Literary photography: Photographing author Robert Howard

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Robert Howard, author of Brave New Workplace, approached me because he was hoping to update his author imagery. In addition to writing about leadership and the workplace, he has recently also written a memoir that integrates literary criticism, another area of expertise, and wanted his photographs to mirror his professional growth.

Because of his new ventures, Bob needed to update both his more traditional headshot, and also wanted a more creative portrait that reflected his new ventures. I shot at his home in Newton, MA, so we could create environmental portraiture that was meaningful to him, and also shot a few updated headshots that he could use for his work in technology and leadership.

The faceless portrait: author, illustrator, and sculptor Adam J. B. Lane

When I interview artists and authors before I photograph their portraits, the first question I ask is whether the person I’m photographing has any special requests, ideas, or preferences, far before I take out my camera.

Children’s book author/illustrator/sculptor (narrowing this fellow into a category is a challenging task) Adam J. B. Lane‘s request was a creative stretch for this portrait photographer: he asked if I could take his photograph without the viewer really knowing what he looked like, so that he could be passed by unrecognized by someone seeing his portrait the moment before.

Curious, I asked why. Adam said he was influenced both by the legendary radio producer Ira Glass and also the author Daniel Handler (“Lemony Snicket”) who felt that viewing the physical appearance of a formerly faceless narrator robbed a story of some abstraction and potency.  Adam had always personally found the difference between the impression created by the work and the author in reality a bit of a disappointment, and preferred to be photographed in a way that left something to the imagination.

So I took the approach of letting the images reveal the author primarily through his activities and the wonderful textured environment of his home studio, rather than the entirety of his face. I lit enough of Adam to pull him away from his background, but not enough to define his features. His illustration work is dark and contrasty, and I mirrored some of that feeling through to the photographs.

Adam recently published Stop Thief, a story of a little boy who takes off after a stuffed animal snatcher. His illustrated books are aimed at children, but have a chiaroscuro palette often associated with darker themes. The Lemony Snicket influence shines though Adam’s color choices.

The product of both a British and American upbringing, Adam was heavily influenced by comics throughout his childhood and maintains that his success communicating with children comes through a strong case of arrested development. As a child, he remembers not being able to conceive of adulthood and was terrified that life would end after his bar mitzvah, around the age of thirteen.

Later, Adam went on to write and illustrate for the Harvard Lampoon, and upon graduation, moved to Los Angeles to work on Disney feature films.

While at Disney, Adam started going to book stores to do research on what kids wanted in their favorite stories, and fell in love with picture books. He delved into creating stories because he wanted to do something for kids and parents to actively do together, and to be part of the magical relationship of a parent reading a story to a child.

Jennifer Haigh “News From Heaven” author photo shoot

Jennifer chose to go with the black and white version for the book’s author photo.

Last June, Jennifer Haigh and I took a walk through one of Massachusetts’ most beautiful parks together, World’s End, in Hingham. We followed a wooded path through drumlins, low, rolling hills formed by glaciers, until we reached where the Atlantic Ocean reflected the sky. Jennifer walks these paths in order to think and compose, and I thought that it would be an appropriate place to photograph where she puts thoughts together to create her character-driven novels and short stories.

Originally, these images were going to be part of my Boston writers and artists series, but I was very pleased when Jennifer contacted me this past fall to ask if she could use one of the images from the shoot for her upcoming book of short stories set in and around the fictionalized coal-mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, Her new book, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on January 29, 2013.

Jennifer is as she is photographed; direct, thoughtful, intelligent. She has a wry and down-to-earth sense of humor that came through our chat, and often surprised me through the course of our conversation. I remember asking her what she wanted to grow up to be when she was a kid, expecting that her answer might have to do with writing or the arts, and she paused thoughtfully, and replied, “I remember, at age five, wanting to be a gas station attendant.” She had no memory of why, and we both chuckled. Obviously, things developed in a scholarly direction for her as she got older, as she ended getting her MFA at the University of Iowa in writing, and as an adult, she said she couldn’t imagine doing anything but write.

I loved working with Jennifer because she was confident both of herself and how she enjoyed best being photographed, and also because of her trust in me. The walk was wonderful, and I was delighted to work with Jennifer, photographing her on a beautiful day at the World’s End. If you’d like to learn more about Jennifer’s work, please visit her beautiful website at http://www.jenniferhaigh.com.

 

Boston’s artists and authors, featuring Bradford Johnson

I’m embarking on a new project to create portraits of some of Boston’s most talented artists and authors. Each artist is interviewed and then documented in the space that they work in, or a space inspired by their work. The goal of the project is to reveal through the photographs a real sense of the artist, to tell their stories visually and through narrative, and to gain an understanding of where their work comes from.

