BAD BOYS & THE COMPANY THEY KEEP
I love cats. They’re the most graceful beings on the planet, and when they’re not hunting down mice or asking for a little loving, they’re hanging out in some kind of half-awake meditative state that monks surely spend a lifetime trying to achieve. I’ve been the keeper of a few cats in my life, the most memorable of whom was Max, a mixed Russian Blue/British Short Hair who was one Big Boy. Max was top cat, the Buddha/Emperor of the household, which meant that Jack, his adopted feline brother, lived to serve only him. At times I did quite a bit of serving myself, but I didn’t mind, my service came with a mighty reward, for when I awoke in that darkest of hours, 3 o’clock in the morning, a time when existence is questioned and the abyss seems right around the corner, I would sometimes hear the Big Boy sleeping on his back alongside me, legs splayed in all directions, snoring, and with that comforting sound all seemed well with the world.
I’m a fan of dogs too. If there’s anyone who lives to love and serve only you, it’s your dog, and a bond like that is a life-giving force. So I well understand those who prefer the company of dogs to cats. That’s what makes the world go ‘round. Some people like PBS, some like SPIKE, and some even like the LIFETIME channel.
In our household, my wife, Annette, and I live with Sophie, a cat who’s quite content to hiss at you for no reason at all, and Ava, a Havanese puppy who lives to play play play, mainly with Annette, who Ava follows everywhere, and I mean everywhere, including the bathroom.
Given the above, when Sande Reisett of Outlaw Advertising asked me this past Spring if I’d be interested in shooting super-athletes and their pets for a poster campaign, I immediately said yes. So what was the goal of the campaign? Like most effective ideas, the concept was simple. Sande wanted to show tough-guy role-models in loving relationships with their pets. Two incidents helped spark the idea. First, Sande told me of an incident in Baltimore City when she was about to pet a dog, only to be told to stop because the dog was being trained as a fighter. The loving touch of a caring person was forbidden. Second, Sande told me about Phoenix, a female pit bull who was allegedly torched to death by two brothers, Travers and Tremayne Johnson, both of whom are presently being prosecuted. This second incident sparked the creation of the Baltimore Mayor’s Anti-Abuse Task force, led by Caroline Griffith, and it was to this commission that Sande successfully presented the idea of a campaign.
So who were we going to photograph? Sande didn’t know, but she was working on it. As for the images themselves, we agreed that a dramatic black background was the look we wanted. This would supply Hanna Mayer, the art director who would design the poster, with built-in drama. In preparation for the day Sande would call with the first assignment, I searched the internet for inspiring images of men and their dogs, focusing in particular on images showing a strong relationship – a connection, a dialogue, that intangible energy that flows between friends. In looking, I arrived at two conclusions. First, I wanted the faces of the subjects to be close to each other, an easy task if the dog was small, but one requiring a little more thought (and perhaps a prop or two) if the dog was a big boy. Second, I wanted to make sure I could capture enough of the subjects’ faces to give the viewer a feeling of their essence.
I love to photograph people. The portrait is probably my favorite genre as a photographer. Typically, when someone comes to my studio for a portrait, the experience becomes an exploration. We sit, perhaps drink coffee, and get to know each other in as much as five or ten minutes will allow. Here, my goal is to establish a personal connection and make the subject comfortable. Then we go before the lights and shoot — and look at the results – and shoot — and look at the results — and shoot – until we’re happy. Both of us. (Before we start, I tell the subject I want to be happy too.) More often than not, by the second or third round of shooting, the subject is totally relaxed and actually having fun. The process itself includes quiet moments as well as times when I engage the subject with questions and mind games. I like to think of the shoot as a mind/Zen/jump-off-the-cliff experience that dissolves a person’s mask, leading to defining moments of character, joy, contemplation, and whatever else may lie within.
Altogether different is the headshot. Whether it be a musician, an attorney, a CEO, or someone promoting their business, the goal of my headshots is usually the same: I try to capture power and intelligence wrapped in a friendly personna. The process is painless and quick, maybe ten to twenty minutes, sometimes a little more, but again, I ask the subject to continue until we’re both happy with the available choices.
