If you have had any contact with me during the last several weeks, you have undoubtedly heard me talk about my Woody Guthrie photo project. And if you have been in frequent contact with me lately you are very likely sick of hearing about it. If that’s the case, my apologies, and you might want to go find something else to read.
I hosted a one-night-only exhibit last Friday night that also included a musical tribute to Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 on Saturday (happy birthday, Woody!). The event was well attended and even earned a couple hundred dollars for the Folk School of St. Louis. This was the first time anyone (including myself) had seen all of the photos in one space, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I saw, for the first time, a semblance of my “style” by looking at all of the photos as a whole, and it was very satisfying to stand back and see the project as a unified body of work. Many attendees asked what was next for the photos, and aside from an upcoming fall exhibit in my hometown of Quincy, Illinois (more on that later) I realized that I really didn’t have anything else planned. Well, that has changed.
The truth is, since I spent the vast majority of my creative energies on this project for the last six months I feel compelled to share it with any many people as possible. I also feel compelled to share more about the making of the photos themselves–interesting stories, funny anecdotes, lighting nerdery, and lessons learned. Yeah, I am proud of the series but I also think there is a lot more to be told.
So, this post marks the beginning of a series that will likely span the next couple of months. Don’t worry–I’ll be posting other work too.
#1 WORK MORE AND BETTER
As with many of the Rulin’s, this one was somewhat abstract and it took some time to forge a viable concept to shoot. After some thought, I had the idea to shoot someone involved with a labor union for this Rulin. Guthrie’s work was closely linked to the Labor cause and workers’ rights so it felt like a natural fit. But who to photograph? A shop steward standing in front of a labor hall? A union carpenter on the job?
As with almost all of the Rulin’s it wasn’t until I reached out to someone that the parts began to fall into place. That someone was Robin Wheeler, the local writer who inspired this entire project in the first place.
Robin was one of several indispensable folks involved in this project, especially due to her extensive network of contacts. When I told her what I had in mind, she immediately put me in touch with Cathy Sherwin, the woman you see above. Cathy works with the local AFL-CIO union and is a passionate activist for a number of related causes, and when I told her about the project she was dead-set on being involved.
After some email discussions about how to shoot the photo, we decided to try shooting her participating in a protest–an environmental portrait of sorts. This, of course, is much trickier than it sounds. Most of my portrait work involves artificial lighting, and I figured this would be no exception since I wanted to use a flash to isolate Cathy from the background. And since on-camera flash is the work of Satan himself I knew I would be facing some logistical challenges in working with a light off the camera. Typically I would just stick the light on a stand, but for this shoot I needed to be highly mobile. Why, you ask?
I met Cathy at an Occupy protest march. Yep. THAT Occupy. St. Louis has/had an active Occupy contingent since late 2011, with protesters regularly clashing with police during marches and evictions from their Kiener Plaza campsite downtown. On the day I was in attendance, the group marched all over downtown, stopping to protest on the doorsteps of Bank of America and the Federal Reserve Bank, among others. This, of course, meant that my subject was in motion for the entire duration of our shoot. And since I was working sans assistant, that meant I couldn’t tote around a light stand. Instead, the furthest I could get the flash from my camera was the length of my arm.
Subject in constant motion? Check.
Background in constant motion? Check.
“Challenging” lighting scenario? Check.
Massive police presence? Check.
Oh, and did I mention it was raining?
Regardless, I did my best to capture some images of Cathy at work. I snapped some shots as she marched along with the group and popped a few when the group stopped at the banks. It was quite an adrenaline rush and physically exhausting, but I shot for a couple hours before deciding to part ways with the group. Cathy had somewhere else to be as well, so we walked back to our cars and chatted about Guthrie and the rest of my project. She even suggested some folks to reach out to for other Rulin’s I still needed to shoot. More on that in future posts.
As it turned out, I parted with the group just before things got ugly. The protesters ended up clashing with police again, and several participants were hospitalized. While I am glad I wasn’t caught in the middle of it, I kinda wish I had been there to photograph the events. I did grab a few photos while I was around though.
It took some swallowing of my pride, but after looking at the images from the march, I decided that the photo I wanted just wasn’t there. With hat in hand, I reached out to Cathy again and told her that I just hadn’t been able to pull off the photo in the chaos of the protests. She was kindly understanding and said that we’d likely have another chance.
That second chance came in the form of a Tax Day march on April 17th. A far more organized affair on a sunny day, this march provided me with a much better opportunity to make the photo I had in mind. It also helped that my pal Jon Gayman was along for the ride, toting around a flash on the end of a boom. The event was still quite a rush, but having learned a few things from the first attempt I was confident that we would come way with a photo for the project. And we did. After the group performed a protest in front of Bank of America (they really hate BOA, and for good reason) the protestors moved out, providing a solid background against which we shot the final portrait of Cathy you see above. The lighting was straightforward: a Nikon SB800 speedlight with a 1/4″ Honl grid on it to focus the light on Cathy and not the background. I also ensured that she was the focal point of the image by underexposing the background by about 2 stops.
The image we got wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned, but this project has taught me to be OK with that. And considering the challenges that the shooting environment presented, I am fairly happy with the result. Besides, I made a new friend in Cathy, and that’s really been the best thing about the entire project: the people.
Next time: 2 dudes, a train and a butt-ton of flashes.