The first artist I’m featuring is Somerville, MA-based artist Bradford Johnson. Brad’s wonderful warm intelligence, wry wit, and good humor was a joy to be around, and spending time with him in his studio was delightful. His work is based on painting the people and places first captured by distant photographers (hmm, wonder why I like this guy?). One of his projects that I find most intriguing is entitled, “Tangible Dreams of a Dying Explorer”, and it is based upon the real-life experiences of an Arctic explorer who perished more than one hundred years ago, but whose photographic film was discovered 30 years after the expedition’s demise.

Balloon Aloft with Bird: Acrylic paint & medium on panel, 19"x24", 2011

As Brad explains: “In 1897, on a barren Arctic island, photographer Nils Strindberg finally escapes the brutal cold when he slips into hypothermia. Shortly thereafter, he becomes the first member of S.A. Andree’s Polar Expedition to perish. As Strindberg loses consciousness, he cannot know if his human remains or exposed film will ever be returned to civilization. His compatriots bury him in a rocky grave, and their demise soon follows his. Months earlier, in a daring attempt to explore the North Pole, Strindberg, Knut Fraenkel and Andree pilot a hydrogen balloon into the polar region under the flag of Sweden. Strindberg conscientiously documents key moments even when they crash far short of the pole and are forced to trek for months across the pack ice in an attempt to return home. The remnants of their final camp are discovered over 30 years after their deaths. Among the detritus returned to civilization are detailed diaries and 5 rolls of Strindberg’s exposed film. 93 viable negatives are miraculously salvaged.”

Constellation of Tangible Dreams: acrylic paint & medium on panel. 19"x20", 2010

I photographed Brad in his studio, after chatting with him about how he was drawn to art, what he studied, how he defined himself as an artist, and how he combined his work with being a dad to two kids.

The moment he started to feel like an artist: Brad fell into art in high school – it was his sanctuary. Like many, high school was kind of a drag for him – he didn’t really have any energy for the academics, but painting was something that drew him in. During his senior year when thinking about his future, Brad felt kind of lost, but his art teacher suggested that after graduation, he apply to RISD – the Rhode Island School of Design (one of the nation’s top art schools) -  and he got in.

Three words that describe Brad’s work: “Narrative, material, hand-rendered.”

But it wasn’t easy: Sometimes its easy to doubt your own abilities. While at RISD, Brad felt like an imposter, despite his abilities, surrounded by other talented artists who were Artists with a capital A. He transferred to a small, vigorously academic liberal arts school, where he enrolled in the drama department, and found like-minded souls. But eventually, the visual arts kept calling, and he switched back to studying fine art, continuing his studies with a MFA from Hunter College in New York, where he lived for five years before moving to Boston to be with his wife.

Finally: “I’m an artist, finally, because I’m unsatisfied with any given answer.”

Artist as adult: Artists are often considered solitary creatures, huddled in a garret somewhere, but artists merge into adulthood like those of us in more traditional professions, with all the responsibilities that entails. Brad has two children and a wonderful, supportive wife, Jackie. I asked Brad how the balance works for him, and how difficult it is to pursue his vocation while wrangling pre-schoolers. His response – “it’s a whole lot harder, but doable”, thanks to great childcare, and a wife with a more traditional employment situation. He also credits a network of fellow creative friends who bounce ideas and provide support for each others’ ventures.

Olmstead’s Paine + novelist + kid + portraits = one glorious day in Waltham, MA

Yesterday was an insanely beautiful day in the Boston area – warm, sunny, mid-seventies with a hint of breeze blowing in the smell of Spring! To take advantage of this very odd, but lovely Boston spring weather, I grabbed my kid, home for Spring vacation,  and drove to Stonehurst, the Robert Treat Paine Estate, where I met up with fiction writer Jon Papernick in his hometown of Waltham, MA.

 

Stonehurst was designed by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson and visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and it was completed in 1886 on behalf of Robert Treat Paine and Lydia Lyman Paine.

It is full of cavernous rooms full of beautiful mahogany carvings, eight-foot tall portraits of great detail, and furniture that looks as though the moment you’d turn around would surreptitiously slither away.

Of course Jon felt right at home among rooms full of books, and began chatting away with the caretaker as I clicked away, occasionally pulling a face and making me chuckle behind the camera.

 

Call me crazy, but when I visit old estates, I’m invariably curious about the bathrooms that were used back then. When I used to work at the George Eastman House, Mr. Eastman’s bathroom hadn’t been fully renovated for visitors, but as staff, we got to peek in. Here, my curiosity was assuaged by viewing an exquisite bathroom with a metal-lined tub with a carved wooden exterior.

Wandering the grounds and exploring the house, camera in hand, was the perfect way to enjoy the day.