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Eight Minutes in an Undisclosed Location - if you can't be witty, then at least be bombastic [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
kyle cassidy

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Eight Minutes in an Undisclosed Location [Aug. 22nd, 2012|12:09 pm]
kyle cassidy
[mood |accomplishedaccomplished]
[music |this woman on youtube covering vnv nation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNFLp1]

How do you photograph a former mob boss?

I was in Los Angeles, packing my car and getting ready to drive to the airport, coming back from doing that swank portrait of director John Carpenter when Tara Murtha from the Philadelphia Weekly called on the phone. I'd started paying attention to Tara about a year ago when she was covering Occupy Philadelphia better than anybody else in the city. She got inside, people trusted her and she did that with other investigative stories. In a world where real journalism was waning, Tara was the real deal. She asked if I could do a portrait early the next morning, she couldn't tell me anything else until I was on-board.

I told her I'd be jet-lagged and probably couldn't do it but to keep me in mind in the future & we hung up. About 10 minutes later I rethought the whole thing. "You're not in this life because it's convenient," I told myself, "you're doing this so you can look back and see that it's done." I reasoned that it would be miserable for a few hours but years later I wouldn't remember the misery. Plus, I was intrigued by the idea that she couldn't say who it was. I called Tara back and said "Sleep is for the weak. Tell me where to be."

When I got to the airport there was an email telling me where to be at O'Very Early In The Morning and a cryptic line about still not being able to tell me who I was photographing other than that it was a former mobster who couldn't have his location known.

I called trillian_stars and told her I'd see her at about two a.m. and that I now had to get up crazy-early the next morning and go do a portrait. "Who are you photographing?" I asked. "It's Top Sekret," I said, "I won't be able to tell you for a few weeks." "OK," she said.

She's used to it.

One of the great things about going on a photo trip and coming back to a photo trip is that all your gear is already packed. All Tara had told me was that the story was about the mobsters eyes, so some closeups might be good. I added to my camera kit a very small portable softbox and a ring-flash.

The next morning I took a cab to the Top Sekret Location and met Tara, some guys who may have been lawyers or may have been federal marshals, and a very small, pleasant, well dressed, affable man named Ralph. We shook hands and I immediately started to set up.

Photographing rock stars is excellent preparation for doing portraits of everybody else because you're already paranoid, like a rat in a cage of cats, trying to minimize your time in the center of the room because you know you don't have long, your photo is ancillary to something else, so you get in, you shoot, you get out.

While I was setting up I scoped out every available inch of the space we were in. All the walls, all the windows, and I also checked out Ralph. What did I want to show? What did I not want to show?

I figured that since he was a mobster, I'd light him like a mobster, with some very directional light from the small softbox which would give dramatic shadows, but I'd do a few other options -- a strong, direct light from overhead can also make someone look beatific -- maybe it was a story about redemption -- I wasn't sure, but I wanted to give the photo editors as much to choose from. I also wanted to show how sharply dressed he was. He had just gotten a new pair of shoes which I thought looked very nice and wanted to get in the shot.

I put Ralph in a comfortable chair near absolutely the only blank wall available, put the small softbox on a stand up and to his right, down at about a 45 degree angle. I could have put a gel on the flash to "warm" the light but I oped rather to do that in post production, mostly to save time but also to give me more options.

Ralph Natale, you may Clickenzee to Embiggen

I took a couple of photos of Ralph looking towards the light, and then turned him towards the camera and put a grid on the softbox. The Grid makes the light even more directional and decreases "spill" -- any light that might "spill" out to the left or the right. Turning him towards the camera gives much deeper shadows and a more dramatic look.

At one point Ralph looked over at someone else in the room and said "Should I give him The Look?"

There was a chuckle. "Definitely. Give him The Look."

Ralph gave me The Look. i will count it as one of the memorable moments in my photographic career. When Ralph gives you The Look he doesn't look small anymore, and he doesn't look pleasant.

Ralph Natale, You may clickenzee to Embiggen

Ralph didn't give me The Look for very long and turned back to his affable self. Finally I put a ring flash on a 28-200 zoom lens, cranked it to 85mm's, 160th of a second at f/16 and did about five photos.

Ring flashes were originally designed for medical microphotography -- the flash is built in a circle and goes right around the camera lens so that the shadows go in all directions at once. It's really useful if you're photographing a bumble bee at 1:1, but if you use it on a person from 5 feet away it looks ... weird. One thing you try and do as a photographer is make your photos a little weirder than ordinary photos, so people stop and look. The ring flash allowed me to get close, shadowless photos of his eyes.

This photo also shows really, how Ralph was while I was there -- he was pleasant, he was polite, he seemed happy. I'd no idea what he'd done and if Tara hadn't told me he was a mobster I would have assumed he was a singer or an actor. Part of photography, documentary photography anyway, is not imparting your feelings on a subject. Photograph everybody the way you'd photograph your parents.

Ralph Natale, You may Clickenzee to Embiggen

I was pretty happy with my photos. In total, I shot for eight minutes packed up & got out. Then began the weeks of waiting. Trillian didn't ask about what I did and by the time I got to my bus, I'd actually forgotten his name, I'd make a great portrait artist for the Mafia.

