Category Showcase

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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Just Published: Pop Photo + Roller Derby Dolls

This is pretty fun—this month’s issue of Popular Photography Magazine features a two-page spread of my image of a Portland, Maine roller derby team in their regular “How * Lighting” feature. It’s a simple lighting setup that is extremely effective in creating a sense of drama. In a word, perfect for a subject like the roller derby dolls.

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Everyday Heroes

 

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I’m very excited to finally be able to share one of the coolest projects I am grateful to have worked on this year. It’s a project that combined both my interests and my skills and best of all….it benefits a great and worthy cause.

The Cause
The Fight for Air Climb is a fundraising effort that benefits the American Lung Association.    Firefighters and others from around the country participate in these ‘climbs’, in which entrants are timed on their ascent of a skyscraper or other high structure.   The Firefighter Challenge pits teams of firefighters against one another, each vying for the best time, the most money raised (and bragging rights).   Unlike other competitors, firefighters are required to wear their full gear—turnouts, helmets, gloves, boots and oxygen tanks.   In the process, these teams raise big money for ALA research and advocacy.

 

The Project
In 2013, a 12-member team from Auburn, Maine climbed 41 floors (82 flights) during the Boston Fight For Air Climb (each wearing more than 50 pounds of additional weight)  and crushed the other 40 firefighter teams from around New England.   On the heels of their success, this year the team set the goal of raising $10,000 for the charity.  They decided to do a charity calendar, and earlier this year approached me and asked for my help (Hint: I said yes).

 

The Concept
I first met with Team Captain Dan Masselli to discuss several concepts for the project.   I think he was a bit nervous, thinking that I might propose doing a “beefcake” style shoot with half-naked and oiled firefighters.   I’d done some research and found plenty of examples of such calendars done by other departments, that varied from high-production fashion shoots to glorified ‘selfies’ printed on what looked like a mimeograph machine.   What I didn’t see was much in the way of a unified conceptual approach that told a story of the team and showed the kind of personality that I knew would resonate better with the community.
Dan and the team loved my initial ideas, which led to the “Everyday Heroes” concept.    While firefighters are often portrayed as heroes, 90 (maybe even 95) per cent of the time they aren’t actually doing impossibly heroic things like pulling people from mangled cars, manning hoses at  high-rise apartment blazes or giving oxygen to a kitten.   Most of the time, their heroics are of a decidedly mundane nature: changing a baby’s diaper, putting out a smoking BBQ grill or mowing a senior’s lawn.  We’d show that stuff….just in full turn-out gear, of course.

 

The Challenge
As a photographer there were some obvious–and not so obvious–challenges to overcome. One was how to create 12 different conceptual images on location—each requiring lighting and planning, props and ‘models’—and to make it all happen within their tight deadlines.  The other was how to make the scenarios both realistic and over-the-top at the same time, all the while contending with logistical challenges like the weather.
We eventually photographed everything over the course of three jam-packed days in October.   Each shoot was planned down to the detail,  but with plenty of flexibility in the case of last-minute changes to plan.   It was a good thing we did.
The final image we made—of the entire team, standing in front of their firetrucks—is dramatic and one of my favorites from the whole shoot.  It also almost didn’t happen.   We originally planned to photograph the team just after sunset in front of the city’s ”burn building’—a concrete structure behind the Central Fire Station that the firefighters fill with smoke and use for training. When the time came, the burn building wasn’t available. So we ended up at at a different station entirely.   One of the trucks we needed was missing, and when the firefighters went to retrieve it, they were diverted to take an emergency call.    With daylight burning, we were out a second truck and half our firefighters.  Nervously we waited, prepping our gear and going over various other scenarios for how to salvage the shoot.  Three minutes after the sun disappeared, the truck rolled back in, we positioned it, set up our smoke and lights, arranged the group and shot 69 images, including the tests. The one that we used was taken at 6:18 pm.

