Broken Banjo Photography

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Briana: Bend, Oregon

This is Briana.  This is the photo that made me want to take pictures of people.  More on that in a second, and on how I was overcome with the desire to take portraits. 
I already was taking plenty of photos, of course, and would casually snap the occasional image of a friend, close-up, but here's what happened:  it was a beautiful day in Bend (most are).  On a bench outside of a bakery downtown, I encountered Briana and our friend, Brian.  We chatted (which friends often do) and I snapped a couple of photos (which I often did).  At the time, I had a work-study job in photo lab of the local Community College.  I was learning about darkroom work and largely gleaning an education without actually paying for photography courses.  

I developed my film, washed off the chemicals, pulled the negatives off of their reel, and laid them out on a light table.  With my magnifying glass, I examined my 36 frames to see what print-worthy images I'd gotten.  When I saw this image of Briana, as a tiny, 35mm, color-inverted negative, I couldn't wait to get into the darkroom!  I ignored the rest of the roll, leaving unseen negatives there on the light table to throw this shot straight into the enlarger and get printing.  I love everything about this photo, taken with a Pentax K1000 on ISO400 film; I love that I can see my legs in her glasses, and my camera in her eyeball.  I love her hair, her eyes, and the smile that made me want to be her friend from the very beginning.

I wanted this shot of everybody I knew.  And so began a systematic attempt to capture the portrait of nearly everyone in my community in Bend.  And so it still continues.
 Let me tell you about Briana.  The first time that I remember encountering her was during an art show of hers, wherein she was bedecked with sparkles, red dreadlocks, and platform shoes, surrounded by enthusiastic supporters of her work.  She was exuberant, and there was no way that her smile couldn't melt any person's heart.

After awhile, we became friends; Bend has a small and tight community, and potlucks abounded, which fostered many of the strongest friendships in my adult life.  I always felt a little bit like she was beyond me, like I'd never be able to keep pace with her mind or excitement.  But we spent plenty of days together, including many sunny Bend summer days in parks, Burning Man (along with 30-some close- and soon-to-be friends), and some trips to things like tea parties in Portland:
Wings, sure.  It was for a "Fantastic" tea party in Portland, at our friend, Romana's house, so...why not?

When I had my very first art show, a display of my printed black and white portraits of the Bend community, it happened to be in the very same place that I'd met her, where she'd had her own art show a year or two prior.  At the event, I set up some cheap lights and encouraged everybody to ride their bikes to the event.  At least 60 people must have shown up to my "Bikeluck", and I tried to get a shot of every one.  

I was thrilled and honored to have Briana show up; sometimes, even after becoming close to a person, you hold them in such high regard that they remain larger than life.  To me, at that time, she represented things much bigger than myself...the artist, the tense joy of life, the hub of community, the person for whom everybody swooned.  To see her there, in support of little old me, to hear her compliment my made me feel like I'd graduated from some apprenticeship that I hadn't signed up for.
Same camera, same film, same process.  This "photo booth" probably had three work lights clamped to various surfaces.  I had not begun experimenting with off-camera flashes.  I was relying on the internal light meter of the Pentax, so needed consistent lights with which to focus and balance my settings.  At the time, I enjoyed creating sharp shadows behind people.  In this case, it looks like a car is shining lights on her in an alley.  Dress, bike, and boots.  How could you NOT want to photograph her?

We watched the 4th of July fireworks one summer from the top of the same bakery in which we'd both had art shows.  We couldn't actually see Pilot Butte, where they were being lit, but just watched the sky turn colors from behind the next-door building.  We frolicked in Drake Park, the giant central green space in Bend, where everyone ran into everyone.  She inspired poetry and photography.

She is now living outside of Portland, with a new venture, into which she has gone head-on.  She's a goat shepherdess (is that a word?), and, despite being busy every single day with managing dozens of goats and using them to mow landscapes, she still finds time to dress up, to have fun, and to smile.  I hope to get out and take some updated photos of her and Goat Power!

