This is the first interview on The Heavy Light, and I’m happy that I got my good friend Juergen Frank to be the first photographer answering a bunch of questions here.
Juergen was the photo editor for German Elle before he moved to New York “with a strong German accent” to start his photography career 15 years ago. He’s very versatile and works equally well in portraiture, architecture and travel. He really knows how to make people look good, and has become the go-to guy for quite a few German magazines when they need a celebrity portrait. He works for a wide spectrum of publications from very glamorous to bread and butter.
When we started talking about doing this interview, he was scheduled to photograph John Irving (one of my favorite writers) at his house in Vermont for the news weekly “Der Spiegel” and we decided to discuss this shoot for the blog.
DA: When did you first hear about this shoot?
JF: The photo editor Susan Wirth first contacted me 2 days before the shoot and it got confirmed 1 day before.
DA: Did you do any research on John Irving and if yes how?
JF: My first step is usually to check on Wikipedia and Google. I also try to find video footage of the subject so I can see what gestures and expressions they use. How physical they are.
DA: Have you read anything by John Irving before?
JF: I read the Cider House Rules after I’d seen the movie. I liked the story a lot, more than his style of writing. His language is very factual, not my personal preference.
DA: What equipment did you bring?
JF: We brought 2 Profoto Acutes, 3 heads, 2 big and 2 small light stands, 2 6 ft. umbrellas, 1 medium softbox and a Scrim Jim with different fabrics. The camera was a Phase One 645 with a P45 +. The lenses we used were the 35mm, 55mm and 80mm (with a +1 close-up filter). We also shot some pics with the Canon G11.
DA: Did you rent anything, or was this all your own equipment?
JF: (Laughs) Budgets are tight, the client doesn’t pay for rentals.
DA: What briefing did you get from the magazine?
JF: They needed an environmental portrait in his office (both vertical and horizontal), a close-up, a picture of his writing desk, a photo of John Irving during the interview and a shot of him with the writer for “Der Spiegel”. (It is quite common with German publications to send the writer and the photographer out at the same time. )
DA: So, tell me how the day unfolded.
JF: My assistant Patty Willis met me at my apartment at 6:30 am. We picked up the car at 7:00 am. I don’t like to do the driving before the shoot, so Patty drove on the way up. We arrived in Vermont at 12:30 pm. Had lunch and met John Irving at 3:00 pm. The writer for the magazine was there as well.
DA: How much time did you have with John Irving?
JF: All together we had about 1 hour and 25 minutes, but that included the interview. After we met John Irving we had about 1 hour and 10 minutes to location scout, set up, take a picture of his desk and do the pics during the interview (for that we used the G11). It’s very important to ask in the beginning if they have another appointment after the shoot, or if they are a little flexible with their time. Irving had a tennis lesson afterwards, so we knew he wouldn’t be able to give us a lot of extra time.
We went to his office and I decided to photograph him with a giant, well-used encyclopedia that is positioned next to his desk. We started the prelight with a 6 ft. umbrella, but realized pretty fast that that spilled way too much light onto the background and so we switched to the softbox. I aimed for a darker background to reflect the mood of his latest book.
We tested the light on Patty, who’s skin is darker than John’s and on me, who’s skin is lighter and kind of split the difference. We positioned the light close to his face and made sure there would be a nice fill light bouncing back from the side wall, but no reflections from the glass frames in the background.
Once we had everything set up, I went to take the interview shots, but even if that wasn’t necessary I always try to catch a few minutes of the interview to see how the subject moves, and if he reacts quickly or slowly to the questions. That usually gives me an idea about the pace of my shoot later and how many pictures I might be able to get.
When John finally came to the set I was considering asking him to put on another shirt, but decided not to because it showed him still as an athlete, the bright red kind of worked, and it would have cost us another few valuable minutes. We needed about 3 or 4 minutes to adjust the light for him and then we started shooting. He laughed a lot and it wasn’t easy to get him to look serious.
After 10 minutes on set he had to leave for his tennis lesson, but he offered that we could come along and take more pictures of him there. From the location scout I knew that there was a small wooden shack and a green wooden wall for practicing his tennis shots. We had maybe another another 5 minutes with him at these locations. We shot natural light and untethered.
At this point the problem is that they’re already (mentally) gone from the shoot and I have to see how much talking I can do to keep them there a little longer without pissing them off. How many times can you say: ” Five more frames.” ?
DA: Was there anything about him that stood out for you during the shoot?
JF: The nicest thing he said was that I can take any picture I want. In a sense he’s not vain. Having said that , the house is full of pictures of him, many taken by his friend Mary Ellen Mark. He definitely likes to have his picture taken, but he doesn’t care what he looks like in it. And he was ready to laugh.
DA: When did you guys get back to the city?
JF: Around midnight.
DA: Thanks a lot for this interview.
All images in this post © Juergen Frank
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