Portrait of An Unsung Artist

Gautay, CA — Let me take you on a portrait shoot so you can see how it was approached and the results.  My subject for this portrait is Bill Chappelow.

I first met Bill in 2000 shortly after moving to San Diego.  My friend Linda Fiske took me to his gallery in Gautay, The Tryyn Gallery, where he makes the most fascinating and beautiful one-of-a-kind wooden utensils.  You surely remember that name from the last post.

Not only are the items hand cut, shaped and polished, each is accompanied by a clever description of potential use.  Bill has a degree in ecology and is very sensitive to trying to create from each piece of wood he uses, some item that takes advantage of the natural grains and contours.  Consequently, each is absolutely unique and created in a wide variety of woods from the exotic to the common, all imbued with the love of the maker for his materials.

From the time I first met him in 2000 until now I’ve sworn that I wanted to do a portrait of Bill in his workshop, but for some reason or another it got put off and put off and put off… and suddenly we are heading into 2013 for goodness sake.  So it was time – past time really — to quit procrastinating and just do it.

The opportunity presented itself in an unexpected way.  As some of you may recall from previous posts (but for new-comers I’ll give you the summary) Bill knew I was a photographer and teacher but had never seen any of my work.  He also oversees a small art gallery attached to the wooden spoon gallery and I arranged to show him a portfolio of work.  When he saw it he wanted some items to put in the gallery and I have no opposition whatsoever to adding another gallery to my resume so I arranged to take some work to him and also to do his portrait the same day.

A good friend, good student, and talented photographer, Cynthia Sinclair, agreed to go with me to help schlep the gear around for the shoot and to do some documentary shots of it that I might use for class lectures and for this blog.  Help became a good thing to consider when I loaded my light gear into the vehicle I realized it needed to be on a diet.  While I was not paying attention it had gained a lot of weight compared to what I remembered it used to feel like.  I had expressed some concern about the heavy equipment and was told, in no uncertain terms, that she was a trained nurse, used to lifting heavy things and I should knock off the chauvanistic attitude.  I thought for a moment I might NEED a nurse if I pursued that line of thought so shut up and gratefully (if not gracefully) accepted the help.  And it turned out to be very good help indeed.

Bill’s workshop is jam packed with stuff and awash in composition possibilities so my first plan, made on the previous visit, was to almost hide him in among the various band saws, drill presses, sanders, who knows what else.  But now, when  I looked through the viewfinder at the 2-dimensional reality of a shot based on that plan, I realized there was so much “stuff” in there the shot would be virtually frenetic with busy elements fighting for dominance.  It just wasn’t right on a number of levels but most of all in terms of honesty to the subject.  Bill is a kind, gentle soul whose spirit would be cheated by such a shot.

True, that might have made an interesting documentary shot for editorial use.  But for a portrait, to me defined as an image that reveals to the viewer something about the character and personality of the subject, I realized I wanted to simplify it.  I wanted to concentrate on HIM not his tools which just provided some interesting props and helped set the “feel” of the shot but were not themselves, the subjects.   As often happens to plans, that first plan went right out the window.

So, with a new plan being formulated more or less on the fly, we hauled in some lights, roughed them in, then called Bill in to compose the shot and do a final light tweak.

I had decided for shot #1 to have him near one of the drill presses which he uses a lot, and then did some last minute adjustments to the lights to get the light and shadows where I wanted.  Here is a simplified light plot of the final positions.

Light plot of shot number one.

Light plot of shot number one.

I wanted some directional semi-soft light to bring out texture and detail.  I brought all manner of light modifiers but settled on medium and small umbrellas for the main and accent lights since they are not quite as soft as a softbox but also not as harsh as a bare reflector.  The main and its small square silvered umbrella is set for roughly a butterfly or Paramount style.  The accent light is a medium round (OK, octagonal) white umbrella to give some accent and rim lighting to a larger area.  For the hair/top light however I did use just a bare 7” dish reflector so it would carve out some  back and rim-lit details and textures.

Here is a shot of me working on finding the composition I wanted.  You can see from it the incredible array of neat and fascinating (to me at least) tools scattered around the shop but also adding a great deal of “sport” to placing lights and placing photographer!  You can see all but the hair light.

(c) Cynthia Sinclair.  Here is a shot showing my lining up the first portrait pose with Bill.  You can get a sense of the area we had to work in.

(c) Cynthia Sinclair. Here is a shot showing my lining up the first portrait pose with Bill. You can get a sense of the area we had to work in.

All of my shots were taken with a Canon 5D MkII and a Canon 85mm f1.8 lens.  I did not want the distortion of a wider lens even though it would have made life much easier in the cramped quarters.  The Photogenic monolights were dialed down and even aimed for less efficient reflection from the umbrellas to allow me to shoot at f11 since that is the toward the end of the lens’ sweet spot and it is very sharp there.  Full power and properly positioned they were giving me f22-32 where refraction would be softening the shot too much.

If I start with a sharp image I can soften it to taste if I want.  But if it is shot soft, it can never be properly brought back to optical sharpness and digital sharpness looks, in my opinion, horrid or to use the technical term, like doo-doo.