Thanks, Bri!
Drake Park, where the Deschutes River cuts through downtown Bend.  All of these film images were scanned into computers while I was a student at The Evergreen State College, so that I could preserve and access them digitally.  I'm so very glad that I did that tedious work!  I recommend it to anybody with an archive of memories and faces.  Your friends, community, and future generations will probably thank you eventually!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cathy and Reid in Their Speakeasy: Asheville, North Carolina

This is Cathy and Reid, with a Mason Jar of what is definitely not water.  In West Asheville sits one of my favorite bakery/cafes in the country, and Cathy co-owns it, along with Krista and Lewis, her business partners.  I had the pleasure of working there for a spell, making pastries and wedding cakes (yes, baking is one of my other arts/hobbies/careers...we all should have a few of those).  One day, as it turned out, Cathy hit the age of 40, and a party was thrown, in the style of a Speakeasy.  I was impressed with how many people played the part, and played it well!
I set up a simple photo booth at the Speakeasy party, using a typical setup for events like this: two small speedlights (AA battery powered, nothing fancy) at camera-right and -left, one speedlight mounted above and behind the subjects, camera-right, and a cheap clamp-on floodlight attached to one of my front light stands.  While I almost always bring a cloth backdrop, this ridged backdrop was already hanging and I liked the look!  I wanted a little drama, and wanted shadows behind the subjects, which is one reason for the floodlight; the other reason to have an always-on light, is for focusing purposes.  You never know how dark the room will be, and a flash is only light when the picture is taken! Use a cheap, $5 floodlight from the hardware store, and your images will usually be much sharper.
I have appreciated Cathy from before I actually met her; I lived for less than a year and a half in West Asheville, but many folks told me of the impact that the West End Bakery had made on the community.  Some call it revitalization; some call it economic or community development; some cry gentrification, but this downtown-away-from-downtown Asheville has seen many changes in the past decade.  I was present for the 10-year anniversary of the bakery.

Working with Cathy and spending some off-work time with her, I enjoyed her work ethic and dedication to sustainability, but the fun that she had.  I knew Reid less well, but loved spending a couple of outings with him as well, including a garden-tour-by-bike, which doubled as a progressive dinner to a few of our houses.

She asked me to take photos at her Speakeasy party, and I was very happy with how they turned out; a photographer never knows how in-character a community will be when asked to enter into an unfamiliar group of people, but from mobsters in fedoras to bonafide moonshiners (with bonafide moonshine) (don't tell anyone I  told you that), everybody rocked the look!
This is another of my favorites.  The man has such a wonderful expression, and with a tack-sharp focus on the eyes, this image is, I think, one of the best of this set.  I turned off the floodlight here to get some more dimension on their faces, allowing for soft shadows from the umbrellas near the camera.
Give people costumes (or catch them dressed up), and it takes very little direction from the photographer to get an appealing shot.  Give them a baseball bat and they are a baseball player.  Give them a boa and they are sultry; give them brimmed hat, suit, and holster, and, well...
So, obviously these images were manipulated later, on the computer.  Some photographers believe that shooters should "get it correct in the camera", especially when shooting portraits.  I do NOT believe this.  Given the 1920's era theme of this event, a full-color series of images would not fully support the intended feel.  I probably could have programed the camera to de-saturate the images, but why?  Here's the gist of my post-processing, in Adobe Lightroom on these shots, and I did the same to all of them, with maybe a few tweaks here and there: color-balance to my flashes; drop saturation to -82; lower the "blacks" to get a less-strong grey in the shadows; up the contrast; up the brightness; bump the clarity to +52 (this gives us a strong image in the contrasty areas); and the (and this is important) split-tone with some beige in the highlights and some light maroon in the shadows.  I also added a cheesy vignette, which frames the whole thing nicely.  Don't be afraid to use the tools at your disposal.
The Moonshiners.  Pumping up the "clarity" in post-processing does great things to beards.  Yes, she's got a long cigarette-holder.  Most of these were shot around f/7.1, which allowed most everything to be in focus.  Photo booths are rarely a place for f/2.8, since you get such a diversity of people, outfits, and you must be ready for large groups to wander in.  If there's any drinking, especially, you're bound to have moving targets, such as someone deciding to dance in the booth...
I love this one too!  Is this the Charleston?  You will likely see more of Ashley and Nate on a later post, as I was honored to shoot their wedding nearly a year after this!  I also love bowties!
So, here is another example of a pleasing misfire with the speedlights.  The camera-right flash fired, but the camera-left one did not (probably because it had not fully recharged).  The flash behind and above the couple, camera-right also fired.  This all resulted in more dimensional and dramatic lighting.  You can see the rear light's effect on the top of her hair, and on his shoulders.  Not intentional, not ideal, but sometimes the shot is still appealing!
Oh, so many favorites.  This is Lewis and Krista, the other owners of the Bakery, Cathy's business partners.  The light ended up looking great on the guitar, and I enjoy Krista's innocent wave atop her feathered appearance.  And where did he get that great bowler hat?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Warren Wilson Garden Crew and their Tractor: Swannanoa, North Carolina