 

The Result
As fun (and sometimes nerve-wracking) as the shooting days were, I am very happy with the final results.  I’m most gratified that they capture the personality of the Auburn team, and that they show them as what they are—a bunch of hard-working, good-natured guys who do a lot besides save lives and property.    The calendars are printed and are available for sale—primarily at locations around Auburn, but I’m told that if you email Dan Masselli he can help you to trade $15 for your very own copy, delivered to your home.     It’s a great cause, and certainly worth the price of three coffees.

 

The Video
Charlie Widdis, assistant extraordinairre, put together a short behind-the-scenes video of the project as well—it’s especially impressive knowing that he did that in between helping me set up and shoot my stills.  I hope you like it!

Why photographers ask so many darned questions

A lot of what I do these days is destined for web-only use.   It seems as though print use is getting less and less, but I like to think of it another way…that print is used when it really matters, and thus the quality of what’s printed—and the images needed for those pieces—is comensurately better.   Less, but more.

I like to get involved in these projects early on, or as early as possible.  It can be challenging to come in as a photographer once the design has been set by a web team, and then to have to create images that will safely fit into an ultra-cool horizontal web page slider that is 900 pixels wide and (it seems) 2 pixels deep.   Of course, that’s when you find out the client wants to shoot full-body portraits, too.

That said, I firmly believe my job as a photographer is to provide solutions—practical, useful and hopefully creatively fulfilling—no matter what stage of the process I’m called in on.   It’s never too late to bring some value to my clients even if the train has not only left the station, but is set to arrive in five minutes.

So when local law firm Perkins Thompson wanted to create a variety of team photos for their already-templated site, it was necessary not only to work with their chosen design (fortunately, not 2 pixels tall), but to understand what uses they might have beyond the site.   That’s why photographers should and do ask clients a lot of questions about potential future uses of images.  I found that they wanted the images for a variety of print ads and other collateral, even though the initial use was for a (very) horizontal web page display.  So, the images needed to be flexible enough, in terms of composition, to work for both.

Add to the mix that they have far-flung attorneys who had to be merged into photos together, and it became a logistic challenge.

Here are a few screenshots from their new site–I’m happy with the interaction and group photos we got.   All were shoot loose enough to work in print pieces and ads, but with heads and head sizes in a relative horizontal line so they could be used for web ads.  Doing so cut down on the chance that my client will have to call me in a year asking for a Photoshop miracle, like turning a head-and-shoulders image into a full-body portrait.

To their credit, Perkins T were great to work with and very patient (candidly, I also love that they were founded by a guy named Widgery “Whisker Bill” Thomas).   I’m happy with the results, which feature their teams in a dynamic way that works for them.
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It’s the story, stupid

Telling Stories: Jim Twombly

You’ve heard of the acronym, ‘KISS’, right?  It stands for ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid.’   It’s mantra that software engineers, among others, use to keep them on track during development to guard against product bloat.  I keep a similar line in my head when I’m approaching an assignment:  It’s the Story, Stupid.

Now, maybe you’re one of those rare photographers who can always stay focused and zeroed in on your work, but me—I get distracted.  I’ve been known to set up a bunch of lights in a daisy-chain, lighting up God Knows What just because I could. This is a photographer version of tunnel vision, and it makes you a slave to a concept rather than what you should be:  flexible, in the driver’s seat,  and  asking yourself the kinds of questions that lead to images that truly tell the story you’re trying to show.

On an assignment, lots of things are going on:  you’re interacting with clients or subjects, fiddling with your gear (why won’t that PocketWizard remote fire??), keeping an eye on the clock and the shot list, managing your assistant or team.  It doesn’t matter.  You always have to be aware of why you’re there and what story you’re there to tell.

It’s that awareness that leads you from the image you (by necessity) planned for to the one that Serendipity bestowed upon you that works much better.

