On Assignment: Man on a Mission

Not all stoppers are over-the-top lighting tours de force. Some stop you with quiet, elegant confidence. Or great composition. Or a strong connection. Such is the case with photographer Bret Hartman's portrait of human rights activist Chad Griffin for The Washington Post.

Honestly, as an online reader I barely even notice The Post's print edition anymore. But sitting on the kitchen table, Hartman's section-front portrait stopped me in my tracks.

As an LA-based freelancer for The Washington Post, Hartman is always auditioning for the next assignment while he is shooting the current one. Which is very different than being a staffer. Here's what that's like.

At least between the regular waves of mass layoffs, newspaper staffers are fairly secure in their daily grind. Ironically, even more so in a bad economy. That's because if your DOP can't get a new hire if s/he fires you, you're as safe as the boss's uncle.

Not so the stringer, which is the industry term for a freelancer. Every assignment you shoot is also an audition for the next. So you always want to outdo what you did the last time. And that's exactly the work ethic that the 32-year-old Hartman brings to his regular work for The Post.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that you are stringing for a department full of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers—with more than a few having been repeat winners. So not only do you not wanna blow it, but you have to do something pretty cool to stand out.

The advantage is, if you are a hard worker you can probably get more time with your subject than the typical staffer busy with a 2- to 3-assignment day. Which is exactly what Hartman did while photographing activist Chad Griffin, who campaigns for marriage equality.

Says Hartman, of the assignment process:

I usually get a phone call from one of the photo editors, then I'm sent the assignment via email. The photo assignments from The Post are usually very detailed with background information from the writer and photo editors about the subject or subjects, and what they are specifically looking for from the shoot.

I then call the assigning editor to talk to him/her to make sure we are all on the same page. It also gives me a chance to bounce my ideas off of them. I always do my own research on the web too.

If I'm shooting a portrait I like to see what other photos have been shot before. It sometimes helps to see how the subject is in front of the camera. For this portrait my editor and I had talked about getting a good photo of him looking directly into the camera, so that he would really connect with the reader due to his new position with Human Rights Campaign. 

Hartman said he spent five hours with Griffin, which by all accounts is a luxurious amount of time that will definitely improve one's odds for a nice portrait. He did the more formal portraits first, at Griffin's home, then followed him into the office to shoot more candid stuff during meetings.

I thought the portrait itself was beautiful—very Arnold Newman, actually, with its meticulous geometric composition, lighting and attention to detail. Hartman talks about the evolution of this shot:

This photo evolved during my third setup. I was actually shooting head shots and 3/4 photos using the dark wall as my background. As I was finishing those, I stepped back to see if I was missing anything and I really liked what the books added to the photo.

It is kinda funny that earlier Chad had asked me to not show all the books on the table during the first setup because he thought it made him look messy. I told him, "No, just looks like you're moving to D.C." (Which he was, moving from Los Angeles to D.C. for the new job.)

I felt like the books showed his intelligence and gave the photo a intellectual feel. Chad killed it when it came to the body language, connection with me and the camera, and then ultimately the reader.

When shooting for publication, the photographer generally does not make the ultimate call on photo selection or even things like a final crop. Sure, they can't run it if you don't transmit it. But beyond that, everything is in play. Hartman goes on:

I'm not 100% behind the composition of the printed version of the photo. I actually shot it wider, with more room on the left of the frame putting him in the middle of the frame:

My editors decided to crop out the window on the left, ultimately making it a stronger photo. While I was shooting this I liked him in the center of the frame with the window on the left, and the books on the right framing him in a way. But while I was editing I also realized it was possibly stronger and less distracting to crop out the window.

In the end I decided to send the full-frame photo to my editors and they made the decision to crop it. A prime example of why photographers need editors. :)

Here's the photo as it ran, lede on the Style section front:


How it Was Made

If you look at Hartman's other work (links at bottom of the post) this photo is a little atypical. Hartman says he is really getting into shooting portraits lately. This was actually the first time he had ever used a beauty dish, and was experimenting as he went.

"This portrait was a very simple one-light setup and a little bit of fill," he said. "I used a 22" Beauty Dish on a 7b Profoto pack. I positioned the light to the right of the subject slightly above his head and angled down a bit. I feathered the dish off the subject towards the books to add a little light to the other room. I used the Silver side of a 5 in 1 [reflector] held by my trusty assistant Brian Lipps, to the left of the subject about 3 feet away to add a tiny bit of light to the other side."

As for the camera-awareness and subject interaction, Hartman pretty much let the assignment drive the process:

I had talked with my editor about the photo. We wanted a photo of him looking directly into the camera so that he would really connect with the reader.

So I simply explained to Chad what I was looking for while chatting before we started shooting and the rest was all him. He is a very confident, kinda, and very comfortable in front of the camera. Which I think comes across in this photo.

Bret Hartman is based out of Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to The AP, The LA Times, NBCUniversal and The Washington Post. You can see more of his work here.

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