Beers With: Vermeer

With apologies to every art student and teacher, ever, today marks the second in an occasional series of chats with Old Masters.

These guys were the original connoisseurs of light, and that is the framework under which we interview them -- as photographers. Turns out, they've been ripped off by photographers so many times at this point that they are actually cool with it.

Which, by the way, is why the Old Masters merit your study. At least to the point of trying to stay awake during that early morning humanities class.

They are, of course, very difficult to pin down for a chat -- what with hundreds of years of fame and all. But as always, perseverance pays off.

A Little Background

I caught up with Johannes Vermeer at a bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC, where he was visiting from The Netherlands for a talk and signing at Kramerbooks.

He is Dutch, and known for his portraiture as well as his use of chiaroscuro-style light, which has become the basis for the way many photographers light today. It is against that backdrop that we began our chat.

David Hobby: First of all, just wanted to start out by saying that I am a big fan of your light. Love the light-against-dark internal separation -- that technique saved me many times while working for a newspaper that basically printed on Charmin.

Johannes Vermeer : Glad to help out. I am sure you learned about it in school.

DH: Well, now that you mention it, we didn't, actually.

JV: Yeah, to be honest that is kinda of a sore point with me. I pioneer the lighting style that has become the modern standard, and you-know-who headlines every beginning lighting class.

DH: You mean Rembrandt?

JV: Thank you. My point, exactly. Didn't even have to mention his name, did I?

DH: Well, no, but ...

JV: Seriously, who ever actually uses Rembrandt lighting? Five sources for a headshot? C'mon…

DH: Monte Zucker, kinda.

JV: Name one more.

DH: Umm… okay, you got me.

JV: Don't worry about it. Rembrandt had a great press agent. Understood the power of a brand like nobody else. He even crowdsourced Night Watch. It was a group commission. I hear he is even working on an iPhone app. He's a machine. You can't fight it.

DH: It matters these days.

JV: Always has.

DH: So, Rembrandt gets the headlines. But your light gets used left, right and center. Can we talk about it for a sec?

JV: Sure.

DH: Okay, then. Let's talk about "The Girl with the Pearl Earring."

JV: Just one light -- a soft box up and camera left. Black backdrop, no fill. Very simple.

DH: And yet, it is one of your most famous images.

JV: Just goes to show you, it is not about complexity. It is about the connection between subject and viewer.

DH: They even made a movie about it.

JV: I got to be "technical advisor," which was a hoot. But let's just say I liked the painting better than the movie and leave it at that.

DH: Oh, don't be so modest. I have a clip!

JV: Oh, wonderful…

DH: So, did you at least get to meet Scarlett Johansson?

JV: Oh, yes.

DH: And?

JV: Lovely. Just stunning. If I weren't 377 years old…

DH: Right. So tell me more about your light. You like to use window light a lot.

JV: Not as much as you might think. I usually drop a medium or large soft box right outside the window and ape northern light. More control over intensity, fall-off, color, etc.

DH: Makes sense. What strobes do you use?

JV: Profoto 7B's. That way, we are not power dependent. And it's not like we do a million frames, either. I am about the moment. The 7B's work great -- one out, one in.

DH: Whaddya mean?

JV: One outside the window, one inside the room. Soft box key on the subject -- usually upper camera left -- and a second soft box from camera right, in back, on the background.

DH: That simple?

JV: That simple. And that's where the separation comes from, too. Light against dark. That's what chiaroscuro literally means.

DH: Yeah, I know. Italian right?

JV: Right.

DH: So, let's talk about something a little more complex. Tell me about "The Procuress," just above.

JV: Whaddya wanna know?

DH: That one's a little, um, spicy.

JV: I like to mix it up.

DH: Where did you come up with the concept?

JV: It was her idea. She was from Model Mayhem. They all were. She wanted something a little racy. Had tattoos everywhere. We just went heavy on the wardrobe.

DH: So tell me, is Model Mayhem really just a pick-up joint? Or are there serious people there, too?

JV: A lot of folks are just trying to meet women, I think. Except maybe Caravaggio.

DH: Really? Is he strictly professional?

JV: Hardly. He's just not into women. He likes the boys. Young ones.

DH: Oh.

JV: Check his work. You'll see.

DH: Okay, then. How about the light in "Procuress?"

JV: Work it out for yourself.

DH: Alright… Big source camera left. A little up, maybe…

JV: It's a bare head, through a queen-sized bed sheet. Classic McNally. Go on…

DH: Not much coming from camera right -- shadows on the wall in the corner tell that.

JV: Yeah, and?

DH: On-axis fill? About two stops down or so?

JV: Yep. Reveals the detail without leaving a signature. Our eyes can see a greatly expanded tonal range in real life, but when we light an image we have to create it. Not a ring light, though. We used a large umbrella, just behind the camera.

DH: Sweet. You are said to have never sat for a portrait. But that guy on the left, he looks a little familiar.

JV: Does he?

DH: Is it you?

JV: Not sayin'.

DH: Fair enough. But the detail in this image is sweet. How did you shoot it?

JV: PhaseOne P45+, on an old Hassy 500 body.

DH: Looks a little like a Drew Gardner. You know him?

JV: Never met him, but I'm a fan.

DH: I thought you might be. Hey, thanks for your time. I know you have the signing soon, so we should wrap it up. One more thing -- who should I go for next in the series? Any suggestions?

JV: I'm a big fan of Hopper, too.

DH: Dennis?

JV: Edward.

DH: Of course. Can you hook me up?

JV: I'll make a call.

DH: Thanks!

Wrapping Up

Artistic liberties aside, interviewing Vermeer as a photographer might not be such a big stretch. There are many who see his paintings as being a little too accurate. There have been papers which suggest Johannes Vermeer had a little help in the form of a camera obscura.

The geometric accuracy, the simplicity of setting -- even the fact that many of his paintings were (or could have been) painted in the same room -- all point to the use of the crude forefather to the modern camera.

Read More

If you enjoyed this chat, you might want to check out the first in the series, which was with Rembrandt.


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