How Do Photographer and Celebrity Collaborate?

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Photographer Simon Schluter reveals why comedian Frank Woodley agreed to be photographed drenched & lying in a puddle

PHOTOGRILL: Are celebrities difficult to photograph?

PHOTOGRAPHER: We both have agendas. I have to come away with a good shot and they want to see themselves portrayed in a good light. And I think there’s a degree of anxiety that I’m not going to portray them in a good light. You want to be fair and honest, and the reality is that you’ll meet them again, in a town like Melbourne you’re going to find yourself photographing the same people more than once.

Obviously the most sensible thing to do is to collaborate, to have both people inject what they can into the picture to get the best result. That’s what I’ve come around to thinking now, otherwise your photography just turns into boring monotonous you-ness.

It’s good to have an idea in your head and have a few backup plans, but you want to be lead by the subject as much as you can. It’s very easy to get seduced by the technical aspects of photography, and get wrapped up in lighting techniques and so on, but then the photography is full of gadgets and gizmos. You can be seduced by the beauty that the gadget can give you, and you forget about the actual soul of what you’re shooting.

There’s a very definite left and right brain thing happening with photography. You’ve got to have a creative side and you’ve got to have a technical side. The sooner you can get your head around the technical aspects, the nuts and bolts of photography, the sooner you’re free to work out the picture and be creative. The craft follows the image, or it should, that’s the dream.

PHOTOGRILL: Tell us about photographing Frank Woodley?

PHOTOGRAPHER: The brief was ridiculously brief. It’s a date, an address and a name. It was publicity for his show, called ‘Optimism’. For a couple of days before the shoot it had been bucketing with rain, everywhere was wet.

PHOTOGRILL: What sort of a conversation do you have with your subject where they respond by saying “Yes I’ll sit in a puddle for you”?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I think the first thing is trust. I’d photographed Frank before and he liked those pictures. So your talent is comfortable that you’re not going to make them look stupid, and you’re both after the same thing.

In order for them to work most pictures do have to have a vague grounding in logic. The show ‘Optimism’ is about pessimism really, it’s all wrapped up in irony. So the idea I had was to photograph him totally at rock bottom, he’s fallen over in a puddle wearing a suit; he’s cold and miserable. There’s an obvious irony in having a show called optimism and being photographed at rock bottom. With the title ‘optimism’ above it (on the newspaper page), I thought that could work. Text often runs over the photo, and that does slightly change the way you shoot, and you’ve got to leave space above it.

Photogrill: How did Woodley react to your idea?

Photographer: With Frank it made a lot of sense. It makes sense to an artist if you can explain the symbolism. To both of us it was like, hmmm, that’s obvious. He’s the sort of bloke who doesn’t mind trashing an item of clothing for the sake of a good shot. Photographing creative types is my passion, because you don’t have to explain a lot. He was more than happy to have his suit dry-cleaned, I think he actually sent us the bill (sly smile).

PHOTOGRILL: How did the shoot proceed?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I suggested Frank take a warm shower first. So he put his suit on and jumped in the shower at home and got totally soaked. I called him when I’d found a deep enough puddle (you need a good bit of depth, and a good bleary backdrop). Then he walked down to the shoot location, which was just at the end of his street. I was actually colder that he was. He gently lowered himself into the frigidly murky muddy water of the puddle at the end of the street, then you get your lighting right and go ka-ping.

PHOTOGRILL: Was it hard to think of lighting with such a subject?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Well there’s a lot happening, not the least of which is the fact that it’s raining. I’m juggling an umbrella with one hand, I’ve got plastic bags over the lights, and sand bags to stop stuff blowing over. Lighting was just a simple soft-box, nothing to it. It’s a dark suit and because it’s quite wet you get a bit of sheen, you have to really punch light into it to get any detail.

No one was walking the streets when it was bucketing with rain. To add insult to injury poor old Frank would get a bit of a splatter as the occasional car would go by. The shoot was five or ten minutes. With half an hour prep and half an hour pack up.

PHOTOGRILL: What did you ask Woodley to do in the puddle?

Photographer: That’s when it’s over to him, it’s what he does. He can just go through the motions. You do have to be wary that your subject doesn’t go into their formulaic poses. You don’t want your picture to look like everybody else’s. But the setting and the scenario did lend itself to certain expressions that don’t have to be communicated (between photographer and subject).

Photogrill: What were the technical details?

Photographer: I don’t remember the exposure but when I’m photographing rain I want slightly slower shutter speeds, I don’t want to freeze the drops, I want to see them as lines or streaks. I was also thinking about not overdoing the soft-box. Over-lighting is always a bad look. I was thinking about not having the background too sharp.

There was an orange gel on the light. To enhance that feeling of coldness and misery I popped a bit of warming gel on the light and then compensate for it in the camera by setting the camera for tungsten light (this gives the subject normal skin tones while enhancing the cold looking blue background).

Photogrill: Tell us about last time you photographed Woodley?

Photographer: Sometimes you have a picture you want to take and you’re just waiting for the right opportunity. At the previous building of The Age we had access to the old printing presses. They were 50mtrs long and two stories high, with workshops around them. There was all this heavy lifting gear. I had been waiting for some ridiculous reason, to hang someone from this huge hook that I’d found. It was so big it could easily lift a two-tone car. I was just waiting for the right reason to photograph it.

The hook is massive, so you had to bring everything to the hook. You put up a backdrop behind the hook. You bring your lights, you bring your stands, your assistants, everything to the hook. And then you work out how to put your talent on the hook. And that involved once again trashing a shirt. Fairfax actually owes Frank for that one.

I can’t remember who brought the harness I think it might have been Frank. He’s a very physical actor. He does err on the side of slapstick so you can get away with a lot from him, he uses his arms and his legs and his awkwardness a lot. There was a styling person who got Frank looking just right, then up he went.

PHOTOGRILL: How did you direct him on the hook?

PHOTOGRAPHER: It was quite awkward for him because he was held by this thing around his chest, so we shot only three or four bursts of about three minutes each. He tried a bundle of different positions. Occasionally I’d have to ask him to lower a hand so he fit within the background. You’ve got 120 seconds of frantic shooting and pray that one picture’s going to work out. I had the lights on full power so everything was in focus, nothing would be missed.

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4 Responses to “How Do Photographer and Celebrity Collaborate?”

  1. Hi Julie, Thanks for your comments on Photogrill,I’ve been shooting for years and happy to say the buzz of a gutsy shoot never fades… Thanks Again, Simon.

  2. Julie Slavin says:

    Crikey, you’ve got it all…equipment, access to obliging artists, legitimate scope for the best of the best of your craft. Compliments!

  3. great photos and great interview!

  4. csillitoe says:

    Love your work Simon, thanks for being grilled !

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