Category On Assignment

Portrait Moments

Portrait Moments

I live for location work.  Put me in a random environment, with changing variables and I’m in my element: solving problems as they occur.  Capturing the flavor of the location in a true way.   The person in the photo matters, but they are playing a duet with the background, each of them heroes in the final image. 

What happens if you can’t rely on a cool and interesting environment?   If you force yourself to strip out your background and all context, what are you left with? 

Portrait moments, that’s what.  Take out all of the other stuff that clutters the eye and what remains is mood and moment.   The choice of lighting accentuates these moments, expressed subtly by eyes, lips, and posture.   Here the subject is truly the hero of the image, and every subtle gesture speaks volumes. 

Pretty lofty words, I know.  But capturing the moment—that certain look in the eye, that lift to the chin—that’s the good stuff that keeps photographers going.  That’s authentic truth, even in the middle of electronic flash mumbo-jumbo. 

Case in point: this image of actress Liz Freeman that I’m publishing for the first time.   It dates back more than a year, when Liz posed as a model during the Maine Light Workshop I was teaching on the creative use of off-camera flash.

I’ve been lucky to photograph Liz many times before this, but what made this situation different was that the shoot felt more like a hectic location shoot: constantly setting up gear and continually on the move.  In situations like that, I have a loose ten-frame rule: if it doesn’t look good in ten clicks of the shutter, then it’s time to move on.  

What struck me, going through the images, is just how present and serene Liz is in the middle of all of the activity going on around her (but not visible to the camera).  I love this kind of quiet look:  subtle,  but an undeniably powerful, spontaneous moment.   

Great job, Liz.

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

A unifying theme of my work can be boiled down to, “people who work”.  The people in front of my lens tend to do interesting things for a living, and my job often is to show them going about their duties.    In the course of a week I might find myself in the cab of a delivery truck, perched on a platform above a factory floor, or scrunched into a corner of a conference room, camera in hand.

ecomaine is a waste management non-profit  in Portland that generates power from the stuff the rest of us throw away.  I’ve photographed their people for years and I absolutely love working there.  As a location, it’s often dirty (they process and burn garbage, remember), the lighting can be an extreme challenge and the environment tends to be either freezing cold or stiflingly hot.  But….on the other hand, they have cool smokestacks, pipes, walkways and big pieces of colorful moving machinery.   Sign me up! 

Recently they had me document and photograph many of their people at work and I wanted to show some of the results of that ongoing project.  Produced completely in black and white, the images look timeless and give a human dimension to the industrial facility.  Instead of the more intensive scenario-based images I might create in other settings, these are ‘quick-hit’ portraits done in work areas all over the plant and buildings, with minimal lighting.  Basically, I have a lot of fun and get a workout at the same time. 

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

Finding Beauty in Unexpected Places

Finding Beauty

As a photographer, I’m fascinated by juxtapositions and contrasts.  I dig the unexpected (as a newspaper photographer I lived for moments like these and these). I like finding beauty where it’s least expected.

That’s the idea behind this photo shoot involving Portland Ballet Company dancer Kelsey Harrison.  She’s the ‘beauty’ in this scenario.

The space?  That’s the ‘unexpected’ part:  a cavernous, dirty, dusty, rough space with unpainted walls, exposed subfloors and 15-foot ceilings. The kind of space that photographers dream of but also tend to be challenged by, too.  Plenty of space for Kelsey to move around in and do her moves. Plenty of space to position lighting on all sides of her, creating an envelope of light.  The goal was to use extremely fast flash duration—up to 1/13,500th of a second—to freeze Kelsey’s movements as she did her thing.

With enough portable batteries,  lighting was the easy part.  Too much and I’d kill the mood and drama of the place.   Too little, and there goes the ‘beauty’.  So I directed and shaped the light onto Kelsey and enough of the background to separate her from the environment.

Kelsey was a trouper.  If you’ve ever walked around all day on a hard surface with no padding and no ‘give’, you feel it the next day. Kelsey spent an hour leaping and jumping, all in the name of art, and didn’t complain once. She made it look easy….but ‘easy’ it isn’t.  A true pro and a joy to work with.

Finding beauty in unexpected places, indeed.

