This week I took advantage of the beautiful late afternoon light and warm Tampa weather to do some portraits of a new friend.
I’ve had these boots for years. If fact, I bought the same ones again after wearing through the first pair. They’ve been my go to for hiking the mountains around Seoul, rainy season, and winters in a city that doesn’t believe in salting icy walkways. Not to mention having accompanied me on journeys throughout East Asia. Yet somehow, as I walked through the sandy puddles filled with icy slush at North Avenue Beach in Chicago last weekend, I forgot exactly how far up the waterproofing went. I only realized this as the double pair of socks I was wearing absorbed the torrent of cold water that came spilling in through the laces. It was 25 degrees, at 9am.
I had arrived early for the Polar Bear Plunge, which was to benefit Special Olympics Chicago. Each year, hundreds of people raise at least $150 dollars each for the chilly honor of jumping into Lake Michigan, in March. My feet still squished in my boots as giant backhoes made a final pass through to remove the larger chunks of floating ice. Fire department rescue swimmers in orange dry suits marched into the knee-deep water at the edge of the ice field in case anyone needed assistance. Fortunately, the only rescues I saw were of errant flip-flops and costume accessories.
I realized that even without wet socks, I still would’ve been cold despite all my layers. Just then, the first group, representing ComEd ran screaming down the sand. They were followed at 5 minute intervals by group after group, and people of all ages. I began to wonder what brought these people out here. Some in speedos or bikinis, but many in costumes including a team of Care Bears, Darth Vader, a contingent of brain chomping zombies and an assortment of other heroes, super and otherwise. I spoke with one plunger who had lost a bet to his roommate. The loser had to compete in the plunge wearing a costume chosen by the winner. The bet? That the Chicago Cubs would have a good season in 2012. The costume which he described as a “Fuzzy Footed Fox” involved a red adult sized onesie and a pair of giant novelty sunglasses.
One thing that caught my attention during the event was the participant’s expressions. As they made their way down the sand, many seemed tentatively enthusiastic. Others were sheer bravado. Some wore the most serious expressions, as though bracing themselves for the chill. There were a few who appeared genuinely scared. My favorite part was watching those who had jumped into the slush headfirst in the most brave and dramatic fashion emerge moments later stunned and gasping for breath as the water temperature shocked their bodies. Brave faces washed away, now only desiring warmth…and a towel, while I was off to find some dry socks.
It was easily the windiest day of the season, and definitely the windiest outdoor portrait session I’ve ever had.
The leaves outside were zipping past the window as we sipped coffee and discussed our shot list on that Sunday afternoon. Her eyes kept going to the window, coming back with questions. Was this really going to work? How many shots could we get in this gale before the inevitable downpour?
Katelyn Beaty had contacted me a few days before about getting an updated headshot to coincide with her recent promotion at Christianity Today. Founded by Billy Graham in 1956, Christianity Today is a leading voice of the evangelical movement and seeks to address real world issues from a biblical perspective. In her new role as Managing Editor, Katelyn is called to comment on Biblical issues in print, online and in speaking engagements. She’s excited about this opportunity to be more involved with their eponymous magazine as well as oversee aspects of their web presence including the women’s site Her.meneutics and the This Is Our City project. Katelyn as been applying her writing and editing talents to Christianity Today since shortly after graduating from Calvin College in 2006.
As we finished talking over a shot list, I told her that I thought we could get some good shots before the rain. I hoped that I was right. We ended up in a brick alley that I’d walked past for years thinking it would make a good portrait location. I set up a flash 10ft. high pointed at one wall as she posed on the opposite wall. This gave me a large diffuse light source that picked up a slightly warm cast as it bounced off the bricks. The alley was only 4ft wide and allowed just enough wind through to give a slightly windblown look…until the rain started. Fortunately we had agreed beforehand on an alternate indoor location, which we made it into just as the deluge began.
As the rain pelted against the windows and I set up the lights, we had a brief conversation about trust. A great portrait requires mutual trust. One of the things I enjoy most about photographing people is creating connections and capturing real, honest moments. It can be intimidating to put the responsibility for creating ones distributable visual identity into the hands of someone else. Sometimes you can see in the eyes, or the pose if the model and photographer haven’t made a connection, if they don’t trust each other. The model needs to trust me to portray them in the desired fashion.
Eye contact is vital to communicating and connecting with others. Often in a portrait session, that connection is broken when one end is replaced with a cold, unblinking lens. If there isn’t a good connection they won’t open up and put their true character and personality into the images. Fortunately this wasn’t the case and we had a successful session in spite of wind, rain and alternate locations.
I decided to use a large softbox as main light source, and translucent umbrella as fill. We tried several different poses and had fun arranging a few pieces of vintage furniture to use as props.
We ended up not only dry, but with a series of images that both of us are happy with.