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Category Archives: Portraits

Sweet assignment

I really enjoy opportunities to photograph people in their workplace, doing what they’re really good at and hopefully, doing what gives them a sense of fulfillment in life.

I very cool assignment came up recently for me and two of my co-workers at the University of Richmond. We spent some time with chef Tom Parfitt at UR’s Culinary Arts Center, interviewing, filming and photographing him as he made some delightful chocolate creations. We were putting together a story, along with video and still photos describing his journey from restaurant dish-washer to pastry chef, and his process of making chocolate ganache desserts (to view the story, video and more images, go here). Needless to say, we were all on board with doing this piece.

Tom with the final “plated” desserts: chai-infused ganache in a chocolate shell and espresso-flavored ganache in a teacup shell.

My awesome colleagues Kevin on video and Kim doing the interview with Tom. We would have had no problem staying the whole afternoon!

And yes, we sampled them … and they were really good.

Yeah, I’d be smiling too, if I were him! Tom is a fantastic teacher who makes preparing foods look a lot easier than you think.

If you live in the central Virginia region and want to learn any number of culinary skills, check out the Culinary Arts Program and see what they have to offer. Your taste buds (and your family and friends) will thank you.

Hoop dreams

Being someone who is 6 ft. 6 in. tall, every so often I am asked the question, “Did you ever play basketball?” Aside from informal pick-up games with friends on the playground, I never played organized ball in school. I was always drawn more to sports like baseball and cycling. But I’ve always enjoyed watching basketball and following the progress of certain teams and athletes, both professional and collegiate.

So I was very excited to have the opportunity early in 2011 to photograph a couple of University of Richmond basketball players at the campus’ Robins Center arena. Brittani Shells and Justin Harper were two standout players who’ve gone on to play for professional teams since graduating last spring, Shells with a team in Israel and Harper with the Orlando Magic of the NBA.

With each of them I wanted to create a portrait that was somewhat unique, and not simply a headshot of them holding a basketball. Way too many of those kinds of media shots out there. With Brittani, I wanted the camera to have a very low viewpoint, so that she would appear more prominent in the setting. This meant I had to be flat on my stomach with camera at the floor, looking up. Being a tall photographer, getting myself smaller is always a challenge I’m faced with when doing shoots. I also wanted dramatic light, so I lowered the ambient (available) light of the arena with the exposure and lit Brittani exclusively with off-camera flash, one to camera right through an umbrella and one to the left for a slight edge light. I may also have had the on-camera pop-up flash triggered for a slight fill light.

For Justin, I did some shots of him on the court with the basket in the background, but then moved to a second location, the seats near courtside. One thing I had underestimated with the 6 ft. 10 in. senior was getting his huge frame into a spectator’s seat (something I should have realized, as I am always apprehensive about things like movie theatre and airline seating myself! Where to put the knees?) This setting also required a step-stool for me to get up to his eye-level while shooting, always a handy thing to bring along on a shoot! I wanted his shots to be somewhat more relaxed and not as “game-time” intense, so I tried to keep up some light conversation as I shot, to hopefully, capture a genuine moment with him. The lighting setup was somewhat similar to Brittani’s, with the key light on the right and rim light above and to the left.

They were really great to work with during these shoots, and I’m so proud to see these two student-athletes go on to fulfill their dreams of playing basketball after college. Good luck Brittani and Justin! And go Spiders!

Music and creativity

I love music.

Growing up in a musical family where everyone had played an instrument (at one time or another) and everyone could sing, music has always been a big part of my life. When my wife heard my mom, dad, sister and me all singing around the family piano in four-part harmony for the first time, she thought she had married into the von Trapp family (depicted in the movie, “The Sound of Music”).

Music also had an influence on my early years as an artist. I can remember spending hours drawing in my sketchbooks while listening to classical music; Bach, Mozart, Pachelbel, Fasch, Vivaldi, and being lost in my imagination of what could be created with a pencil on paper. There is something mysterious that happens when listening to music and the effect it can have on the imagination. Perhaps psychologists can explain it better, or physiologists who study brain waves and electrical impulses and connections. All I know is that music, especially certain kinds of music, is very inspiring to me.

