Playing High-Stakes Chess With The Smartest Guys In The Room

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When January rolls around, one thing you can always count on is that I’ll be packing up 1000 pounds of gear and heading to The Harvard Club to shoot the Barron’s Roundtable. This year, Adrian Delucca and I worked up a few ideas based on the game of Chess. Here were Adrian’s chicken scratches that led to our cover shoot…

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This year we would be publishing three covers in January, and the usual mid-year cover in June, so we had to set up three different lighting setups in the very tight quarters of the Presidents Room at the Harvard Club…

The main setup for the Week One cover and opener…

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…the Chess Table set for the Week Two & Three covers…

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…and third area for the mid-year portraits…

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As usual, we would start shooting the ten Roundtable members separately as they began arriving at 8:00AM, and we had to be finished everything when the meeting began…at 10:00AM! That meant we had to shoot each person in enough different situations for three covers and three openers as well as individual portraits of each for the midyear issue…all in two hours. And we also had to convey exactly what we needed each person to do since they wouldn’t be posing with anyone but themselves and everything would be put together in post! They’re given no advance warning of what we’ve cooked up for them until they arrive.

That kinda thing is hard enough to pull off when you’re dealing with professional models, but when you’ve only got 5 or 6 minutes with a financial expert, getting him to instantly channel his inner actor is a wee bit harder…

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With our Roundtable members safely in the bag, now I got to spend the next three days locked in front of my computer. I had already spent a day shooting a Chess Board & Pieces for our base cover image…

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Now came adding the human chess pieces…

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And after a considerable amount of Photoshop work, the final cover image looked like this…

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Next up was the opening image…

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And the final image…

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Finally, I had to put together two different chess playing situations…from two different angles…for the Week Two and Week Three issues. This was our high-angle test shot (you can see the low angle tripod at the bottom of the frame)…

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What would be so easy if we could just shoot it as one photo becomes a very complicated puzzle when you hafta shoot everyone separately while trying to keep track of who you’ve already shot and in what position…

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These are the two final images…

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Now on to the low angle…

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Man…am I ever tired…….

And Now For Something Completely Different: John Cleese

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Even considering that I’ve had the good fortune to photograph some pretty impressive people over the years, when Ronnie Weil called from the Wall Street Journal and offered up John Cleese, it really knocked the wind outta me. People toss around the word ‘iconic’ a lot, but John Cleese is a true ICON. What he and the rest of the Pythons did to comedy in the early 70’s forever changed how people laughed. He is a manic genius who…to quote a famous Monty Python sketch…is a true master of sarcasm…dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire!

And I was getting 15 minutes with him…

Mr. Fawlty was in New York as part of a tour to promote his new book, “So Anyway”, and we met him in a midtown hotel where we set up two situations in a room slightly smaller than an average walk-in closet…

For our first shot, I wanted to do a tight portrait…just his face…to capture a range of expressions…

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We started with just a gridded Profoto beauty dish on the grey seamless…

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…then added a 4′ x 6′ Chimera over my shoulder for fill and a small strip light on the background for separation…

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But something didn’t look right…the 80mm lens perspective was a bit uninteresting…so we swapped it for the 150mm…

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Much better…now just add one Python…

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…and let the rat-faced fun begin!

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I began calling out various characters of his and sketches he was known for and he immediately knew where to take it…

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

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And because we had a wealth of great expressions, I made the suggestion that we do a montage of them. Here is how it ran in the Journal…

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Then we turned 45 degrees to the left and played around with some 3/4 shots…

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It was like shooting fish in a barrel…

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

Then he started doin’ this…

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John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

…and like that, our 15 minutes were up. But I had a fantastic time with an honest-to-God ICONand checked off one more Bucket List item!