Recently I photographed Jim Twombly, a retired Portland police officer, at his home for a story featuring patients of a large medical practice group.   Jim was diagnosed a couple of years ago with diabetes and was facing a slew of health issues.  He worked with his doctor to completely change his lifestyle.   As a result of eating healthy and exercising regularly, Jim dropped more than 50 pounds and is stronger and healthier than he’s been in years.     I was there to photograph Jim as he did his morning routine—exercise followed by an oatmeal breakfast.   During my earlier scouting visit, we had decided to move his starionary bike to the more visual solarium he had built onto his home.   Early in the morning, as the sun was coming up, it would make a great visual.

Telling Stories:  Jim Twombly

And it was.  The only problem is that, devoid of the usual clutter, it made the solarium look a little bit sterile.   After photographing Jim in his home, I asked to go photograph him in the workshop above his barn.   Once we stepped into the sawdust-infused atmosphere, stacked with woodworking tools, Jim seemed to relax.   This was his element, clearly.   I set up a couple of lights but wanted to keep the portrait low-key, focused on Jim in his world.    We chatted a little, Jim settled into a comfortable position, and the image at the top of this post was made.   Once I took it, I knew it was my favorite image because it told more of a story about who Jim really is–a hard-working guy, a Mainer, a craftsman.  A guy who is tough enough to stick to a complete revamp of his lifelong eating habits because it just needed to be done.

Good on you, Jim. For more about Jim’s story, check out his feature on InterMed’s website.

Showcase: Jacquelyn, Actress Headshot

 

Maine Actor Actress Headshot

This is a photo of Jacquelyn, an aspiring actress from Maine.  Amazingly, she’s only 16…but had the poise and polish of someone much older.  After working with her for just a few minutes, Jacquelyn got it.  She pulled off a variety of different looks with ease.  If  I were a betting man, I’d say she has a great acting future ahead of her.

 

 

Might & Main: how a brand feels

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Might & Main is a branding firm based here in Portland–they do fantastic work and cast big shadows on the local creative scene.  They’re the team that you call in to do a rebranding, or to handle the look and feel of a product or campaign.  They’ve also got a great sense of style that infuses their work–take a look at this award-winning work for the Portland Museum of Art’s Homer Winslow exhibition (I want that bobblehead, Sean).

More than that, Kevin, Sean and Arielle (the principals behind M&M) are great people who always seem to be up to something interesting.   The trio,  along with team members Graeme and Morgan, moved to a new downtown Portland location in January and wanted a photo that showed them off in their new environment.  They didn’t dictate the look of the photo, but we discussed what the image should do for them:  it should give a sense of each individual person (all three principals had successful solo businesses before partnering, and all three bring different skills to the table), but show them as a team as well.  It should be interesting and striking, incorporating key elements of their new space and their quirky retro decor (Boris the Boar has made one other appearance, in an Inspire Portland feature on Sean from last year).  These guys are young, very hip and are extremely creative, so I knew I wanted to show these attributes as well.

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When you strip away all the fluff–the globe, the -um- shotgun, even the lights–it’s all about the people.   Might & Main is comprised of interesting people, and I wanted to give a sense that they bring a strong point of view, a certain touch of humor and, yes, a little attitude.   To that end, I think the shoot was successful.   The final frame we all liked shows plenty of attitude.  If you look at each person’s face there’s something interesting going on.  Someone once told me that successful photos don’t give you all the answers, but make you wonder a bit, too.  Add on the lighting, the props and the “look” of the final image and you get an image that tells a story…and captures the “feel” of a brand.

There’s always room for serendipity, too.  Although I gave a few pointers on dress, I could have hugged Arielle when she showed up in that bright red dress.   How could I not get a great final image?

Might & Main: Behind the brand

Case Study – Financial Services firm portraits

When a company decides to embark upon a rebranding initiative they often hire an agency, a designer or a photographer to help them.   There are a lot of ‘triggers’ for when a company decides to do take this critical step forward.  It often happens when the company is in transition, whether physical or something more existential—a move to a new location, a major renovation, a period of great growth.