Last year, as Kim and I enjoyed a concert by the internationally renowned Shanghai Quartet at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts, I was again inspired as I listened to their performance. Their music is passionate, intricate, bold, complex, subtle, humorous and always expertly played. As I listened, my thoughts quickly went in the direction of asking myself, how would I photograph them if I ever had the chance? How can you portray the feelings that music produces in a still image, without the music? How do you picture a musician and also convey something about their music at the same time? Can this even be done?

To my surprise, and joy, I would get a chance to find out. After starting a correspondence with one of the members of the group, Yi-Wen, who also is an accomplished photographer himself, we arranged a time to get together for a photo session during their most recent stop in Richmond. For me, it was basically a dream-come-true opportunity.

Yi-Wen Jiang

Weigang Li

Honggang Li

Nicholas Tzavaras

Conceptually, I only had one requirement for the images: the color red had to be involved somehow. Passionate music=red. Shanghai, China=red. Guys wearing dark suits=need a red background.

For you camera gear geeks: For lighting, I had to get creative since I was using small flashes to do the work. A key light of 2 Speedlites through a 60″ umbrella above and slightly camera right. A fill from a 3 ft. octobox directly behind my head and a light behind the group directed at the red backdrop (this was moved to high and camera left after failing to trigger at the end of the group portraits. Pesky infra-red system! Although not so bad, because during the equipment-tinkering intermission, we were treated to an impromptu practice session. It probably helped my mood! And I actually like the background light better in that spot.) All these were triggered by the master flash at the very back and very high, attached to the camera with an extra-long sync cord. Yes, I love Speedlites!

It was a great experience and Kim and I had fun spending time with this brilliant group of artists. We’re looking forward to their next concert and another opportunity to be creatively inspired by their music. Thanks guys!

Shanghai Quartet on Facebook
Quartet performance videos

A Face In a Place

One kind of photography that I’ve really been enjoying lately is the “environmental portrait”, or, as one of my favorite photographers, Joe McNally likes to describe it, “a face in a place.” The idea is to take a person and shoot them in a location or environment that says something about what they do, what they like or who they are as a person. The context that they’re in should have some meaning or significance and add something to the photo. It should also, hopefully, be visually interesting, or else, why would you want to show them there in the first place, right?

I’ve been fortunate to be able to do many of these kinds of portraits in my work at the University of Richmond, mostly for our university’s website, where we feature various UR students, faculty, staff and alumni and the things they’re doing on (and off) campus. Here are some of my favorites from this year. Click on the links to read more of their stories.

Biology professor Dr. Laura Runyen-Janecky and Caitlin Smith, who worked together last summer on bacteria research related to tsetse flies.

Student Jade-Evette Strachan, who worked with kids in the Richmond community at the William Byrd Community House and researched children’s interactions based on gender.

Ken Hart, the UR athletics equipment manager for 30 years. He handles lots of equipment and does lots of laundry! While doing the shoot, the women’s golf coach stopped by and teased us, saying, “I don’t see any golf clubs in this scene!”

Law student Providence Okoye. She is from Nigeria and is looking forward to fulfilling her dream of working in the legal field and helping people. She already has two clerkships (working in a courthouse for a state or federal judge) lined up for after she graduates.

English major Nicole Prunetti who did summer research into Shakespeare’s knowledge of 16th and 17th century law. Taken at UR’s Jepson Theatre stage.

And last, but not least, a family-related photo. This is my cousin Bruce, who really, really likes Coke and has a vast memorabilia collection of “The Real Thing.”

Meeting these people and getting to know them through their activities and interests seems endlessly fascinating to me and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s one aspect of doing photography I love so much.

Keep trying

There have been many times when I have come across a moment or a person whom I’d love to photograph, but for some reason, (like moving past in a vehicle, too busy to stop or didn’t have my camera with me) I’ve been unable to capture it or them. There are some photographers, like Jay Maisel, who say don’t even try to go back and capture something later. If you don’t get it now, in the moment, you’ve missed it. It’s gone … forever. This is probably good advice, for the most part.