Then there is the campaign shoot. Like the headshot, it has a defined goal, a given look to be achieved. And like headshot, it can also be quick, but unfortunately, not by choice. When dealing with large companies or organizations, time is an imperative, so after your allotment, you’re done, whether you like it or not. For this reason, I usually try to visit the campaign site on a day in advance of the shoot to play with my setup. In addition to lighting challenges, a campaign can also present a problematic venue, a cast of contributors, less control over the final product, and a deadline right around the corner.
The shoot may also be visited by the press. Now I realize that having the press attend a photo shoot can be very good for a campaign. On the other hand, the more people I don’t know at a shoot, the less control I have, and if they’re shooting the shoot, well … the voltage in the room can increase to a level that easily rattles the environment. This can result in great news footage, but lousy still shots.
ADAM JONES & MISSY
In early May, Sande told me our first subjects were Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones and Missy, a Labrador retriever. Big dog. Very big dog. As strong as AJ might be, there would be no carrying this dog. We either needed a table for Missy, a sofa for the two of them, or the floor. And as much as I wanted the shoot to take place at my studio, where I am Master and Commander, that was not going to happen.
A day before the shoot, I drove to Oriole stadium to scout out the venue. I was greeted by a very helpful Kristen Schultz, director of Special Events, who took me on a long and winding walk that ended when she ushered me into a room which, for a location shoot, fulfilled my worst nightmare. It was no larger than 12 by 20, with a ceiling that could send a claustrophobe running.
“Uh, Kristen … do you have a slightly larger space?”
While I’m all for improvisation, some things are impossible. With three Elinchrom RX 600 lights, a nine-foot wide backdrop stand, and a Photek Illumnata II Octagonal Light Bank measuring 52 inches in diameter, this room was a row boat when I needed a cruise ship. The Photek couldn’t be raised to an appropriate height, the closed nature of the room would create too much flash bounce-back, and because the subjects needed to be at least 8 to 10 feet from the backdrop, even if everything else worked, I’d be shooting them from the hall.
“How about the media room, Leo? That’s where we hold our press conferences. It’s quite large.”
“That will work.”
The following day I drove back to the stadium for a 2 PM shoot. Mike Diamond, a photographer friend, met me to assist in the setup, and Sande came armed with peanut butter and toys. With some improvisation during the shoot, the basic setup is that
which you see in the accompanying diagram and photograph. (Simply click the images to make them larger.) While I assumed that in the end, we might go for a “gritty” look, my goal was to obtain a gentle light throughout the shoot. Why? Because in Photoshop it’s easy to turn a gently-lit subject into a gritty one — particularly with the right plugin — but not so easy (at least for me) to do the reverse. For location shooting, the Photek softbox is so effective in achieving a gentle light that it rivals the cumbersome and much more expensive 74 inch Elinchom Octa Light Bank which is permanently parked in my studio.
With the setup done, I asked Sande the inevitable question. “Is there gonna be press?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, knowing that would make me happy. “The last I heard, they’re not coming.”
At 1:45 PM, the press arrived. Shortly after 2, Adam Jones and Missy appeared. With cameras rolling, and I don’t mean mine, an odd feeling that I was in a movie took over, and way too much energy surged through the room. I made the mistake of getting caught up in the voltage rather than tempering it down. So while, for example, I try to
make the subject comfortable by expressing satisfaction with the images we’ve got, this time I was so enthusiastic the powers in charge cut my allotted time by a third. This is not good. Over time I’ve well discovered that in formal shoots, more shots lead to more choices. It’s one of those rare exceptions to “less is more.”
As for the shoot itself, Missy was a sweetheart, but not what I’d call a trained model. She was all over the place, and I just kept clicking, trying to capture both faces. When the dust finally settled, I found two images that caught my eye. In one, we see Missy licking a smiling Adam Jones, and in the other Missy and Adam are having a quiet moment face to face. I went back and forth on these, but thankfully, Hanna and
Sande chose what I do believe is the best of the two, as shown in the poster. For me that image works because a wide-eyed and vulnerable Missy is lovingly looking at a man whose soft touch and closed eyes completes the connection with equal emotion. (If I could turn Adam’s face 15 more degrees toward the camera, I would, but hopefully, the angle as is doesn’t bother most people.)
JOHN RALLO & DOOBIE
A month later, Sande called me again – this time with good news and bad news. The bad news was that our next subject, MMA fighter/promoter John Rallo, also couldn’t make it to the studio. One of his little guys, Doobie, was ill, so we’d have to do the shoot in his basement.