 

Finding Beauty

 

Finding Beauty

 

Finding Beauty

Showcase: Ivett Toth

Maine is beautiful, but winters can be a bit…tiresome.  Spring in Maine usually just means heavier and wetter snow.  Of course, that makes this season a perfect time to stay in the studio and play with light a bit.  The following images are just a few I really like from a recent shoot with local model Ivett Toth (styling and makeup by Brianna Rothman).    Ivett was amazing to work with and I love the ethereal look to her final images.

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Showcase: Portland Pirates Ad Campaign

A few months ago I had the fun duty of shooting a series of images for an ad campaign for the Portland Pirates hockey club.  The campaign, “A Pirate’s Life for Me”, features former Pirates players and current junior Pirates in split-view, in street clothes and in their hockey gear, game faces on.   I worked with the crew at Pulp & Wire to create the images, which I photographed in my downtown Portland photo studio.   I love how completely the demeanor and look of each player changed so dramatically once the pads and helmets went on.  I asked Pirates CEO and former player Brad Church, bottom, to show his game face during the session and he clearly had no problems doing that.  I’m just glad I wasn’t a player on the opposing team.

 

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No, I was not attacked in Iraq

 Note:  the above images are mostly outtakes from my time embedded with troops from the 737th Transportation Company from January-March 2004.  All images © Yakima Herald-Republic.

CORRECTION:  I mentioned “bulletproof” vests in my article.  The troops at the time had fragmentary resistant vests, later upgraded to the type of vest I wore–a ballistic vest with ceramic plates in the front and back.    Also, a soldier with the 737th pointed out that he had never heard a mortar ‘whistle’.  While the sound is clear in my memory, I’d have to describe it more accurately as a loud hissing noise, increasing in intensity to a roar.  In any case, terrifying. 

Like many of my journalist friends I’ve followed with fascination the controversy over NBC anchor Brian Williams’ misrepresentation of his role during an incident in Iraq in 2003.  As someone who spent 16 years as a photojournalist and photo editor, I’m particularly sensitive to the topic. Just a few months after Williams’ incident, I was also an embedded journalist, living with and reporting on troops in Kuwait and Iraq.