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

John Cleese - November 4th, 2014 New York City

Rick Masters + Jesus + Sgt. Elias = Willem Dafoe

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As a young photographer, I had this very dreamy, romanticized idea of what it must be like to shoot celebrities. One of my early photography idols was Bert Stern, and I just figured every shoot with a celebrity might end up like his famous session with Marilyn Monroe where they locked themselves in a suite at the Bel-Air Hotel for three days with a case of ’53 Dom Perignon, a couple of cameras and a few props, and emerged totally spent but with a collection of amazing photographs. But I moved to New York a couple of decades later…just about the time when shoots like that were becoming increasingly controlled by managers, publicists, agents and the studio P/R machine. Ideas had to be pre-approved and even then it didn’t mean you would get to do them. And three days? More like five minutes after your writer got to ask his five questions, thank you very much! But if you’re smart you learn how to work the angles, you keep a few tricks up your sleeve when you don’t have the cooperation you had hoped for, and occasionally, you get lucky…

Ronnie Weil called me at 5:00PM on a Thursday and asked if I would be available the next morning to shoot Willem Dafoe for the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Weekend Confidential’ section. His new film, “A Most Wanted Man”, was coming out in a week and they were given a last-minute opportunity interview him. Now I don’t know about you, but there are very few actors that I can remember from the first moment I saw them on screen, and Willem Dafoe is one of them. His performance as the slick criminal Rick Masters in “To Live and Die in L.A.” burned into my brain. I immediately knew this was a seriously great actor. So yes…of course…just tell me where and when and I’ll be there with a big grin on my face…

The Journal likes the portraits for the ‘Weekend Confidential’ section to be all about the personality, and not prop or location-driven, and so we typically keep things very simple…seamless backdrops or locations that don’t distract from the subject. And it’s not a fashion show, either. What you bring with you is what we shoot. Willem arrived…early, I might add…alone and ready to go. He was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt and a wonderfully disarming smile. After a few minutes of me heaping gobs of fanboy praise on him and a little light grooming, we were ready to go…

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(Groomer Amy Komorowski)

Willem Dafoe was made to be photographed. He has one of the most expressive faces in the business…whether he’s playing a silent film Vampire (Max Schreck in “Shadow of the Vampire”), a Viet Nam-era Marine (Sergeant Elias in “Platoon”), a cartoon character arch-villain (the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man”) or Jesus Christ himself (“The Last Temptation of Christ”)…and I wanted my portraits of him had to capture the depth he conveys through the characters he portrays. I had a few ideas I wanted to try…and we were told Willem would give us about an hour…so here is how it went…

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I started this first setup as a 3/4 body shot, but allowed myself to move in and out as his poses and mood changed…

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William Dafoe

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Then we sat down and came in for a tight series of darker, more intimate portraits…

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Now, I was already thrilled with what we had done and that Willem had given us so much time, but I kind of liked the white brick wall in the studio, so I asked him for a few more minutes to put up a fresnel spotlight and play around with the shadows…

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William Dafoe

William Dafoe

In the end, the Journal chose one of my favorites for the article…

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…and once again, I find myself surprised at how lucky I am to be able to do what I do…

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Going Ninja With The Impractical Jokers For The Cover Of Resource Magazine

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I had the privilege to be asked by Alexandra Niki and Aurelie Jezequel…the team behind Resource Magazine…to photograph their very first ‘Celebrity’ cover, featuring Brian “Q” Quinn, James “Murr” Murray, Joseph “Joe” Gatto and Salvatore “Sal” Vulcano, better known as The Tenderloins, but who are also the stars of truTV’s The Impractical Jokers. The Jokers…in case you didn’t know…is a practical-joke reality show where the four guys coerce one another into doing public pranks while being filmed by hidden cameras. For the cover theme, Alex and Aurelie wanted to use Sun-tzu’s, “The Art Of War” for our inspiration, with the Jokers dressed as Ninja Warriors, and I was happy to pull it all together…

Aside from using a ridiculously expensive Broncolor Para 220 as a main light, the cover setup was pretty simple…

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Alex and Aurelie wanted a very high contrast, red & black look for the shot, and I had an idea for the cover that was centered around the original Charlie’s Angels logo…

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Not quite…

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Closer…

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Bingo!

