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.

Escape from New York

So last week was the annual PhotoPlus Expo in New York City, and I attended for the first time.  It was fun and exciting and I met a lot of great people, and just being in New York again was great.  I got to spend the week hanging out with my brother!  We went to a taping of The Colbert Report!  It was an eventful trip for sure, and full of fun fodder for blog posts.  But the really big deal was Hurricane Sandy. The expo began on the 25th of October and ran only through the 27th, but I decided to linger in town afterward and see some things, as you do when you visit New York.  How long to stay was kind of up in the air.  Halloween was the deciding factor.  It's my favorite holiday (obviously), and my brother clued me in to the Village Halloween Parade, which has been a yearly tradition since 1974, and one that by all accounts is pretty outstanding.  It's the largest Halloween event in the country, often referred to as "New York's Carnival", and the New York Times described it as "the best entertainment the people of this city ever give the people of this city".  USA Today says to "be prepared to drop your jaw", and that "anything goes".  The Fodor's travel guide calls it "bizarre but brilliant". So, done.  Sold.  I had me at "largest Halloween event", and I didn't see why I would want to miss such a thing, so I got a return ticket home for the first of November.  As it happened, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record hit the eastern coast on Monday, October 29.

I didn't have the full, miserable Sandy experience that those on the lower east side did, let alone the unfortunate inhabitants of the Jersey shore.  I was staying in Midtown with my brother.  It was windy and we got a little wet, but that was about the extent of it.  We didn't even lose power.  Actually, if you'd like to see how the ordeal played out in the two areas of Manhattan, The Daily Show did their usual excellent job of highlighting the difference.

I went out and walked around with my camera in loafers, jeans, and a sweatshirt when the storm hit (I'd left my hurricane parka and waders at home because I didn't think I'd need them).  The winds were stronger than anything I'd ever experienced.  I don't weigh much, and a few times was almost blown off my feet.  Still, I fared better than the construction crane at 57th and 6th, which collapsed and dangled about 80 stories above the street.  Police swarmed the area and cordoned it off a couple blocks in every direction.  Neighboring hotels were evacuated, displacing guests onto the wet and windy sidewalks, where they huddled under awnings as they waited to hear where to go next.

Down on the lower east side, Sandy rearranged cars like an angry valet and Consolidated Edison killed power to protect its equipment, should underground conduits become flooded.  Everything south of 39th street would eventually go dark.  I walked down Broadway and across to the water the next day, and took more pictures.  Here are some of the things I saw:

The collapsed crane.

Wicked wind blows leaves, caution tape, and cops as they block the streets surrounding the crane.

I'm not at all dressed for a hurricane.  How embarrassing.

Guests of hotels surrounding the crane line the streets after being evicted.

Mayor Bloomberg shut down the subway system on Sunday night, the 28th, in preparation for the storm.

Outages south of 39th Street.

Breathe easy—the IHOP weathered the storm.

A hurricane enthusiast.

People look through the gate into the garage, where standing water still envelops cars.

The previous night's water level is still clearly marked on the brick.

Stuyvesant Town cleanup.

The on ramp to the FDR freeway.  There's typically less pedestrian traffic.

The FDR is shut down, and people walk, bike, and jog on it.  Surreal.

I felt like I was in a zombie movie.


Two days after the hurricane, streets in Midtown are still closed because of the crane.

And people are still taking pictures of it.

On my last day in town, with much of Midtown still closed, I decided I'd go for a walk through Central Park.  Ever seen Central Park completely empty?  No?  Neither had I, but the park was closed too, out of concern for the structural integrity of its trees.

A cleanup crew clears downed trees and branches.

Open 24 hours.  Usually.

By the way, the Village Halloween Parade?  Canceled.

Royal Lake: If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.

Quick disclaimer:  Though there are some pretty pictures in it, this post doesn't have really anything to do with photography.  I hope you'll indulge me for a moment, but if not, just scroll down.  There's photo stuff down there somewhere. You know, I honestly don't believe there's anything in the contiguous US (and I've seen a great deal of it) that rivals the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  Nevertheless, it's been a long time since I've gone camping and even longer since I've been backpacking.  Earlier this month, though, in the always wonderful company of my visiting friend Melissa, I stuck my tent, some food, and my camera into a pack and we ferried over to the Olympic Peninsula.  Our online research led us to believe that the Royal Basin trail to Royal Lake would be a beautiful and not terribly arduous hike, so we went for it.  We kept it short, going just for an overnight stay.  And because we went on a weekday, we passed very few other hikers on the trail and had the lake almost completely to ourselves (somewhere there was another couple who showed up sometime after we did).  It was ideal, and if you like the outdoors even a little bit, you should go.  Really, you should.  Here are some photos, because I can't begin to do it justice with words.

Royal Lake is small and stunning, and the water is like crystal.

