A Boom - From Simplicity To Complexity & Back AgainThursday, September 17, 2009
One of the last remaining items in my now almost empty studio is a large Manfrotto boom. It is a tall light stand from which one can suspend a light and point it downwards to get a 30/40s Hollywood look when using a precise and controlled light that has a limited dispersal. It was the boom that Marlene Dietrich demanded of her film directors once she liked how she looked in the publicity stills that George Hurrell took of her. I purchased the boom around 1983 from departing (for Toronto) photographer Brent Daniels. The boom has other uses. It makes a very good hair light that can be pointed exactly where you want it because there is a double hand crank system with which you can control the position of the light. Manfrotto booms are expensive. You need a large studio to use them. It would be difficult for me to sell it and get a good price for it. I will keep it.
But the boom, all alone in my studio, made me think of my career as one of simplicity, complexity and back to simplicity. It was simplicity, a couple of 35mm cameras and a little flash unit that started me in business in 1976. By 1980 I had purchased some powerful (for then) Ascor studio flash units and a medium format Mamiya RB-67. Except for buying another couple of Mamiyas (one for parts and one as backup) my equipment is virtually the same today. I did buy a focusing spotlight to supplement my Ascor Fresnel spot. But my three softboxes (a small one, a medium one and a very large one) are 80s vintage. I stopped using umbrellas then. I have always preferred the ability of softboxes in giving me a more directional lighting than the wider spreading umbrellas.
In today’s blog I want to demonstrate how the simplicity of my early years progressed to a complexity of multi lighting and the use of big sets in a big studio. When the magazine industry began to pull back in what they paid, their expectations also declined in what they wanted. The blog will finish with a photograph I took of cello player Cris Dirksen and soprano Melodi Mercredi that I took last week for this week’s Straight. I consider this a very emotionally satisfying photograph in which I used one 2 by 3 ft softbox in close proximity to a gray wall. Yet all the pictures you see here were taken by the same Mamiya and the same lenses.
It was in the photograph of belly dancer Sarita (one of the last that I took with an umbrella around 1982) where in retrospect I see what led me to last week’s double portrait. I took about 30 portraits of the beautiful Sarita in many poses. The one here is the only one I took just like that. It is all about an understanding and a moment of intimacy between photographer and subject that occurs when photographer and subject chat and get to know each other. There are no thoughts of virtuoso lighting in a large set using many lights to achieve a cutting edge look that proves the photographer knows how to use complex equipment.
It must have been around six years ago that I looked back at the Sarita picture and told myself that was the only kind of photography I wanted to do. Many who look at my pictures say I have a straight ahead and conservative style. I don’t mind the epithet even if they mean well. In fact I teach a popular course at Focal Point that is called Contemporary One Light Photography where I stress the use of that one 2x3 softbox and a gray wall.
As photographers close down their expensive studios (and this one is no different) I can see that even the simplicity of my “conservative” style is unusual in its scarcity. The one light (no softbox or umbrella) attached to an expensive digital Canon or Nikon is the style of the day. Marlene Dietrich would refuse to be photographed by this sort of light. If George Hurrell were around, he, too, would close down his studio!
My wife Rosemary urges me to buy a digital single lens reflex camera to become competitive. I am unable to explain that the camera is not the issue. The issue is the lighting and the approach one takes with one’s subjects. My sort of lighting and my approach is not viable now. I jokingly say it is obsolete. I only think that it is in dormancy and it will come back as soon as straight ahead lighting begins to bore.
Rosemary urges me to buy a digital single lens reflex camera so that I can “better” instruct my students at Focal Point and at Van Arts. I try to explain that I teach photography. I teach about my approach to portraiture, editorial and nude photography. I don’t teach how to use cameras. It is not about equipment as such. It is about a simplicity that becomes ever more complex and then it retreats and calms down to a satisfying simplicity. This is where I am now. But I will keep that boom. One never knows what time will bring!
Picture 1: Doug Bennett from the band Doug and the Slugs with Randy Rampage (DOA) up in the air. I cannot remember the name of the ecdysiast now. I took this photograph in 1985. I had no assistants even though I had to monitor two smoke machines. The light on the top right is the boom.
Picture 2: The lead singer of Moev (after Madeleine Morris left the band. Have a look at Morris under a boom in adjacent blog below.) I do not remember her name. I took this picture in 1985 and I would not be able to duplicate it if I tried. I did use a focusing spot light and many gels.
Picture 3: Kate Davitt, model, smoking. I took this in 1984. I used a boom spotlight pointing down and a second spotlight across her face. The boom spotlight acted as a back light so that the smoke can be seen. I took this in the huge studio I had on Hamilton Street in the not yet fashionable Yaletown.
Picture 4: Carla Temple, body builder. I used complex lighting and sets that I borrowed from the CBC. They had them in their Burnaby warhouse so I had to manhandle them on to a truck with the help of Vancouver Magazine writer Les Wiseman and editor Malcolm Parry. I took this in 1984. Art Director Chris Dahl, dispatched me with a, "Take some heroic pictures of her." Malcolm Parry added, "Make sure they wear very little."
Picture 5: Sarita. Perhaps 1983. I used an umbrella but this picture is what my style has become now even though I opt for a small 2x3 ft softbox. It was here that I temporarily (!) forgot about wanting to impress people with my complex lighting schemes that never seemed to reach the soul of my subjects.
Picture 6: I took this last week. On the left that's cello player Cris Derksen and on the right opera soprano Melodi Mercredi.
The styles above are all over the map but all taken with the same camera. A camera that has elements that are 35 years old. I exchange parts from the two other identical Mamiyas I have so that the one camera I use operates smoothly. I wonder if anybody will be using their modern cameras beyond a couple of years. The money these photographers save by not buying film is spent upgrading equipment and software that does not last beyond a couple of years. Will it ever get simple again?
Lady Windermere under the boom
Karen Campbell under the boom
Crystal Pite under the boom