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:

JiS 6JiS 1 JiS 5 JiS 4 JiS 2JiS 3And 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.

JiS 7JiS 8JiS 8

Jewish In Seattle: Conceptual Product Feature

In October I was contacted by Emily Alhadeff, the editor of the new magazine Jewish In Seattle, about a feature shoot highlighting the best of Jewish Washington.  She and Neomi Rapoport, the art director, envisioned a spread containing several images depicting Jewish objects and foods, all photographed in a clean, graphic, colorful and conceptual style.  I had worked with Emily before on projects for Microsoft, and was delighted that she thought of me for this one.  If you’re familiar with my website, you probably know I’m not a product photographer.  But clean, graphic, colorful, and conceptual is exactly what I do, so it was great fun to apply those sensibilities to altogether different subject matter.

I spent a day in the studio with Emily, Neomi, and Jonathan Kruger (my right hand on many projects), creating as many unique images as we could think of.  Here are a few of my favorites below, as well as scans of the final magazine layout (apologies for the quick and dirty scans—you know how it is).

I thought the above image would make a dandy cover.  You know, best of Jewish Washington, bagel is iconic, finger doing the “number one” thing…

BagelMirrorI was really quite happy with this idea.  I like the way the round mirror echoes the bagel’s shape, and it’s just…delightfully weird.  I love quirky.  For this one, I shot a couple images and stitched them together in order to keep sharp focus throughout.  If I were a product photographer, I’d have a tilt/shift lens for that, but I’m not.  So I don’t.  No big deal.

Jewel CapersThis one was Emily’s and Neomi’s idea—little jewels standing in for capers.  Very fun, very sparkly and happy.  And I particularly like it because if you think about it, it’s a jewel caper.  So, you know, it works as a visual pun as well.  Here again, due to depth of field, I shot several arrangements of beads to hold sharp focus front to back.

CandlesLove this one.  Idea from team Emily/Neomi.  I forget how long we spent placing candles so they were spaced correctly, but…it was a while.

LoavesThree different loaves, replicated and patterned in Photoshop.

SandwichThis, I think, is my favorite.  To be honest, I was having a hard time coming up with a conceptual idea for the sandwich until I started to think about that toothpick that holds a sandwich together, and what might take its place.  Receipt spindle!

And now the magazine!  Again, apologies for the rough scans—they don’t do the magazine justice.

Tear1Tear 1 Tear3 Tear4Thanks again to Emily, Neomi, and Jonathan!  It was a lot of fun, and I’m really looking forward to the next collaboration.

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.

Blood Squad’s founders: Michael White, Elicia Wickstead, and Brandon Felker (2007)

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:

Left to right: Blood Squad’s Brandon Felker, Molly Arkin, Jon Axell, and Elicia Wickstead

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.

Woodland Park—a fine place to bury a body. Or four.

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.

The skyline in Sand Point, as it existed before my landscaping work in Photoshop.

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.

The edited photo, minus the color.

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 totally almost used this frame.

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 4×8 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?

A shadow fail. There are few sadder things than poorly executed Photoshop composites.

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.

The final image, again.

The New Place

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.  After months of searching, I have at long last found a new studio space.  It’s not far from the old studio, actually—just a couple blocks from Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market—and it’s similar in character to the old building but without the baggage of fatal structural flaws.  I’m expecting to sign lease papers next week and move in at the beginning of December, and I can’t wait to share more details and images once it’s been fixed up.  More to come…

How to create a self-portrait that makes you look much tougher than you are.

I recently undertook a personal project, and I’m thrilled enough with the results that I thought I’d share some what went into making the image.  The photo came about because I wanted something new to use on the contact page on my website, something that would tie in well with a terrible pun.  This was the idea I came up with—a fight club sort of scenario, where I look beat to hell but somehow still victorious.  As though I were some kind of bad-ass.

Step One: Get into shape.
I’ve never worked out in my life.  It’s never been a priority, so while I’ve always been thin (thanks, mom and dad), I’ve never looked like a flight clubber before.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for, how long it would take to accomplish, or even exactly how to do it.  I wasn’t going to join a gym—nuts to that—and I wasn’t going to have a personal trainer.  I decided I could figure it out on my own.  Turns out, it’s super easy!  All I had to do was run nearly every day for about a month and a half, complete thousands of crunches, push-ups, and pull-ups, drink untold gallons of water, and quit alcohol, sugar, and all other foods I hold dear.  Simple.

Step Two: Visualize the photo.
With the hard part out of the way, I just thought about what I wanted the final shot to look like.  When you’re layering images, you need the camera angle, focal length, and lighting between the two photos to match as much as possible.  If they don’t, the photo is going to look fake, so everything has to be mapped out and planned ahead of time.  I decided on backlighting to get some hard rim lights on the crowd and myself, and a lower camera angle for that larger-than-life sort of feel (even muscly I’m still small, so I’d need all the help I can get).  I will often draw up a storyboard, even though I’m rubbish as an artist.  It just helps me understand better what I need for the shoot by way of location, lighting and other equipment, and in this case, models.

Awesome, right?  My career as a sketch artist never took off, but I manage to get ideas on paper.

