One Background, 81 Portraits: What I Learned Photographing The Photo World


It started as a reversal. Direct a camera back at the photography community. Who would it show? How would they appear? Two years ago, B&H Photography Podcast producer John Harris and I decided to find out. We cast our net wide: artists, curators, theorists, editors, printers, activists, archivists, engineers, students, educators—anyone who used photography in a way that inspired us. The gesture begged a question that ended up becoming our calling card throughout: What is photography?

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Fig 1 & 2: Outtakes of Ulrich Baer (left) and Daniel Power (right)

“Well it can’t be everything!” Each time I start a new project I can hear the voice of my former professor Romy Golan in the back of my head. She was reacting to a student whose liberal interpretations of a painter’s work veered in every possible direction. Her assertion came from the vantage of historical scholarship but it continues to haunt my creative process—especially in the early stages of long-term projects. The temptation to allow an idea to grow unwieldly lurks around every corner. Clarity and simplicity can go a long way toward shaping a project’s identity.

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Fig 3 & 4: Outtakes of Katie Mccurdy (left) and Miranda Barnes (right)

Expecting a wide range of personalities and opinions, John and I had to find a way to lend the project a sense of unity. The end-product was serial content published on a blog so the images needed to share a distinct aesthetic—something that would differentiate them from adjacent content but harmonize when viewed collectively. We had both recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Irving Penn Centennial exhibition, an outing commemorated on an episode of the B&H Photography Podcast. Throughout his life, Penn was outspoken about his love for north-light studios. His ability to create compelling portraits using simple environments and straightforward setups is the thing of photographic legend.

Fig 5: Behind-the-scenes with Mark Mann sitting atop the stool he took to the White House to pose President Barack Obama (Photo by John Harris)
Fig 5: Behind-the-scenes with Mark Mann sitting atop the stool he took to the White House to pose President Barack Obama (Photo by John Harris)

Still energized by the exhibition, we decided to set forth working parameters of our own. This would serve as the foundation of the series. All photographs were made using natural light in a daylight studio (Highlight Studios). The same painted backdrop (Oliphant Studios) appears in every photograph in the series. To further unite the images, we made all of the photographs black-and-white. This decision raised a few eyebrows, especially since the cameras I was using were known for their color rendering (Hasselblad H6D-100c and H6D-50c).

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Fig 6 & 7: Outtakes of Delphine Diallo (left) and Lily Olsen (right)

As mentioned earlier, I’ve yet to dispel the ghosts living in my head after a decade of studying art history. Few creative endeavors escape the scrutiny of my internal critic. Why make a photograph of that? Why make it look that way? These are the types of questions that wake me up at night. The rationale behind shooting black-and-white for this series was part personal and part practical. Color can transform an image in powerful ways when used with purpose. It can also distract when used arbitrarily. Speaking in purely subjective terms, I have always felt that audiences approach black-and-white portraits with a different attitude than color portraits. That was what I wanted for these photographs. Of course, in practical terms, sticking to black-and-white secured a distinct aesthetic that would otherwise have been extremely difficult to maintain over time.

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Figs 8 & 9: Ben Zank and I reviewing images (Photo by John Harris)

Ambitious as we were, neither of us expected the project to reach eighty-one participants. Had I known, I may have considered loosening the constraints a little. Now that it is over, I’m glad that we stayed true to form. But each sitting meant one less image I could create without repeating myself. Moments of overlap are inevitable, but the principal challenge—allowing each person to embody his or her being for a fraction of a second—characterizes all portrait sittings. Getting to that space involves patience and awareness. As the series evolved, I became more and more comfortable allowing participants the time and space do this however they felt they needed. I was fortunate to have the luxury of time on my side for most of my sitters. Rushing a portrait is a waste of time.

Fig 10: An outtake of Libby Pratt and Michi Jigarjian
Fig 10: An outtake of Libby Pratt and Michi Jigarjian

Research was an important part of our pre-production process. Not only is this how we discovered many of our future sitters, but we wanted the portraits to reflect the relationship each person had with photography, so it was important to familiarize ourselves with their work. Collaboration is the key to any successful portrait and I was incredibly lucky to be working with such creative talent. We asked participants to bring something that spoke to their relationship with photography that we could incorporate into their portrait. These objects—or in some cases, people—provided conversation points, put sitters at ease, and added diversity to the portraits.

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Fig 11 & 12: Outtakes of Gus Powell (left) and Jeff Mermelstein (right)

We encouraged sitters to explore the items in the studio, as well. This led to some surprising results: John taped chairs to Ben Zank; Mitra Saboury used strawberry jam as lipstick; Jeff Mermelstein planted driftwood on his head. Sometimes these objects found their way into the final selection. Other times the exercise simply lightened the mood and helped dismantle the rigid preconceptions some participants had about studio portraiture.

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Fig 13 & 14: John Harris and Suliya Gisele sitting in for a concept shot (left); and Elinor Carucci and daughter Emmanuelle in the final image (right)

I tried to bring a few unique ideas to each shoot, rarely knowing the person I was shooting beforehand or how they would react to my suggestions. Usually these ideas would evolve into something far more interesting than my original thought. Adapting to the personality in front of your camera is a crucial part of making a convincing portrait. When working with non-models, direction can be a delicate process. I defer to what feels natural for each person rather than attempting to choreograph an inevitably rigid pose. Seemingly innocuous directions like “Relax your thumb,” can cause someone to become hyper-aware of the fact that they are having their photo taken, complicating an otherwise relaxed shoot. Your model was never thinking about her thumb, but now that is all that she can think about: “What do you mean, relax my thumb? What does a relaxed thumb look like? Is my other thumb relaxed? I knew I should have gotten a manicure before the shoot…” Self-consciousness is a bad look every time. This is where it helps to take a break every once in a while. Tell a joke, have a coffee, breathe. There is no point in forcing a photograph out of someone. It is the first thing anyone will notice when looking at the image.

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Fig 15 & 16: Clay Benskin and Xyza Cruz Bacani (left); Setting up with Travis Fox (right); (Photos by John Harris)

Collaboration was crucial to every step of “What is Photography?” I was fortunate to have John and assistant Suliya Gisele to contribute ideas and suggestions before, during, and after shoots. If the experience could be distilled into a single idea it would be that of community. A project like this could never exist without a dedicated team putting in the thought and work necessary to make it happen. It also could not have taken the shape that it did without the tremendous sense of comradery and support that we discovered in the photographic community. Many future participants were brought to our attention during and after shoots by sitters.

Behind-the-scenes with Rose Callahan (right); Behind-the-scenes with Sara Bennett (left); (Photos by John Harris)

Check out the entire series here to see the portraits, read the responses we received, and learn more about the incredible participants involved in the project.