On Being Photographed
By Sara Lando -- When I was living in Los Angeles working on my graphic novel project, I received an e-mail from some guy wanting to take my picture.
On a daily basis, I’d rather be covered in spiders while raccoons gnaw at my feet (just like everybody else), but Los Angeles based photographer Charlie Chipman really seemed a nice person. And after googling his work and making sure he actually wasn’t some GWC with a portfolio full of naked girls biting a finger, I agreed to meet him over cake. I like cake.
His concept was pretty straightforward and intriguing: he would give me a Mamiya RZ67 and 10 rolls of film to play with; he’d develop the film and build a lamp out of those images and then shoot my portrait with the lamp over my head, an idea he got after seeing a picture William Anthony took of a lamp shade made of 35mm slides.
The “picture within pictures” theme was something I was working on myself at the time, and who doesn’t enjoy putting lamp shades on their head? I said I was game and of course immediately thought of ways I could get myself out of this. In addition to not letting other people take my pictures, I shoot digital and I never hand out unprocessed files. The only way to be more outside of my comfort zone here would have been to have my mother on set talking about having sex with dad.
But generally speaking, I believe uncomfortable is good: it’s where I learn stuff and grow.
I think involving me in the making of the lamp was a great way to make me feel invested in the project: it wasn’t only about me. So while I was breathing into a paper bag I was also excited about the challenge and so worried about not screwing up someone else’s project that I forgot about canceling.
When Charlie actually sent me an sms telling me the pictures I just shot turned out fine, I was over the moon happy. His enthusiasm became my enthusiasm. We were a team and we were in business.
While I was busy learning how to operate a camera built for hands way bigger than mine, he was busy drilling holes, cleaning holes, painting slide mounts, twisting little metal rings through tiny holes and testing. It is not exactly convenient to mount medium format slides any longer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had the world’s last remaining supply of medium format cardboard slide mounts.
By the time I got to Charlie’s house I was back to being a bundle of nerves. Having the time to have my hair and make up done by the amazing Sarah Nelson calmed me down (and made me feel pretty enough not to ask to post-produce the files myself.) And chatting with Charlie made the whole process feel like we were just playing around. He wasn’t fidgeting with stuff, he had evidently spent a good amount of time doing that before my arrival. We were just two photographers having fun with a bunch of lights and exchanging stories.
The setup was in Charlie’s living room. The lamp was hanging from the ceiling, and he boomed an Elinchrom Ranger with 7” reflector and grid shooting straight down the center of the lamp. This illuminated the slides as well as my face. For rim lights he used a Profoto Acute2 pack with two heads, both with larger reflectors and grids. There was an SB-800 bouncing off a white Styrofoam board below my face for fill.
Inside the lamp what you don’t see is an assortment of string, tape, clothes pins, diffusion papers, 6x6 sized ND gels and diffusion to balance individual “trouble” slides' brightness. At the bottom was another diffusion layer to keep my face from being hit with too much light.
The background was a projection of one of my pictures. A Bill Brandt book was used as the boom counterweight, which was a nice touch. An even nicer touch was a rolled yoga mat for my knees, something that tells me he had been taking test photos and experiencing how it felt to stand on his knee for a long time.
Charlie started shooting tethered to a DSLR so he could see in detail what the lamp and light was doing and make any necessary adjustments. (Gutsy! I’m not sure I’d let the subject peek at the monitor, most of all if the subject was me.)
When he got it sorted out and hanging straight he switched to using the Mamiya RZ67 with a combination of Kodak Portra as well as a roll of Ektachrome because eventually he is going to need to build a lamp shade made of pictures that he took of people with lamp shades on their heads, for his self-portrait. (“Yo Dawg, I heard you like pictures, so I put a picture in your picture so you can take a photograph while taking a photograph” -Xzibit)
At the end of the day he took a Polaroid picture for me and one for Sarah to take home, which was such a lovely thing to do! I felt I had been taken care of; I walked out of there happy and bouncy and that Polaroid is right next to my monitor as a reminder of something fun and cool I was involved in. That’s how I want people to feel when I shoot them.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one having the jitters, though. I asked Charlie if it made him anxious take pictures of photographers; to work in front of someone who might have done things differently (I know I would have been scared to bits in his place), and he answered:
“I’m anxious to work with most anyone for the first time. So yes, it does make me anxious to photograph photographers with their photographs. Putting my idea out there to people I admire and presenting myself with the opportunity to be denied or ignored is always an anxiety-inducing experience. Then if they say yes it goes to a different level of nerve-wrackedness, because now I have to follow through and turn a sketch on a napkin into something more than that. See, I could come up with 1,000 concepts to making slide lamps on my own, but none of them would be what you came up with. So here we have your ideas and my ideas colliding.
The Collaboration. When it works out it trumps any anxiety that might have been brought up during the process.”
Being able to give up control and let other people see you through their eyes is an amazing learning experience. We become so comfortable behind the camera we often forget how emotionally challenging being photographed can be.
If you have a photographer friend, I highly recommend setting up a fun afternoon in which you take pictures of each other. If you don’t, pay a professional photographer to take your portrait.
Or don’t. There’s still another option...
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