In his photographic project “Behind the Tech,” Kevin Scott portrays the “relatively unknown” technologists who “make our modern lives possible.” “The Behind the Tech project’s singular purpose is to acknowledge the makers of technology and what they do.”
What is the genesis of your project? I read that you started by photographing a number of women with whom you have worked over the years? What was the seed? How has the project expanded?
With Behind the Tech, I had been thinking for a while about how important role models are for us as we imagine what we could be in the future. Role models have always been important to me. Just seeing someone who at some point was like me, who could do something I thought was hard or impossible, always gives me hope that I could do that thing too. For little kids in particular, technology can be this very abstract thing, but showing them that there are folks who look like them, who make the technology that they use, I think is a very powerful thing. But when you think about the people in tech who we celebrate, whose faces are well known, they are interesting, but not representative of the faces actually behind the technology. I wanted to do something that showed the diverse faces, and that shared the diverse stories of the folks who I see on a day-to-day basis trying to make the world a little bit better with technology. And by doing so, I hope that I can help a few people find role models, inspiration, and their own path to a better future.
I started Behind the Tech in July of 2016. I had a free chunk of time for the first time in a decade, and I decided that I was going to start by asking a bunch of folks I knew if they would sit for a portrait for this project. I then asked the AnitaB.org Institute, which runs the Grace Hopper Celebration, if I could set up a temporary portrait studio on the GHC exhibition floor to do some portrait sittings for conference attendees. After that I had a pretty long list of folks to photograph. I contracted with a recent Stanford Classics Ph.D. graduate to help write some of the profiles. Now that we’ve got a bunch of interesting content, we’re starting to try to promote the project a bit.
How did you decide on your lens and lighting choices for this project? Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white? Are there any photographers from whom you got inspiration for those choices? How would you say it differs from your usual shooting choices?
There are a bunch of portrait photographers I admire. Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon might be my three favorites. I love how Newman was able to use environment in this incredibly graphical way in his portraits. Lindbergh is a genius at getting people to relax, and I love how organic and natural all of his portraits seem. And Platon is my favorite photographer. He uses the face and the human body in such strikingly graphical ways.
I think that a lot of my shooting choices are influenced by these three. I always shoot black and white to accentuate the graphical nature of face and form. I tend to favor lighting and processing that creates contrast, again to try to give portraits a graphical quality. But I also try really hard to capture the subject as they are, not an idea of who they should be, which means no hair and makeup, no major retouching, and spending a lot of time getting the subject comfortable before and during shooting.
These photos were shot with a 120mm macro lens on a Phase One Medium format camera. It’s a brilliantly sharp lens that allows for close focus, and a comfortable space between me and the subject. I had a couple of lighting setups, although I almost always try to shoot with one light. The setup I used most often was an Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa modifier positioned above and angled down toward the subject, just out of the shot.
You are said to speak to your subjects as you photograph them. How much of that is your interest in them as technologists, and how much of that is your way of working as a photographer (making them feel at ease)?
It’s both. I always chat with my subjects as I’m photographing them to try to capture glimpses of their real selves, not a conception of how I think they should look. When I set up I’ll frame the subject, then move out from behind the camera, and chat with them while I’m firing shots with a remote trigger. Every 10 frames or so I’ll recheck framing and focus and continue this way until I think we’re done with whatever conversation that we’re having. Keeping them focused on me rather than the camera has made my portraiture a lot better, IMO. And on top of that, I’m genuinely interested in everyone I photograph. I wouldn’t photograph them if I weren’t interested in learning more about them.
What kind of technical training have you had as a photographer, and what have you taught yourself along the way?
I’ve done some workshops [Ralph Gibson] and online courses over the years, but most of what I’ve learned has been through reading, talking with photographers when I get the chance, looking at a lot of photography and trying to imagine how photographers made the images that I admired, and then a lot of trial and error.
Which documentaries have been influential on you?
In terms of documentaries, the Salgado biopic “Salt of the Earth” was really influential, as was “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light,” and “Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens.”
It is interesting that one of your motivations to do “Behind the Tech” is because you wanted to highlight people in technology whom you believe deserve more attention, especially when Platon, of your inspirations, is known for a project like “Power: Portraits of World Leaders.” Platon has said that one of the reasons why he chooses the lighting he does is due to the limits of time he has with his subjects. Similarly, you have had short periods of time with some of your subjects, for instance, when you caught some of them during the Grace Hopper Celebration. Beyond that practical consideration, though, why do you like, what you called the “strikingly graphical” approach of Platon?
I really admire Platon for a bunch of reasons. The portraits themselves are striking: the contrast; the posing; the interesting use of perspective; the things that he does with hands. I’m a big fan of the work that he does with Human Rights Watch and in furtherance of human rights in general. The work that he’s done with Dr. Denis Mukwege and Panzi Hospital in the Congo is heartbreaking and a powerful call to action for all of us.
