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 closed…now 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.