Plan B

December 9, 2009 

Despite the amount of practice I've had, I think portraits are still my weakest skill. I'm certainly competent enough to produce well-composed, simple portraits, and can make a nice photo of somebody with a flattering smile without many problems. But as a photojournalist, I strive to make storytelling images in unconventional and fun ways. These grand plans often fail miserably, however, and I default to Plan B.

"B," in this case, stands for "boring" — a distinction important in preventing me from infringing on the very interesting This American Life episode of the same name.

Back in March, we ran a story about Vivian Knight, who spent her days knitting hats that she donated to Safe Harbor Nursery. Unfortunately, she had just donated a bunch of hats, so a fun subject-with-big-pile-of-stuff portrait wasn’t possible. In my infinite goofiness, I thought it'd be a good idea to shoot a tight portrait with a hat in progress on her head as she smiled, looked up and pretended to knit the hat while on her head. Not particularly storytelling, I know, but I thought it would be fun and potentially interesting.

It ended up being awkward, a sentiment seemingly shared by her dog Ulla in this outtake snap of her struggling with my concept:

Devoid of any other clever ideas, I went for a simple environmental portrait, opting to include a lot of the scenery in Knight's apartment instead of going for a clean background.

More recently, I worked with Jack Millikin on a feature story about Kamiakin girls soccer coach Chris Erikson and her battle with lymphoma. I wanted to make a dramatic, moody photo, and saw potential in the space under the bleachers. Since the players had been featured regularly in game coverage, I figured a spot-lit look at Coach Erikson with silhouetted players backing her and a glimpse of the field might be cool — the idea being that the team, as a unit, was backing her figuratively as well.

The space was more crowded than I had realized, and the excited chatter of a high school team didn't fit my original vision either, a thought that crossed my mind well before the shoot as I listened to the amount of laughter during the last few minutes of practice. I hadn't given up on my original idea quite yet, but decided to shoot another option — one that highlighted their excitement after their thrilling state quarterfinals win over Lewis & Clark that advanced them to the final four.

Sometimes the conceptual implosion happens because of forces outside anybody’s control — say, the cooperation of a 2-year-old? I went to the home of Tony and April Valdez to get a shot of their family for a story about the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program, which allowed them to get a jump on their son Taylor's higher education by taking care of two years' worth of tuition before his second birthday.

Remembering the old formula little kid + grown-up outfit = crowd-pleaser (pythagorean theorem?), I dug up my old cap and gown and planned to get a hilariously informative shot of the little guy in the oversized outfit among his toddler-age toys.

Taylor had other plans. The gown was a no-go, but with Tony and April's help we tried quick shots of the mortar board on his head. If Taylor's determination to keep that hat off his head translates into academic persistence, then those two years of college tuition will surely be put to good use.

Since he hated the hat, I thought about playing off the graduation hat toss for the photo. This didn't quite pan out because he either wanted to throw it straight down:

or the parental goading needed to get Taylor to toss the hat toward me left them looking awkward:

Thankfully, they had some bubbles handy, which turned his pleased attention toward me as Tony plopped the hat down for this, which ended up running with the story:

Other times, I manage to stick with my original plan, only to have some small failure rear its ugly head as I’m going over the take on a bigger screen, as was the case in a shoot with Edward and Andrew Chiou, 16, twin violinists who played in Camerata Musica's Young Artists of Distinction concert last May 3.

I manged to get the lighting pretty much how I wanted, except for the obnoxious highlight reflecting off the front violin. I got the boys positioned how I liked in relation to the frame, thanks to help from Bethany Woo, who wrote the story, but I failed to notice that I had left her hand unobstructed, albeit in shadow. And to cap it all off, I inexplicably overlooked Edward's green wristband, ruining the neutral tones I wanted. This photo snagged me an NPPA monthly clip win, but the little problems still bug me.

And then there are the times where my flawed execution prances in tandem with my flawed concept like some sort of cosmic touchdown celebration the opposing team is flaunting in my face.

Tasked with shooting a portrait of Kennewick High School pitcher Tony Bryant, I wanted to play up the school colors of the Lions and Oregon State University, where he had been offered a scholarship. Both schools wear orange and black, so I went with a black background and placed color gels over the lights in our studio:

The orange light just makes him look jaundiced, though, and with no catch lights, his eyes look dull.

Even if I would have nailed that portrait with better lighting, the vast majority of readers probably would not have caught on to my concept, just as most wouldn't notice the pile of shortfalls I've just heaped on myself. But this self-critique doesn’t come with the assumption that my photos should always be perfect, or that they ever will be. I'm already the perfect son, sibling, employee, teammate, mentor and student. Assuming I could one day become the perfect photographer is clearly asking too much.

Instead, it's a matter of personal and professional pride. After reading Herald stories on a daily basis, dangling modifiers might be harder to spot, as well as sentences that use a preposition to end on. That doesn’t mean the writers and editors don't try to rid the Herald's stories of these affronts to Strunk and White the best they can.

I'll keep working to refine my portrait skills, but until I get better, the most important thing I'll bring to a shoot is a backup plan.

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