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Self Assignment: No More Pretty Pictures

Self Assignment: No More Pretty Pictures

This shoot came from my “Dark Side”.

The basic concept was simple — to show that contrary to what glossy magazines and movies may tell us, beauty does not necessarily bring happiness. And, that for some, external beauty can be a trap because it blinds many an eye to the internal picture that really defines who we are.

vostry08292009-2703I had been carrying the concept around for quite a while. It was in my “self assignment” list, a notebook I keep with ideas for shoots. I first started focusing on giving myself assignments while attending Photoshop World. During The Art of Digital presentation, I saw many of the world’s great photographers showing the results of their ventures into uncharted waters. I realized then that in order to grow I had to challenge myself to go off the beaten path to create images that were not a part of my every day creative life. For me, everything starts with a “story”. So, in my notebook, I started to outline a bunch of different shoots — some stories stimulated by moods, others by music, the news or whatever was running through my my head. And, I waited for the ideas to ripen.

A few key fortuitous events pushed this concept to fruitiion.

First, was an episode of American Idol — the only episode of that show I’ve ever watched. It was on a disk of shows I was watching as an Emmy voter. Anyway, one of the finalists, Adam Lambert, sang a song, Mad World, (written by Roland Orzabal.) Dark. Very dark. I was totally blown away. One line haunted me:

I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.

I could not get that song out of my head.

And, then, I met model Stephanie Vostry. She came to my studio to model for one of my students, Tom Folger. During a break, I was telling Tom about how I was in the final conceptual stages of my “No More Pretty Pictures” project and that soon I’d start looking for a model brave enough to shoot it. Stephanie, who had heard the conversation jumped right in, and said something like,  ”I’ll do it. I want to do it. I’ve been trying to get a photographer to shoot something like that …  but no one will. All they want is pretty pictures.”

I could not have found a better partner.

The Plan

For a week or so, in a series of emails, texts and occasional phone calls, we started to develop our story for the shoot. I had Stephanie listen to Mad World. As we started to trust each other — trust is the essential component in a shoot like this, one that cuts to raw emotions and exposes vulnerability (on both sides of the camera) — a plan was set in place.

Stephanie planned her wardrobe, make up and props. And, she set out to get her head in the right place for the shoot.

I had a “story” locked in my mind. So, I focused on the technical side, the set and lighting patterns I would use to capture it.

My technical plan was simple: In my mind, the story was that the model was trapped or cornered by her beauty. So, I decided to shoot into one of the corners of my camera room. I had two choices — an 18% gray corner, or a corner formed by two of my faux brick walls.

The best light for the shoot? My Profoto Ring Flash. It would give me the coverage and edge that I wanted — a somewhat hard and stark look but with a funky shadow on the backdrop. No soft, wraparound, flattering light here. I wanted a hard look at a troubled subject. And, I anticipated a very fluid situation. None of the “pose it, light it, shoot it” syndrome. Most important — with the Ring Flash surrounding my lens, I knew that no matter where the shoot took us, the light would be in the right place.

Setting Up

When Stephanie and Tom arrived (I had asked him to assist me) my dark side was in full force. There were no happy “Hello’s”. There was no cordial conversation. Stephanie, too, was in her game day head.

Stephanie -- Getting Her Head Into the Shoot

Stephanie -- Getting Her Head Into the Shoot

First task — finalize the set. I had Stephanie sit, quietly in each of the corners. We both agree that the brick corner felt “better”.

To set the mood, I started a loop of Mad World, the Gary Jules version. (Although one does not need an ASCAP license for the “non-commercial” use of music, I ordered one just to stand in solidarity with other artists who are trying to protect their creative rights.)

I almost never shoot with music, I prefer to talk with my models — explain what I’m doing and what I want. But, that day,  we never turned that loop off. For an hour and a half, Mad World played over and over.

I let Stephanie sit there, lost in her own thoughts for quite a while.

