Web Portraits Zurich

Piotr Soluch – Web Portraits Zurich

The latest addition to the Web Portraits Zurich project is Pitor Soluch, he just opened his web design business in Zurich, and I photographed in my new studio space in Hedingen. I hadn’t worked many projects lately, between moving out and moving in and running a few marathons I didn’t find a lot of time to organize any shoots or projects this summer. I met Piotr at a few web gatherings in Zurich like Web Monday, and we also ran into one another at the 2011 Swiss Startup camp in Basel. He’s an intricate designer with that required attention to detail that makes the difference between a professional site, and the ones that I throw together. For the shoot be came by with cookies and Polish beer. This was a fantastic combination and the shoot went smoothly for both of us.

I wanted to get back to fine painterly shadows and images with a dramatic feeling. This included lighting Piotr with some CreativeLight strip boxes from behind either shoulder, a Metz MZ40 in a beauty dish from the front and LastoLite TriLite reflectors from the front. I then pulled in some textures from Rome and the abandoned hospital of Beelitz, just outside of Berlin. There’s no substitute for fantastic texture images. I’ll walk around a city for hours shooting walls and the streets and then maybe not use them till a year later. They add something you never expected when the shoot started.

Blankpage Portraits

I was introduced to Blankpage through one of the team members, Lukas, who I met through Web Monday Zurich. Blankpage is an expanding startup in Zurich focused on B2B content distribution solutions. Blankpage was looking to be a part of the web portraits project, and this offered an opportunity to shoot a full startup team. I visited the Blankpage offices in Schlieren to discuss a shooting concept and get a feeling for the startup. Getting to know new people and hear about their startup ideas is one of greatest benefits of being part of the Web Portraits Zurich project. Blankpage is working on stuff I’m working on in the back of my mind, so it was great to see the iPad version of Das Magazine that they’re coding. Essentially, businesses like newspapers and magazines can come to Blankpage, and they offer solutions for getting that content onto mobile devices like iPhones and iPads, but this is better said on their website:

Design, build and customize electronic publishing technology to maximize business and usability impact for our customer solutions.

This was also my first location shoot for the web portraits project. All the previous shoots were done in my studio, and this offered the opportunity to see the company and get mobile with my lights. I brought a few lights to their offices and setup by a wall with enough space for a large softbox, reflectors, and a fill light.

For the concept, we wanted a certain uniformity between the shots (since it’s a team series), with a certain edginess, but not totally overdone with textures (like I normally do). I decided to go with some simple lighting, one large gridded softbox from one side to get some nice structure on the faces, another normal medium box from the other side, and some fill in the front reflectors.

One of the most interesting portraits from the shoot is Bero, the Linux Guru of Blankpage. He came to the set with a box and a sketch of a face tapped to the front. This sort of humor is simply awesome. We shot a few portraits with the box and then pulled it off, Bero has that perfect mix of hippy and high-tech code warrior and I could easily do a whole series with this concept.


Amazee Gothic – First Cut

The latest participants of the Web Portraits Zurich project were Dania and Gregory, the folks behind Amazee.com and help organize events like Web Monday Zurich and the Swiss Startup Camp. Before the shoot I sat down with Greg and Dania for a brainstorming session (after presenting some ideas to them online), which included Amazee Gothic. The purpose of Web Portraits Zurich is to give people a platform to be photographed, to challenge their ideas of themselves and be a part of how their images are created and portrayed.

Amazee Gothic

There’s an iconic image from Americana called American Gothic. It’s an image of a man and woman standing beside one another. The basic interpretation is that they’re married and have labored hard to build the barn, which dominates the background of the painting. The man holds a pitchfork, and you get a sense that hard work and family come together to build a life for the two of them and for the future. I love thinking philosophically about images, and tracking the origins of ideas. With Dania and Greg, the analogy was perfect and obvious. The two are married and have labored hard in the startup land of Switzerland to build their barn, Amazee.com using the tech tools and business sense of modern times. This was the central theme I presented during our brain storming session, and then we exploded out in a couple different directions, and settled on a Tech-Flesh Jungle analogy to represent the internet environment of startup and internet companies in the new net universe – but this one will take some time to digest and to present coherently.

Raw Shoot

Before jumping into the Tech-Flesh concept, we did some basic portraits in my apartment studio. Dania and Greg dropped by one fine Tuesday night, and after a raclette dinner we set about shooting some portraits. Part of the Web Portraits project is to give people who don’t know much about photography and lighting the opportunity to learn. So we started out with Greg shooting after I’d set up the lights. Then I shot sets of Greg and Dania separately and together, getting a nice pool of images for the Amazee Gothic concept.

I wanted some nice, not-dark-and-moody lighting for the two of them. Greg has one of those fabulous near-bald heads that draws up from his body into a sort of classic form which almost demands a gridded softbox. I had one on hand and put an Elinchrom BxRi 250ws into it (a Creative Light 60x90cm gridded softbox). For Dania, and to balance out the sharper light hitting Greg I setup a white Elinchrom beauty dish with a diffusion sock, and inside I added a gold reflector element to give a warmer tone to her. I added some Lastolite Trilite reflectors in front of the two of them and we ready to shoot.

First Cut

I put together a quick first edit of images from the shoot. I had just picked up a flame thrower for a future ProtestLove shoot and it seemed perfect to pair a pregnant Dania with a destruction device I originally saw when the Watchmen promotional posters were released. Basically I was looking for a retro-styled flame thrower like the one the Comedian used to light his cigar, and this one with Dania has the perfect look. The device I found is simplistic and is the perfect size, not too long and not too short. We were sort of thinking of compositing in a bomber in the background dropping a payload of blossoming flowers from the sky. All I need now is to hook the thing up to a propane tank and shoot the flame and do some photoshop magic.