Incredibly, this was the view from our campsite.  The lake's many gleeful fish never stopped jumping.

To be honest, I felt a little like jumping too.  Melissa took this photo.

This little rush of snow melt was a very short walk from the campsite, and we stopped to collect some drinking water for the next day.  Remember, kids: always purify your water!

The animals didn't seem to mind us at all.  We walked right up to deer.  Innumerable mice scurried and played in a twisted mess of branches and brush.  Chipmunks got out of our way, but they took their time about it.  Okay, so the toads hopped around as fast as they could—they were actually pretty terrified.  But this goat seemed more curious than anything.  Melissa spotted him from across the lake in the morning, and I bounded off to find him.  I got quite close—foolishly close, probably, given the reputation for their temperament (although this guy seemed awfully gentle)—and then he headed up the trail to visit Melissa at our tent.

I had to include this close crop because...well, look at him.  Seriously, how great is he?  Are you kidding?!  Melissa dubbed him a magical mountain pony, because she thought that was what he looked like from across the lake.

Speaking of across the lake, that's our tent there on that little ledge.  Idyllic.

As we circled the lake in the morning, the sky began to cloud over.

And then, on our way back to the tent from a huge waterfall about a half mile away, we were caught in a storm of hail.  Luckily, we were standing right next to an emergency shelter and were invited in by a very nice girl named Nadya, who was in the middle of a two-week backpacking trip.  She made us some tea and shared her three-berry cobbler with us as we waited for the storm to pass.

New friends!  Nadya, me, and Melissa.

Royal Lake might be even more beautiful after a storm.

The walk back down.  We were rained on a little, but the tree canopy kept us mostly dry.

The way home.

I didn't get any photos of it, but I have to share the most amazing part of the trip—for me, at least.  I'm from Wisconsin, where thunderstorms are common in the summer months.  I mean serious, ominous, end-of-the-world type thunderstorms.  The kind that take down power lines and venerable oaks, and rattle the windows of your house.  The kind that sometimes make you wonder if you'll get out alive.  There's probably no way I can make anyone understand how much I love a good storm raging at night, but to me there's nothing so cozy as curling up during a power outage while lightning explodes in the sky and thunder threatens your total annihilation—it's an absolute dream.  Regrettably, the city of Seattle doesn't get thunderstorms, and I miss them very much.  Occasionally a little flash of lightning and a pitiable clap of thunder will accompany the usual rain here, and everyone in town will get worked up over it ("Did you hear the thunderstorm last night?!").  I just roll my eyes.

The weather forecast for our two days on the peninsula promised us temperatures in the low 70s and mostly sunny skies, but as evidenced in the photos, they kind of screwed the pooch on the second day.  Though the early morning was sunny, the transition to rougher weather closer to noon—the hail and rain—began the night before.  At about midnight, Melissa and I were jerked from sleep by lightning that for an instant here and there made it daytime inside the tent.  I didn't hear thunder at first, but the rain tapping on the tent and the flashes in the sky made me feel warm, cozy, and really quite giddy.  Then the thunder came, distant at first and quiet, a low rumble.  And then, over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes, it built to a fantastic, blaring, shattering (and frankly slightly frightening) storm that lasted a delightfully long time.  It took me back to Wisconsin summers, and as I lay there with Melissa under our sleeping bag blanket I remembered Kurt Vonnegut and thought, as he always urged us all to do on such occasions, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

SEAF 2012, June 16-17 and 22-24

The annual Seattle Erotic Arts Festival is celebrating its tenth year this month, and I'm thrilled to report that of the more than two thousand pieces of visual art submitted this time around, my photo was one of the two hundred or so that made the cut and will be hanging on the wall.  I feel like that's quite an accomplishment, and I can't wait to attend the festival these next two weekends to see all the other work.  I hope you'll be able to come out and say hello.  To that end, here is a link to purchase tickets, and here is a link with the event schedule.  See you there!

General Powell will see you now, but you'll have to make it quick.

General Colin Powell recently paid a visit to Seattle for a number of interviews and a large public appearance as part of a tour to promote his new book, It Worked For Me: In Life And Leadership.  If you live in town, perhaps you saw the billboards.  I confess I haven't read the book yet but if the reviews on Amazon are to be believed, it's an inspiring and insightful read.  I'll wait a while to get my copy though, because I have a difficult time with hardcover.  They're just hard to travel with, and personally, I like to be able to bend back a book's cover.  You can hold a paperback in one hand pretty easy that way, and you free up the other to reach for your glass of bourbon, or squeeze that stress ball, or scratch your pug's stomach or what have you.  What you're doing with that other hand isn't really the point.  The point is, Colin Powell was coming to Seattle and I had been asked to photograph him. To be tasked with photographing someone as accomplished and outstanding as General Powell is really an honor.  From his rise in military rank from a second lieutenant to a four-star general, and in his roles as Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor (during which time he developed an impersonation of Reagan that's dead-on, by the way) and more, he's been serving the country one way or another for more than fifty years and he's had my respect and admiration since I became aware of him during my high school days.  In making a portrait with him, it was important to me to strike upon a look that evinced certain qualities I associated with him—chief among them strength, thoughtfulness, confidence and calm.  As a side note, of further importance to me was speaking at least somewhat intelligently in his presence—in complete sentences, even—and to try and keep my palms from sweating when I shook his hand.  But I suppose those goals were less pressing in the grand scheme.  Getting a good portrait always matters most, and if I'm unable to keep myself from slippery hands and caveman grunts, well, so be it.