Quietly, Tom and I set up for the shoot.

In a while, on her own, Stephanie got up, when into the dressing room, and got ready.

The Shoot

Without doubt, this was the most intense photo-shoot of my life. And, I have Stephanie to thank for that. She brought her “A” game. She left it all in the camera room. There was absolutely nothing held back. Stephanie’s emotions were real — drawn from deep inside her young life — nothing hidden, nothing masked. My job was to capture it. And, I did my best.

From the moment she stepped on set, it was clear that Stephanie got it. The theme was No More Pretty Pictures and she wasn’t going to pull back one bit from showing the vulnerability, suffering and pain that was below her beautiful surface.

She started out standing. Arms full of a wine bottle and pill containers — symbols of the lengths to which people go to mask over their inner feelings. (See the shot above.)

Tom took a quick meter reading for me and we did our first and only adjustment of the Profoto D4 Generator that was powering the Ring Flash; I wanted to shoot at 5.6 so we set it there. (I was shooting my D3, with a prime lens, 85mm f1.8; truth be told, it’s a little difficult to use a zoom lens and Ring Flash at the same time; I’ve done it, but didn’t want to add another layer of difficulty to the challenging conditions of this shoot.)

vostry078_08_29_09-copy_3Slowly, without saying a word, as Stephanie became more “despondent” she began a slow “slide” to the floor. I kept shooting. No break. No new set up. I just tried to stay with her. Within several minutes, she was on the floor — and so was I, lying on my stomach, trying to keep her in frame and lit correctly.

One thing about shooting the Ring Flash: With set lights, the distance to the subject remains somewhat constant and it does not matter where the photographer takes the camera. If the light is 8′ from the subject and the meter says 5.6, you shoot at 5.6 whether you are 4′ from the subject or 8′; the only time you need to re-meter is when the distance between the subject and the light changes.

But, the way I was shooting the Ring Flash, mounted around my lens, it did not remain a constant distance from Stephanie. If she moved, I moved. And, when I moved, the light moved with me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was trying to pay attention to the distance between Stephanie and the light. When conscious that we were no longer in the same spatial relationship, I’d adjust the Aperture setting to compensate for whether I was farther away (wider aperture because less light was hitting her) or closer (smaller aperture because more light was hitting her.) But, I’d be lying if I said I did it right. After the shoot, when looking at the metadata, I realized that several times I turned the wrong wheel on the Nikon and made a meaningless adjustment to the shutter speed (meaningless because in a situation like this, the Shutter speed controls the ambient light to the sensor which was not significant; this shoot was all about the Ring Flash and the amount of the light from it to hit the sensor was controlled by the Aperture.) Brain farts not withstanding, because I was shooting RAW, there was no real problem created by being slightly off on some of the frames.

After what seemed like forever, we took a break. We put some images up on the computer — just to make sure we were getting what we wanted. We were. There were a couple of quick smiles, but the dark mood remained. Stephanie had a couple of things she wanted to try. So, back on set we went. And, we kept shooting.  As soon as I can, I’ll edit more of the images and post them in a portfolio on this site.

And, then, it was over.

Well sort of.

I was completely worn out. Flat beyond belief.

The other day, Tom told me that he left depressed and stayed depressed for a day.

Stephanie? Having gone through a profoundly cathartic session, she was the most upbeat of the three of us. And, as the days passed, she felt better and better about what we had done. And, so did I.

In many ways, this shoot meant a lot to both of us. To me, it was the first of my self-assignments to go through the full process. And, I think this really put Stephanie on solid footing as a model. Before this shoot, she had had at most three other studio experiences — none of which challenged her to be anything other than her pretty self. This was, in many ways, the coming out party for a very strong model.

But Wait! There’s More! — The Aftermath

As profound and interesting as the shoot was, in many ways, the aftermath was more interesting.

These images provoked very different responses.

