I was recently given my first assignment by Sky Sports magazine NZ (sadly it was for their last issue) to produce a portrait of Mark Gilbert, the US Ambassador to New Zealand. When I first got the assignment I was a little apprehensive, knowing that it would be quite a pressured assignment. But simultaneously I was also quietly excited about the possibilities for a great portrait. The US Ambassador is an ex-White Sox baseball player and the crux of the story, at least as far as my part was concerned, was to tell the amalgamated tale of a sportsman-turned-ambassador.
I had two weeks to arrange a suitable time for the shoot and plan details for the portrait. It is very easy for your imagination to run wild with ideas for portraits (or photo ideas in general for that matter), and this assignment was no exception. The embassy’s press officer and I discussed possibilities of how to visually tell this story. Based on these conversations and further discussions I had with the journalist writing the article and the magazine’s editor and art director, I imagined myriad such scenarios including:
Mark standing, resting against a large, plush desk in his office at the embassy, while gently leaning forwards resting both hands on top of a baseball bat. A shelf lined with books in the background, and dappled, golden afternoon sunlight streaming through a window.
At his home standing sideways-on to the camera, in front of a large mosaic of President Obama, a baseball bat resting on one shoulder, a catcher’s mitt resting in the other hand; cross-lit but with light shadows to create a subtle sense of drama.
Email conversations with the writer and the magazines editor and art director yielded more useful ideas for the theme of the shoot: Rolled-up sleeves CHECK. Casually leaning against desk CHECK. Pretending to take a swing at an invisible ball NO WAY (if you Google baseball portraits, this is probably one of the most common poses). Draping the American flag over one shoulder, or have it hanging in the back ground. CLICHÉ ALERT (or so I thought!).
To prepare for the assignment, I created a shot list of 4-5 variations of the shots I would like to use; from full-length shots to tight close-ups. I even tested the simple two-light set-up. When the day of the shoot arrived, I was nervous but prepared. All equipment was packed and ready. I’d taken the day off work so no time pressure there.
It took me ten minutes to have my equipment X-rayed at the security gate, handed over my iPhone (no phones or cameras allowed – at least they didn’t take this rule too seriously!). I then met the press officer and we entered the foyer of the main embassy building.
There we were confronted with an impenetrable wall of glass, with a US marine barely visible through all of that semi-transparent protection. Here I handed over my NZ drivers license (as a form of photo ID) in return for a clip-on ID badge. The marine, in all of his well-drilled-robot-like fashion, proceeded to instruct the press officer of the rules I MUST follow, all the while referring to me in the third person. I guess I was invisible through all of that toughened glass (must have been unable to see me due to internal reflection or something).
With a roll of her eyes, the press officer escorted me into their media briefing room where I was informed that this would be the sole location for the shoot. It was a featureless room of approximately four metres by four metres, stuffed with chairs, a lectern, tables, audio-visual equipment and other non-descript items for all your media briefing needs. Initially I was a bit panicked when I was told that this was it. More so when I was told that the Ambassador had an important guest arriving imminently and I would only have 20 minutes to do the portrait.
Luckily for me the media room had several backdrops (black/blue curtains were my background of choice), four LED panel lights and a spotlight mounted on rails attached to the ceiling, and most importantly, an AV tech that knew how to use them. They also had an American flag I could use as part of the background! All of this enabled me to mimic a studio-look to the portrait, and to hide the fact that we were in a featureless media briefing room.
With a handshake firm enough to cause a temporary disability in my trigger finger, the Ambassador greeted me, and we ‘shot the shit,’ as they say, and proceeded with the shoot. Mark had fun toying with me, pointing out the irony of an Englishman using imperial measurements to give directions……..can you just step back with your left foot a couple of inches……..
Explaining to the AV tech the look I was after and the lighting style I wanted to use (contrasty, cross/back-lighting on the subject, with a spotlight on the background) I managed to come away from this shoot with some reasonable portraits under the circumstances. Not quite what I had in mind originally, but the moral of this story is to always expect (and if you can plan for it) the unexpected!