December 20, 2007

"An Embarrassment of Riches", by Marcus J. Ranum

An Embarrassment of Riches

An article by Marcus J. Ranum

" I'd like to talk a little bit about the interrelationship between what a photographer has going in to a shot, and what comes out the other end." Marcus J. Ranum

" There's an old saw in photography...

...that the "decisive moment" Cartier-Bresson always talked about really occurred when he looked at the contact sheets and said "this one !"

Apparently, that's just an old photographer's joke, but this evening, I'd like to talk a little bit about the interrelationship between what a photographer has going in to a shot, and what comes out the other end. At the end of this little ramble, we'll even have a bit of fun. I'm having a couple glasses of particularly nice Zinfandel as I write this, won't you join me ?

"Deconstructed Waitress"
Art Model Zinn

Professional photographers are often dealing with a scenario where an art director has story-boarded a concept, and the photographer's job is to realize that concept as closely as possible. Pros I've talked to admit that they sometimes get to fudge on the concept here and there and the end result is that the art director is happier with the alternate vision, and that's what gets used.
At the other end of that spectrum are the wild talents like Helmut Newton. As far as I can tell, he'd get a call from a (let's say...) underwear company that wanted him to shoot their product - and he'd say "that'll be $10,000" and they'd send the stuff along, book whatever supermodel he wanted to use, and he'd do the shoot wherever he happened to be.

In "Helmut by June" there are some amazing and very revealing scenes showing Newton directing Cindy Crawford, standing her against a wall behind a string quartet (WTF ?) playing in a gilt-encrusted salon in some shi-shi French hotel.

As far as I can tell his method was :
- get a pretty girl
- grab a camera
- get the product you're supposed to be shooting
- do something brilliant

His whole approach appeared to be free-associative. And he was a genius at it. There's one scene in "Helmut by June" in which he dragoons some hanger-on into playing the part of the jealous husband kicking in a hotel room door that is sheltering a scantily-clad (in the lingerie set that was being advertised!) model in some hotel room. Ideas just came flying out of him, as if he was a popcorn popping machine full of sensual, weird imagery.

I compare that with a couple photographers I know, who go into a shot with a very precise idea of what they want, and work the lighting and model until they get exactly what they pre-visualized. To me, the idea of seeing everything in great detail in your head before you start shooting - is very interesting.
When I was first learning photography, I did the whole routine of shooting with an 8x10 view-camera, previsualizing my shots (at $5 a sheet for film, plus 1 hour to process it, you'd better previsualize !) - but I instinctively migrated away from that approach as soon as I could, thanks to the cost advantages and technical quality that digital cameras hit by 1999.

"The Disaster"
Art Model Catphrodite

For example, when I shoot something like one of my cat-girl shots, I go into it with the idea of "OK, I have a model, a cat-girl outfit, and a bird-cage and some feathers. We'll make it look like she ate the canary." A lot of the details just sort of emerge as the shot progresses. Typically I'll shoot 10-40 images and I'd guess that more than 70% of the work of refining the image is from the model. In the case of "the disaster" I'd say that 50% of the posing was Catphrodite's inspiration and 50% happened when I concocted the basic scenario.

But the decisive moment happened when I picked that particular frame out of the whole set that I shot.

So let's look at another case.

I shot these last Saturday, when Rael C came down to Allentown from NYC for a day of shooting. I brought my plaster column because I wanted to do a shot contrasting the shape of her body/booty with Nerlande's in The Vase, I thought it would be a cool thing. Especially since Rael has kind of the same dimensions (broad shoulders, narrow waist, broad hips) as Nerlande.

"The Vase"
Art Model Nerlande Daniel

So I showed her the shot of Nerlande, set up the lights, gave her a footstool so she could climb up on the column, and sat back with my camera.

