I was recently assigned to shoot Roland Stulz, an architect who has dedicated his life’s work to creating sustainable cities. The assignment was to Photoraph him in his office or in the lobby of the building where his office is.
Having studied Environmental studies and Biology, this was a subject close to my heart, and an image came up in my mind of him standing amongst solar panels. I thought a much stronger image could be had of him standing next to one of his solutions of sustainability, rather than yet another photograph of a man in an office.
I contacted him and asked if there were solar panels on his roof. He said yes, and would look in to getting access to his roof. He sounded a little surprised, but I was convinced we could get a good Photograph up there. I was initially supposed to meet him at 4 P.M. and asked him if we could meet closer to sun set which was at around 7P.M.
I was excited to meet with him a few days later.
I called him the morning of the shoot to check in with him and he told me that shooting on the roof would be difficult because of safety precautions. We would need to wear a harness, and it was windy. I played down my disappointment and suggested we play it by ear.
When I drove up to the structure, I was gung ho! The sky was beginning to get dramatic. Big fluffy clouds were out, it was windy, and the sun was coming in and out. Did I mention, it was windy…
I met Mr. Stulz. He was not excited about the Idea, but humored me when I asked him if we could have a look at the roof.
We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, which is very high for Switzerland. We walked over to a utility room and looked at the harnesses we would have to wear. He thought it would look stupid to wear a harness over his suit. I explained that it would look dramatic, and that he could wear his jacket over the harness to conceal it, if he wanted.
While putting on the harness, I remembered a minor detail about myself. I am afraid of heights. Really really afraid of heights. I have trouble getting on to the third step of a stepladder without feeling very uncomfortable.
We went outside and stood on an unsecured ledge (OK it was about 2 meters wide but still UNSECURED) and my gaze moved from the street below to the ladder we would have to climb, in the wind, to get to the Seventh Story and the solar farm. We would only be able to attach our harnesses on the seventh floor. So, just to recap, I had gotten myself in to a situation where I would climb from an unsecured ledge, a situation I was already very uncomfortable with, up a ladder without being tied to anything, carry all my gear up, shoot, and then do the whole thing again in reverse.
The idea sickened me, and I was cursing myself under my breath. What the hell (spelled with a capital F) was I thinking getting myself in to this situation?!
Mr. Stulz climbed up to have a look then came back down. I wanted an out. I suggested we take the picture from the ledge. It would certainly be dramatic enough. He looked at me, with his flush, rosy cheeks, and said that he liked my idea, now that he saw the roof, and was happy to go up there. So the person I had to try and convince now had to persuade me to climb to the roof.
Trying to save face, I said lets go. And up we went. I was sweating bullets and on the verge of projectile vomiting over Zürich.
When we were on the roof I saw what had to be done, and knew that there was potential here to take an epic Photograph. I positioned him on various parts of the roof. I wanted to emphasize the amount of panels that were on this roof. Fighting trough my fear and dizziness, I made portrait after portrait.
The clouds were dramatic, the location was futuristic, and there were other high rise buildings in the background.
I shot a mix of available light, and took some shots using my Elinchrom Quadra to fill in some details.
I was getting what I wanted, and asked him to pose looking directly at me for some Photographs, and for others I wanted him looking off in to the future. I saw Lenin looking Westward. The wind was in his hair, and he looked great. Drama was unfolding before my eyes.
As things were wrapping up I asked him for one more shot, where I would get low and get a heroic perspective of him, with his Jacket over his shoulder. I got down, took a few frames, and could not believe my eyes when I saw his jacket catch some wind, and fan out like a cape. I quickly chimped to see if the images were sharp, and there was one frame that I knew was the keeper. He had become Superman. I got down lower and shot a few more frames, but was unable to top the spontaneity of that one frame.
I knew I had my shot.
We climbed back down, my legs shook, but I was incredibly elated by the image I got. This feeling of surprising myself and discovering new unexpected things was what made me fall in love with Photography in the beginning. I haven’t felt this way for a long time, especially not while on assignment where I am sometimes oscillating between panic and self doubt and I am very hard on myself in the pursuit of perfection.
We took some Photographs in his office, and we were done. As we went out I saw another image I wanted. When I am in the groove, it is sometimes difficult to get out of it.
I shot some last frames and said goodbye a second time.
When I am working on a portrait I try to treat every sitter as the most important person that moment, no matter whom they are. At that moment they are, in fact, the most important person on several levels, including the fact that they are the reason I will be able to put food on the table.
An AP staffer once told me something that pisses me off to this day. She said that you are only as good as your last Photograph. I think this is a load of bullshit, but it hasn’t stopped haunting me since I have heard it. I try to approach every shoot I do with 100% commitment. It is very hard work. I think I need to be obsessed in order to succeed.