However, I recently had a different experience during a vacation trip in Canada. My parents, Kim and I were on our way to my uncle John’s home in Kelowna, British Columbia for our family reunion gathering. The Kelowna area has the beautiful Lake Okanagan, mountains and lots of orchard groves. As we neared their home, we passed by an orchard and as we did I noticed a flash of orange and white in the orchard. It was an East Indian-looking man with an orange turban, white clothes and a long white beard, working in the field. Not exactly the kind of person I’d expect to see in Kelowna. We pulled up to the house and Kim and I talked about how cool it would’ve been to photograph him, but chalked it up to another one of those photo ideas that doesn’t actually happen (got lots of those in my head!)

The next morning, as we passed the orchard again on our way to the house, we saw another man, this one in a blue turban, coming towards the road, and us, on a tractor. I thought maybe we did have a chance after all! We stopped by his tractor and made some small talk (how are you? what are you growing here? how long have you been farming this land?) He was very friendly, and so I said, “My wife and I are photographers and were wondering if it would be OK to take your picture?” Sometimes you just have to ask. He happily agreed, so we piled out of the SUV and got our gear out. I already knew what lens I’d use—the 70-200, f2.8.

He introduced us to his father (the man in the orange turban) and we took a bunch of shots as we chatted with both of them (the son translated for his father who seemed not to speak any English). They were very gracious to us and shared a typical greeting they use as Punjabis—hands together with a slight bow and with the phrase, “God is true.” How ironic that this sentiment was the very thing we were talking about and celebrating in our family reunion just down the road.

We felt as though we made new friends in our short visit with them—all because of a second chance to make an idea into a photograph. It was a great reminder for me to not always give up so easily, but to keep on trying.

March Madness

I’m a huge sports fan. And I enjoy all kinds of sports — baseball, football, basketball, cycling, winter sports, summer sports, on land, sea, and air — I’ll watch ’em all. And especially the big events, like the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Tour de France, and Olympic games.

So, in the United States, the month of March also marks a sports phenomenon that I gladly follow — March Madness — the weeks-long NCAA college basketball tournament that determines the nation’s #1 higher-ed. hoops kings, at least for a year.

This year, the tournament has even greater interest for me, as our University of Richmond team, the Spiders, have earned their spot in the first round of play in the South region, after an outstanding season (a school record 26 wins!). The team has generated a lot of excitement and interest around our campus and I was recently fortunate to have the opportunity to photograph one of our top players (and A-10 conference Player of the Year), Kevin Anderson, for a feature story on the UR Web site.

I was thrilled with the chance to do a shoot like this and initially had visions of some kind of Sports Illustrated-type shot of him on the court in full uniform in some very dramatic pose. But after considering the article, about his life not just as an athlete but also as a student, I decided something a little more low-key and relaxed would be more appropriate (albeit, still dramatic). He was great to work with, a really nice guy and super-cooperative.

Along with the lighting arrangement (1 key light at right w/ shoot-through umbrella and 1 rim light behind him on the left), one part of the composition I really wanted to include were the NCAA banners hanging from the rafters, hopefully alluding to the team’s upcoming games in the tournament. To do this, with Kevin seated in a chair, I had to get as low as possible, which meant, on my back on the floor looking up. Fortunately, it worked and I managed to get some good shots off before having to wrap up.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s game and to see how far the team can go. However they do in the tournament, I’m sure that Kevin’s got a bright future ahead of him — as an athlete and a person — and I wish him the very best!

Go Spiders!!!

The Storyteller

Happy New Year — 2010!

It’s been a busy holiday season but things are finally settling back into somewhat of a “normal” routine for me. One of the things about the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays that are most important to me is getting together with family. And especially if they have travelled a great distance to visit.

Kim and I enjoyed a great time with my family in Maryland and were also able to visit with my uncle John, aunt Lorraine and cousin Byron, from Kelowna, British Columbia. (That’s in Canada, for you non-Canucks). One of the things that makes being with them so special is my uncle John’s storytelling. Having grown up on a farm in Alberta, Canada, his tales usually involve things like bulls getting into hay lofts (and how not to get them down!), pranks played on big sisters (like my mom), and soon-to-be brothers-in-law getting accidentally hurtled off of farm equipment or sprayed with high-pressured manure (dad was the victim of that one). It’s usually a good idea not to eat the holiday apple pie before one of his stories because of the side-splitting laughter that generally follows!

I hope that in 2010 you also have a chance to laugh with family and friends and appreciate the beauty of the people in your life. And maybe have some stories of your own to tell — in words or photographs.