This was one of the hardest pictures I've ever had to take. It's not because of the technical aspects of the picture so much, but the fact that it was a defining moment in my time as the photographer. I've come a long way since been a street and documentary photographer, then going into fashion, but mostly on the street still. I've been practicing studio photography with an obsession for the last nearly two years, but you don't realize how far you come until you've been put to the test. And that's what happened on the day I shot Lie Sang Bong.
This was a moment that I shot probably the most famous and prominent fashion figure alive on the scene today in Korea, and also a figure who's been shot nearly to death. Many people have taken pretty good pictures of this guy. Now, I was expected to not only take a good picture, but one that stood out above the rest. At least, that was my expectation for myself. And that's a tall order.
On the day I was to arrive, I was running extremely late because of trouble getting my equipment together by myself, because the schedule didn't allow for anyone to assist me. Everybody was concentrating on the interview with the designer, who generally doesn't grant, I'm told, interviews longer than about 20 min. This loan ended up lasting about three hours. Since our magazine is started with the help of prominent fashion designers and figures, they were able to roll like that. The problem is, very little time is given for pictures. It's not like they were going to give me three times the normal amount of time given to other photographers. It's just like, "okay, now it's time take your silly little pictures. Hurry up and get it over with." So there was no time to sit and get to know the guy, get a feel from his personality, and all that other stuff. The basic expectations was to take the picture and end the entire day with him.
The problem was, that on the top floor of his design studio building, it says that there is a production studio. Well, there's nothing wrong with that. Here's the problem: the so-called studio is actually used as his personal office in one corner, and seemingly a storage space for all of the knick-knacks he's collected over the years, with the rest of the space being full of clutter, aside from a couple cramped seats for interviews in another part. But there are no backgrounds, lights, or any other kind of equipment. It was a good thing I brought everything myself.
And this is where of my years of experience, both in and out of the studio, and self-confidence kick in, which I had gained from that said experience. How to take a compelling and interesting portrait of a guy with no sold background and no natural background against which to do it? I had wanted to studio style portrait, but didn't have the seem the ability to make one.
So, with my friend and assistant Sylvia's help, we started looking at the many pictures of his store on the floor against the walls, mounted on foam board, many with white or black or gray backs. So I continued to draw upon the experience of one of my favorite photographers, Platon, who often shoots and just this situation, in which he has no prep, no real help in making the picture.
So I had the designer sit down in a large wooden chair and also had Sylvia bring over the largest mounted picture and slide it behind the designer's back in the chair. That provided a dark gray background, and I decided to shoot like Platon says he does, with a single soft box placed directly in front of the subject and pointing down at their head. It provides a very interesting and slightly stark light.
Actually, the dimensions for the board was wrong, and the chair was too long, so it didn't sit up enough by itself to be a background. So Sylvia was actually holding the foamboard background while I composed down below, in front of the designer. I used a wide-angle lens, and had him look down at me. This makes him look bit larger-than-life, and powerful. After that, I made a few passes of special effects, most importantly with the sharpen filter, along with a vignette, and then it was done.
All in all, I probably shot the designer for no more than a few minutes, but was happy with what I had. The final picture is sweetened up a little bit in Photoshop, with basic exposure effects and what not, so I feel it's very honest. The Photoshop helped the picture because I think the original had something to it, rather than most of the stark effect or feeling coming from the Photoshop.
Many pictures came out of this quick session. I chose this one because the expression is so in between other expressions. There's a slight sense of self-satisfaction, power, and yes, elegance. He's smiling a bit, but isn't. His expression shows his confidence, that that's how he rolls, he's got it like that.
Actually, that's the thing I learned from studying and listening to a lot of famous portrait photographers. What I've learned to do and what I will continue to try to do better is to bring out character from the subject, instead of trying to place something onto the subject from my end. I think that's the key to good portraits. They convey something that you probably didn't know about the person, or have fun with that person's real personality.
I was really nervous before going that day, and arrived with none of the expected equipment support present, and absolutely no concept as to how to shoot this famous designer, who's been shot a bazillion times before. But I was able to pull it together from the equipment and materials at hand, and come up with a good picture. And mean not freaking out comes from a mix of confidence and experience That I don't even think you can get in school. And for me, that was the real test. It was not about whether I can make a good exposure, or take a halfway decent picture, but about making something was feeling literally on spot and without preparation. I don't like feeling that I'm prepared, but sometimes it's going to happen. And for me, this picture means I passed the test.
In very real terms, it was put up or shut up, "Give me a picture." It wasn't about excuses, or even blaming others, who could've told me that there was no equipment in his studio and that none of the expected basic items we thought were there actually weren't. In the end, you leave with a picture that works or you don't. It was cool to know that I was able to pull it off.