Spinnaker Trust is a Portland-based company providing wealth and finance management services.  Recently they grew with the merger with another firm, and moved into a really knock-out new space downtown.  To showcase their dynamic new space and their growth, they needed environmental portraits of their team members within their amazing offices—lots of frosted glass, hardwood flooring and deep blue walls.

I spoke with the team about their needs, and decided to go with a more dramatic approach to lighting.  With lighting you can go one of two ways.  Light ‘big’, and just create a wall of light so that everything’s bright, well-lit and very commercial-looking (see any national-level  advertisement) or light ‘small’, or selectively, throwing light just where you need it to create dimensionality, mood, and highlight aspects of the environment. Spinnaker was perfect for the latter.

I used three to four lights for most of the portraits—with all of the glass around, the lighting was tightly controlled to avoid reflections.  We did multiple scenarios with each person in a relatively limited period of time—in my shoots, I tend to move fast:  15 minutes being a long time to spend on any one portrait.

I was happy with the results:  professional but dramatic, with the environment a key feature of each image.   A big shout-out to the team at iBec Creative, who designed this clean and beautiful website.

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Care without compromise

This past week marked the launch of one of the coolest sites I’ve seen in a long time.   The new InterMed website also happens to be locally designed, by Kemp Goldberg Partners, with original photography taken over the course of the past six months or so.    Beginning back in the fall of 2011, I was fortunate to work with KG’s talented crew to make it all happen.

The approach the KG team took was to photograph the doctors and other medical staff in a very casual, environmental style that both made them feel comfortable and allowed for personalities to come through.   These portraits are accompanied by a bio written by each person.  The result is warm, personal and compelling.   It was great working with each of these people, who had to endure my pleas for ‘just one more shot.’    The visual centerpiece of the site are the images of doctors and staff interacting with each other and with patients, along with views highlighting the beautiful Marginal Way InterMed building.   The first thing a visitor to the site sees are documentary shots of patients and their families whose lives have been impacted in positive ways by their InterMed doctors.  Shot in the moment, these vignettes illustrate well the InterMed creed, “Care without compromise”.

 

Moment + Light

Warren Smarlowit, 47, holds onto photos and other mementos that remind him of his family, including a nephew's athletic letter from the Yakama Nation Tribal School.

For me, photography boils down to two key elements: moment and light. You may have one in greater proportion to the other, but for most types of photography—certainly any imagery with people—you need both.

I used this criteria as a newspaper photo editor when judging daily work and the many portfolios that came across my desk.

You kinda know a “real” moment when you see one. It’s a look, an expression, or an interaction. Usually from the viewer’s perspective, it looks like you’re viewing a private scene, voyeur-style, and the subject appears totally unaware of the camera.

As a photojournalist, real moments are mostly found situations. In feature situations, the goal is to shoot photos (usually with a long lens) before the subject really becomes aware of your presence. You get something ‘real’ of the subject doing something interesting and later you deal with getting their permission and name to actually use the photos. In news situations, such as fires, accidents or events, the subjects are usually so focused on the happenings that getting moments is pretty easy, giving you time to work on composition and light too.

At the newspaper, moment trumped light any day of the week and twice on sundays. Robert Capa’s grainy, ghostly images of the landing at D-Day fails from a purely technical standpoint but no one would argue that the moment it captures place this work among history’s finest.

As a commercial and advertising photographer, my subjects are (mostly) aware of what I do. They are paying me to be there, or my clients are paying them to be there. It’s me, them and bunch of obtrusive lighting equipment, so the goal is to get the subjects to relax and give me something real despite the unreal surroundings. When successful I get a true serendipitous moment—a peice of chaos that I thankfully can not, and don’t want to, control—in the midst of a controlled setting.

The only difference between editorial and commercial photography in this regard is that non-editorial shooters have the luxury of not having to wait for the perfect light. Regardless, being attuned to capturing the authentic moment will help turn otherwise ordinary photos into memorable images.

That’s still theway I approach the debate between moment and light. Make sure you have a strong moment, and then work on the light.