Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sean Williams

When looking at Sean Williams' work, it looks effortless and believable. His interest in the science of photography, history and finding out exactly how to make an image work is what makes talking to him about his work so interesting.

NR: I was really struck by how you transformed Humboldt Park Lagoon in one of your pictures in the Light Miners series. Would you tell me a bit of how you went about creating this image?

SW: This was one of the first images we created that established the 'world' of the Light Miners. We needed something fantastical and of wide scale and we weren't yet up to speed on making the models, which became a larger focus later in the production. Every morning I drive through Humboldt Park on the way to the studio. I find the park inspirational, meaning that I'm usually thinking about making work, what I'll do once I get to the studio, stuff like that. As I drive, I'm usually thinking about how cool this or that looks, how the park looks at different times of the day, sunny or cloudy.

The overall art direction on the commission was to create a world where nature and industry are inextricably linked, a symbiosis. Anyway, I began quite naturally to be more and more taken with the view of the lagoon behind the boat house. It was at a time in the summer when the nights stayed warm and the wind was minimal, so I took the 8x10 out and began testing long exposures of ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. And I began playing around with flashlights to burn in detail. Ridiculous to think of my using a Maglite to illuminate a space like Humboldt Park, but that's kind of what I did. I really burned in the detail of the trees. Eventually the shot we used was a 55 minute exposure—again running around burning in parts of the leaves and what would reflect in the water. Fortunately, the mist was just there and illuminated by some part lights.

For the windmill, it's a model about twenty inches high. We made all kinds of water-related structures in scale and shot them in studio on a layer of water for the reflection and composited the shots together.

I think that what I'm most proud of in that image is the reflection. It's the actual reflection of the windmill in the water. Although most of my work is digital and involves compositing, I try to keep the process pretty analogue. At the studio, we have this saying, which we usually say a bit tongue-in-cheek: We're as analogue as digital can be. But it's actually quite true. So the image is fairly simple: a sheet of 8x10 color transparency for the park and digital image of the windmill made in studio.

NR: And this image, of Lookingglass, tell me the mountains you had to climb, to create this image.

SW: When I first began working with Lookingglass Theater in the Fall of 2007, Phil Smith, the managing artistic director, came to me with an idea to create a portrait of the ensemble members commemorating the 20th anniversary of the theater. The idea was to have everyone dressed in a role from the many performances over the years and have them all meet somewhere in time in this Victorian mansion for a dinner party.

There were a lot of technical challenges to the project, like we had to shoot everyone individually. There are 23 members and they all had varying time constraints; some had flown in for the day for the shoot, for example. And that's what we had for time: one day. We chose to use the lighting available to us in the theater's inventory, partly because we didn't have a budget to use that many strobes, partly because in the production schedule we had less than 15 minutes per character shot and so just didn't have time to reset lighting on each one. With every single light in the theater split carefully over the available electrical load in the home, we were able to shoot at just 1/8 of a second—a fairly long exposure for a portrait. This provided a challenge for any character who had to hold a pose, like the guy on the stairs or the woman teetering over the bannister. The day we shot it was minus 5 degrees, the coldest day of 2007. We had 23 costumes to be coordinated, 23 people with makeup and styling. It was on the scale of a movie production, with signs through the house pointing to wardrobe and makeup.

There was a whole system in place, not just with the talent, but with the pre-production. We had to do substantial testing before we got to the day of shooting. Much of the room is shot on 4x5 film, tungsten-balanced for a very long exposure, where the individual portraits are shot with a digital back. The premise of the lighting was fairly simple: the pendant light in the room was to serve as the key light source, so for each portrait we used a chimera lantern positioned between the model and the pendant light and a large bounce card. The fire was shot in a friend's home and then placed into the fireplace in the mansion, but we needed to make sure that the warm spillover of a fire would be cast in the highlights and reflections of those around the fire, so we disassembled an Arri 1K so that it was an open source and then surrounded that bulb with orange and red gels for the fire's throw. There were a lot of little details like this to plan for, which was fun but exhausting.

Once back at the studio for retouching, I realized that my system couldn't handle the file size which exceeded 4 Gigs. I had to buy a new system. And then there were the moments where some characters just plunked into the environment beautifully, and yet others took days of fiddling to match the light and scale. In the end, it served as an awesome project to really hone the kinds of pre- and post-production work that I'd need to perfect for the kinds of work I was wanting to do.

NR: To see more of Sean's work, go to

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Anna Knott

This month, Anna Knott and I had a chat. She is energetic, sunny and has a great sense of humor and style to her work.

Nicole: I wanted to interview you because we had a conversation once about being self sufficient. You were heading out to start your own business because of layoffs you had seen in your family and town. Tell me about this, why you wanted to start your own business, and how it's going so far.