Step Three: Studio shoot.
I wanted some good makeup—black eye, bloody nose and eyebrow, torn chest, lots of sweat—so I enlisted the help of the terrifically talented Seattle makeup artist Lindsey Watkins.  We talked back and forth and swapped graphic images of brutally beaten people (totally fun in a sort of sick way), and settled on the look below.  I really couldn’t have been happier.  She’s some kind of sorceress, and great to work with.
There are certain post production considerations that enter in when doing this kind of thing.  When you know you’ll be cutting the subject out of a studio shot for compositing purposes, as is the case here, it behooves you (or whoever is doing your post work) to shoot on a background color that will make it—well, maybe not easy, but easier.  In this instance, because the background image would be very dark (in fact black in many parts) and because the rim lights would make my outline so bright and well-defined, I figured shooting on a solid black background would make it easiest when it came time to cut myself out of the picture.  If you’ll take a look at the image below, you’ll see what I mean.
Personally, I don’t think self portraiture is ever particularly easy, but if you shoot tethered to the computer it’s certainly less difficult.  Canon’s shooting software saves a lot of headache, and makes for a much smoother shoot.  You can actually ask the computer to tell the camera to shoot every so often until you have as many frames as you want.  And if you ask it nicely, that’s exactly what it will do.

Step Four: Location shoot.
There are a lot of fences in town.  I wanted a batting cage because I thought it would fit in well with that ultimate fighting, cage match sort of look.  Parks would have had them, but I didn’t want to contend with the public.  Inquisitive bystanders are inevitable, drunks are probable, and there’s no reason to put with distractions like that if you don’t have to.  I was shooting in the evening, so I narrowed my search to schools.  I reasoned they would have such fence-y things and be unattended at night.  After a bit of scouting, I found this perfect spot.

I was giddy.  It had everything I was looking for, including a cage shape, plenty of space behind for models and lights, and a great weathered look.  I very politely asked in the school’s office for permission to use the area—good thing, too, because I was visited during the shoot by a concerned maintenance man—and they very graciously said yes.  There’s nothing more disheartening than to find a great spot to shoot and be told that they don’t let photographers in anymore because that last guy messed stuff up soooo bad.   We photographers actually are denied permission to shoot on property sometimes, so I believe responses in the affirmative are to be appreciated.  In this case, I appreciated them with some homemade apple walnut muffins.
The shoot itself was a lot of fun.  I put out a call for my friends and their friends to come out if at all possible, and promised them pizza for their efforts.  In the end, I had more people than I could reasonably use—always better than the alternative.  I had them jumping and screaming and shouting, all in a residential neighborhood right before the noise ordinances kicked in, and they were able to enjoy the food after just about fifteen minutes in front of the camera.

Step Five: Photoshop.
The most significant Photoshop work done to the image was the darkening of the faces in the crowd.  I wanted their features to be only very barely visible, and not at all distracting.  I also removed the small sign in the center of the fence (you can see it in the photo above), and did a little dodging and burning where I thought it was necessary.  The studio shot, as you can see, was left pretty much as shot.  I was careful to keep all the hair as I stripped away the background (Photoshop CS5’s “Refine Mask” tool is a hell of a thing), but aside from the extraction, I mostly left the image alone.  If you compare the shot above to the final image, you’ll see I did a little dodging and burning here and there, but nothing major.  After dropping the self portrait onto the location shot and positioning and sizing it appropriately, I processed the whole image overall in a way that I liked.  Done and done.

The final image.  I have since enjoyed a lot of pie.

So long, 619 Western, and thank you.

Yesterday the last furniture was removed and the last considerable dust bunnies were swept away from my studio space in the 619 Western building in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square district.  It was a sad day for me, and knowing it was coming didn’t help very much.  I didn’t expect to be there forever, I suppose, but who ever wants to leave a place they love only because there’s no other choice?  The city of Seattle and the Washington State DOT made that decision for me, and the scores of other artists in the building.  October 1st, 2011, that’s it.  Out.  If you missed the story and are at all curious as to why everyone was evicted, you can read about it here.

How can I tell you how I feel about the building?  Now more than a century old, 619 Western is all cement and wood and there’s not an ornate element to be found, but more than a hundred artists made that building their home away from home.  It was a vibrant and exciting community for artists of all kinds—painters, dancers, musicians, sculptors, woodworkers, clothing designers, and of course photographers—to say nothing of the city’s many artgoers.  An arts building since 1979 (the year I was born, coincidentally), it was also one of the largest art studio enclaves on the west coast.  It was, in fact, so magnificent in so many respects that it frankly made no difference to any of us that it was crumbling (I often likened it to a scone).  619 was an incredibly special place, and I can’t really express how fortunate I feel to have been a part of it for the last five years of its life.  I suspect Seattle’s art community will be feeling its loss for quite some time.  I know I will.

I’ll get to photos in just a minute, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the thing I’ll likely miss most about 619 Western.  On the first Thursday of each month, anyone and everyone could come out and enjoy work displayed in galleries and studios throughout downtown.  Other buildings were open those nights (and will continue to be), but 619 was absolutely, no question, hands down the place to be.  The monthly event was called ArtWalk, and 619’s stairs, hallways, and studios were always packed with people there to enjoy art.  You know, to be honest, given all the fire codes no doubt broken every time, I’m surprised the city never shut it down (seriously, if there had been an electrical short—not outside the realm of possibility at all—those that didn’t die in the fire would’ve certainly perished in the inevitable stampede on the only available set of stairs).
Artwork, music, wine, great friends, strangers, laughter, conversation, connection—I’ve never been in the middle of anything like it.  I will miss it terribly, and I’ll always have a warm place for it in my heart, right between thunderstorms and The Princess Bride.

Okay, photos.

This used to be my home away from home.  A lot of really wonderful things happened here.

A century of wear from a century of feet.

This crack in the cement is four or five inches wide.  Through it you can see into the north half of the building.  It’s not the only one—in fact, these cracks are so common throughout 619 that they were incorporated into the building’s logo (see above).  Unsafe, schmunsafe.

I always loved the back entrance.

Moments from an ArtWalk night.  Not the busiest we’ve ever had, but this was the night I set up the camera.

So long, 619 Western, and thank you.