Monday, January 31, 2011

Dancers Among Us Dancing with a Snowman

Like most New Yorkers, I make fun of my friends who move to LA. "It's always warm." "Ha! You'll hate it - you'll miss the seasons and the snowy days." They've been gloating a lot this winter - this month was the snowiest January IN HISTORY. Literally. Did I mention that I shoot primarily outside, and that I was booked every day this month?

Here's how my days usually look (photo by Geoff Legg).

The day after the most recent blizzard last week, I worked with former Miss Hawaii Ashley Layfield on her actor headshots. Despite the circumstances, we had a terrific shoot - it was a great adventure.

Ashley also happens to be a dancer, currently performing with the NJ Nets. On my way to the studio I saw a few kids making a snowman in the park. So of course I had to combine these elements for Dancers Among Us. Despite freezing toes and slippery snow, Ashley gamely tried to improvise a hip-hop jump while giving the snowman arms. But it really looked like she was trying to stab him in the heart.

The kids had dressed up the other side of the snowman, but I liked this background better. So we did it ourselves, and tried another pose.

We weren't crazy about that one either. Then Ashley mentioned that she's, "a little flexible", and pulled her foot straight up to the sky. I love how understated dancers can be.

I loved it, but there was one little element missing, which I had to find. Fortunately I shoot in a small community, and most people have seen me around. So when I ran over to a random woman and asked to borrow her daughter for a photograph, she didn't blink.

Postscript- ten minutes after taking the final shot, the snowman met with a terrible fate. We turned around and he was gone.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I Went Viral!

11,000 people visited my blog on Wednesday and 7,000 on Thursday -- I'm floored! Thanks to all of you for your interest in my work, and to the new-comers, welcome! I'd love to hear from all of you -- and/or my Facebook fan page.

Monday, January 24, 2011

New Dancers Among Us: Getting Kicked Out of the Plaza Hotel and Buying Lunch for Construction Workers

On Friday I photographed Ellenore Scott, a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance, and Michael McBride, a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for Dancers Among Us. I'm very grateful to the Preston Miller Project for introducing me to these amazing dancers. The six-hour shoot was filmed by Caleb Custer of Design Brooklyn for a web video - keep your eyes out in a couple of weeks for the final cut. In the meantime, take a look at these behind the scenes images taken by photographer Geoff Legg, who was also documenting the event.

Our first stop with Michael was in Harlem. I wanted a shot of the famous Apollo Theater. I walked into the lobby with an entourage carrying lots of cameras, so we didn't quite sneak in under the radar. I asked for access to the theater, they offered the lobby (not very photogenic), and they informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I cannot, under any circumstances, film the facade outside.

So we went outside to film the facade. The problem was that I didn't have a shot. The pure morning snow had melted, the light was too contrasty, and there was nothing interesting going on EXCEPT a potential confrontation between some laborers. Lots of screaming in the street. As I watched the altercation, all I could think was, "That's a really cool vest he's wearing. It matches the Apollo sign. And he has a shovel." So I headed over to the group. "Hi, my name's Jordan, I'm a dance photographer, can one of you lend me your vest and a shovel?"

You just never know until you ask. I got a vest, a shovel, and two workers to join the shot (I promised sandwiches for the entire crew). Michael came up with an unbelievable pose, and I laid down on the wet sidewalk to take a few quick shots. "This will only be a couple of minutes," I promised.

Thirty minutes and 100 photos later, I was satisfied that we had a nice selection of images. Plus Michael was getting sick of falling in the snow, and my jeans were frozen to my butt. It was time to buy lunch!

On the way downtown, I decided to improvise a shot on the subway. I only got screamed at once, and that was easily overshadowed by an enthusiastic bystander stuffing a dollar into Michael's pants.

Our next stop was Bryant Park to meet Ellenore for a shot on the ice skating rink. I had settled on this location when, the night before, Ellenore called me while ice skating in Bryant Park at the very moment that I was on the other line, talking about doing a shot ice skating in Bryant Park! It was a sign.

I was pretty certain our time would be limited - maybe a few chances before we got kicked out. So we rehearsed several poses first.

I found a nice spot on top of a mound of snow and felt very optimistic. No idea why I felt that way, since neither of them can really ice skate very well.

They can't skate, but they sure can dance - even on skates. Amazing. And much to my surprise, we had lots of time to shoot. They had no intention of kicking us out.

That is, until I jumped over the wall to shoot from a different perspective.

But not before we got our shot!

Next, we headed uptown to shoot in the Plaza Hotel. Having learned from the Apollo experience, I asked Caleb to hide his video camera as we walked inside. I promptly forgot my own advice and held my camera for the world (and security guards) to see. The lobby has a beautiful staircase and chandelier, but you won't see any photos of it here. They had us out of there before I could say, "Jump." I have to remember to thank them because the exterior is much cooler looking anyway.