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…and the final cover image…

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Next, for the opener to the story, we wanted to do a ‘reveal’ where they tore off their Black Ninja Suits to show their Black Hipster Suits underneath…

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And after a bit of Photoshoppery…

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Now came some ‘Hidden Camera’ goofs, with each of the guys hamming it up with a few not-so-hidden camera props…

“Q” the Ping Pong Pro…

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Murr and his Monkey…

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Joe the Big Gulp Cowboy…

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And Sal with a drippy ice cream cone and ‘Battle’, the GoPro-enabled Chihuahua…

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We finished things off with a few more hidden camera pranks, with the guys in their signature suits…

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Impractical Jokers

Impractical Jokers

Impractical Jokers

And finally, here’s a little behind-the-scenes video shot by Resource’s Adam Sherwin that wraps up the day nicely…

Oh yeah…Alex wanted to play Ninja, too!

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The Jersey Boy – Frankie Valli

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Imagine you’re just sitting around, not doin’ anything besides playing with your cat, and you get a call asking if you wanna shoot Frankie Valli? Yeah…that happened. Kat Malott at the Wall Street Journal offered this chance to me and it once again reinforced that decision I made to be a photographer. We talked about crossing the river into New Jersey and shooting him in his old neighborhood in Newark, or on the street in New York, but the logistics were getting tough and the weather wasn’t cooperating, so we decided on the wonderful surroundings of Shoot Digital Studios. But no stylists, wardrobe or big production…Frankie was just gonna come down for an hour or so and we’d see what happened…

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For our first shot, Kaz and I picked up this great tabletop from Surface Studio and an antique microphone. The Journal has an affinity for grey backgrounds, and this classically lit portrait would fill that need…

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Frankie Valli

For the next shot, we put the microphone onto a mic stand and fired up the spotlight…

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Finally, I really wanted to do something with this window…

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We were happy with what we had done, but then looking back at the first setup, I saw the chance for another shot, so I pressed Frankie for a few more minutes of his time, pulled out the tabletop and backed up a bit for these…

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Frankie Valli

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So thank you Kat for the opportunity…and thanks Frankie for a day we won’t forget.

Frankie Valli

The BIG One: Behind The Scenes At The 2014 Barron’s Roundtable

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In an attempt to freshen things up around here, today I’m giving the blog a fresh coat of paint in the form of a new Theme. The old dark grey was getting a bit depressing, so I chose a brighter version complete with much larger photos…and larger text for those of you who might rely on reading glasses. I also slightly modified the title. After much deliberation, gone is any reference to the Song of the Day, since my increased work schedule has made dropping a regular stream of free tunes on you guys just about impossible. I’ll still post on music that catches my ear when I have the time, but I think going forward I’m gonna focus on why I’m here in the first place…Damn Ugly Photography. With that in mind, I have a lot of catching up to do, starting with today’s mega-post, long-winded as it is…

The posting frequency has been reduced to such a level that we completely blew off discussing this year’s Barron’s Roundtable from earlier this year, but fear not…today I’m gonna spew out the full behind-the-scenes for the three issues that ran back in January, as well as how we put together the mid-year cover story that hit the stands this past Monday. It’s hard to believe, but it’s been eight years since Adrian Delucca first called me to shoot the Roundtable Feature for Barron’s, and each year we have tried to one-up ourselves with new ways to shoot the ten Roundtable members for both the January and June issues, including multiple cover images, inside opening shots and individual portraits…and get it all done in the two hours before their meeting begins. And this year, for the first time, we would have to come away with four cover images instead of the usual two. We had our work cut out for us…

With the increased image count, we had to set up three separate shoot areas in the very tight confines of the President’s Room at the Harvard Club…

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Adrian and I cooked up a re-working of the old financial Bulls & Bears theme, and our Big Ticket prop items this year were a couple of mascot costumes we had made for the event. Photo assistants Rob MacInnis and Takeshi Koike got to spend the day sweating inside the furry suits.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself…we’ll talk about those costumes later…

