PERSONAL WORK, PASSION, YADDA YADDA YADDA
If we as photographers envision the internet as an ocean, and every fish a new set of eyes on our work, then we can view every new photograph in our portfolios as another net in that ocean that can lead to a new assignment. Sounds like bullshit, right? Well, it’s not. It’s the way the photography industry is changing. In this blog post, I’m going to explain the strange, peculiar way that I came to photograph the print advertisements and billboards for National Geographic Channel’s "Life Below Zero".
Above: Final key art for Life Below Zero designed by Cold Open
Even though I had done a similar shoot before inside an artificial blizzard, we didn’t want to recreate exactly what had already been done. Besides, where’s the fun in that? Andy at Nat Geo wanted to push things a step further. We would use my initial images as a starting point, but steer the look and feel more towards the show. On creative calls, Andy explained that the show feels colder, darker and less polished than my initial photographs:
“I like the other blizzard images you shot before but they are a bit too… Hmm… Snow-Globey? Does that make term sense? Am I being too client-y here?”
I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever heard the term “too snow-globey” but it made total sense. When it’s extremely cold, snow is not puffy and large. Beyond making the light more dramatic and less feathered and soft, something as simple as reducing the size and speed of the snow flakes themselves could even change the feeling of the photograph.
If you’re interested in more of the technical data about these photographs, that info can be found already described in detail in my previous blog post "Creating an Indoor Blizzard".
SUE AIKENS: PROFESSIONAL BADASS
I give major kudos to both Cold Open and Nat Geo for having the integrity to feature one of the real subjects in the show on the billboard- Sue Aikens. Sue is the warden of Kavik Camp- a remote exploration camp miles North of the Arctic Circle, 500 miles from the nearest city and 80 miles from the closest road. Sue lives in isolation for 9 months out of the year. When she’s not alone, she hosts geologists, climate scientists, eco-tourists and occasionally has to provide security for them against the plethora of dangers that disturb the campsite, including Grizzly bears. An early episode of Life Below Zero shares a story of when Sue was mauled and attacked by a grizzly, clawed and bitten in the head, and narrowly escaped death. Let’s just put it this way- Sue is one true badass.
Although I think Sue is actually quite beautiful and charming in real life, the image of her chosen for the main key art isn’t exactly flattering, but it is honest in representing exactly what the show is. Sue didn’t mind this either, and would rather be depicted authentically as someone facing a harsh climate rather than “a girly-girl with a pink rifle”, as she put it. But that doesn’t mean Sue is all things serious- she loves to joke around and is a delight to work with. Beyond technical knowledge and artistry, I belive that portrait photographers need to develop social observational skills. To make someone comfortable, you have to be able to read the nuances in an individual’s character and express your ideas in a way that will make sense to them. Sue is a lovable person and easy-going, but this is still the first time she’s done a photoshoot like this. She hadn’t met us previously. So- even with such a large personality and confidence, how could Sue not have an inkling of uncertainty about our intentions? She is human after all. Because of that, we had to be sure she knew our minds were in the right place to depict her with authenticity. We listened to what she had to say and made her part of the creative process . We did our research by watching episodes and reading material about her life, we took recommendations on what she’d actually wear and even the way she’d hold certain props or objects. It was also helpful we both love the movie Kung Pow: Enter the Fist… That certainly broke the ice.
Rather than have our crew travel to Kavik, an incredibly tight deadline made the shoot happen in Anchorage, with Sue flying in. Joe Sciacca's awesome set design brought the icy feeling of the show to life. I feared Sue would think we were total phonies from Hollywood because she lives the real thing every day, but she was really into the concept and collaborative. I’d photograph her again a couple weeks later in NYC while on a press circuit promoting the show.
Above: After looking at the behind the scene images, it seems I did 90% of this shoot laying down
THE FACETIME CLIENT
Andy wasn’t able to join us for the shoot, so he tuned in via Facetime on my iPad. I don’t have to go too into depth about this because Andy has written an entire post about working with our team on this shoot remotely on his own outlet: The Client Blog.
Andy explains: “During the day, I left the Facetime screen on my desktop and muted the microphone while I was doing other work, having meetings, etc – and occasionally I’d see Joey or Gardner (Creative Director from Cold Open) waving to get my attention and we’d pow-wow quickly. Everyone from my team stopped by to look in at some point and watch the shoot, and marveled at the simple solution to “be on set” from 3,000 miles away. Mostly, I just really appreciated everyone on-set in Alaska making such a great efforts to involve us in the shoot as much as possible. I tried not to interfere at all in the process, and in the end it was a great way for them to get immediate approvals and feedback rather than working more in the dark.”
Above: If the client gets too clinet-y, we can just turn him off.
Above: I learned that both Sure and I are fans of the movie Kung Pow.
Now, I’m not someone who follows to the new-agey nonsense of cultish films like “The Secret”, but I do really believe that the thoughts and things you put into the world can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. This shoot happening gave me another reason to believe that simply putting your work in front of countless eyes can yield results. In today’s rapidly changing industry, it appears that sharing is just as important as shooting itself.