Everyone remembers incidents differently over time.  Ask a cop whether eyewitness accounts are reliable.   Williams’ account isn’t the first time that someone with an incidental role in a major event ends up over time recasting themselves closer and closer to the action.   But I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when a professional journalist of such stature—someone paid to bear witness and to tell truth—has so been accused.
It’s not just his dramatic retelling that happened in the years since the episode. For me, it’s interesting that in the report Williams aired immediately after the incident, he reported that the chopper ahead of his had taken fire and was forced to land.  It implied that he witnessed the scene as part of the convoy rather than on a ‘following’ chopper arriving later at the scene.      I suspect that Williams’ error has less to do with some moral failing and a lot to do with the nature of TV news.     The emphasis is for TV journalists to be in the picture, part of the scene, and encourages them to imply an immediacy that may be misleading.    It’s a desire to be part of the story, and is in contrast to the type of journalism practiced by print and photo-journalists whose emphasis is should be on the subject and never on themselves (with some exceptions, I’m sure).
I witnessed both approaches during the time I spent embedded with troops of the 737th Transportation Company back in 2004.   I was one of two journalists from Eastern Washington state given the opportunity to document the lives of some 160 Army Reservists whose unit had been last called to active duty during the Vietnam War.      The goal was to tell the story not of the war, but  of the men and women from my community who put their lives on hold for a year (or more) to go to war far from home.   My sacred mission was to keep the focus on them and not on me.   Looking back, it was easier for me as a newspaper journalist to do that—to stay behind the scenes, watching, reporting, photographing.    For a TV journalist it’s not so simple.   Embedded with me was Patrick Preston, a reporter from KXLY-TV in Spokane, Washington.    Both of us were doing double-duty:  I was photographing and writing stories and he was filing reports on air and handling his video camera and gear.   After looking at his bags of gear, I realized that I had the better end of the bargain.  Even with my RBGAN satellite data phone, my voice satellite phone, two cameras, lenses, laptop and backup drives,  I was 10 times more mobile than Patrick (see his picture, above).    I also could ‘embed’ easier, hanging out the soldiers, photographing them as they went about their business.  Patrick had to do a lot of stand-up interviews, usually at 5 am each morning in time for the Spokane broadcast.  He also had to be in front of the camera, essentially narrating and shaping each broadcast while I had the luxury of letting my photos tell the story with a little help from a caption or two.
This gave me a distinct advantage, and allowed me to grow closer to the troops.  For Patrick, his broadcast time restraints and his heavy gear all made it tougher for him to just be one of the guys.  During a convoy escort mission into Iraq, Patrick and I were given space in separate Humvees.  The reason was simple:  a journalist doesn’t have a weapon, and so you spread them out so that you’re only missing one rifle in each gun truck, rather than two.     The First Sergeant told us in no uncertain terms to stay awake.  His theory was, if a hostile is looking for a weak spot in a line of trucks, they’ll go with the one that has one less rifle–especially if they see a civilian not paying attention.   Because Patrick had to do daily early-morning stand-up reports, he tended to pass out after hours in the Humvee.   Eventually, the First Sergeant got so frustrated that he came to my Humvee, pulled out a solider and traded spots with him.  He was worried that Patrick’s Humvee would be hit, and he didn’t want to tempt fate.
Through it all, I think Patrick did a great job with very little resources or sleep.   I had the easier time.   But having gone through that experience, I can understand some of the context around Brian Williams’ faulty memory.  To me, it’s really not about a faulty memory.  It’s about an emphasis in TV news about being on screen instead of behind it;  about being part of the story instead of simply reporting it.
Patrick and I spent about five weeks with the 737th, living with them at Ft. Lewis, Washington and deploying with them overseas to Kuwait.  We actually feared that we wouldn’t make it to Iraq at all, given the fact that the mission changed, and changed again after our arrival.    The last week of my embed—the very end of February, 2004—we were given the mission to escort a convoy into Iraq.   We were nervous, excited, but happy to be given a chance to show the folks back home what the Iraq experience might be like for their loved ones.
We spent five days in Iraq.   During that time, we ate a lot of dust, saw a lot of destruction and saw the troops perform admirably.   We were subject to two incidents: one in which unknown persons hurled a large rock from an overpass in Baghdad, hitting the windshield of a Humvee (not mine, nor his), and another in which two mortars were lobbed indiscriminately from beyond the perimeter and landed among our lines of trucks at the motor pool at operating base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq.    In that incident, we were relaxing and awaiting departure when we heard the whistle of incoming mortars.  We were unprepared.   Many soldiers were missing their Kevlar helmets and others (probably me among them) had taken off our uncomfortable bulletproof vests.   There were casualties with minor injuries, as the rockets landed a hundred yards away between lines of fuel tankers.  It could have been much, much worse.
We were lucky, and neither I nor Patrick ever ‘conflated’ our role in either incident to one of prominence.   After all, it was about the troops and not about us.   Whatever happens to Brian Williams, I hope the incident isn’t cast as a simple failing of an egotistical TV personality.  It should be a reminder for all journalists, TV or otherwise, of something my ASU journalism professor Bruce Itule always told us:  “It ain’t about you.”
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Recent Work: Maine Standards Company

It’s surprising to realize just how many amazing, world-class companies we have in Maine that fly under the radar. Maine Standards Company is one of those. Based in Southern Maine, Maine Standards develops and provides kits for the precise testing and calibration of medical diagnostic equipment. They’re doing cutting-edge stuff using some pretty cool tools. My job was to spend the day photographing their lab, testing kits and analyzers for use in trade show materials. It was a jam-packed day of setting up and breaking down gear, gelling lights and blocking light from reflecting everywhere in those shiny lab surfaces. I love, love this stuff! Check out some of our results.

 

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Recent Work: ecomaine

This is the second time I’ve showcased some of my work for ecomaine, a non-profit waste management company.   That’s due in part to the fact that the work they do is so interesting and their industrial environment lends itself to amazing images.   This time around, I spent a day following around the people who work at ecomaine’s landfill, waste-to-energy plant and recycling facility.   The job can be difficult and the environment is ever-changing, which makes it a photographic challenge.   I opted for a very portable lighting kit that I could set up and take down at a moment’s notice.  Even though the lighting looks complex, I kept it fairly simple, choosing to incorporate ambient light into the scene whenever possible.   Here are some of my favorites that I think really capture both the environment and the diverse people that work there.