Typically when I work a concept, the model gets her say in what's going on. In this case, Rael took things in a completely different direction. She started off with a slight variation of what I wanted, then started clowning around, and then got serious. Which brings me back to "the decisive moment" - how do you choose from such an embarrassment of riches ?
I'm fortunate that my portfolio is strong enough by now that I can afford to only use one of this set. When I was a beginner I would have stuck at least 3 of these in my portfolio, and been incredibly pleased to do so - but somewhere along the line I came to the conclusion that having my collection dominated by shots of a single model in the same lighting and similar poses wasn't "cool" unless it was deliberately constructed as part of a series.

I think I've written about this before, but - forgive me - I must repeat myself : for me, half the fun is playing through the creative process with the model. I love cooking up an idea and watching the model re-interpret it, rip it apart, and - sometimes - magic happens, and they blow it over the horizon. When that happens, I'm having so much fun that I almost feel it's sacreligous to post the pictures. I want to selfishly cling to the moment that happened and keep it private. Mine, all mine.

It's only because I love you, dear reader, that I'm exposing these to you. These are resampled straight off the camera - no photoshop, no color correction, nothing. All the mistakes, clearly, are mine. Not Rael's. After all, she was just sitting there, right ?

So out of 50 frames, I'll expose a few with commentary on what was happening at the time. Maybe it'll give you a feeling for the flow of how a concept plays itself out during a shoot.

#1 I showed Rael the "Vase" picture and I think she was a bit cold. This was how she started out, in spite of the fact that I wanted her feet down.

#2 I asked her to put her feet down and she decided to mess with me a bit. Rael is a spirited wench!

#3 Now, she's getting into the idea, and is interpreting it in her own way. At this point I pretty much shut up except for making small happy photographer noises like "uh, yeah. great. cool. keep going."

#4 At this point, Rael is totally into her own zone. She's doing her own thing and I am staring slack-jawed through the viewfinder mashing the shutter-button every time something she does looks particularly cool.

#5 Click. Click. Click. "Yeah. Holy crap. that's great."

#6 Holy crap... She's going all "indian goddess" on me! Click. Click.

You'll notice that the colors shift fairly dramatically here. What happened ? Simple ! Rael wanted to see how she looked ("does sitting on this thing make my ass look fat ?") so I went up with the camera to let her take a look. Somehow in the process of mashing buttons I reset the camera's color balance. Fortunately, since these shots were intended to be converted to black & white I knew I didn't have to care.

#7 Following the concept of "does my ass look fat on this pedestal ?" and she decided to play with that for a while. I have a half dozen variations on this shot.

#8 She started to slow down and shifted over to a profile pose. This kind of "knotted up self" pose is one I've seen Rael do fairly often. Just not sitting 5 feet up off a concrete floor ! At this point I was telling her to be careful because if she fell I wouldn't be able to catch her before she hit the ground.

#9 ...and this was the end. She was tired of the series and so was I. I knew I had some magic in the bag (or, more precisely, on the CF card) and there was no point in working the concept further. Go too far and you'll bore/piss off/tire your model.

After this series, we broke for lunch at a local diner. We were both pretty exhausted.

Maybe you can imagine the scene, now. Two creative people playing with an idea, one leading - the other interpreting. And, the end result is of my choosing. It's quite possible that one of these images would please Rael more than me - but since I'm the photographer and it was my shoot, I get to make that call. Sometimes I feel as if being the artist is really more a matter of creating a situation in which art happens - rather than doing it all yourself. It's that line of thinking that made me decide to open my stock gallery ( [link] ) and to hold my stock contest. To me, there are a lot of similarities between shooting stock and working a creative scene with a model - you kind of wind things up, click "go" and see what happens. It's wonderful ! When people ask me why I do this, I usually say something lame like : "it's like collaborating with several people at once. And you have no idea what they'll come up with !" In this case I was not coaching Rael about her arm-positions ; that beauty came entirely from her.

But I'll happily take the credit for it. :) Thanks for the time you've spent with me, my loves,

1 comment:

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