“Basement? Do we know how big it is?”
The good news was: Doobie was a cat! And as an even greater bonus: this time there really would be no press.
On 22 June, with not the highest of expectations, I met Sande at John Rallo’s home at 8:30 in the morning. As soon as I opened the door, things started looking up. First, John was as nice as could be. Second, the man was cut. Third, strong face. Fourth, perfect tank top. Fifth, and best of all: tattoos. We’re not talking one or two. If you wanted to read Dante’s Inferno as a graphic novel, John’s your man. He had heaven, hell and everything in between all over his chest and arms – and they, along with the rest of him, would look just great under the lights – if the basement was big enough.
The John/Doobie shoot was relaxed … except for Doobie. Unlike Missy, who just wanted to play, Doobie wanted out. Who are these barbarians, and why is that creature with the little clicking box making ridiculous coo-cooing sounds at me? Get these lights outta here, and take yourselves with them. We tried various poses, and once in a while Doobie was kind enough to show his face. Two factors saved the shoot. First, my feather duster. It’s a hit with Sophie and Ava, so I brought it along and finally remembered to get it out. Second, both John and Sande suggested we do a simple pose with John and Doobie looking into the camera. This didn’t strike me as promising as I generally find posing to be stiff, but in this case I couldn’t have been more wrong. John is a natural in front of the camera, so when he went into his “bad boy” look, he was so good he could’ve joined the cast of The Expendables.
Equally important, as I waved the feather duster in front of my camera, I saw Doobie open his pupils and look at me like I was a mouse, albeit a big one. He was finally on board and wonderfully doing exactly what John was doing — and there lay the connection. Two bad boys, ready for action. When it came time to choose the John/Doobie poster shot, nothing came close. (Shortly after the shoot, Doobie passed on, but I’ve no doubt he went out with a fight.)
As an aside, one lesson reconfirmed by this shoot is something I try (but sometimes forget) to practice as a photographer: listen to your subject (and in this case, Sande as well). In other words, let the shoot become a collaboration. People generally know what works for them.
JARRET JOHNSON & TUCKER
On 17 August, Sande gave me another call.
“Hey Leo, what are you doing Sunday morning?”
“Having a couple over for brunch — long overdue. They invited us for dinner more than a year ago. We’re a little slow.”
“Don’t tell me, Sande. The Ravens gave us Sunday.”
It was true.
The subjects were linebacker Jarret Johnson and his pal, Tucker. (Double J also has a Shih Tzu. Now that would’ve made quite a couple.)
At 11 AM on Sunday, I met Sande at the training facility of the Baltimore Ravens, otherwise known as “the Castle.” (Sande’s husband, Don, came to assist. The fact that he’s a huge Ravens fan and doesn’t know anything about setup is really just a coincidence.) The room was big, I was given plenty of time to set up, and everything was just right.
Then the press arrived.
Then something delayed the Ravens practice.
Then finally, Double J and Tucker arrived. JJ couldn’t have been more friendly and cooperative, and while Tucker was distracted by a relatively busy room, he sometimes settled down to give me a few good shots. Again, in the final selection, a posing shot seemed best, probably because in the loving shots, Tucker’s face wasn’t as visible as we’d have liked.
I used a gentle light once again, and added the needed grit in post-processing. While the grit and contrast of the final image is a giant step from the original, the technique used would have allowed me to go even further, to the point of unreality. Here lies one of the great challenges of Photoshop: it is so potent it temps you to go too far — and if I get to a point where I can see my own work, I know I have.
I’m not sure what horizon Sande envisioned when she conceived of this project, but as I write this on 4 November 2011, the “Show Your Soft Side” campaign is alive and kicking and growing. As reported by Jill Rosen in a Baltimore Sun article, the campaign was launched during the latter part of September. Since then, posters and billboards with Sande’s tagline, “Only a punk would hurt a cat or dog,” have appeared throughout Baltimore City, and a Facebook page devoted to the campaign has over 4,600 members. Supportive events and additional media coverage are planned. But more important is the question: will the campaign have an impact? Hopefully, it will lead to significant contributions for animals in distress. As for the message itself, that will take some time, but one would hope that with continued support, it will eventually reach those who most need it.
Click here to see the images thus far created for the campaign.