On lighting, I wonder if Platon’s choices were of necessity in the beginning, and are now his preference because of the simple beauty of single-light setups. In the Netflix documentary of his work, Abstract: The Art of Design, he was shooting a portrait of Colin Powell in his studio in New York City, where he could have used any setup he liked, and was using the same black backdrop and overhead, shoot-through umbrella keylight that he seems to use so often. I definitely feel that affinity with my single-light setup, even when I am in the studio with every tool imaginable at my disposal it’s the thing I most often go to.
Platon and Lindbergh both often seem to work fairly tightly in their portraiture, choosing to focus on face and posture to convey character. Lindbergh backs out sometimes to show some scene, though it often seems to be as a way of accenting the person he is portraying rather than conveying anything thematically. However, you said you also like the way that Arnold Newman uses the environments of his subjects when he portrays them. Any favorite Newman works? And in what ways might we see the influence of Newman’s approach in this project, or in your future work?
Newman’s portrait of Stravinsky at his piano is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art. I don’t know that I’m so much influenced by Newman as inspired by him. I’ve tried to shoot environmental portraits before and can’t even begin to approach his genius in getting subject and environment to reinforce and complement one other. Whenever I try, the background invariably distracts from the individual. But I’m going to keep trying. I love this idea that a portrait can be a bit of a self-contained biography of a subject, and that subject accompanied by environment might make you ask a different set of questions about an image.
Besides your motivation to do this “Behind the Tech” project, how else has your background in technology [Scott is the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft] informed and colored your choices as a photographer? In what ways, if any, for instance, does it make you a more technically-inclined photographer, and how has that both helped and hindered your photography? You mentioned that you like to shoot subjects whom you like or admire, but how else do you make sure to overcome the “gadget (camera) freak” mentality of some technologists to properly focus on your subjects?
I think that having a background in math and physics and engineering has helped with thinking about the tools and technical bits of photography as a system, and for me at least has made it quick to ramp up on new things and understand how things work. Which is great because honestly I want all of the technical bits to disappear into the background and to be able to focus my attention on the subject. One of the reasons that I do photography is for the conversation with the subject, thinking about a composition, visualizing the image I would like to capture without having my eye at a viewfinder, all of that is like a release from the technical stuff that I do for my day job.
I haven’t always been this zen. Focusing too much on gadgets and gear has definitely been a distraction in the past. I still enjoy the tools of photography. But, I was in a workshop with Ralph Gibson once and just blown away by what he was able to do with a Leica M, a 50mm lens, natural light, and his eye. And if you look at the amazing images that my three photography heroes make, it’s not because they are shooting with peak technology and complex setups. I think that for some folks, perhaps especially techies, it’s hard getting to the point where you understand that you, not your gear, is the most significant factor in making an image. In a way it makes you very vulnerable. But if you can’t get past it, you will always be focused on the wrong thing. (No pun intended.)
Why are you drawn to portraiture?
Among Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon’s works, are there specific images that stand out for as inspirations and/or for your admiration and why?
Newman’s Stravinsky portraits, his portrait of Kurt Goedel, and the one of Leonard Bernstein I think are really amazing. The Stravinsky and Goedel portraits are spare, beautifully composed, with both of these geniuses sitting with the instrument of their art: Stravinsky at the piano where he would compose; Goedel in front of a literal blank slate where he might prove his next great theorem. The Bernstein portrait begs so many questions. What is Bernstein thinking? He’s perhaps known most for his conducting, but it’s just him, a score, and empty orchestra in the image. Is that a reflection on his disappointment that he wasn’t better known for his work as a composer? It just seems to capture something about Bernstein’s inner conflict that we know from the historical record was a real thing.
I love so much of Peter Lindbergh’s work. His 2017 Pirelli Calendar is really great in my opinion. I’m not a huge fan of the Pirelli Calendar in general, but Lindbergh’s 2017 I think is really powerful, and shows these rare glimpses of these celebrated women with little or no makeup, no retouching, no ridiculous wardrobe. They are just themselves, and for many of them, who have been photographed countless times, these are my favorite portrayals of them in portraiture.
I’ve already talked a bit about Platon, but some of my specific favorite portraits are the one of Willie Nelson hugging his guitar, the one of the mother at the grave of her son, a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, the one of Jon Snowden with the US Flag, and the one of Sylvester Stallone smoking the cigar. The images of the grieving mother and of Snowden with the flag are just extremely well-done images of the juxtaposition of extremely emotional elements, and are obviously intended to provoke a strong emotion in the viewer. The other two are harder to explain, but both in addition to their technical qualities which I think are remarkable, also convey this sense of raw emotion.