The photography gods were definitely with us. It started snowing! The pure morning snow I missed was replaced by pure evening snow. I grabbed four Spanish tourists and asked them to snuggle together. Ellenore survived hypothermia of the....., and we headed off to our next location.

I have to save some surprises so you'll watch the video. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Best Light for Taking Photographs

Last week I blogged about the virtues of natural light photography and location shooting for actor headshots. Locations allow me to offer my clients a variety of looks, and natural light is extremely flattering. This is all true, but the weather gods have been testing my resolve this winter. Even by northeast standards, this has been a cold, wet winter.

The irony is that the winter light is by far the best of the year (excluding blizzards in Times Square). The sun is low in the sky so it creates long shadows and beautiful back light. The air is extremely sharp, and so are the photos. After every single shoot I want to add one of the photos to my website - that's how beautiful the light is. Here are a few headshot examples from last week, which was extremely cold but very photogenic-

But what if it's just too cold, and the client really can't handle being outside? This happened on Monday. I was shooting Chloe Hurst, a beautiful actress from, ready.... Australia. It was about 25 degrees, and I don't believe Australia ever gets below 60 degrees. This is her first NY winter. She was incredible, and gave it her best try.

We shot about 200 photos before her hands turned bright pink, so we changed course. Of course, I took a lot of shots in my natural light studio.

Since I'm a variety junkie, I really wanted to give her several different locations to choose from. So we got creative. Locations don't always have to be outside, but they do have to be interesting!

What if the conditions are even more extreme, and it's actually snowing? Once again, studio shots and creative locations work well. But why look a gift horse in the mouth? Get out in the snow and take a very unique headshot. How many of these do you think a casting director will see in a day?

I think every headshot photographer, even the misguided studio light photographers, should brave the outdoors for their clients on snowy days. It seems like we'll have lots of opportunities this winter. The snow does something magical. It brings us back to our childhoods and reminds us how alive we can be. That's exactly the energy you should have for your headshots. Enjoy the winter! Before you know it you'll be sweltering in the summer sun.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Photographers Who Inspire Me

Last week I was invited to participate in a photographer's discussion about inspiration, hosted by Carbone Smolan Agency. The purpose was to create a new Canon app for the iPhone (I use Nikon, so I went just to sabotage the event). There were about twelve photographers, and we each presented one photograph for the discussion. The first image came up and my jaw fell to the floor. It is part of a famous series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, shot by David Burnett. I have spent years absolutely loving and envying David's photography.

I was still reeling from the fact that I was on a panel with David Burnett, and then I was blown away yet again by the next photograph. This stunning image is by Doug Menuez. It's featured in his photography book, "Heaven, Earth, Tequila." It depicts an ancient tequila making ritual in Mexico. Naked men stand in vats of agave to help the fermenting process (I never liked tequila anyway, but now I'm over it for sure. Can they make margaritas with Jameson?).

So David was no accident - this was definitely a room full of pros. Another image came from Michael Yamashita for a feature on Marco Polo in National Geographic. Michael has been shooting with Geographic for over 30 years!

At this point I realized I was surrounded by the very photographers I've always wanted to emulate. The question for the panel was, "What inspires you?" And I wanted to shout out, "You do!"

This sounds cheesy, but about twelve years ago I was on the top of a mountain, looking out over the horizon. I took out my point and shoot camera and realized I didn't know how to photograph the landscape. I decided to take a photography class so next time I'd know what film to use. I bought a cheap Pentax and asked my neighbor, Mrs. M., to pose for me. When I saw the image magically appear in the developing solution in the darkroom, I was hooked. I had found my passion.

As a young, untrained photographer with no idea what I was doing, photography magazines became my education. I would walk around NYC and try to copy what I'd seen featured on those pages. I never succeeded, but knowing their artistry existed kept me hopeful. I envied photographers like David, Doug and Michael. They were traveling the world, photographing the most important events and the most celebrated people. I had a crappy little Pentax and a lot of desire. I had no voice, no understanding of the craft, no technical skills, but I kept shooting. When I was discouraged, I would break out a magazine and feel inspired again. Slowly I began to find my voice and my confidence. The past decade has been a blur of activity and accomplishments, but sometimes I still feel like I'm walking around the city with my Pentax and no clue. That's how I felt as I sat with these great artists who I still hesitate to call my peers. And then it was my turn to present a photograph. As I began to speak, softly at first, they leaned forward and listened.

Please do yourself a favor and visit the websites of these three photography icons. They've generously lent their images for this blog, but there is so much more stunning work to see.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Last Thursday I participated in the first of a weekly industry forum at Reproductions. I was on a panel with two other headshot photographers, and we had a lot of fun. The event was sold-out, and we covered all issues relating to actor headshots. Very lively discussion!

