When I was asked to shoot this season’s Star Times high school athlete group portraits, I was determined to use a concept I had never used before in my career.
The idea originated from a series of images made long ago by one of my favorite portrait photographers of all time: Richard Avedon. In them, Avedon pieced together several individual images that, when viewed together, formed a larger group portrait.
A key detail to this concept was how Avedon treated the seams of the group photos. Here, the bodies of the people were cut off by the frame edge on purpose. But the half of the body that was cutoff appeared on the very next frame. It was an interesting way to show a large group by joining individual sections.
Luckily, my photo editor and sports editors involved with the project liked my idea to put my own twist on Avedon’s original concept. They gave me the go-ahead to use black-and-white film.
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This was one of the biggest and complex photo shoots I’ve ever done to date. I knew I had to make sure my ducks were in a row, so I drew diagrams of my lighting setup, as well as the story boards that gave each athlete a specific position in the portrait, with its own specific pose. This planning proved to be extremely beneficial once I began shooting as it essentially gave me a roadmap to get me to where I wanted to go with my portraits. It kept me on task.
My assistant, Katie Cotterill, and I, put up two, white seamless paper backdrops side-by-side so I had enough room to work with. The location was one of the quiet rooms inside the massive press area of The Seattle Times’ North Creek printing plant. I used a total of 5 strobe heads in the setup: 2 pointed toward the background, 2 pointed to the sides of the group to act as highlights, and one on a big boom as the key light on the young athletes.
They were all asked to wear the full competition uniforms, and bring pertinent props, such as bats, balls, hats, and other things to add to the photos.
I literally broke the shoot down into singular photos but definitely kept the overall concept at the forefront of my mind. I really needed to pay attention to small details, such as the body position of the athletes on the seams so they would appear somewhat matching when the frames were put together, and making sure each athlete displayed the look and pose I had envisioned on my story boards.
I shot each team on my digital cameras first, just in case the film for some reason didn’t work, and then proceeded to make the same frame on my 4×5 large format camera. My assistant helped me keep a solid cadence to my workflow, making sure my aperture settings were always correct, as well as reminding me remember the laundry list of steps I needed to take to take a photo with a 4×5.
Luckily, the film came back looking good from the processing lab. I was pretty happy at how it all went, particularly given the fact I had never tried to shoot this way before.
It was a huge undertaking, personally speaking. But the lessons I learned, the growth I experienced as a portrait photographer, and the confidence I gained from trusting my vision from start to finish made it completely worth it.