The final version of the shot also went through an evolution.  The first step was to make a good normal color shot.  No matter where you intend to take the final, if you can start with a good full tonal range and rich color, later editing will be much simplified.  Here is the full color version.

This is the first iteration of this shot.  Here it is pretty much as it came out of the camera.

This is the first iteration of this shot. Here it is pretty much as it came out of the camera.

It is OK, the lighting is giving me crisp details and the style shows off the face well.  He is connected to both his tools and his product and there is a sense of place in the shot… but… but…  The shot is a bit garish for the feeling I wanted from the portrait.  Bill works in wood, an organic material, and although he takes advantage of power tools to speed up the work, his approach is definitely old school hand craftsmanship.  So maybe, I thought, the shot should be in black and white or perhaps, to reflect the idea of wood, a slight sepia toning would be right.  And the background needed to be less distracting.

Not a problem so I made one.

Version two of the shot, this time with a slight sepia toned character to it.

Version two of the shot, this time with a softened background and a slight sepia toned character to it.

Closer… I could live with it… and yet…  For me, still no cigar, at least in my opinion, and as the artist of the moment I got to make that decision.  Although I will give Bill a copy of any version if he wants one, I was making this portrait for me to add to my collection of portraits of friends.  And what I wanted in this case was something with the characteristics of both some color and yet a more old-timey look with warm overtones.

His shop is filled with the heart-warming smell of all of the wood being used and readied.  I wanted something that in a visual sense carried the warm smell of the workshop.  I wanted to convey the feel of an old-world artisan at work.

So here is the final.

Final version with subdued color and softened background.

Final version with subdued color and softened background.

We did do another view while I was there.

Against the shop window sat a wonderful old time giant band saw.  The paint was all cracked and gnarly and was obviously meant to be in a part of a shot.  So with a quick re-positioning of the lights, we were ready for pose #2.

(C) Cynthia Sinclair.  Here Bill has moved over to stand by the huge old band saw and I've had to move behind some piles of stuff.  The Main/Key (out of the picture on the right) simply swiveled around to create a 3/4 style Rembrandt light and fill has moved as well to where you see it in the shot.  THe strong light coming in the window was more than enough of a hair/top light.

(C) Cynthia Sinclair. Here Bill has moved over to stand by the huge old band saw and I’ve had to move behind some piles of stuff. The Main/Key (out of the picture on the right) simply swiveled around to create a 3/4 style Rembrandt light and fill has moved as well to where you see it in the shot. The strong light coming in the window was more than enough of a hair/top light.

Actually the composition with the lines and curves of the equipment was interesting but the background was intolerable.  Just outside the window lay my equipment cases opened up on the ground since there was no room to stage the shoot inside.  The monolights were powerful enough to overpower it but I didn’t like the look and decided to match them and deal with it later.  Here is the shot out of the camera and you can see the problem.

Straight version of pose #2.  You can see the problem with the mess (my own mess, of course) out in the area in front of the shop.

Straight version of pose #2. You can see the problem with the mess (my own mess, of course) out in the area in front of the shop.

The gray scar of highway ran through the shot as well.  Something out there conflicted with the lines of the big saw.  it seemed like all of those ghastly elements were conspiring to take the viewers eye off of the subject which was supposed to be Bill and an interesting chink of wood showing how he had followed the contours of the branch to cut out a piece.

That view out the window had to go.  But there was no way to move the huge band saw and the window had no curtains or shutters and it never occurred to me to bring either scrim material or something else to go there because the plan was for an entirely different shot in the first place.  But this was, after all, digital… so… as a test, I dropped out the view through the window and substituted an old wood grain texture file I had.

Trial version replacing the view through the window with a darker wood grained texture.

Trial version replacing the view through the window with a darker wood grained texture.

This is better than the original view and I liked the concept of Bill next to the old band saw.  Without the distractions it has instantly become visually simpler and it is clear what you are supposed to be looking at.  For a PR shot this just might be OK for him.

But I’m being persnickety (when was the last time you heard that term???) and for me. the texture just isn’t quite right.   Worse, it looks a little too staged to me like it was shot in studio with a textured backdrop.  What is wrong with that?  Nothing… if it was what I intended in the first place.   As a portrait, which is what I was there to do, I wanted to give the image a sense of place but without letting “the place” become overpowering.  But this has virtually removed all sense of place (which is one reason it could make a good PR shot).

So since I have to go back up there soon to deliver labels for the prints he wants to show I am thinking of taking some general shots of his workshop to put in the background and see how that works.  I wouldn’t bother since for my own purposes I prefer the first shot.  But Bill had mentioned he sometimes is asked for a shot for PR purposes and I think this second shot is a better potential PR type shot.

So, until I can replace the background I’ve saved all the layers and cut-outs.

And that is the story/back story behind the shot.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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4 Responses to Portrait of An Unsung Artist

  1. sph3re says:

    I love to look at environmental portraits and these are excellent!

    • ndking says:

      Thank you, I appreciate it. I spent a career doing editorial portraiture and tended to like environmental work too, But I also like the control of studio lighting so it was only natural to combine the two.

  2. ndking says:

    You are very welcome. I’m glad you like it.

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