The first January cover would involve shooting each Roundtable member on white in various poses to make them look like they were in Pamplona…running with the Bulls…

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…then in post, I would hafta do a bit of magic with a cobblestone street and a toy bull I shot earlier…

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…which eventually turned into this…

The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

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Now as complicated as that might seem, the inside opener for Week One was actually waaaay harder to pull off. I now had to convince these ten financial gurus to imagine running away from, jumping outta the way of, cheering for and riding…an imaginary bull. For this, I first went down to Wall Street and shot the famous Bull statue…

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…then I took some outside shots of the Federal Reserve Building…

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…and combined the two images with those cobblestones again…

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Now we had to get some reaction shots of the Roundtable members…

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Oscar Schafer and Mario Gabelli are probably hoping they won’t have to ride the sawhorse…

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…and finally, many, many Photoshop hours later…

The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

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With Week One outta the way, we now had to get workin’ on those furry suits for the Week Two & Three covers.

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And here are the final images…

The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

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The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

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Are you gettin’ tired yet?!!

Finally, for the Midyear Roundtable cover, Adrian and I wanted to assemble a group shot in the form of a jigsaw puzzle. Our initial idea was to do the puzzle effect in Photoshop, because I had heard there was actually a filter for that, but after a bunch of tests we decided it just looked too fakey and so…we had some real puzzles made by PortraitPuzzles.com!

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I put my still-life photographer cap on and shot the assembled puzzles…

The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

The 2013 Barron's Roundtable

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And with that, one more year of the Barron’s Roundtable is done!!!

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Ricky Gervais & Kermit’s Evil Twin for the London Sunday Times Magazine

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Ricky Gervais. In New York. For the London Sunday Times Magazine. And it was one of the most fun shoots of my entire career.

Adam Hearn is the photo editor of the London Sunday Times Culture Magazine and some of the other folks I work for at the Times recommended he give me a call next time he had a shoot on this side of the Atlantic. I am so happy he did, cuz not only am I a BIG fan of Ricky, but I had just lost out on a shoot with him for another client only a week before Adam called. The story was tied to his new film, “Muppets Most Wanted”, and would feature the other star of the movie, Constantine the Frog, the world’s “Number One” criminal and a doppelgänger of Kermit the Frog. Adam kept it fairly open-ended as to what we could do…he just needed fun interaction between Ricky and Constantine for the cover and left the rest up to me. With that in mind, I went on a mad tear of propping…

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…dragged my crew down to Industria on a Saturday morning and let Mr. Gervais and Mr. Frog do all the heavy lifting. Here’s how it went…

Ricky and I talk to Matt Vogel…the Muppeteer behind Constantine…about a few ideas…

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…and even before we start, the fun begins…

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Here are some behind-the-scenes shots of how you photograph a Man and his Muppet…

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One of the best things about the whole day was having Ricky’s input as we went along. He came up with so many great ideas of what would look good, that I just had to keep my finger on the shutter and wait for things to happen!

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Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

Then Ricky suggested they each pose with sunglasses…

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…and our cover was in the bag!

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After a quick background & wardrobe change, the two A-Listers were suddenly at each others throats…

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

…but a left-cross from the Frog ended that argument…

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

…and gave us the opener to the story!

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I also wanted to to shoot Ricky, sans Frog, but had picked up a few Froggy bits and pieces to stick with the theme, including a t-shirt with strategically-placed eyeballs…

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…and a very special pair of Kermit Adidas that Ricky put to good use…

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

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Finally, I wanted to cool things down a bit, so I had Ricky get into his trademark black…and accessorized him with some very blingy fuzzy Frog Slippers…

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

Ricky Gervais

Then we both kicked back and enjoyed a Green Drink…

Ricky Gervais & Constantine the Muppet

And yes…that is a Karl Pilkington t-shirt. I told you I was a big fan!