Anna: Well to begin with, I think having your own business is extremely challenging on a person. It requires a certain dicipline and patience that can sometimes be really draining. On the other hand, it is rewarding when you see progress, and you know that you made it happen, it sort is dreamlike. I grew up in Galesburg Il, about 3.5 hours outside of Chicago. A generous portion of the population was employed by the factories, and within the last ten years most of the factories have shut their doors escalting the unemployment and poverty rate in the city dramatically.

I really was not the best student by a long shot, and not so many talents either. I just knew I needed an education, and that would be my ticket out of there. I finally found a school in Lincoln Il that would take me. Thats when I found photography, I just told myself that I would be a photographer. Since then, I just stuck with it. I was never the best in school, but I am persistent. I will just keep going, and it will work out. I was so worried to rely on someone else to make sure that I was going to have a job. Seeing the town diminish little by little, hearing the stories, and just really seeing how little hope people had in the community really affected me.

I also knew that in order to keep myself interested, I needed a career that would always challenge me. One piece of advice I would give anyone is to take business classes, take it as a minor, suck up as much business information as you can. In fact just become a business nerd, nerd it up. It has been a complete uphill battle for me trying to learn about all the business side of photography as I go. I just thought I would be sending some bills out, and shooting some jobs, and the rest would somehow just work itself out. It's hard to keep the balance, knowing that you just want to focus on the images, but at the end of the day there is a lot of paperwork.

Nicole: Did you assist at all? Did you find a photographer to work for who helped you learn these things? I feel that photographers should treat assisting like an apprenticeship, rather than just hired day labor.

Anna: One of the best things I did was work for people from out of town, the LA or New York Photographers. I would learn more on a two day shoot with them than I would working a month in a studio. They just brought all the gear, and had the huge productions, and of course the really amazing assistants that would be enthusiastic about teaching you things. I do feel like being a good assistant takes time and you actually have to want to be a assistant. Not just be waiting, wishing you were the shooter. Try to enjoy the act of learning, it is really important. It was good for me to be in a studio where I would see a job from the start to the end where I would cut the film. I may not have been always setting up the lights and such, but I spent a good amount of time asking questions and paying attention to what all the other assistants where doing. I think it is very important to not get too comfortable with one photographer, to move around, see how others work, and just enjoy the experience, it is really mind blowing that you are being involved with something that you are really interested in. If you are just fed up and hate it, go find another job, and shoot on the side, don't just assist and hate it. I quit one day out of the blue, just said I had it and never returned, and all of a sudden it just started working out, slowly, but it started.

Nicole: So let's talk a little about your work. You have this great sense of light, it is so bright and sunny. How do you achieve this look? Have a favorite modifier or piece of gear you love most?

Anna: Well I have always been attracted to bright advertisements, things that make you smile, and feel happy. I always want to feel like my photo is touchable, My favorite pictures are usually outdoors and involve a mixture of ambient and strobe. I use a lot of just reflectors, no umbrellas, and ring flash. Sometimes I will add in an on camera flash for a little more pop. I try to keep it simple enough, so that I do not get all exhausted on the set up, usually no more than 4 lights.

Nicole: Your work has a lot of humor to it. How do you pull those expressions out of people?

Anna: I'm awkward, and sometimes just crazy, I make fun of myself, or I'll dance or sing. Just whatever it takes, usually people like it. It makes them feel less stressed.

Nicole: Yeah, what DO you do when a person says "I really hate being photographed"?

Anna: Inside, I think ugggg, here we go, then I get over it, and just say ohhhhhhh, now everyone says that, but you have never had ME take your picture! I am soooo damn good, you are going to just love yourself after I am done with you. Something along those lines, something to just make fun of the situation and just try to have a good time with the person. I do hate it when they say that, I have no idea why everyone says the same thing, it's sort of strange. But Im pretty used to it now.

Nicole: That's great! Any projects you are working on now that you're particularly stoked about?

Anna: Right now I am actually really enjoying shooting the stills. I like working on projects that require me to tell a bit of a story, and that happens more with the food, or product pictures lately than the portraits. Im pretty happy with everything Im working on, I would like to set a little more time aside for personal projects, hopefully that will happen soon!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Paul Natkin

This month, I sat down with Paul Natkin, a Chicago music photographer. I wanted to talk to Paul because he has stories, and he loves to tell them.

Nicole: Let's start at the beginning. What is the first show you shot?

Paul: The first concert I ever shot was Bonnie Raitt. Someplace at Northwestern University in 1975, I want to say. I just b.s.'d my way in. In those days you could. I used to be a sports photographer. They kind of relate. I was able to b.s. my way into any sporting event. I would make a phone call and be on the sidelines of a Bears game, or in the photo pit at Wrigley Field, or sitting right on the court of a Bulls game or a tennis match. One day, I was coming home from a tennis match, and I heard on the radio that Bonnie Raitt was playing. I figured, let's see if i can b.s. my way in, let's see if it will work. It was so easy, it was beyond belief.

