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Chokra-and-Awe: Loren Wohl Blasts Through The Fog and Noise

On the face of it, music photographer Loren Wohl's backlit photos of performance artist Chokra are themselves a series of cool photos. But dig a little deeper and they are a textbook example of gaining access and building out your book.

And the latter is just as important—if not more so—as the former.

Have a Plan, and Work To It

The photos grab your attention, but the process of getting to the photos should be the real takeaway. This line from one of Loren's emails struck me instantly:

"I picked up my first camera in March of 2009 to get closer to musicians ."

Simple, huh? But most people never take a moment to consciously analyze why they shoot. Maybe it is just that you like it, which is fine. But you are on a journey, and every journey needs a compass point.

So, too, does your photography. And it is a simple as finishing this sentence:

I take photos in order to _____________.

"I always wanted to work in the music industry," Loren goes on. "And photography became a way for me to be creative while working with people I deeply respect and admire. I produced music in high school, was in a really terrible band with my friends, and thought I'd go on to DJ or produce records."

So he knows what he wants to do. Or close, anyway— he knows what field he wants to explore. The camera is really just a small tool that allows you to do the things you really want to do.

"I just want to take photos" is perhaps the least useful reason to want to take photos. Find The Thing you really want to do, or accomplish. Then use the camera to help you do The Thing.

The camera is not the end-all. It is a catalyst.

Gain Access and Make Contacts

Knowing why you want to shoot will point you to what you want to shoot. Which leads you to your next challenge, which is to be where that thing is.

Wohl started out shooting for the (now defunct) blog, RCRD LBL. Not Rolling Stone, but it got him into the music scene. Since then, he has shot for Red Bull, MTV, SPIN, The Fader, NPR and Time Out New York, among others. And in that same capacity, he was shooting events for MoMA PS1.

It was there that he first photographed performance artist Chokra. Typically at this kind of job you are not going to have a lot of control, or the ability to make the kind of photos you want.

But you now have two very critical things: an intersection with a cool subject (Chokra) and some currency (the photos you made.)

"He (Chokra) was easily one of the more interesting performers I saw while working there, so I made sure to get in touch with him afterwards," Wohl said. "I sent him the photos and he was really happy with them. He reached out to me a few weeks ago, almost two years after the PS1 performance, and asked me to take photos in October.

Now you have access and political capital. And make no mistake, there are always politics involved in this stuff. Who you are shooting for is key. Shooting for MoMA PS1 gets you access. But shooting for Chokra gets you control.

Step it Up a Notch

Wohl said he had grown considerably in the two years since first shooting Chokra. So he brought to bear he new technical skills and a desire to do something really cool.

Having a built-in familiarity with the style of performance, he worked with Chokra to essentially create a studio around the event.

Because of the use of fog and color, he decided to backlight the entire scene and count on the reflectance of the fog and wall behind him for any frontal fill. The room was fairly small, which also helped.

"My camera handled the contrast nicely," he said. "I shoot with the D800 and I think it's incredible how much detail you can pull out of the shadows and highlights. The megapixels have steered people away from the camera, but for me it's more about the dynamic range."

He backlit the performers from one wall, and the audience watched from the other three directions. Again, shooting for the artist gives you access and power you would not otherwise get.

While I was in college, I shot the NCAA Gymnastics Championships for the NCAA themselves. They pay was shit, but the access was the nearest thing I have ever been to video game-style invulnerability. I leveraged that unlimited access that weekend to shoot at the same time for a dozen different college Sports Info departments.

I did 12- to 18-hour days on no sleep, but I cleaned up. I ended up throwing an epic party with the proceeds—and buying a Nikkor 200/2 with the leftovers. (Priorities, right?)

Even with good access, Wohl had to sell the idea and concept. He explained how the flashes as positioned would look during the performance. Chokra (rightly) agreed they would actually be additive to the event. Win-win.

Restriction Equals Creativity

Wohl knew he wanted to backlight it, but there were still variables. Using multiple backlights as opposed to one would make the scene much more three-dimensional. He had 4 Einstein e640s and grids: 2 30's and 2 40's. From there he designed his light.

He put the 40s on the insides and the 30's on the outside, to help to control and concentrate the overall spread. That's really smart, actually, and he might not have thought of it if he had 4 40's and 4 30's. The older I get, the more I find that restriction is the best catalyst for creativity.

The strobes were dialed down to 37ws each, meaning he technically could have done this with speedlights on half power. Which is also pretty cool for those of you with ideas in your heads at this point.

The light was clean (all strobe) at 1/250th at f/5.0 at ISO 100, but Wohl dragged the shutter throughout the performance to pick up the ambient with needed.

He covered the strobe heads with plastic bags to protect them from the powder/spice combo that Chokra uses in the performance. He also got a little pro tip from the artist himself on removing the clingy color from himself after the fact: use Swiffer refills.

Color run shooters, take notice.

To see more photos from the evening, hit Loren's blog post. Also (and I love this tidbit) check out Loren's website where he is doing something I have not yet seen.

In "tearsheets," he is including not only traditional print tears but screen grabs of online uses as well. And even smarter, he is screen-grabbing his interactions with his subjects and including those, too. Brilliant.

All photos ©2013 Loren Wohl, used with permission.

OA Next: Cellist Carolyn Rosinsky


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