pausing for portraits
I’d rather work from the wings than pose you in a photo. When I’m holding my camera I prefer to be ignored, but then and only then. I have a greater fear of composing an unfortunate posed portrait than missing a fantastic fleeting moment. It’s true. You rarely find me in studio, I’m at my best when I’m roaming around.
It’s odd that there is such similar language between photography and hunting, but the two come hand in hand because really we’re just hunting for and shooting great moments. Selections from life. But, on a daily deadline with 30 minutes of allotted time those pure moments don’t always unfold magically and conveniently for us photographers so the art of the portrait comes into play.
Sometimes I like the stark portrait that is seemingly boring and obvious but evokes a mood. Sometimes I like a busy scene that strangely organizes itself around a singular subject. One theme carries through: I really never know what the portrait will be until I walk into the room and sometimes not even until I have walked out of that room. This job takes us to a variety of locations and the largest variable, the subject of our photo, is often unknown until that first hand shake. Some people are blessed with a relaxed photogenic demeanor. Most are not. But, if I have done my job right you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Dwell Missional Church was featured in a recent Easter story by reporter Joel Banner Baird. The plaid clad group not only look different than your average priests or pastors, their approach is a new take on old teachings. Recently Dwell has moved their congregation to a more traditional location than their previous downtown loft: First United Methodist in Burlington. Knowing this I wanted to juxtapose the two elements. The jeans and sneaker look spoke for itself and as we moved around the pews of the church, incorporated the quintessential stained glass windows I wasn’t completely taken with the shots we were getting. Let’s move to the altar. I didn’t want them standing, but rather had them take a seat. I put down the camera to have a conversation, resting the camera on the floor. I wanted them relaxed. I wanted their image to reflect their style both in dress and preachings. Once their body language mimicked their demeanor I snapped a photo.
Every year we photograph the top two athletes from each sport labeling them Mr. or Miss and on this occasion…Mr. and Miss Basketball. Mississquoi’s Matt St. Amour and Mount Anthony’s Abby Iannotti joined me at the Boys and Girls Club of Burlington for this photo shoot. The difficulty behind this assignment is that we shoot it every year. Though the faces changes, the situation does not: two star athletes wearing their uniforms holding a basketball. The description even bores me. So, before Mr/Miss season I search through our archives to see what we have previously shot. Rarely do we have time to prepare an elaborate scheme and often we’re shooting these on the fly, but regardless this year I knew I wanted to get a different vantage point. Can’t change the subject? Change the angle. Fortunately the the Boys and Girls Club had a large ladder available for me to use. I climbed up to the basket and peered down through the net. Signaling to Abby and Matt below, I had them shimmy an inch here or an inch there until they were aligned and visible. The ladder didn’t reach to the height I needed, so I fired a collection of blind “Hail Mary” shots (appropriately enough) and checked the result on my LCD screen. Trial and error paid off as I liked the framing of this shot. But, as usual, I have absolutely no idea what I’ll do next year.
As noted in previous posts, I love Vermont dairy farmers. I could spend all afternoon talking with a dairy farmer if they ever had the time for me. Farmers are the busiest, most hard-working people I’ve met and Mark Magnan was no different. I scrambled up to his Fairfield dairy farm one afternoon after a last minute connection for a story we were working on. As I pulled on my boots and unpacked my car Mark strolled over to introduce himself. I had 10 minutes. “Gimme 15?” I said. Deal. So, off we went to his milking parlor, the feature of the article, while he got me up to speed with what he had previously told the reporter. Mark is a fantastic interview and carries a wealth of information about the industry, as he should. The dairy farm was bought by his grandparents in 1924 and continued on to his father who only recently, at the age of 85, stopped working 16-hour days.
Farms are filthy, busy places so forget getting a clean shot and since it was raining that day – we skipped the fields. The rotating milking parlor was far more interesting so as Magnan climbed back up from the milking bay I told him to stop, pause and look at me. Click. His expression was honest and unforced, his posture simple and strong. Like I said before, I really hate to pose people, but often with portraiture as I see something I like unfold I’ll ask the subject to hold. Just pause for a moment, and we’ll see how that works.
I met Richard Ames, a local Burlington actor, at his home for an environmental portrait. Ames recently wrote a piece for the Free Press about his experience as an actor, producing plays, auditioning and living life in an uncertain industry. Meeting Ames at his home proved appropriate as a way to illustrate his story. Ames lives amongst the props he’s collected for his plays. His acting experiences are on display, well, everywhere. I love busy spaces and had fun building little vignettes amongst the cast-offs from his castings. And his cat joined us, and three wasn’t a crowd.
Christian Wolff is a composer in Royalton, Vt. I met with him recently at his idyllic hillside farmstead to photograph and video his prepared piano technique. Being a pianist myself, I was only slightly embarrassed I hadn’t heard of his prepared piano technique, but was fascinated to learn what it was. By manipulating the strings of his grand piano with stones, screws and a pair of glasses, Wolff alters the sound and percussive quality each string produces to create a truly unique tonal quality. Wide-eyed I couldn’t imagine toying with the strings of my most favorite instrument. Here I was just recently talking about my grandmother’s baby grand, our family’s treasured possession, and how I could appropriately house it and care for it in my own house. Pianos are obtrusive to our daily lives, they are big and loud and need specific care. Pianos are the delicate divas of the musical world – maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them. Pianos are delicate and temperate instruments, so the thought of toying with their delicate strings was baffling. But, I wasn’t going to stop him. Instead I hit record, shot a few photos and enjoyed the music. Wolff produced something I had never heard before, and if you too would like to hear it, just click on the link to the story and video.
Charlotte firefighter Kip Mesirow smiled at me after his crew accidentally sprayed him with the foamy flame retardant mixture they were spraying to put down a house fire in Charlotte recently. This was a fleeting moment as the mood was heavy and sad as a family lost their home to a wild house fire that day. Fire crews from nine towns responded that day to battle the blaze. I’ve run into Kip before and his smile is not entirely unfamiliar. And with a mustache like that, he has to have a huge smile for it to even be noticed.
Migrant farm workers work on Vermont dairy farms. They are the silent workers that many say without them we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the locally produced milk and cheese Vermont is so famous for. A recent exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center showcased dioramas created by these Mexican farm workers as a visual way of chronicling their trip over borders and cross-country to our farmlands. I do not know the name of this farmer and I was not allowed to show his face. In most every circumstance these two factors would eliminate my ability to use this photo. But, because of very real fears of deportation these workers must remain anonymous if they want to continue working here in Vermont. How to photograph a faceless person? How do I, artistically and accurately, pose a portrait while obscuring their identity? I tried a number of poses, I worked on detail photos of his hands and I hated all of them. This wasn’t working. I shifted gears and went for a stark, plain photo. I wanted this image to be raw and in your face, even if it wasn’t of his. I used the rooms decorations to my advantage and asked him to bow his head into his hands to cover his face. I liked it and went with it.
An outtake. I knew we wouldn’t run this photo, but it was my favorite from the take. University of Vermont men’s basketball player Patrick Bergmann (right) was an unexpected stylist for my shoot. While I was up a ladder (these guys are tall – really tall) Pat noticed his teammates hadn’t tucked in their shirts OR tied their shoes. Come on guys. Ordering them to shape up and lace up, Pat stood tall as the other two knelt to deal with their shoes. Click. In a moment Pat reduced these tall men to small children. It was funny and unexpected.