Hunt Time: 7 Hours....Actual Shoot Time: 00:1:55 Seconds
We arrived at the salon at 4:15, I let Peter know of our arrival and in the 4 minutes that followed I took note of a few different possibilities out front. Ultimately I already envisioned the shot in my head. I wanted the mood of the man I’d met. It wasn’t about the place....Peter IS Chinatown. Heck he’s been at the same location for 30 years! There was such a confidence in him.. a charismatic persona that simply radiated and it was my job to get it in pixels in a manner that felt real. I set the camera down on the ledge in front of Brian, as Peter made his way out to greet me. He told me he had someone in the chair with color on their heads and he only had 5 mins but that I could come back. I said "No no.. lets do this!... First thing first is I just want you comfortable.. exactly as I’d found you.. I want the viewer to get the feeling as if they walked around the corner and saw you... and as they did you turned and look them right in the eye. I want confidence, I want it without arrogance.. just that calm demeanor that says I see you.. I’m not threatened by you.. but I see you." The look in his eyes told me he may actually be completely on to what it was I was describing. And I’d done this enough times before to know that this was going to be good.
First thing to address...the background.
I looked at the back of the camera and I made a few quick decisions...
I know that by pulling back just 15mm from 55mm to 40mm (60mm on a full frame camera) which we we’re at here, I’d be able to quickly tell if I’d like more in focus or not. It’s just a little easier and faster than changing actual f stops. OK.. maybe it's the exact same speed, ;) but by doing it this way I’m able to judge TWO things at once. One is how the image will feel having more DOF and the second is ascertaining if perhaps I would like to include more of the environment. I decided no to BOTH of these offerings though. And I’ll explain why in the next image.
When I initially set about this project I’d imagined placing people in the different environments that the varying neighborhoods of NYC afforded, and really making environmental portraits. And while I am still swooned by the romantic proposal and execution of doing just such a thing... I felt that the image really needed to be dictated by the subject. After-all... above and beyond all things I am a portrait photographer first and foremost. My buddy Lonn Friend said to me once over lunch.. “Dude..you’re a portrait photographer, that's the best kind...humanity IS your canvas” And if you knew Lonn..you’d know that he has a penchant for saying profoundly accurate things.
So yes all day long to being alert to those situations where the background and subject intermingle with one another in a play on play of shape and form.. but what I was after here was something authentic in it's ability to bring you into the place and give you a sense of what it's like to be there, to feel what its like to feel as if you’ve stepped off into a faraway world where you're not so familiar. And to do so via the subject. I didn’t hunt through thousands of faces for nothing.
Peter had this amazing ability to simply grip a stranger. I felt it the moment I was on the same street as him. This ineffable quality..a magnetism.. a presence. Any attempt to pull of cute little tricks of composition or framing weren’t necessary. I knew in a flash.. that I should get just enough that you see you’re in Chinatown.. and let Peter pull the weight of the image.
Take note of the angular shadow on the awning above Peter’s head. You can see the angle at which the light was coming in. It was fairly overcast at this point in the day and the light was directional but soft and as you saw in the first photo really just not getting to Peter where he stood. Brian's job here would be to drop in some light in the same direction in which it was already headed and to do so in a manner that it was subtle.. We strapped the shower-cap over the dish, and dropped the grid in to give it some direction. I think we were popping off right around ¼ power and the distance was about a good 4½-5 feet away from our subject..
The next thing needing to be addressed was the ambient light, it was a touch too dark...so opening up a stop to F6.3 would serve to smooth out the background some more as well as brighten it up enough that it didn’t look like it was about to rain!
And yep... all of these decisions went through my head in the time that passed from the last photo till this one. Roughly 14 seconds according to the EXIF data. And if you think it sounds crazy to have it explained to you.. I invite you to come walk around inside my head for an afternoon...just make sure you make note of the exits.. you may find yourself running screaming for them! It gets busy in there! Haha! Here is the result:
Confident that I had the shot, everything from this point on was icing on the fortune cookie. I directed Peter to simply carry on.. encouraging him and told him.. ‘Right into the camera.. intensely” “Yesssss “ I’m encouraging him. “Perfect brother!...Perfect” And I say that word ‘brother’ and I mean it.. This guy saved me.. he welcomed me into his neighborhood. And made me feel at home.. and worked with me to make some photos that we can both be proud of!
