i love reading. i was the kid who stayed up way too late, reading in bed with the lights on low. i finish books i realize i hate halfway through, reading with relish, so i can slam the writing knowledgeably and thoroughly. my friends and i discuss and speculate about writers as some would movie stars. i have stood in line for hours, sometimes the first and only one in line for much of that time, to hear a favorite writer speak. early in my career i fantasized about being the new marion ettlinger or jerry bauer, photographing the author's portraits for a whole new generation of writers. i just never knew how to get those jobs. years later someone in publishing told me that writers are cliquish and it's hard to break into that market becasue of their tight community; they use the same few photographers over and over again. i have met and photographed a few writers on editorial assignments (nell freudenberger, david schickler, galt niederhoffer, jodi kantor) and one of them, jodi kantor, asked me years later to photograph her author portrait for her first book the obamas. soon after, jodi's agent called saying nathan englander needed a new portrait. nathan is probably one of the most gentle and kind people i have met and i was so pleased that he loved his portrait. during our shoot i was able to grill him lightly about some of my favorite writers and got him to promise that he'd put in a good word for me with marilynne robinson, whose writing i find profound. yes, profound! i recently photographed anthony lee for his upcoming book, there in the darkness. it was lightly raining out and it made for beautiful light. coincidentally, he went to school with nathan. just for the record, i'd do anything to be able to meet and photograph george saunders, david mitchell, jefffrey eugenides and joan didion.
a step by step on how we made anthony's image.
anthony wanted to shoot in a location that had an urban feel, partly to reflect the feel of his book. he suggested a few locations: an underground subway station in upper new york, by chess tables at a park with the chain link fencing in the background. i asked anthony for some visual reference images, to give me an idea of what he liked and had in mind. he sent me these three images with the note, "what's great about these is that the style and composition are spare yet they really give a sense of the subject beyond just a headshot."
the images he sent were beautiful and i liked that he wasn't afraid of difficult light, where the light is used to set a mood, not to optimally light his face. the authors were characters in interesting photos, these were not vanity shots. i mentioned that i thought the clothing styling in the photos played a huge part in the timeless feel of the images. that fabulous coat on camus made that photo. i asked him to bring a couple of changes of clothes, with one outfit having a bit of a collar. i then suggested we shoot under the big steel arches at 125th street. way back in 1992 i had to location scout the area for a malcom x shoot for the face magazine while i was assisting albert watson. it left a huge impression on me but i had never been able to use it for one of my shoots until now. (as i write this i am a little shocked that that was 21 years ago.) anthony then nixed the subterranean subways station thinking it may be too dark in the end. i knew the 125th subway station was raised and outdoors, we'd get a similar urban/subway feel but have natural light and anthony was agreeable. we were able to do the whole shoot right around 125th street. we waited a few weeks, until we had the perfect dreary, wet weather as i didn't want to shoot on a sunny day. it's a good thing we were both flexible with our schedules. you can see some raindrops on anthony's leather jacket.
at our first location under the steel arches i tried a shot of anthony facing into a wall, to see what the difficult light may look like on him and wasn't happy with the results; too muddy and not in an interesting way. so i faced anthony out and we did two wardrobe options there. the high collar on the dark, thick sweater anthony brought along really did a great job of beautifully framing his face. in real life his daily uniform is the hoodie under the leather jacket, but in comparison to the sweater that option felt too specific a look so we stuck with the sweater for the remaining locations.
i love the picture of anthony under the steel arches that i posted at the start of this article. so did anthony but thought the shot of him on top of the 125th subway station would crop better for situations when they really just wanted a tight shot of his head and less of a wider environmental. i love having the opportunity to shoot black and white images. i wish i got the chance to shoot it more often.
take a look.