It Started with a Shimmer…

Actually, a shimmer and an idea.

I don’t know why the folks at Nikon and the Photo Plus Expo administration listened to me when I came to them with Halloween ideas. For someone such as myself, raised up on comic books and the dark fantasies of Mordor, the notion of distressed trick or treaters, of small children poised on the verge of fantastical disaster and mayhem was completely normal. I was somewhat nonplussed then, when most people I tried to explain my ideas to would listen politely, tilt their head, look at me and say, “Sounds cool. You’re a sick bastard.”
PPE, which is itself a fantastical land of mystery staged every year in the glassy cage on 11th Avenue known as the Javits Center, falls on Halloween weekend. Why not create some spooky, fun pics to advertise it? Doing these snaps immediately combined a lot of things I love. Being on location. Struggling my way through complex lighting scenarios. Being with a crew of talented people. Body painting people into other worldly wonders. And mostly, letting my imagination out for a healthy romp.

In this scenario, I conjured a little girl, reading a scary story by flashlight, long after she should have gone to sleep. Her wall is a wonderfully innocent mural of leafy woodlands, filled with faeries and other mild-mannered creatures of the forest. Except for one, who seems to be coming alive, literally out of the woodwork, a malevolent creature, one with mischief and more on her mind. She is freaking out the other faeries, who would warn the little girl….if only they could.

The key to a job like this is preparation, and the assemblage of a bunch of amazing skill sets. The empty room had to first be illustrated with a vibrant, richly done mural. Dana Heffern, a terrific painter, worked in this room for eight days prior to the shot, creating the dreamy woods. Anastasia Durasova, a truly brilliant body painter, combined with hair stylist Jerome Cultrera to transform the lovely Tanya Sinkevica into the creature living in the wall. And of course, all these people would never know to all show up at once to do this were it not for the herculean efforts of the ever talented Lynn DelMastro, friend, colleague and extreme producer. I’m not sure of this, but Lynn at this point in her career might actively fear my imagination, as it is that fevered sense of what might be possible in a photo that has translated into many long nights of work for her. I halfway expect her at some point to just look at me and say, “Can’t you just shoot a goddam head shot?” But noooooo…….Joe’s gotta get an evil faery, and moonlight in the woods, and trees that eat little children!

Of course, when her work is done, she is more than happy to hand off this hot potato of a location effort to me, and then, I have to figure it out. When I scouted this empty room, I noticed there was a shimmer on the wall, coming from high sunlight banking off the backyard pool, creating an upward cast, gleam through the window onto the wall. Hmmmm….how could I recreate that? I gave it a stab by firing three Profoto Acutes into a 6×6 Lastolite silver reflector, angled up from the backyard into the window. The prop stylist, Katherine Hammond, draped a sheer over the glass. I took my #D810 into incandescent white balance. Boom. We had moonlight, glinting of the waters.

The D810 has incredible resolution, and is the perfect camera for this. But, all those millions of pixels combine to make a stern taskmaster of a sensor, one that shows every flaw, and every undone, incomplete part of your picture in stunning detail. Hence, the light had to be right. It ended up being a combination of five SB 910 speed lights, mixed in as accents with three 2400ws Acutes, one B4, and two B1‘s. Each light had a job to do, in a specific area of the photo. Then they all had to mesh into something plausible.

The process of doing this is slow and steady. Put up a light you think you need. See what it does. Modify or ratio it, up or down. Where are the dead spots? Fill those in, but with a governed, controlled light that doesn’t blow away the look and feel of the light you have already painstakingly created. I sometimes think about the physician’s creed when putting up a light into an already existing grid. “First, do no harm.” Then I think of the photographer’s prayer. “Please don’t let me f%#@* this up.” This is like building blocks. They are independent pieces, but they all rely on and react to each other.

For the forest idea, the light was just as carefully controlled, except, it wasn’t a bedroom, it was a forest. The below is about 12,000ws of light, sprayed across a spooky forest, where two trick or treaters have unwittingly stumbled into. Mommy told you not to go into the woods! They say the trees in there come alive at night!

Many thanks to Mike Corrado and Mark Suban at the Nikon Ambassador program, and the folks at PPE, for listening to my wacked ideas!