Nicole: What did you say?

Paul: I didn't say anything. I had my cameras around my shoulder, and I walked to the backstage door, I had this whole bullshit story rehearsed. I opened the door and the guard looked at me and said "You with the press? Go on in, do anything you want, just don't get up on stage." It was never that easy again, but it wasn't all that difficult in those days.

Nicole: Is this what got you started shooting live music for a living?

Paul: The first picture I ever sold was a total fluke. It was Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters. Before the concert, I was standing talking to another photographer, a guy by the name Mark Pokemper. Like photographers always do, I said "Oh, who are you shooting for?". He said "I'm shooting for the Reader". I'm thinking, that's really cool. About ten minutes before the show, he walked backstage and got a chair and brought it into the orchestra pit, because the orchestra pit was really low, and he wanted to stand on the chair to get a better angle. One of the security guys came and told him he couldn't do that. They got in a big verbal exchange, and they kicked him out before the show started. I started shooting, then a lightbulb went off in my head, like they do in the cartoons. He was shooting for the Reader, he just got kicked out, the Reader probably needs a photo. I had no idea how to sell a picture to a publication. I stayed up all night, developed the film, dried the film with a hair dryer. Early in the morning I made 3 or 4 prints, dried them in the sunlight in the car, held them up to the heater. I got the address, I had no idea where they even were. I walked in there, said your photographer got kicked out last night, do you need these pictures? Nobody even knew, so I just left the prints there. I wrote my name in pencil on the back of the prints. A couple days later I got a phone call, saying what's your address, we want to send you a check. It was for $35. It's my first picture I ever got published.

Nicole: What was the last band you shot?

Paul: Last night. Eagles of Death Metal. At the Eagle's Ballroom in Milwaukee. Tomorrow I drive up to Milwaukee again to shoot the Pretenders.

Nicole: Another story I wanted to get out of you, was about our favorite three song rule. (Photographers are only allowed to photograph bands for the first three songs of a live show.)
I know you don't subscribe to that. I know you have a story of where this thing came from.

Paul: It started in the '80's with bands in New York, especially Springsteen. When a band played in New York, especially places like the Garden, they gave out tons of photo passes. At least half to paparazzi guys. Those people don't know how to photograph, their only option is to put a flash on a camera. Alot of people didn't even know how to change film, they knew they only had 36 shots. They were just doing it for the excitement of doing it. Bruce would go up on stage, and there would be 50 photographers, all shooting flashes in his face. I don't blame him, he walked off stage one night and said, we have to do something about this. Somebody said, why not just let them shoot the first fifteen minutes? Somebody figured out at a normal rock show, a song is about five minutes. Somebody said, let's just let them shoot the first three songs. So it started with him and people in that era. It was also that MTV started around that time, and everybody wanted to look perfect, the way they looked in their videos.

There's this Chicago band called Jesus Lizard. This is back in the early '90's. They came to my house to do a photo shoot for the cover of some punk magazine. We're sitting around talking, and in the middle of the conversation, the lead singer turns to me and says I have this really crazy question for you. Why is it that as soon as our show starts getting really good, all of the photographers pack up their stuff and leave? I had two realizations at that point. One is that he had no idea that there was a three song rule, and that this had become so pervasive that the venue automatically kicked everyone out after three songs. So I started doing research on it. One thing I found out was, it's not up to the venue, it's up to the band. So I called Jesus Lizard and said you guys are getting ready to go out on Lollapalooza, when it was still traveling around, I said all you got to do is have your road manager have a meeting with the Lollapalooza people before the tour starts, and tell them that they should let every photographer shoot the whole Jesus Lizard show. They said, that's a great idea. About a month later, I go to shoot Lollapalooza, and there is a note with the pass that says you're allowed to shoot the first three songs of every band except for Jesus Lizard, who has requested that everybody shoot their entire show. The coolest part of the whole victory, is about three weeks later, I have a friend in New York who is considered to be one of the top music photographers in the world, and she was going to Lollapalooza to shoot for this little tiny publication called the New York TImes. I told her about this. About the second to the last song of their set, David, the singer, grabbed the microphone and dove out into the crowd, he was on his back, the crowd was holding him with their hands and at Jones Beach in New York, the sun sets right behind the audience. She shot the picture and it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. That would have never happened had he not asked me the question sitting on my couch.

Nicole: There is something about the live music photography from the '70's and '80's that is more real, more honest, more raw.