Going into the shoot, I didn't have much nailed down.  I was aware I'd be photographing him in a hotel conference suite, but prior to my arrival I didn't know which one.  Unsure of how visually appealing the room would be (not very, as it turned out), I decided the day before that I'd only go for some kind of environmental shot if by some miracle the place looked fantastic.  Assuming it wouldn't, I opted for a high-key portrait using just two lights.  The room didn't fail to disappoint—it was almost aggressively uninteresting, like...well, like a hotel conference suite.  Or that pointless movie Oliver Stone made about The Doors.  But that was fine; I was happy with and ready for a high-key shot.  Preferred it, actually.

The other question I had going in was about the available room—not, like, which room was available, but how much room was available.  I didn't know if there would be a lot of open space (what a shock, there wasn't!), or if there would be a huge table in the middle of the room (surprise, there was!).  So I decided ahead of time that I would keep my setup as small and simple as possible, just in case.  My footprint took up only about fifty square feet—photographer, lights, subject and all—and I still had to move furniture out of the way.  I didn't use white seamless paper behind him, or fabric, or a pop-up background, or anything you might commonly use in a studio as a white background because all those things would have taken more stands and a lot more space than I could reasonably expect to have.  Instead, I used a four-foot softbox aimed at the camera, and asked General Powell to stand in front of it.  It's a pretty good way to get a high-key headshot when you don't have much area in which to work.  It's also very quick to set up, which is good for situations like this, where the time between your entry into the room and the arrival of the subject is very short.

Not knowing what your surroundings will be like is nothing unusual, of course, since you never really know exactly what you're walking into on any shoot.  There are always plenty of things that are up in the air, things you can't know about until you show up but that you nevertheless try to plan for.  That's the nature of being a photographer, and to a great extent, the fun of it too—not knowing what challenges you'll run into or what you'll come up with for solutions.  I don't generally view these uncertainties as an obstacle.  But this shoot was a little different for me in that one thing I did know for sure was that I wouldn't have very much time with the person I was photographing.  Practically none, actually, and almost certainly less time than I've ever had with anyone before.  Colin Powell is obviously a very busy man, and had a lot on his plate during his brief time in town (in fact, he'd already run a gauntlet of seven interviews that day before he made his way to me).  I understood that my sliver of time was sandwiched tightly between two other appointments, so I knew there'd be no time to significantly alter the set once he showed up and that it would therefore be necessary to have the lights positioned and dialed in as perfectly as possible.

To that end, I ran a quick light test in the studio with my assistant Jonathan the night before.  I knew General Powell wore glasses, but I also knew that they were rimless and as such weren't likely to cast terrible shadows.  I was actually more concerned about seeing the reflection of my light in his lenses, so I chose to use my beauty dish with a 15° grid.  The light would stay soft, and the grid would go a long way to keep the inside of the dish from showing up as a reflection.  I got the lights positioned where they needed to be, and found the output ratios I wanted.  After recording the light settings and the distances of the stands from Jonathan, there was just one more thing to figure out.  I got online with Google on my phone and punched in "how tall is colin powell".  It's weird what you can find out on the internet.  Colin Powell, according to Google, is 6'2".  So I figured the difference between Jonathan's height and General Powell's (about four inches), and added it to the height of the light stands to determine how tall I'd need to set them the next day.

The shoot itself was a pleasure, albeit a very brief one.  It was later than expected when he finally got to me, which I feared but expected, so my short amount of time with him had gotten even shorter.  After a quick test shot, I decided to drag the key light toward me just a couple inches, and then I started in.  I hardly shot much at all, just enough to know I had a few keepers before thanking him and letting him hurry to his next engagement.  All totaled, I don't think I spent more than three minutes with him.  I have to say, though, I couldn't have hoped for him to be a better portrait subject.  I didn't give a ton of direction but the few things I did ask—stand facing this way, head to the left a little...lips chin down...whoops, no no, that's too much—he did without objection or complaint.  And not just without complaint, but with a sense of humor even; at one point he cracked a couple self-effacing jokes about his appearance.  Anyway, speaking of the way he looked, I've typed long enough—here are a couple of photos from the shoot.