Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait

When I first came across this book, I was struck by the intensity of Michael's work. I paged through it and was awed by image after image (really, I bought the book for the articles, honest). Before I get too deep into the slathering of praise, let me introduce the author.

Michael Grecco is a commercial photographer specializing in editorial and celebrity portraiture. His first introduction to photography came at the age of twelve when he became enthralled at the magic behind "tart smelling liquids" transforming paper into photographs. He soon became the proud owner of his first camera to practice his "art". Six years later, he entered Boston University and discovered how different the world of editorial photography was compared to his experiences growing up. After graduation, he went to work for the Boston Herald where his photojournalistic experiences blossomed. His artistic roots kept poking at him though. After several years of being on staff at the Herald and several photojournalism awards, he began to realize he needed to get back to what he started with ... so he loaded up his truck and moved to Be-ver-ly ... Hills that is. Swimmin' pools, movie stars. Ok, ok. He actually moved to Santa Monica where he began working on his lighting and artistic style, learning from cinematographers the art of giving a scene depth and life. From there, his portraiture began to take shape and evolve into what we now see today. True to the book's title, Michael has an innate ability to envelope the subject in a dramatic shawl, like a photographic Doctor Frankenstein, bringing the moment to life with a flash of bright, wicked light.

As Michael states, this book is a combination monograph and a course on his lighting and portrait style. While there are some technical bits (it's definitely not a how-to or step-by-step description), the book leans more towards the philosophy of his style, creating a fair mix of both to give the reader a good understanding of just what he does and why.

The book is broken up into the following sections.
  1. Introduction
    • A short history of his life and how he got to where he is today.
  2. Cameras
    • A discussion of the various camera formats from 35mm to digital and some techniques to use with them such as selective focusing and motion blur.
  3. Illumination
    • Introducing Michael's 3 laws of light: the color of light, contrast, and softness. He pairs the discussion of light with 20 or so examples including diagrams of the lighting setups in some of his photos.
  4. The Medium
    • A short chapter on the various mediums used for recording photographs.
  5. Creativity & Conceptualization
    • From team collaboration to props and set locations, Michael goes over the various areas that contribute to the development of a dramatic portrait.
  6. The Connection
    • Michael covers a few topics about establishing a connection with your subject.
  7. Case Studies
    • Michael deconstructs some of his more interesting and "famous" photos.
  8. Glossary
  9. Griptionary
One of my favorite photos in the book is of Colin Machrie wielding a princess wand and wearing a horrendously cute pink tutu. The thing that catches my eye with each of Michael's photos is the character of each person, recording in such a way that brings the person alive.
The other photo that slapped me awake is on page 163: State Pen Nude. It's a woman, nude, reclining in the arms of the gas chamber chair at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. "Sinister." That's how Michael describes the photograph as he jumped at the chance to take it, juxtaposing the harsh reality of death with the soft and delicate beauty of life.

I think for most photogs, the chapters on Illumination and the Case Studies will provide the most benefit to understanding his style. I don't know that you'd be able to duplicate it exactly, but you might get close over time. Ultimately, this is another book that I recommend for every photographer if only because it has many inspirational ideas within it, both technical and artistic. This, combined with the diagrams and the photographic breakdowns, definitely makes the book worth picking up and adding to your library.


Gordon said...

I liked this book too - never have gotten around to trying to emulate any of it yet...

Travis said...

Yeah, I've gotten a few ideas from it. He's got an interesting style that would be hard to recreate, I think.