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Epiphany from a Writer

I like to photograph writers. There is always an interesting conversation. When publishers make writers pay for their own photo, I even offer a ‘friendly not Stephen King writer rate.”

So in early spring Ramie Targoff, a professor at Brandeis, contacted me about photographing her for a new book she had in the works. Special writer fee applied. I had taken her picture a few years earlier and I counted the assignment as ‘easy’. She is brilliant, personable, and beautiful. In these situations, I think to myself that I will be fine as long as I keep the lens in focus. For the record, my default mode is to seek the warmth and humanity of a subject. I doubt this would work on Vladimir Putin.

One chilly, sunny afternoon I arrived at her house to take the pictures. We discussed what she wanted, figured out two locations and then started the photography. We talked. I cajoled. She smiled. I left confident that the shoot had gone very well. Two weeks after I delivered the images I was startled to learn that she was disappointed. I agreed to re-shoot.

After thinking that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, I pulled myself together and returned for the new session. And during that experience, I realized that her goal was not to picture her ‘real self’ but to portray herself in a manner more in keeping with the dark and serious nature of the new book. Modern advertising would call it working the Brand. When I did editorial photography it was trying to interpret the writer by the book written. I changed course.

Going  in that direction with the new photography was substantially less challenging than my earlier default mode of seeking a person’s warmth and connection. Here I was primarily concerned with light, composition, posture, head tilts and, of course, keeping the lens in focus. I left somewhat confident, delivered the photos, and heard back that she was thrilled with the photography.

Photography is fundamentally about surface. Photographers make many decisions through lighting, angle, lens choice and direction about how to capture that surface at any one moment. Was the first time around more real? Was the second time about creating a brand and therefore less real? Or are we all multifaceted and photography captures those changing facets, 1/100 of a second at a time? The  second one was the better photograph.

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