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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Embrace Change

Sometimes it takes staying home to leave your comfort zone

The conductor and engineer of the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad, New Hope, Pa.

In 34 years of professional photography, I had only ever spent, oh, about three quarters of an hour shooting in a studio. From my years as a newspaper photojournalist on the streets of Jersey City and Hoboken, to my stretch shooting annual reports for the Fortune 100, to my latest incarnation as an editorial travel shooter, all of my photography had been done right where I liked it: out on location.

But sometimes even old dogs are forced to learn new tricks. This—one of many evolutionary, “adapt or die” moments in my career—came, as they often do, thanks to my wife Peggy (affectionately referred to by my sons and I as “SWMBO”—She Who Must Be Obeyed).

The Arts Center here in New Hope, Pa., was looking for a project to raise awareness about its gallery, a fabulous loft space right in the center of our little town, something that would involve the whole community. Peggy is friendly with the board of directors and volunteered me to do a “community portrait project.” Before you could say “Bob’s your uncle” (or I could find an out-of-town assignment), I had their studio space for three weeks and 60 portraits to shoot!

Truth be told, it wasn’t entirely her idea. I’ve been saying for years that I live in such an interesting community of artists, writers, restaurateurs, musicians, sculptors, craftsmen, poets and just plain old eccentrics, and I’ve always wanted to photograph them. But, alas, who had the time (and the space) to pull that off?

Well, now, I did! No ideas happen in a vacuum, and one source of my photographic inspiration has been Irving Penn. Primarily known for his fashion work, he did a travel project in the ’70s called Worlds in a Small Room that caught my imagination as a young shooter and never left me.

Essentially, Penn took a studio setup out into the world and photographed everybody from African tribesmen to Parisian chimney sweeps against a beautiful canvas background, illuminated by classic North light (which he created simply by diffusing daylight). To my eye, it’s classic portraiture at its finest. It takes very specific people out of their environments and makes them into icons by placing them against the neutral background—like travel portraiture, only in reverse.

So for my project, I wanted to do a kind of homegrown homage to the great Penn, right in New Hope. For the first time in my career, I had the space to hang a big (12x24-foot) painted canvas backdrop, super-high ceilings and loads of floor space. I had about three weeks to do the shoot and a list of potential subjects that Peggy and I had been compiling informally for years.


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