Sunday, December 18, 2016

To Zoom or Not to Zoom- Cowboy Portraits with Zooms

Joshua Jackson is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/160 at F8, ISO 100

(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the Sigma lens site. You can see it here.)

I shoot a lot of portraits. My work for magazines, annual reports, advertising and personal projects has relied on portraiture for years. I use prime lenses for most of these, but for certain kinds of projects, zooms might work best. This article tells about one such situation.

In the spring of 2014 I was talking to an acquaintance and our respective weekend plans came up. She mentioned that her husband was going out of town to compete in a rodeo. She was African American so, at the risk of seeming nosy, I asked if her husband was black, too. She said, yes, and my surprise and curiosity led to a long conversation where she told me that there was a whole series of rodeos catering to primarily or exclusively black cowboys.

That night I started doing research on black rodeos and cowboys. I discovered that the history of African American cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of other African American groups- it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media. Estimates are that African Americans made up as much as 25% of the cowboys responsible for the movement West. 

There are, however, people working to battle this ignorance. A number of groups around the country celebrate the heritage of the black men and women who herded cattle, farmed, and built homesteads across the West. With rodeos, trail riding associations, and community outreach groups, contemporary African Americans work to keep these traditions alive and make the public aware of this history. The photographs in Black Cowboys (and girls) are intended to support these efforts and allow the faces of the participants to be shown with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Tyshun Cook is a forklift operator from Lakeshore, AL and is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/160 at F8, ISO 100.
Often, my first impulse when I start a project is to shoot portraits. They seem to be my most immediate entrance to a group or individual. I find that by shooting portraits, I’m given permission to spend some time with a person, ask them questions, and learn something about them. It gives me the confidence and them the trust to get closer to the heart of a story. This piece was no different in that regard.
Tailgating before the rodeo is an important part of the atmosphere.  Some of the attendees come prepared like Curtis Parham, shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/60 at F8, ISO 100.

As I said earlier, most often, I use primes when I shoot portraits. I plan to write about that process soon, but for Black Cowboys (and girls) my lighting scheme is somewhat different than what I usually use. I’m shooting with a Elinchrom ELB battery strobe with a beauty dish off camera, but with issues of bright sunlight, hats with large brims, and dark skin, finding a solution for a fill light was critical to seeing my subjects’ eyes. I decided to use a ring light on camera. I was able to turn the power down significantly, thereby opening up the deep shadows just a bit, without ruining the effect of my main light.
Aaron Kidd and Todd Morris shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/200 at F11, ISO 100.
Behind the scenes showing set up of above photograph.

My problem was that if I shot with primes, I found that when I wanted to change my composition, I had to either take the time to change lenses- a slow and tedious process with a ring light- or, if I moved closer or farther away, I had to take the time to take an additional light meter reading, since changing the distance from the camera and ring light to my subject changed my exposure, not to mention the effect of the fill light.

When shooting environmental portraits, I find myself most often using either a 24mm or a 35mm prime lens on my full frame Nikons. Occasionally I’ll go as wide as 20mm or as tight as 50mm, but my 24 and 35 get the most use. With the Sigma 24-35 F2 Art, I get the best of both without the hassle of changing lenses or having to adjust exposure. I can stay in one spot and zoom in and out as needed to reframe my subject and show more or less of the scene. The fast F2 maximum aperture is a help when I’m shooting in the low light of arenas.
These last two images show exactly what it looks like as I zoom in from 24mm to 35mm. It clearly changes the feeling of the image to a more intimate look and, even with the ring flash, I didn’t have to change the exposure. It allowed me to work quickly and efficiently with Willie and his horse without spooking the animal anymore than I already had with my flashes.

Willie Green is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/80 at F7.1, ISO 100.

Monday, December 5, 2016

This is Dixie

I was winding my way through the backwoods of Mississippi on the fifth day of what I hope will be a three week trip to photograph the rural South. I was thirty or more miles southeast of Meridian and I was getting hungry for lunch, but a town big enough to support a café was some ways off. I passed a small building with an RC Cola machine out front and a hand lettered sign that said “fresh catfish”. I thought it looked promising, so I pulled in.

I walked in the door and realized it wasn’t a café at all, but a small retail food store, albeit an improvised one. There were no windows and the food was laid out on folding tables and makeshift shelves. Oh, well, I thought. I’ll just have to wait to eat.

As I started to back into my car I noticed a young woman sitting on the front porch of the small ranch house next to the store. I waved and she stood up and hurried into the house. I was close enough to see that she had Down syndrome and I guess I had startled her. I didn’t want to make anyone nervous, so I stood by my open car and waited to see if someone would come out. Within moments an older woman stuck her head out of the screen door.