 

 

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Inside the machine shop.

 

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Operating the Recycling Facility compactor.

 

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Inside the “tipping hall”, where garbage is unloaded into a seven-story bunker.

 

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The ultimate result of all that garbage is tons of ash.

 

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A view of the landfill through the window of a vehicle.

 

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Recycling Facility supervisor.

 

I can’t say enough positive words about the ecomaine crew.   It’s not fun to have a camera in your face, and likely it’s even more uncomfortable when you’re operating heavy and fast-moving equipment.   They were fantastic to deal with and I think the images make them look like the rock stars they are.

 

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Make them love you. Hint: it’s in the details.

 

Storytellilng detail images from an assignment about a local water district.
Storytelling detail images from an assignment about a local water district.

 

No photographer is an island. We own our creativity but everything else—our technology, our access, our assignments—are enabled by others.  Even our creativity is enhanced by our collaboration with the art producers, editors and designers with whom we work most closely.  These are the folks that take the work we create and publish it, display it, print it and turn it into amazing displays, stories and campaigns.

Without them, we’re just shooting cool photos and sharing them on Facebook.

I try to approach each assignment as if I were back at the newspaper. Even if the assignment was to make a single simple portrait, I went into each job thinking about what else I might photograph. Back then, I challenged myself to come back with a three-picture package that told the story and might give the page designers more options. I always looked for storytelling details to include, too.  That approach gave the designers the ability to use images as teasers on the front page, for example. Sometimes designers used none of it.  Months down the road, looking for a timeless detail image to illustrate a different story, they’d see my image and  find it a perfect fit. This storytelling approach challenged me creatively, led to better visual play and better designer/editor kharma that I’m hoping will benefit me in my next life. It’s something I still do today, reflexively.

The editorial assignment photographer needs to always look for telling details. Sometimes these visual metaphors are more compelling, more storytelling than the ‘main’ image itself. In commercial photography, these types of details are just as important. In an era when companies have greater ability to publish content on their sites, there’s an even greater need for storytelling details that can be used as evergreen content, on company blogs and in ad campaigns.

Details also come in handy for designers who need a key visual element, or require ‘filler’ content, etc. These details solve a lot of visual problems. Having a photographer who actively looks for them is a big win because it gives the designer options.

The thinking photographer who goes the extra mile for their editor or designer will be the go-to photographer for those people. Realize that the assignment isn’t just about the image being requested, just as your job is not solely about you.

 

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Native Sons

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Back in the early part of the 2000s, I was chief photographer of the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, a Seattle Times Company newspaper centrally located in the part of Washington State Seattlites refer to as “the Dry Side”, among other things.

Yakima derived its name from its nearest neighbor—the sprawling reservation of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.    Comprised of 14 separate Columbia River tribes, the Yakamas now occupy a 2,185-square-mile sized territory that includes a portion of nearby Pahto (12,281-foot-tall Mt. Adams).

Growing up in Northern Arizona, I’ve always lived around and interacted with Native Americans.  My first reporting job out of college was to cover the Yavapai-Apache in Arizona’s Verde Valley.   When I moved to Yakima, years later, I was eager to explore the Yakamas.   A proud people, the Yakamas still live on a portion of the ancestral lands and practice their hunting, gathering and fishing traditions as best they can.   They fought the US Army in the 1800s until a federal treaty recognizing their rights was signed.  They fought many battles in federal court since, with precent-setting law the result.

For much of five years I met with interviewed and photographed many Yakama tribal members, and met many new friends along the way.  One of the results was a project with writer Phil Ferolito, published as a special newspaper section, called “Native Sons:  The Men of the Yakama Nation”.    As best we could, we attempted to show the unique struggles, challenges and triumphs of different generations of Yakama men and their families.    I’m proud of what we were able to do, but so much more could have been done to promote understanding and appreciation of Yakama, and native, culture and life realities.  See the pages of the published project below.

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