Category Archives: photography

Kevin Scott’s “Behind the Tech”

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.

 

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Thomas Hawk Ditches Getty Images

Photographer Thomas Hawk explains why he is leaving Getty Images to join Stocksy, the photographer co-op.

I don’t care how you look at it, for me, 20% is not fair. It’s too low. I’ve been complaining about it for years, but have just grumbled along because Getty felt like the only game in town for stock photo sales.

Artists and photographers deserve more than 20% payouts. I understand that Getty has the buyers, that Getty is the 800 pound gorilla, but still, photographers deserve a better split than 80/20 against them.

There are other reasons why I’m quitting Getty Images too, though.

Takeshi Shikama (WSJ)

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, William Meyers briefly reviews Takeshi Shikama‘s exhibition at Alan Klotz Gallery.

Mr. Shikama is a resident of Tokyo who built with his own hands a mountain lodge in a forest with trees he felled. For the past decade, he has sought refuge there to commune with and to photograph nature. Most of these dark, haunted images of trees, woods, fields and flowers are exquisitely printed on 11-by-14-inch hand-coated platinum palladium Gampi paper. The thin, ecru paper is also handmade, and so transparent the images seem to float. Some, like “Mt. Kuromori 6” (2006), show a dense forest, and some, like “Landscape 18” (2009), a lone tree. “Landscape 3” (2009) shows just the shadows of trees. In the “Lotus” series, Mr. Shikama presents this culturally important plant in several aspects; sometimes the flower in different stages, sometimes the leaves, sometimes just the stalks, but always with reverential delicacy.

Coveting the Fujifilm FinePix X100

As much as I have given in to digital photography, there is still a lot about the analog world that I love. Film and its acrid chemicals. I meet them halfway by processing film traditionally and scanning them digitally. On my cameras, I still like knobs and dials better than buttons and on-screen menus. Fuji seems to understand those of us who like to fiddle with camera dials. We do not know yet how well the Fuji FinePix X100 will shoot, but the initial specs already have me coveting one.

* The camera will have both an LCD screen and a hybrid optical / electronic viewfinder. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I like having the option of using a viewfinder.

* Topside, analog style control dials for shutter speed control.

* The fixed lens opens to f2.

* The style is a throwback to the classic rangefinder in size and looks.

On being a great printer

Peter Turnley profiles master printer Voja Mitrovic.

I recently sat down and interviewed Voja Mitrovic for several hours about his experiences as a printer. Several important concepts emerged from this interview. He indicated to me that the three most important things involved in being a great printer are patience, developing a good dialogue and communication with the photographer he is printing for, and knowing how to read a negative. It is most important to know the photographer, to know what he or she wants, and to be able to read the image—like photographers, some people see things, and others don’t! Great printing involves knowing how to choose the right paper, having technical skills, and a strong artistic and aesthetic sense. He feels that it has helped him very much to have been himself a photographer, in order to understand the goal of a photographer.

Young Photographer Breaks the Rules, Finds Success

The New York Times writes about photographer Ted Selby, who is making a name for himself by profiling “cool” people and their personal spaces on his blog theselby.com.

Despite getting work for magazines like Spin and Dazed & Confused, his success was middling. He wanted to do a more personal project; he just wasn’t sure what.

“Usually professional photographers will have a show at a gallery in Chelsea,” he said, “or a photo book from a small art press. That was the traditional way to do it.”

Instead, he took advice from his friend Mark Hunter, who runs thecobrasnake.com, the wildly successful behind-the-scenes party blog.

“I pride myself on marketing,” Mr. Hunter said, “and knowing how to reach an audience and build a following. What I thought would be great for Todd was to create something people would want to share.”

On the Internet, he told his friend, you don’t have to be as selective as at a magazine. Share 20 images instead of one. Break the rules.

Within two months, the site had become so popular that Mr. Selby made it the center of his professional life.

“This is something photographers haven’t caught up to yet,” he said. “When I started in 2001, it was very clear. You start working for magazines, work your way up to the best magazines, the art buyers and art directors see those great magazines and hire you to shoot an ad campaign. Now it’s a totally different game. People who are making decisions about ad campaigns aren’t looking at magazines for inspiration. They’re looking at the Internet.”

Simplifying your photo equipment

Bill Pierce on why it makes sense for some photographers to travel light.

David Alan Harvey works, whenever possible, with a small camera (Leica) and a single lens (35mm). David is one of those people, wise before his time, who realizes photography is about what is in front of the lens, not in back of it. All the equipment in the world can’t save your butt if you can’t observe, deal and, sometimes, even understand your subject. Indeed, all of the equipment in the world, when it is hanging around your neck, can be a real impediment to dealing with your subject.

Mentions Henri Cartier-Bresson (who worked primarily with his Leica rangefinder), Richard Avedon (who mostly works with a twin-lens Rollei and an 8×10) and Arthur Grace (whose book Choose Me was shot with a twin-lens Rollei). Via Ian G., aka 4edges.