera angle and lighting from the outdoor shot as closely as possible, using the same high octobank and softbox rim.  To Jon's right, camera left, was a 4x8 sheet of white foamcore to do what the sun was doing, just filling in the shadows.  The foamcore behind him was only there to make it easier to cut him out in Photoshop.  It's the same idea with the dirt he's leaning on—it makes blending him into the scene a world simpler. I photographed Molly and Elicia in the studio as well.  Shooting them on location was worth trying, and we did, but it was cold at the park and the soft ground made it difficult for them to stand in heels.  It wasn't a problem.  I'd kind of figured we'd need to shoot them inside anyway so we had budgeted time for that.  Like Jon, I cut them out, placed them into the scene, and drew reasonable shadows behind them.  Obviously, it's difficult to overstate the importance of shadows when you're doing this kind of thing.  If you get them wrong, or worse yet don't add them at all, you've lost.  See what I mean?

And that's pretty much it for the broad strokes.  The rest was mostly detailing, because I'm kind of detail-oriented.  The smoke was added in Photoshop by blending a couple smoke brushes I found online.  I also added the color to the end of Brandon's Nat Sherman cigarette with a Hue/Saturation layer set to Colorize, not necessarily because I think it shows up, but because it was the right thing to do.  It only takes a second.

I broke the heel on Elicia's shoe in Photoshop.  Also, the shoe was entirely black on the inside, and while it was still clear she was holding a shoe, it didn't read immediately the way I wanted it to.  I added a liner, which I think looks way better.

It's a lot of work but I actually enjoy the process as much as the result.  Visualizing a concept, breaking it down, solving it, photographing it, and bringing the elements together over a cup of tea and some good music (a lot of Rolling Stones and Black Keys for this one) on a rainy November day is definitely my idea of a good time.  Big thanks to Blood Squad for being amazing, and for coming back and giving me this project to chew on.  It was a blast, and I'm already looking forward to the next one.