Paul: I always ask every musician I know, what's the deal with this three song thing? Why not give them the opportunity to get a good picture? It all goes back to Cartier-Bresson. He wrote this book called the decisive moment. It is all about waiting for the moment. That's what a photographer does.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Erika DuFour

I first met Erika in college at Columbia in Chicago. She has this amazing sense of color and the figure as well as the knack for making the softest images with hard light. I had wanted to interview her because I was at her studio on a shoot when we began to talk shop. Erika had worked in the studio in school, and she is so great with light that I was surprised to learn she didn't get the best grades in studio lighting classes in college. So Erika, for all the students out there, how does one go from there to here?

Erika: I began lighting things when I took my first photo class in high school using lamps and bulbs and whatever was handy, not even knowing why or what I was doing. I think it gave me a sense of control in whatever I did. In college I was exploring so many things and was inspried with my studio I lighting class, which was using hot lights. I think that I entered my advanced studio lighting class with the wrong attitude. I personally was uninspired by the teacher, but I should have known better than to not try my ass off. After that class, though, I did propel forward and started exploring lighting more and more and started copying other lighting to learn more techniques. I still do the same now.

I then decided to intern for a few photographers. First was Marc Lind who I assisted in the darkroom printing his artwork. I then worked for one of my teachers, William Frederking, who is a dance photographer. Being that I was an ex dancer and interested in movement, I thought it was a good stepping stone. I then realized I needed to step out of the school realm and work for a comercial photographer. I interviewed with a few photographers and ended up working for Barbara Karant who is an architectural photographer. She referred me to other architectural photographers to assist for, thus the beginning of my assisting career.

After graduation, I immediately starting assisting commercial photographers. They ranged from people shooters, food, product and architecture. In the meantime, I was continuing to shoot my own work. I shot for local dance companies as well as any other work that would come my way, as well as making artwork. Immersed in the assisting world, I learned what it took to be a photographer, and started thinking about how I wanted my business to be or not to be, and what my goals were.

My biggest goal was not to follow in other people's footsteps in terms of imagery, to keep my photography as original and artistic as possible, yet still usable in the commercial field.

I was always expected to shoot dancers in the common Lois Greenfield way, which I resisted and pushed against. I try to sell the concept of abstraction and emotion in dance as opposed to the obvious photo of a dance move. I carried that idea to my other work and started building my portfolio.

I shot for SLAM basketball magazine which was the beginning of my veering off the dance photos yet using my dance photo skills in other movement, such as sports, action, etc. I decided to quit assisting after my fifth or sixth year. It was a gradual quitting, trying to balance making rent and getting enough shoots to do so. From then, I continued to build my book, doing freebie shoots and whatever came my way. I had built my book to a point where I felt ready to show to advertising agencies, but chose to show my work to a photo rep to get a second opinion on my work. I was fortunate to know Emily Inman who was repping many of the photographers I'd worked for in the past. I trusted her opinion since she had been in the business for a long time and she asked me if I wanted her to rep me. I gasped and said yes (it almost felt like she asked me to marry her).

She began showing my book around to ad agencies, yet I didn't get much work for two to three years. Knowing that I wouldn't get work from ad agencies right away, I figured it was worth while sticking it out and giving it time. In the meantime, I started building my client base and started shooting more regularly as well as having my husband, Joe Phillips, as the studio manager. He helped build up the website and web promotions. The wait was well worth the while. I started getting more and more shoots through Emily, launching my career in commercial photography even further.

The whole journey has been a continual evolution in my work. I have veered away from motion and more towards fashion and beauty. I learned that I shouldn't resist the flow of where my work goes and follow my ideas to the end and continuing to learn and change.

Nicole: I'd like to also have you comment a bit about your lighting. Your studio shelf is filled with glass domes. How did you come to love that as your modifier?

Erika: Everyone I assisted for used the softbox. I learned to hate this device. It seemed like it was a cop out. Just throw up the softbox and you're done, it looks okay. So I vowed never to use a softbox unless it was utterly necessary. This forced me to explore other ways to light. I started lighting with hard lights, bounce only, one bounce with one hard, using three straight bare heads to light a face. Daylight is also fantastic, then trying to emulate daylight, either full sun daylight, cloudy day daylight etc.

The glass domes I discovered when I was working on my art work. I was shooting abstractions, putting reflective spheres inside the glass domes. The domes are just simply light fixtures you see in every standard Chicago apartment which I realized I could just tape one onto a reflector and use it as a light source. It turned to light things soft hard- not as contrasty as a bare bulb, but not as diffused as a softbox. I also loved the element that I had found something cheap and effective to light with. I think you can buy those in photo stores, but they are plexi and extremely expensive.

First Post

Welcome to In Studio On Location.

This blog came about when three things happened. First, seeing many photographer's personal blogs, inspired by food bloggers and a conversation with our first photographer on a studio visit. Thus, in studio on location was born.

I hope this blog can inspire people starting out as well as people who have been in the business for years. Please leave comments or questions about anything related to photography. I'll do my best to answer, or get the photographer to respond.

Thank you,

Nicole Radja