Porch Portraits Under COVID 19 Restrictions

June 01, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

March 4, 2020 was the last photographic assignment I had before the imposition of stay at home orders in light of the novel Coronavirus pandemic.  As the overwhelming majority of my work is in service to high schools and dance studios, with their closures came cancellations of concerts, theatre productions, dance concerts and recitals, and just about everything else. For twelve weeks I had no commissioned work to do.

One of the things I do each year for Santa Margarita Catholic High School's Talon Theatre program is to produce cast and crew members' headshots in support of their spring musical.  Each year, these headshots are also used to create commemorative lanyards worn by family members during performances, and serve as mementos of these students' high school careers in theatre.  To create these headshots, I bring in lights and a backdrop to build a studio environment in the school's black box theatre or in a classroom, wherever I can find the space.  But with the closure of the school and the implementation of distance learning, setting up a studio environment for the students to cycle through became impossible.

To address this situation, I volunteered to set up a schedule to travel to each student's home, to photograph each participating student in costume for this year's production of "Into the Woods" somewhere in the exterior of the student's home.  The idea came to me via a community of dance photographers during a Zoom conference, during which one enterprising photographer described her idea to photograph dancers in costume on their front porch while she (the photographer) sat in her car at the curb.  Although that was a bit extreme, the obvious goal would be to photograph the student while maintaining social distance.  That's pretty easy to achieve.  Because each student's home would be different, and I wanted to make these photographs with a minimum of equipment (just a Fuji X-Pro2 camera and a choice of two lenses [35mm f/1.4 or 56mm f/1.2], depending on the distance and environment presented), the one criterion I insisted on was to photograph the students in open shade.  This produced two distinct benefits.  First and foremost, open shade would provide even, soft light on the subjects, without harsh, contrasty sunlight or the need for additional modification by off-camera flash, scrims, reflectors, or anything else.  Second, the photographs straight from the camera would be usable without significant post production edits in Lightroom or Photoshop.  My preference at the outset was to use front doors as background and framing devices, unless something else at the home presented a more compelling backdrop.

The obvious theme of this approach was to provide photographic documentation of the unprecedented (and hopefully never repeated) circumstance of the pandemic's affect on the production and the students themselves.  The lanyards, consisting as they do of headshots and related graphics, would be the primary deliverable.  But at the same time, I wanted to create a series of portraits, again in costume, but with the students wearing protective masks.  The themes of these "mask portraits" were twofold: to convey the emotions experienced by the students who have been deprived of two months of "normal" school during the closure, or to show something about how the students have adapted to the stay-at-home restriction in pursuit of their hobbies or other activities they enjoy.  Either theme would work, depending on the student's desire.

To create these portraits, I traveled over eight days to disparate locations in south Orange County, putting on nearly 400 miles on my car (which surprised me greatly). At the end of the process, I saved approximately 70 photos. I'm very pleased with the results.  Here are some samples of the portraits for the lanyards:

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The photo above was made at the front door of this student's home.  The unique feature of this location was the roof over the walkway leading to the front door (providing shade), with an open courtyard immediately out of frame on the right, providing strong yet still soft, directional light.  A wall to camera left provided bounce fill to open shadows on that side of her face.  The result was nearly perfect Rembrandt light on her face.

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And here are a handful of the "mask portraits".  The emotions ranged from sadness, to strength, to abject boredom at being confined to home.

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There was one photo I had in mind before I arrived at this home.  Two actors, brother and sister, sitting for a "formal" family portrait.

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I asked several students, "How do you spend your time at home, when you're not doing school work and unable to hang out with your friends?"  Here are some of the results: 

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Each visit to the students' home generally lasted no more than 15 minutes.  I was careful to emphasize the need to determine what time of day would present  the home (preferably the front porch area) in open shade.  That enabled me to get in and out relatively quickly, with results I could use almost straight from the camera.  The only edits to these were to eliminate small distractions that might be present in the background, typically less than a minute's work.

Scheduling and travel were the biggest challenge in completing this project.  Photographically, it was a piece of cake, and I think all of us enjoyed the experience.  My only regret was that this talented cast, crew, and faculty advisors couldn't bring the production to the stage for a live performance before an appreciative audience.


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