Christian Colberg's Orchestrated Coworker Portraits

If you get the chance to visit Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, take a moment to view the collection of portraits of BSO musicians on the wall. (Pictured above is violinist Yasouki Tanaka.)

The photos were done by one of their own, violist Christian Colberg. Shot with minimalist gear over the course of a summer, the project is a template for any amateur photographer with a day job doing something else. In other words, this is what can what can happen when you allow your vocation and your avocation to cross-pollinate.

Music and Photography

A musician since age 4, Colberg said he fell in love with photography at age 12.

"I had to make a decision as to whether to continue with music or become a photographer," he said. "I decided to continue with music hoping that someday I would make enough money that I could pursue photography."

Now a successful professional musician (currently the principal violist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) he picked his camera back up around age 30. He had spent the interim playing music but studying light, so he was able to move back into photography relatively seamlessly.

Colberg feels that photography is 95% light and 5% gear -- and that there is a lot of crossover between photography and music. (I have long felt the same way, and it is gratifying to see it explained from a professional musician's point of view.)

Both photographers and musicians can feel dependent on using only the most high-end gear. Colberg uses as an example something musicians call the Stradivarious effect. In music, the advantage from owning one of the world-famous stringed instruments is quite real. In effect, it can make you sound better than you actually are.

Most professional musicians are not lucky enough to own one, and perhaps that is not a bad thing. One famous violinist said, "If everybody had a Stradivarius, nobody would practice."

Taken even further, Colberg notes that the Stradivarious effect basically says, if you need a Stradivarius to sound good, you suck. No worries of that handicap for Colberg in the photographic department, as his budget allows only a pretty spartan set of gear, and that's okay.

"If the only way you can be good at your craft is by having the best tools available for that craft," he says "then I question how well you know your craft to begin with."

Principal Bassist Robert Barney

Colberg sees irony in the similarities and differences between music and photography.

"Anybody with a camera can accidentally take a picture that is just as good as that of a professional photographer," he notes. "The same cannot be said about giving a violin to somebody and their accidentally playing a Mozart violin Concerto. The skill needed to play a Mozart violin Concerto far supersedes the skill needed to be a good photographer."

However (and herein lies the irony) he says, "The artistry needed to be a good photographer far supersedes the artistry needed to play a Mozart violin Concerto."

He elaborates:
"Music is a living art – it is never the same twice. If you go on stage and play a Mozart violin Concerto and concentrate purely on the technical aspect of it (i.e. just play the notes without any kind of emotional involvement) every performance will always be different. You can't help it.  

The same cannot be said for photography. When you take a photograph you freeze a moment. In order for that photograph to speak to you differently every time you see it, the artistry needed must be monumental."

Producing The Portraits

I asked Colberg about the process by which all of this happened. I was somewhat shocked but also pleased to hear the original idea came from the orchestra's PR department. Eileen Andrews, at the time the head of BSO PR, had heard that Colberg was an avid photographer and suggested a series of portraits which showed the musicians as multifaceted, unique people.

Of his first reaction to the idea, Colberg's answer is one of the most honest I have ever heard by a photographer: "My initial response was an exuberant yes," he said, "followed quickly by panic, then doubt, some diarrhea, then yes again."

"She had given me the assignment of coming up with a distinctive photograph for every member of the orchestra," he remembers. "I had to capture who they were in the hopes that the audience would better relate to us. She basically handed the creative reins over and hoped I would not lead them astray. I will forever be thankful for her trust in me."

Percussionist Brian Prechtl

Says Colberg, on the process of photographing his coworkers:
I learned more about my colleagues that summer than in the past 14 years (up to that point) of playing with them. I became part photographer, part politician and part psychiatrist. Although for the most part everybody gave me their full support, I had to make sure that my approach was calculated in order to receive that full support.

Because I already knew the personnel, I could become who I needed to become in order for them to be comfortable. It didn't always work, but I did okay. In some cases I could not wait to work with some of my colleagues because I knew we would do something fun and creative -- but it turned out they were very uncomfortable with letting go of their fears. And in some cases the opposite happened. I had colleagues that seemed to be as boring as a white toast sandwich with a little white on the side -- but they would surprisingly be filled with color and an almost eager desire to let go.

He consulted with his fellow musicians to find hobbies and interests that might make good visual hooks for the photos. "Being a musician and a little free with the mind I don't need to tell you how far some went," he hints.

He did two versions of each portrait -- one more personal and a one a more staid, professional version. To the BSO's credit, the more personal versions were displayed in the lobby. But they did have to meet approval from upstairs before being chosen for the display. The website published both versions.

Spartan Studio

Principal Oboist Katherine Needleman

Colberg set up in the lobby of the symphony hall and photographed his colleagues against a backdrop of black velvet.

"Not only do I think it's the most elegant and most photographically beautiful backdrop," he said, "but it also helped me to unify the pictures on the wall."

He used a 6Mp Canon EOS 20d, the first digital body he had ever owned. He spent about an hour with each subject, and kept his lighting simple. That was both by choice and necessity. Heretofore, his lighting kit had been "3 or 4 aluminum dome work lights that I bought at Home Depot with a variety of different wattage tungsten bulbs."

(Editor's note: That actually puts Colberg in some excellent company.)

But for this shoot he went all out, buying a couple of 300w (continuous) tungsten soft boxes and a hard light with barn doors. The lighting was kept simple, which allowed him to concentrate on the interpersonal aspects of the shoots. (Note: This would be very, very good advice for anyone trying a project like this for the first time.)

He has since made the jump to using small flash for portraits, citing of all things his dissatisfaction with the tiny pupil size of subjects photographed under bright continuous lights.

"I tried to convince myself that a small pupil is OK but it just isn't," he said.

Welcome to the dark side, Christian.

Apologies to the purists out there, for whom this post was far less about the lighting and more about the process. But I thought Christian offered a lot of insight in a number of different areas. So there you go.


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Grab your passport: Strobist Destination Workshops