film festival diary '97
Day 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6 > 7 > 8
Day Three


>>I used to bring a lot of equipment with me on shoots -- lights, stands, cables, extra cameras. After a few years the inevitable happened and I developed bursitis in my right shoulder. Now I carry around a small bag and a lightweight tripod. 

I've gotten pretty good at using floor lamps and window light, and holding my camera really still. It's a great working method, especially if you have five minutes at the most to get the shot.


Woke up at 8:30 with only a few hours of sleep to get to the camera store early. Pick up film and rented backdrop. Rush home, load bag and get to hotel. 

First shoot with the Belgian director of film called "Ma Vie en Rose". Ingrid is already doing the interview when I get there. I sit on the bed and listen while they talk. He's very funny. The room I note, is very dark, on a low floor, blocked by trees. Good thing I've got a steady hand. 

Ingrid finishes up and I quickly set up my spot. The film sounds a bit baroque so I put him in front of a flowered curtain -- which will be mostly out of focus but a good texture. I grab a shaded floor lamp to use for fill and notice that the shade can be tilted at a 45 degree angle. It becomes my key light, and I place it a couple of feet from the subject. I sit him down and sit in a chair a foot and a half away from him. 

This is my standard operating procedure. I like getting up really close to people with a short lens - a 50 mm or even a 35 mm.  Some people find is very disconcerting...I remember Tony Bennett -- a very nice man, by the way -- asking uncertainly, "Aren't you a bit close?"  Of course I am, but then he'd probably never had someone do a whole shoot inches from his face before; the usual method with celeb photos is to keep a distance of a few feet, get some background details, some of the "celestial body", use a "flattering" long lens.  Not for me! 

I shoot a whole roll, cropping very close to his chin and/or forehead line, and he mugs a little bit, which I don't mind -- mugging isn't strictly a defense mechanism for most people, but a natural way of expressing extra-verbal meaning, and therefore not unwelcome in my photos.  Frankly, I'm not always that interested in a "soulful" direct address of the subject to the camera, with an "eyelight" filling in the pupil to give the "windows of the soul" a sparkle.  These are portrait cliches.  I think portraits are about surfaces, the way the subject presents themsleves to the world.  I just like to get up close and let them do what they want, uncomfortable or not.  I never give much direction in a shoot -- I'm interested enough in how people look without imposing "stage directions".


Next shoot: Jim Jarmusch. I shot him about ten years ago, and he hasn't changed a bit, as far as I can tell: white hair in a pompadour, very striking, unblinking eyes, laconic manner. A good subject physically. 

He asks that I not shoot during the interview, and I assure him that I hate doing that, so I sit and listen to the interview. Ingrid is nervous as hell; she thinks he's very intimidating, and might be a bad interview if she doesn't ask good questions. This is ridiculous -- Ingrid is one of the best interviewers I've ever worked with. I can't recall how many people have told me after she leaves the room how much they enjoyed the interview, including the notoriously difficult Mike Leigh. 

The room is really light, so I'm not worried. This particular hotel has painted every room with this sort of subtle stipple, which looks great in black and white, if you can find a few square feet near the windows with no pictures screwed to the wall or big chunks of furniture blocking your shot. Ingrid leaves and Jarmusch sits down, expresses concern that his cold has given him a red nose. I reassure him that I'll be printing at a high contrast and details like that will be lost.  He asks what lens I'm using. I like it when the subject knows a bit about what I'm doing. 

Once again:  tight crops, assymetrical compositions, shallow depth of field, focus on eyes.  I ask him to look to the side, my only direction most of the time.  Shoot over in a minute and a half, by my estimate.  I'm always this fast with a 35mm camera and motor drive.  I thank him, he asks me where the used camera shops are, we talk arcane cameras for a minute or two, I leave. 

>>I've stopped smoking since then.

I rush home to set up the studio. I have a big shoot (big for me, anyway) for one of the fashion mags in the city - not models but a portrait of a scarf designer. The art director asked me to get the feel of this portrait of Jewel in my portfolio, so I rented the same backdrop (I've gotta buy one of these some day soon, but they cost hundreds of bucks) and have the shot on hand to show the subject. I get everything set up before she arrives, and smoke a few butts before she gets there -- I always need a smoke before a shoot. I wonder if Winston Lights would sponsor me? 

The subject arrives and shows me her scarves, beautiful velvet but very dark. I choose an irridescent scarf with a striated pattern as the one that'll shoot best. She's wearing an Issey Miyake shirt, all tiny pleats and weird construction. That stuff photographs so beautifully.

>>I don't have a lot of heroes, but if there are any, Irving Penn would be one. I think I've been copying his work pretty much from the first portrait I ever took. I don't think I'm alone.
The Miyake reminds me of Irving Penn, my major inspiration and the guy whose style I'm ripping off wholesale for this shoot. I sit her down and adjust the lights; a big softbox close to her left side, a hard light on the scarf to catch the highlights, a fill on the background behind big flats to contain the light. It took me years to figure out how to use all this stuff, so I always have a great feeling of achievement when I set up a studio portrait. 

I work on one basic pose, with the subject looking in half profile to the light, the scarf draped over her shoulder and the left hand holding up the end, fringe spilling between the fingers. I go through four rolls with the slightest variations in poses. Crop most of the time just above her eyebrows; some shots strictly symmetrical, some not. I wish I had a grid in my viewfinder, thinking of the 17th and 18th century artists who composed entirely in grids. I like that kind of rigorousness.

The subject is very nervous and says she hates having her picture taken. That puts her with about 98% of the public, or at least those whom I've shot. I love having my picture taken; it's a shame I'm so damned un-photogenic. The simple but disciplined pose and the obligation to showcase her work keeps her mind off her nervousness, I think. 

The shoot ends and we talk about work spaces, and the need for lots of light in a studio.  I tell her about my dream house -- a simple city home with a garage out back enlarged into a north-light skylit studio. She tells me that she's sure I'll get it, since I seem so determined. I hope she's right.  If I could have days like this every week, I'd be halfway there. 

I work like this -- this much, this intensely -- once a year. 

 Photos and writing ©1997 Rick McGinnis.  All rights reserved.