I was on the other end of the camera recently, for the first time in a long, long time and it was a fascinating experience. Being “on camera” is not something I do very often, so I was bit wary. Although the resulting images looked good (at least to me,) the entire process from start to finish was as interesting as the final result. A photographer being photographed! If that’s not the start of a good blog entry, I am not much of a blogger.
John Sterling Ruth is the very talented photographer who made my portrait. He is an established commercial photographer who works out of an incredible renovated barn in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Down stairs he has his own office and an incredible collection of antique motorcycles. (The motorcycle rider in me was thrilled to see that.) Upstairs is his vast shooting studio, kitchen, dressing room, etc.
After we met, John asked me about if I had ever done studio work, especially with a medium format camera. Like so many aspects of photography, I told him that it was something had I tried briefly, but I was never that good at, it so I did not pursue it. Watching him work reminded me why that was so. He clearly had mastery of his tools and his entire system/workflow. He moved almost effortlessly with a medium format Hasselblad with a 120mm lens and a Leaf 33mp digital back. That rig weighs 8 pounds. To ease the burden, John carried it on a shoulder or parked it on a light stand often, but when it was in his hand, he moved fast and fluidly, all but wielding it like a musical instrument. He also photographed me with an Olympus E-5 DSLR, which he handled just as smoothly but since that camera weighs less, his easy use of that camera was less unusual to me.
As for the technology he was using, John was shooting tethered, meaning a cable ran right from the camera to his computer, so the image appeared on a large monitor just seconds after he pushed the button. Talk about immediate feedback! At different points in the session he had clear ideas for the image. Equally importantly, he was willing to dump such ideas when he looked at his monitor and saw that his idea was not working. It turned out to be a good thing that I just had my haircut and beard trimmed days before the shoot, because the light, the lens and the large format digital camera brought out all the details in my face, skin, hair, etc.
I also giggled when he cursed his camera because he could not get something in focus. Though he clearly had mastery, he was also at the whim of his tools. One reason I had a great time was the fact that I was being photographed using the newest Olympus OMD camera. Obviously I am prejudiced, but it looks like this new camera will do most of the things I need a camera to do and it has a few new capabilities that I am looking forward to experimenting with. The most obvious one is that it is all but water-proof. That intrigues me because I have long wondered about doing a project on the monsoon rains in India, where I would have to go out to photograph in the rain, which would damage most other cameras.
John talked about his work for some of his favorite clients that are major companies like Mack Truck and Martin Guitar, some of whom are based in the area where he lives. He also talked about how his interactions with many of the same clients were as much or more about the relationships he has with the people at those companies, as compared to the actual photography. I also learned John has been photographing for 20 something years after graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia. John struck me as someone who had found his bliss (in photography at least,) had mastered his craft and focused on the relationships he had with his best customer. In some ways he exemplifies what an accomplished studio photographer needs to do in today’s difficult market. He gives his customers something of value that they cannot get elsewhere, which is indeed the model for any successful commercial photographer.
Another reason I had good time was that I was studying what it was like to be on the other end of the lens. I have photographed thousands of people over the decades of my career. Some of those people I watched quietly, while others I choreographed thoroughly. I prefer the watching quietly approach since that fits my personality (and I think of it as more respectful of my subjects, but that is a bit of rationalization.) In the end, my experience being photographed that day was not like that of the people that I usually photograph, where I am watching quietly and photographing them on the streets or while they are working.
John is a master of a very different approach than mine. His is a more choreographic approach and one aspect of his mastery was how I rarely felt like I was being pushed. I was reminded how a good portrait session is a weird mix between a close partnership and two boxers probing each other’s defenses.
As the portrait session wound down I reflected on my afternoon of being the subject not the shooter and mentally traced the arc of our encounter. John and his assistant/post-production wizard, Erik Nelson were nothing but welcoming when I arrived (and throughout the session). I had looked at John’s web site the night before, to see who he was and to look at his work. I was curious who had been hired to photograph me with the newest Olympus camera for promotional images. Before the shoot, John and Erik looked at my work on line and on my iPhone. They saw the kind of work I do (and thus answered John’s unasked question “…who is this guy and why am I getting paid to photographing him?) Looking at each others work in between bantering about what we each do was fun, though it did remind me of two dogs sniffing each other out. Just like most dogs, we ended up playing together well, but it took some time.