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On Assignment: HoCoPoLitSo

Sometimes you happen upon beautiful window light for a portrait, and there is no sense even unpacking a speedlight -- just frame, and snap away.

Alas, this portrait of Ellen Kennedy was not one of those times.

I photographed Ellen, founder of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, in her home office for the Columbia Archives last week. The window light was beautiful, but not in a way that would translate well in my camera.

So I decided to recreate that light with a lower, camera-friendly contrast range using a pair of SB-800s.


Columbia, Maryland is a community that was pretty much invented by a visionary named James Rouse in the 1960s. It was designed as a garden to grow people, and by most measures it has been very successful. I moved here in 1988 and quickly grew to love it.

Rouse designed the city around principles such as racial integration (in the 1960s, very forward thinking) economic integration of housing and even things as simple as clustered mailboxes to increase the likelihood you would meet your neighbors.

It was a different type of community and it attracted interesting people. People who, as the Apple ad used to say, would think different. Very early in its life Columbia nurtured an archives program, a charitable foundation, an orchestra and, thanks to Ellen and her ilk, a poetry and literature society. The latter has gained national and international recognition since its founding in 1974.

Though I am neither a poetry nor a literature person (my wife, of course, is) I can completely identify with taking a leap off of a cliff into the unknown just to see what what happens. I would like to think I have a lot in common with people like Ellen. Just a different time, subject and medium.

I have photographed her several times, and always enjoy spending time with her. She retired recently, and the contents of her home office are being put into preservation in the Columbia Archives. My job was to photograph it as it was -- a marvelous room full of literary history.

Since 1974, many a great writer has passed through Columbia at the request of HoCoPoLitSo. There would be readings, large-venue performances and of course, lots of after-parties. (This did start in the '70s, after all.) For several decades HoCoPoLitSo has also produced the local access TV show "The Writing Life," which I like think of as Wayne's World meets Masterpiece Theatre. For bookworms, it doesn't get much better.

Invisible Light

I wanted to make a quiet photo of Ellen in her office, and I did not want the light to call attention to itself. It made sense to mimic the window light with flash so my camera could see it the way my eye saw the ambient.

The sliding door at left looks out over a beautiful lake, and there are trees around the patio. So you would expect that the shaded trees would be dark enough to hold detail even if the light source was the indirect sun beyond.

I placed an SB-800 in a shoot-through umbrella outside the door, synced with a Pocket Wizard. At one-half power, I could pull everything together at 1/250th at f/4 at ISO 400. The room had a very warm feel, but looked too sterile under white light. A 1/4 CTO gel on that key light warmed it up just a tad, for a better connotation.

Since the light is only about three feet on the other side of the door, it falls off very quickly as you move over to the camera right area of the frame. So I filled from on-axis using a second PW'd SB-800 in an Orbis ring flash adapter. It is dialed way down (1/16th power) as I do not want this to appear to be a second light source at all.

You really can only see that it was there if you take it away. The only telltale is the subtle highlight coming back at me from the wood on the camera-right chair. It allows the natural falloff across the frame, but puts a floor under it to keep it from going to dark at camera right.

This light is appealing to me because it doesn't appear to be artificial. I see this photo as being for 100 years from now, for someone studying the cultural renaissance that was early Columbia. The last thing I want to do is to hammer them over the head with the lighting.

The lines and framing in the photo are maybe a little anal-retentive. But the subtle light helps to balance that out. I love that the room is exactly as-is and speaks to countless hours of reading -- total immersion in literature. I also like the scrunched-up pants leg. It's just … comfortable. Makes me wonder how many winter days have been spent in here with a good book, a blanket and maybe a warm beverage.

Close to Home

Nothing makes me happier as a photographer than producing photos that have a place in my immediate community. It was the key ingredient in my formative years, and I had the time of my life doing that right out of college in what may have been the best photo paper in the country at the time.

I have been working hard not only to find and create as many of these type of photos as possible, but to develop a business model around it. In many ways I am still feeling around in the dark, but some things are starting to work, too.

It is something I hope to talk about about more in the future, with an eye towards inspiring others to consider a similar approach.

Next: Frickin' Lasers


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My current project: The Traveling Photograher's Manifesto