Grid Iron Man

September 6, 2013 

After taking the photo reins for last year's campaign-themed high school football preview, we got the whole photo desk involved this year. The division of labor was as necessary as it was welcome, not only because I can't be the one who hogs the fun, creative portrait series every year but because of scheduling. Between furloughs, vacation and the fair, the photo desk was extremely short staffed after boat races.

The sports desk is also short a person since we didn't fill the void that Katie Dorsey left. As we kicked around ideas for this year's theme, I brought up Corey Perrine's awesome series from 2011 when he was at the Augusta Chronicle.

Originally, we wanted to play off that theme with either "Working Class Heroes" or "Blue Collar (something or other)" to highlight all the glue guys who do the dirty work but don't get the spotlight. We shifted back to "Industrial Strength" as I Craig Craker worked to line up all the stories and realized how tough it would be to write eight stories in that vein without having them all sound the same.

As the deadline quickly crept up, I jumped on three of the earlier stories that led up to the preview section. First up was Richland High's Jake Ellis, back in time to take his place on the line after partially tearing his MCL on June 16. Serendipitously, his family friend Jeff Grade is the safety manager at Apollo Mechanical, and he got us onto the construction site for the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center.

I suppose it would have been more serendipitous if Jake went to Hanford High, but I wasn't complaining. I stopped by the day before and saw a giant front-end loader that I thought would fit the lineman perfectly. Jeff got there first and let me load my gear into the bed of his truck, even going so far as to drive some equipment out of the way to get it to my preferred spot amid the heavily dug-up site.

I pretty much stuck to my basic idea throughout,

until I thought some flying dirt might help. Jeff played Best Boy Grip and tossed dirt at Jake. After working out the finer physics of dust clouds,

we got the final shot:

Here's a quickie setup snap as we wrapped:

Next up were Kamiakin High linebackers Sterling Farrah and Thomas Kirk. My friend Terry Rueckert hooked up some sledgehammers for me, including his late grandfather Wilfred Gilman's Thor-esque one. Tim Smith of FallOut CrossFit in Richland got coach Matt Kurkjian to come in on Sunday morning (when they're usually closed) to give us access to a sweet corrugated metal corner. Matt also helped move a bunch of CrossFit equipment out of the way for my setup:

And while we finished the shoot with a little more action,

I liked this shot best:

I'm glad FallOut had some powerful fans for Sterling's hair too, and I might have to pick one up for myself for future shoots.

Next up was Hanford's Will Bishop, who was adopted from Haiti when he was 9. While chatting with him and trying to figure out a concept, I found out his biological mother lives in Port-au-Prince and he was able to visit after that devastating 2010 earthquake. He was game to shoot amid some rubble to allude to this. I found a cool spot featuring big, busted up rocks with rebar, this time opting for action,

instead of a more stoic portrait:

Here's the setup for the shot,

which includes a couple speedlights hidden behind the rocks:

At this point, it's been pretty standard stuff. The only big change was using my new Fuji X100S on the shoots with Jake Ellis and Will Bishop. Without getting too technical, the camera's ability to synchronize with my flash at much faster shutter speeds allowed me to photograph lit portraits in bright sunlight with a shallower depth of field. In even simpler terms, this let me make portraits in which the subject was the only thing in focus.

To get a little more technical, the 1/250th sec. sync speed on my regular work camera, the 1D Mark IIn, meant lighting outdoor, midday portraits would require stopping down to a point where everything was in focus (including those dust spots I always forgot to clean). While I could have countered this with some neutral density filters that I don't own, that would still require some hefty flash wattage to overpower the sun, gain some control over the lighting and add some more dramatic styling to the photo.

While I'm not a fan of using my personal gear for work assignments, it was a good chance to see what my new tool was capable of and I might bring it along for certain assignments in the future.

Back from Geekland, I still had to shoot and design the cover. Like last year, early attempts and concepts fell flat. They're so bad I won't even show them this time. What's important is that I didn't even have a firm final concept until the week before publication and didn't even shoot the photo until just two work days before going to press.

Photo Editor Bob Brawdy passed along Bruce Stemp's contact information after working with Bruce on two other football preview portraits. Bruce is the safety manager at Lampson International and he was really helpful on such short notice, setting something up for the following morning after I got a hold of him. After briefly explaining my concept, he seemed to get it right away as alluding to the "forging of a football season" or something like that. After finding a suitable spot in one of their shops, ironworkers Todd Longie and Neill Madison helped lower giant chains into a pile before setting up out of frame to grind some sparks behind it.

Messing around with the shutter speed not only affected the exposure, but how the sparks looked. Faster shutter speeds froze the flying embers a little too quickly,

and after a little post-production on the image and stretching my seldom-used and rudimentary design skills once again, here's the finished cover,

which I compacted slightly to lead the photo gallery:

You can read all the stories here.

It came together better than I had hoped considering the late attempt and poor planning for the cover. The optimist in me thinks it was the deadline pressure that got my creativity going, but the pragmatist in me thinks I might have just gotten a little lucky. It's probably a combination of the two, but what's for certain is how big of a help I got to make my shoots possible. I can't thank the folks at Lampson and FallOut CrossFit enough for going above and beyond in assisting me, and of course the players for being so easy to work with and universally on-time. That punctuality includes the six players I photographed for our "Iron Five" section highlighting the top five players at each position.

Most rewarding is seeing how players, coaches and the community have reacted to these thematic series over the past few years. It's hard to imagine that these features used to be shot with zero planning at practice in a few minutes with whatever the practice scrubs the players were wearing that day.

It's even harder to imagine what we're going to do next year.

But why look forward if we can look back?

A Photo Editor has a great interview with Sam Abell, who shares stories from his career and offers thoughts about the current state of photography while Vice chats with David Alan Harvey about his photographic journey.

Jerome Delay has been keeping things simple by shooting with one camera and one of the most basic lenses — a 50/1.4 — for a year with dazzling results.

Tim Matsui's longtime work about sex trafficking in Seattle is coming together in the form of a feature-length documentary. I can't wait to see the finished movie after checking out the powerful trailer on Mediastorm.

And to end on a light note, enjoy these amazing light painting self-portraits by Alex DeForest and Wes Naman's Scotch Tape portraits. His Rubber Band portraits are a fun follow-up and features a little behind-the-scenes video too.

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