Click here to read Tara Murtha's Philadelphia Weekly article about Ralph Natale

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[User Picture]From: holyoutlaw
2012-08-22 04:34 pm (UTC)
Pretty amazing the three different moods of the three pictures: introspective old man, definitely The Look, and the last could be a professor, or a character actor (who plays professors a lot).
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 04:43 pm (UTC)
once you learn that what a photo shows you is only 1/60th of a second of truth you never look at photos the same way again. bias in reporting begins when you decide what to report on and continues from there.
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[User Picture]From: skreidle
2012-08-22 04:45 pm (UTC)
That's just fantastic all around. :D
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[User Picture]From: iamgerg
2012-08-22 05:03 pm (UTC)
"Part of photography, documentary photography anyway, is not imparting your feelings on a subject."

This is why you are one of my favourite photographers on the planet at the moment.
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 05:11 pm (UTC)
woohoo! it's a constant battle. the first thing is to be aware of it.
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[User Picture]From: ehowton
2012-08-22 05:04 pm (UTC)
Your personal story sir - set up et al - absolutely sells the photos you took.

I have chills!
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 05:12 pm (UTC)
why thank you! did you read Tara's article? there's some amazing stuff in there. especially the very end.
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[User Picture]From: tsarina
2012-08-22 05:14 pm (UTC)
That is amazing.
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From: mtn_hermit
2012-08-22 05:15 pm (UTC)
Fabulous, as always. I particularly like The Look. Coupled with the lighting you used, bringing out the structure of his face, his presence really jumps out at you.

I have a question though: Why f/16 when using the ring flash?
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 05:29 pm (UTC)
I was really close with the ring flash, maybe five feet away, and the power on that particular ring flash goes from 1/16 to full, so it's not terribly nuanced. It was on 1/16 power and I was at 1/160 second on the camera to block out all the available light in the room. There are several ways to get the proper exposure, one is to crank down the ASA on the camera (I was at 800 for some stupid reason) or to stop down. Of those two methods, cranking down the asa to 100 would have been the optimal because it would have given me the finest grain, but it requires holding down a button with my left thumb and spinning a wheel with my right finger, changing the f-stop only required moving one finger, and the ring-flash wasn't mounted on the camera, i was only holding it up in front of the lens to save time, so i chose that option to cut seven seconds out of the process because seven seconds while you're looking at the back of a camera and fiddling with wheels are seven seconds where the people in the room get to look at you like you don't know what you're doing, which could be made even worse if you drop the ring flash while you're doing it.

This is what goes through your head in a split second.
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[User Picture]From: ceosanna
2012-08-22 05:39 pm (UTC)
Sleep is for the week, indeed.

Powerful story and powerful photos to accompany it.
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[User Picture]From: Kate McKinnon
2012-08-22 06:14 pm (UTC)
Freaking AWESOME account. Good thing you came to your senses and said "sleep is for the weak."

I really like the ring flash shot; there is a lot to work with metaphorically.
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From: cypherindigo
2012-08-22 06:37 pm (UTC)
The pictures are great, and the article is fascinating.
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[User Picture]From: liquidmistletoe
2012-08-22 06:38 pm (UTC)
Wow, that is so cool... I'd be truly honored to be trusted to be in that position.

Excellent captures.. I feel like I could listen to his stories all day if he wanted to tell them.
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 06:44 pm (UTC)
Well, Tara says he's working on his memoirs, so you might be able to some day.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2012-08-22 07:01 pm (UTC)
Excellent account! Clearly, you made the right decision about sleep.
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 07:05 pm (UTC)
Sometimes you just gotta push through. It all hinged on whether or not I'd be able to sleep on the airplane, which is really difficult for me, only because you have to do it sitting up, if I could lay down, I'd sleep like a baby, it's the "holding up the head" bit that throws a loop in there. The key is to get your head wedged against the window, stuff some clothes behind your back so it's not bent to awkwardly, and try and fall asleep before the pain wakes you up. I knew If I could sleep on the plane, I'd be ok. As it turned out, I couldn't sleep, and even worse, when I got home I spent the next three hours laying in bed planning out lighting for the shoot, so there was ... zilch ... but ... well, you push through and hope you're not too loopy when talking to people.
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[User Picture]From: mizkit
2012-08-22 07:26 pm (UTC)
O.O I'm glad you decided sleep was for the weak, because I'd have hated to have missed The Look. O.O
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-22 07:33 pm (UTC)
I'm guessing that most people who ever saw The Look didn't get to walk away happy and continue with their day.
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[User Picture]From: karohemd
2012-08-22 09:13 pm (UTC)
Very well done on so little sleep. What a character!
Also thank you for describing your thought processes behind the setting up of the images, that definitely stirred something in my brain and hopefully I'll be inspired next time I take portraits.
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2012-08-23 07:01 pm (UTC)
those are the important bits i think. good luck!
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[User Picture]From: kuroshii
2012-08-23 02:55 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: whiskeychick
2012-08-23 05:24 pm (UTC)
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