WASHINGTON DC PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY: PORTRAIT OF AN ARCHITECT
Portrait of an Architect
THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT OF AN ARCHITECT
I had set up on our front porch, enjoying a rare quiet moment, sorting through images from a recent portrait session when the call came in. I love porches. I spend as much time on ours as I can. Looking back, it was likely the reason we built the house.
Framed in crisp white trim boards, with a grey flagstone floor, it is a simple porch, spanning nearly the entire width of our Arts + Crafts style home. Defined by white pyramidal columns, a white Shaker style railing and set against the pale yellow clapboard that wraps the house, it provides a warm and inviting entry into our home. With wide open views of the 280 acres of protected wetlands that border our land, it offers a quiet retreat. I retreat there as often I can.
Back to the call.
It was Mark Yoo, an architect in Alexandria, a city that borders Washington, DC. He was referred to me by a fellow architect. Mark told me he liked my portrait photography style, particularly my environmental portraits. He thought I could be the right portrait photographer for his new project. Mark was building a new website and creating a new brand. He needed a new portrait, a new image, a new look: a portrait that would match his vision of him and his work and complement his new brand. He was not a fan of the ‘typical’ portrait experience. He was hoping my approach to portrait photography would be different. His last portrait session had been “brutal”, according to Mark.
That portrait was ‘professionally’ done in a local studio by a well known photographer. That session checked all the usual boxes: studio setting, studio lighting, black backdrop, bathroom to the right, you get the point. The result was a generic looking headshot: brightly lit, sharp from front to back, ear to ear awkward smile and lacking any connection to the viewer. It had all the charm of a marketing promo for a 3rd tier wedding DJ. Mark hated it.
For the next 20 minutes, Mark talked about architecture and his work, passionately. He spoke of his vision, of his new brand and the look he wanted me to bring to this new portrait. I was ‘In’.
Finally, he asked “Are you interested in this project”
I didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. Now, let’s talk about how to do this.”
Many portrait photographers are wary of working with architects. They occupy a unique place in the portrait universe. Architects are often perfectionists, highly critical, consumed with detail and self absorbed. Traits that may lead them to success in the highly competitive world of architecture, but qualities than can be daunting for a portrait photographer.
I wasn’t concerned.
I spent years working for and with some of the top design firms and architects in the Washington, DC area. My career as a professional photographer began with architectural photography. I enjoyed working with architects, whether it was on a construction site, behind a graphics monitor in an office cubicle or, now, from behind a camera.
We made a plan.
Mark had recently designed a new dance studio at an arts center an hour south of the city. It was nearly finished. We would meet there and choose a location inside the studio for the portrait session. A week later we met there to scout the site. I chose a spacious corner studio, with beautiful northern light falling into the room from the tall windows that lined the outside walls. The exposed brick walls, aged hardwood floors and barrs (ballet rails) added just the right touch of texture and an understated elegance to the setting.
We were set. This would be the environmental portrait Mark wanted, set in one of his projects, with beautiful backdrops.
We agreed on a date and time and to sort out the details, soon. Before I left, I scouted the studio and the grounds outside the studio, looking for alternate locations as a backup. After years of location photography I have learned, the hard way, to have a Plan B (and even a Plan C and D) ready to go on session day.
The day of Mark’s session arrived. It was summer in the in city of Washington, DC. Outside temperatures were hovering in the upper 90s, with high humidity. Typical DC summer weather. No problem. We would be working in the dance studio, in a beautiful room with soft northern light, right?
Not so fast.
The studio had just opened for business and the afternoon students were rolling into our chosen studio, now. Really? I thought we had booked it. Nope. As these well planned events often go, the studio administrator had never received Mark’s message to the studio owner about our portrait session. They were using our studio. It was booked for the rest of the day! No other suitable space in the entire studio was available. Everything was booked. Remember Plan B? No problem. We’ll just move outdoors, right? We were on the move.
The locations I had scouted on the grounds were suitable, in a pinch, but they were not great. First, shade was a problem. There was none. Next, the best I could find had a background with such strong background that it would be entrirely blown out. I would have to overpower that strong backlight it with even stronger light on Mark. I was not in love with that option. So, before we headed into the great, hot unknown of the outdoors, I looked intently for any indoor option, as we were exiting the studio.
And there it was.
As we were nearly at the end of the entry hallway, I spotted a small room to the right. It was cluttered and looked to be in use, but it had high ceilings, brick walls painted white, a killer tall window and a view of the buildings outside. Daylight was streaming in the windows, but fading oh so quickly. And so was our time. The entire studio was filling up fast. We had one hour, maybe less, to clean the room (full of furniture and staff gear), set up for the shoot and get our shots of Mark.
No problem. We were in!
Mark was a great subject. It started slow, with Mark quite nervous, until my assistant decided that he was a Bradley Cooper look alike. Marked beamed! He was was now relaxed and confident. Once I was able to calm my assistant down (be still my beating heart), things went well.
Less than hour later, the shoot done, we wrapped up, packed up and were on our way to our next adventure.