Stephanie was so proud of her work that she put one of the pictures up as her “avatar” on her Model Mayhem site. And, she left it there for quite a while. The traffic to her site fell. People wanted pretty avatars. Stephanie is strong and was going to leave it there. But, I counseled her to switch it out, and she did. More bookings followed.

My friends had mixed reactions.

Many felt that these images were some of the best work I’ve ever done.

But, many more were “scared” by them. Scared. Really afraid of the work.

Right after this shoot, one of my software sponsors sent a letter asking if I had some images that they might use at trade shows or in ads to demonstrate their product. Being the wise ass that I am, I sent some of these images. The truth be told, their filters had been critical in the post-production process. With very good humor, they told me that these were not exactly the types of pictures for which they were looking. I’ll stand my ground. One of these images was made by the simple application of one of their filters. But, I can see how these images might not help sell their products.

Hanson Fong was also among those who were scared. I sent him these pictures of Stephanie to let him know who would be modeling for him during his “Busman’s Holiday”. His exact words “She scares me.” But, if you haven’t already done it, read the article and look at the images that he shot. The “pretty” Stephanie shines and Hanson brought out the best in her.

The best part of this for me? I’ve found a fierce model who I can trust. Together, we are going to take on some more topics from each of our “self assignment” lists.

And Even More!

People often ask me what I mean when I say “I always start with a story” — no matter the shoot, be it a simple portrait or an editorial piece, I always start with a story.

What that means, to me, is that I have a message that I want to convey with images. I don’t wait until my clients come into the studio — I plan ahead how to best capture what they want and how to deliver their messages. The first step is almost always a “get to know each other session”. I try not to shoot someone with whom I’ve not met previously — even if the meeting is by phone. Because some of my shoots are intense, I really need to start working on developing trust and comfort before the day of the shoot.

And, I plan like crazy. I want the model to know the story — to contribute to how we tell it, to be sure it’s a story he or she wants told, and to understand what we will use for a set, wardrobe, make up, and props. Often, I’ll do drawings ( stick men, I can’t draw a lick). And, I’ll always have an initial lighting plan in mind; usually, if the shoot is complex,  I set up and test the lights to make sure they will do what I think is needed a day or so before the shoot.

On the day of the shoot, I start with a “team meeting”. Whoever is involved — model, grip, MUA — whoever. We discuss what we are going to do and I get input from all before we start.

And, then we shoot — and more likely than not, at some point after we’ve got the initial vision in the computer, we go off road and see what we can find.

People talk about “happy accidents” —  amazing shots that just “show up” unexpected. I see this a bit differently. I have a good friend who is one of America’s best trial lawyers. He’s fond of saying, “Isn’t it funny how the people who are the luckiest are the people who are the best prepared.” Most “happy accidents” are the result of hard work and planning.

With all of that in mind, I’m including a video from a great photographer/story teller — Jensen Walker. The video probably does a better job than I just did in explaining what it means to go into the shoot with a story plan.

Update: Just A Little Bit More

In response to some email requests,  I’ve put some more pictures from this shoot on the site. You can find them here.

Unfortunately, I’m still wrestling with the plug-in that creates these galleries. It tends to distort some images and take away the descriptions from others. Some of the posts are different versions of the same shot; I put them in to highlight some post-production options — especially two filters from Nik, the Bleach Bypass from their Color Efex Pro series and the black and white conversions from their Silver Efex Pro software. (If you hover your mouse over the thumbnail you should get a one line description of what I did in processing each image.)

(Copyright: PrairieFire Productions/Stephen J. Herzberg — 2009)

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One Responseto “Self Assignment: No More Pretty Pictures”

  1. Timothy Thompson says:

    What a great experience you have described. Thanks for sharing all that went into this shoot. Good teaching and great involvement by your model as well as yourself. Sounds like a tough shoot but well worth it just based on the couple of shots in this post. Looking forward to seeing more of them.

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