Well... maybe you shouldn't be so proud of smoking Pete! haha But honestly, images like this can’t happen unless you’re willing to give up some part of yourself, honestly to your subjects. And in being vulnerable, and human you’ll in turn make connections that will lead to images that are so much more convincing than they could ever possibly be if you were to go about making them in any other manner.
I told Brian I was going to come around a bit more to the front and underneath the beauty dish..and basically that he may or may not have to move along an arc like pattern if I encounter glare on the diamond tread exterior wall of the salon, that Peter was standing in front of. Brian nodded. I was careful to include the reflection of the Chinese characters from the building across the street, and all that has changed here is my position relative to the subject. Everything else remained the same. I’m taking to Peter the entire time. Assuring him were on the money. I’m very conscious of the time.. his place is packed wall to wall.. and it's late in the day..my long day is coming close to an end, his is hours from the end being in sight. I ask him to look just over my shoulders, and soon as he does I tell him.. “Perfect, now dont move your head.. but look right at me.” Click. Done.
I explained to Pete that...believe it or not I’ve already got all I need, and Let’s just take a couple for fun. He immediately perks up..I’m no longer requiring him to act. And Now I’m getting the real Peter! Again.. settings wise, nothing's changed here.
I did warm up the processing a touch and I changed from the flatter moodier feel to a more punchy lively feel. With a change of expression on our subjects face.. a slight adjustment to the tonal curve and a bump from 5200k to 7500k on the temperature slider in Capture One the entire mood changes!
Total elapsed time: 2:05 seconds.
Time left to singe the release form, and get back to his client before he burned all the hair off of her head !
Now mind you, I didn’t set out to shoot as few images as possible, or be the fastest gun in the west. My primary concern at all times.. is my connection with the person I’m photographing..and how we spend our time together. Period.
The time they afford me is nothing short of a gift, and if I’m only given a few moments with them, it’s my hope that they will be nothing less than memories worth saving. No matter who they are, or what the dynamics of my relationship with them may be other than photographer subject.
So that’s how it went down. Hours of walking in one of the most populated cities in the world and not turning up even the hope of a subject can leave one feeling as if they are being dragged the wrong way down a one way street.
You don’t want to be feeling all of these negative feelings....and you know the direction you want to go, but you feel you have no control over the situation..and it becomes tremendously unnerving to say the least.
I won’t lie to you...I felt real fear. I literally experienced fear.. fear of failure.., fear of wasting my assistants time. Hearing the word NO...has a resounding effect on one’s psyche. Hearing it repeatedly can literally be damaging. That is IF you believe in it.
I believe now, more strongly than ever, that truly when one experiences fear...especially where creativity is concerned or matters of the heart for that matter, that it is imperative to not only one’s survival, but to one’s ability to thrive.. to march headfirst into what you fear.
he most important light we have, not only as photographers but as human beings....is our inner light. Take time to shine some light on your feelings, be honest with yourself and stare down any and all fears you may have. There is one wonderful thing about fear, and that’s this: No matter how great or overpowering it may seem, once you shed a little light on it, and acknowledge it, and refuse to succumb to it, it begins to lose power. The more light you shine on it the less powerful it becomes.
This is the truest how to tip or DIY I could ever possibly offer you on how to be the artist you were born to be. Face your fear... leap headstrong, make no excuses, no waiting for gear or for not knowing how for that matter. In fact if you do nothing more than take the direction of finding out what it is that you fear and make it your path as an artist to plow head first into each and every thing on that path, I can guarantee you, you will come to know yourself in a manner that is truly the most rewarding, and the results .. I promise you will be astounding. Each... and every time.