This is Joe, Laila, Jenn, Melanie, and Micah, and Arielle in the next shot.  In the summer of 2010, Kacy Spooner and I were working on a project entitled "Stewards: Stories and Perspectives on American Agriculture".  We traveled to 24 states and conducted about 160 oral history interviews and portrait sessions.  We spoke to everyone from agribusiness plant breeders to grassroots farmers, folks with draft horses, tractor salesmen, professors, and, in this case, students.  In Swannanoa, NC, during the Warren Wilson College summer semester, we found this crew of five working on the garden/vegetable production plots.

After a few hours of interviewing members of this crew for the oral history project, it was time for a quick portrait.  Jenn (sitting at the driver's wheel) thought it would be a great idea to pull the tractor out because, hey, people look good with tractors!  The North Carolinian sun was high and bright, a classic bit of trouble for a photographer.  We positioned the tractor so that everybody would face away from the sun.  The camera settings were controlled to expose for the clouds/sky.  The challenge was then to use two small lights to expose the five characters properly.

You can see the sun's position, high, behind, and slightly camera-left, from the shadow cast by the left guy's hat.  See it streak down his chest?  Obviously, this cast his face in shadow, so a bare speedlight was held in my left hand, held at arm's length, to cancel the shadow out.  Another light was set up camera-right; you can see its effect on the right fellow's face and it also served to illuminate the two rear women.  This shot is practically right out-of-camera, with no post-processing.  Probably 8 minutes from parking the tractor to the final shot.

We spent the day with them; we had just come from a series of large-scale commercial chicken, hog, and tobacco operations, and the principled contrast with which this crew was working was stark.  Kacy wrote about them and Warren Wilson College in our blog at the time:
Warren Wilson College is a well known liberal arts school near Asheville that began as an agricultural school in the 19th century. There is still a large agricultural component and we were lucky enough to meet the student farm crew who is running the CSA as well as the market operation this season. It appears as though we have arrived at some kind of farm utopia; everyone is young and beautiful and farm chores in bikini tops is the norm here. Jenn, our main host told us about the origins of Warren Wilson. Agriculture was top priority from the foundation of the school, and in the original mission statement there is even a line about city boys with their "diseases and attitudes" not being welcome on campus.
Another quick shot; this is Arielle, who was working with the herb garden.  Same thing; I set the camera to expose for the building, having her stand with the sun at her back.  Two lights, bare, were used just to counter her hat's shadow and offer some contrast to the darker background. 
We toured around the garden which has an extensive herb section that students harvest to make teas and tinctures for personal use and to sell at the bookstore. The drying shed for the herbs was a small and beautiful log cabin with a kitchen in the downstairs and an attic that had an abundance of different herbs hanging from the rafters. The sweet smell that wafted over us was a mixture of lavender and licorice.
Arielle, pictured above, gave us a tour of that herb area; it really felt great, with herbs in all stages of drying or preservation.   Some more snapshots can be seen on the Stewards blog.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Barker and Her Characters, Portland, Oregon.