“Can I help you?” she called.

She didn’t seem suspicious, only curious. I explained I was looking for lunch and was sorry to have bothered her.

“There’s a diner in Quitman. And a Hardee’s, I think. They’re about a half hour from here.” She paused, then, “Where’re you from?”

I explained I was from Atlanta and was passing through on a trip through rural areas taking photographs along the way.

“Well,” she said, “you’ve got to see our church. It was built in 1873. It’s one of the oldest in Mississippi. It’s just back that way,” she pointed the way I had come.

I told her I was really doing mostly portraits and would she have a few minutes to come with me to the church to sit for one.

“Oh, no! I haven’t had time to even brush my hair today and I’m in the middle of cooking for a church supper tonight. But I know someone who’d be happy to. Let me call her,” she said as she went back inside. The younger woman peeked out the door for a minute until the older one came back out.

“Sue’d be happy to, but she can’t for twenty minutes. If you want, you can come on in and wait and I’ll feed you lunch.”

“Well, that’d be great,” I said and went up the stairs into the house.

It was cluttered, but seemed clean. She cleared a small space at the kitchen table for me and as I walked over, she held out her hand.

“I’m Pat. This is Dixie. She’s twenty-nine.” I shook Pat’s hand and Dixie offered her’s, as well. I noticed she was wearing a fairly gaudy Christmas sweater.

“Nice sweater, Dixie,” I said. She giggled.

“I have some leftover pulled pork with beef liver chopped up in it I can put over some rice, if that’s OK,” Pat said.

“Sounds good,” I said, hoping it would be tolerable.

She put a large plastic dish in a microwave and turned it on. She bustled around, made me some toast, and continued working in the kitchen. I’m not entirely clear what she was making, but it involved what appeared to be dehydrated potatoes that came out of a large red box. We talked as she worked. She wanted to know about my family and what my wife’s name was. She told me she had buried two husbands, the first from “the cancer” and the second after a tractor had turned over on him. She was on her third now, a preacher and retired maintenance worker. That’s why she was cooking. It’s the wife’s job to do most of the cooking for church dinners apparently.

As we talked, Dixie would come and go from the kitchen. I soon realized she was wearing a different outfit every time she came back, each with a Christmas theme. By the third time, she had reached her pinnacle. Her sweater was decorated with ornaments and little wrapped packages and bows and on her head was “deely bobbers” in the shape of Santa Claus.

At some point, Pat turned the conversation to politics. Dangerous ground, I thought, but let’s see where this goes.

I told her that I thought both candidates had had serious flaws and she agreed with me. Without specifically asking, it was clear she wanted to know who I voted for. I admitted voting for Hillary and she said she had voted for Trump.

“I used to like Bill Clinton,” she said. “That is, until he passed that law saying that anyone pregnant with a Down syndrome baby had to have an abortion. That definitely soured me on him. I mean, my Dixie has been such a blessing, you know?”

“I can imagine,” I said. I considered saying, Wow, I don’t remember that. Or maybe, What? Are you serious? But I thought better of it and just let it go. I was pleased when the phone rang and Pat answered it and said, “I’ll send him right over.”

“Why don’t you take Dixie with you,” she said. “You can drop her back here when you’re done.”
“Well, sure,” I said. We went out to the car and I cleared the front seat of my various supplies and crap to make room for my passenger. I briefly wondered whether Pat often sent her disabled daughter off in cars with total strangers.

Immediately after we pulled into the gravel drive of the church, a large SUV pulled in, too. Sue Pearson got out and introduced herself after getting a big hug from Dixie.

We went inside the beautiful little chapel and Sue told me about its history. After some reorganization in the Methodist Church in the 1940s, most of its parishioners went to other churches leaving this one more or less abandoned. Eventually some local people banded together to preserve the building and now it has services only once a year, but they have an endowment big enough to ensure the upkeep for the foreseeable future. Sue is the secretary of the board that oversees that process.

I shot her portrait sitting in the pews and then, as I started to pack my gear I saw Dixie standing there, so I asked her if she wanted her picture taken, too.
Afterwards, I drove Dixie back home and Pat came out to greet us. I got out to thank her again for her generosity, feeding me and setting up my portrait with Sue.

“Well,” she said, “sometimes you meet someone and you just know they’re good people. I felt that way about you.”

Thank you, Pat. You clearly have a big heart and I appreciate that.