At one point the moderator, Tony Nation (yes, that's his real name), asked about natural light vs. studio light. The two other photographers primarily use studio or mixed light, so I was outnumbered! I made a passionate (and lengthy) defense of natural light and location photography. In my mind, it's the most flattering light possible, and outdoor locations offer the most vibrant backgrounds. Plus, I'd go crazy sitting in a studio all day, and my photographs would all look the same (I discuss all of these issues thoroughly in the FAQs section of my website).

Of course the studio photographers had a different opinion. They argued that natural light is unreliable and yields inconsistent results, but I couldn't disagree more. To my mind, if the results are inconsistent, you're not doing it right.

You know how sometimes you actually say what you're thinking? Well, I did. And that led to an even more lively discussion. So lively, in fact, that an audience member actually videotaped the tail end of the disagreement and emailed it to me the next morning. Take a look.

Below are a few images from the Before and After section of my website that illustrate my point about natural light vs. studio light. See the difference?

Anyway, keep an eye out for these forums at Reproductions. I think they're a terrific resource for actors.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

And You Thought Shoveling Was Hard Enough...

Yesterday I photographed Allison Griffith's actor headshots. She's a musical theatre actress and freshman at Point Park University.

During the course of the shoot, she mentioned that she's a hip-hop dancer as well. She also mentioned her interest in Dancers Among Us.

Now I've been pretty fortunate to work with some amazing dancers for this project, so I said something like, "Well, let's see what you've got." Said with a smile, but a challenge nonetheless (I've got high standards, after all). Allison thought for a minute and then said, "Well, I can do this."

"This" was some kind of headstand/backflip combo that I'd never seen before. It looked like she was levitating on her hair! Very difficult to photograph as well - to the naked eye it's a blur.

BUT I had to capture this move for my project. All we needed was an action of some kind. When I mentioned that I wanted to use the grungy city snow somehow, my makeup artist extraordinaire and dance collaborator Pamela Bob said, "I have a yellow shovel in my car." Bingo!

Now for the impossible part - "Allison, I need you to grab the shovel in the middle of your backflip. I think it's impossible, but let's give it a try." Really, this was as challenging as anything I've asked a dancer to do. She starts the flip in a headstand, then she pushes off with her hands, so when in the world can she grab the shovel? She's only off the ground for a millisecond. She was an amazing trooper though, trying again and again. But she kept missing the shovel.

A couple of times she managed to grab the shovel, but her feet had already landed. Still a cool photo, but not quite as impressive.

Finally, after 48 jumps, Allison managed to grab the shovel while in the air. Unbelievable! And thank God (or Nikon) it's in focus!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Capturing Spontaneity

Every actor knows not to share the stage with animals or children, because their spontaneity will steal the scene. In photography, however, spontaneous moments can turn a good photograph into a great one. And kids and animals are terrific at delivering such moments. In my Dancers Among Us series, I've tried to capture those moments as much as possible.

This is my very favorite example. When I asked Xiomara Forman to jump in front of Dunkin Donuts, I knew her pink shirt would match the sign, but I had no idea a little girl dressed in the exact same shade of pink would turn and look at her at the very peak of her jump. It's difficult enough to photograph the optimal moment of a dancer's jump, but to time a bystander's reaction to that moment is impossible. It's purely luck! I didn't even know this had happened until I reviewed the photos later that day.

I wanted to take Sarah Bumgarner to the Flatiron Building for a photo, but I had no idea what the shot would be. I was looking for something that hadn't been done before (a typical concern when shooting iconic NYC locations).

As I looked in vain for a shot, a dog pooped in the perfect spot! Not only that, but it was the perfect kind of poop - not too big, not too soft, just right! As the owner knelt down with a plastic bag, I screamed, "Wait, let us clean it up for you!" He happily volunteered his dog for the photo.

I took over 100 shots, but it was in the final frame when the dog finally looked at Sarah. We got the shot, and Sarah, ever the gentlewoman, cleaned up the poop.

I took Selina Chau to the MOMA, where a crowd began to gather as I photographed her in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. All of a sudden, a little girl walked into the frame and started taking her own photo.

I hope she posted it on Facebook!

In this shot with Karin Ellis-Wentz (from American Ballet Theatre), we had to be lucky enough to capture Karin at the height of the jump with the baby giggling or at least smiling at the same time. Karin started getting tired, and we didn't have many more chances, so my assistant Hannah (see her shadow?) started making funny faces at the baby. All of a sudden, we got it! This moment happened only once -- the peak of Karin's jump with the priceless expression on her baby's face.

This was taken on my vacation in Montreal, where I photographed several dancers (for my follow-up book, perhaps?). This shot was my wife's idea, but I don't think she anticipated that her son would get such a unique perspective. Of the 200 photos I took of Alyssa Desamais, only one had this unexpected moment.