This is the Barker, a canine narrator, part jester, part suspense-builder, exuding emotion and weaving a tale before you.  She keeps her eyes wide and movements quick, subtly telling you when to gasp, when to cower, and when to chuckle.  Her hand rests on the shoulder of a man with a frightening story, and she stands by a gypsy with dark powers.
Cerimon House and its director, Randall Stuart, gave me full freedom in setting up these portraits, which is usually welcome (but sometimes stressful).  Given that The One You Feed was a macabre, eerie play, meant to give chills, I went for a high-contrast, deep-shadow series of images.  Two lights. On the porch outside the playhouse, at night.  Because it was nighttime, I set my aperture and shutter to a level at which the frame would be completely dark, so all light came from two small speedlights on shoot-through umbrellas.  I kept the actors about 5-6 feet away from the wall to minimize shadow-casting and, in this case, chose a narrow aperture to intentionally blur the two background actors.  This is the Barker's portrait,  The other two are props in the story she is telling.
The scene is from a play, performed last Halloween in Portland, about a werewolf and a small village full of frightened and distorted townsfolk. The One You Feed was written by J. Pizarro and performed as a partial-play, partial-salon-reading at Cerimon House, a fantastic small theater and troupe in NE Portland.  The Barker was played by Gretchen Rumbaugh, the man/werewolf is David Buttaro, and the gypsy is Cecily Overman

Cerimon House has hired me a few times to photograph their rehearsals and do some portraits; this was one of my favorites, with elaborate masks created by Portland artist Jane Clugston. There's nothing quite like taking portraits of actors who are not only in costume, but in character.  While a business portrait often takes some work to get the subject to emote, an actor often just needs to be told, "you're sad."  And then they're sad.

A few more shots of the townsfolk.  I love this series!
As you can see, the light on camera-left is brighter than the one on camera-right.  The right light is directly to the side of the actor, while the camera-left light is closer to my camera.  This allowed a shadow to be cast on the one of the actor's eyes, but the right light gives highlights to separate her from the background.  The sticks were already on the porch in a pot, and I thought, "cool, maybe that will look neat in the background!"
One of my favorites, but this one was a misfire.  Note that the camera-right light (on an optical slave) did not fire, probably due to me shooting too quickly, and it not recharging in time.  Compare the dark side of this actor with the actor in the previous image.  All dark, no highlights.  So, this image is lit with a single shoot-through umbrella, which darkened the background and made it even more eerie, as a nighttime shot should be in a town haunted by werewolves and gypsies.  I did adjust shutter speed slightly to record the candle flame.
The Sheriff. Cool masks, hm?  Lights were lowered a bit to match the level of his hat brim, so I could get light both onto his eyes and onto the top of the hat. 
Our hero/villain, the werewolf, cursed by a jealous gypsy.  A dapper man, a frightful beast, full of seriousness and nervousness.  That's not to say he was an innocent saint.  As with the first village person image, note the faint bit of light on his ear, just enough to keep a little separation from the dark background.  In post-processing, I did add a vignette to all the images, to keep in line with the over-the-top rough-and-tumble times in which the play was set.
The gypsy lives in a tree, and the town drunk has seen her.  He tries to convince the townsfolk that she's out there, but none believe him.  She is standing on a tree here, next to the porch.  I adjusted lights to that none would be shed on her feet, by feathering the camera-left light up towards her face.  Another light on the right is high up, angled down to catch the tops of their heads.  He is on his knees to make it look as if she is even higher up, but of course we had to keep them close for image integrity.  It's like a fable, an image like this, trying to convey a scene of a story by exaggerating some aspect of the tale.