Greg found a pair of those cool 80’s glasses in my apartment I bought on the boardwalk in San Diego, and he wears them extremely well. I shot him with my large Creative Light softbox, and I guess he’s staring into the internet future, and with his smile, sort of reminds me of Max Headroom, I dig this look immensely. In the previous projects, I focused on a grungy look with Mathias, a cleaner look with Lukas, and now with Greg I wanted to do something lighter, so I worked up a composite of Greg with a summer sky shot in Berlin. I wanted something with a lot of light, but to maintain the texture of a painting canvas, some lightflare was added in Photoshop and I sort of want a hint of the awesome flare seen in Star Trek: where J.J Abrams used an anamorphic lens to get wicked flare, you also see this feeling in the Transformers movies, it gives you the sense of sitting in a desert.

A Person Is Not A Subject

When photographers talk about their photographs of people (like portraits), when I read comments on photo forums and on blogs from popular professional photographers it’s popular to use the term subject when referring to the image capture of a person, as in…

“I photographed the subject using a gridded octabox to feather the light off of their nose and give depth to their cheek bones…blah, blah…”

I like to call the humans I photograph people. After writing about subjects and lighting a lot of photographers then say something like, “but you have to make a connection with your subject.” I think that if you treat people like people instead of subjects, then it makes everything easier and natural to start out with. I think of a photo session as just an extended conversation. If you lose the human element in the photograph or image, then you also lose authenticity. And when you lose authenticity you have a picture which is worthless, without emotional impact, and is a waste of time to look. It’s tempting to say subject because it implies that you’re doing something grander than tripping the shutter on a camera during a conversation, but the truth is portrait photography is just about being a human talking to another human. When you get caught up in lights and gear and subjects you might not ever learn that simple fact, and end up treating a person you’re photographing like a science experiment – and I like photography because I’m not in the lab.

Lukas – Movement DJ Portrait

I shot Lukas for the Web Portraits Zurich project some time ago, and I’m finally producing some finished portraits from the shoot. Lukas runs Guzuu and is a fixture in the Swiss web community for his unique visual style. Like many people I meet in the web/startup scene, he’s not just into launching companies, but also has a creative side. In this case, Lukas likes to DJ in Luzern and runs an internet music label (LittleJig.com).

I thought for a long time about how create images of Lukas, I could have just composited in some graffiti and called in a wrap, but then the images would have looked too similar to what I created for Mathias, and my sense for photographic exploration was honed in the academic research world. In Academia the key driver is to do something different, start with what you learned from the work of Bent and Hagood on Active Fiber Composites (AFC) and do something slightly different, evolve the idea a bit. Similarly, I wanted images of Lukas which have more movement and motion elements in them than with Mathias. I wanted to take some elements from my experience dancing in clubs and other DJ images I’ve seen on Flickr, and combine it with the visual style I’ve been developing. This meant light trails, streams of light created from the headlights of moving cars and night scenes of the streets. So when I went to UXCamp Europe 2010 in Berlin, I took some extra days and walked around Berlin, shooting long exposures at Rosenthaler Platz and other locations to generate the necessary texture images for Lukas.

When I’m dancing in a club I like to loose my mind and let my body get connected to the music and the vibrations in my soul. It’s a very personel thing, rather hard to commuincate visually, but I figured I should at least try. A key here was to let the light trails and night scenes move around Lukas, not dominate his image or allow key elements to be lost in the shadows. I’m getting back into painting at the moment, so I had an eye for adding abstract visuals from the night which are probably more like brush strokes than elements from Berlin, but in my head it seems to work.

A Web Portrait – Lukas Uncut

Lukas from Guzuu agreed to do a Web Portraits Zurich shoot at my studio just before Easter. Lukas is interesting on many levels and was one of the reasons I started the Web Portraits Zurich project. He’s got a web startup (Guzuu.com), he has a cool style, and he’s a DJ on the side. Lukas was the inspiration for the web portrait project. I met him at the Amazee booster party in 2009 and it was after a Web Monday meeting that I decided to start the web portrait project on Amazee. The reason was clear, people in the startup community have a cool combination of brains and style, making for excellent portrait subjects.

Pre-Production Concepts

After Lukas agreed to do a web portrait we met for a brain storming session at Cafe Spheres in Zurich and from there we developed some visual direction for the shoot. I used Cacoo to work up a mindmap of the brainstorming meeting and used that in the pre-production lighting setup. Like Mathias, Lukas has a strong identity to music and the associated visual imagery. This is sort of a dream for the concept portrait photographer, because the person already has an opinion of what they like visually. This makes the whole portrait process way cooler, because it’s then a coming together of the minds and visual direction. Lukas knows the imagery he likes, it’s my job to work with him to create it virtual reality (digital imaging, photography, whatever you like to call it).

The Shoot – Respect the Image

Lukas dropped by with a bag full of cool clothes and after popping open a beer we talked for a bit and then started shooting. The interesting thing about the web portrait project is that I’m shooting real people in their own skin. When you shoot with models you’re often times shooting someone acting out a scene. They retain certain traits of their personality, but the image and concept comes from the photographer, the shoot is produced, the final image a result of pure direction. When I shot Demari Vi Syth her “psychotic sister of the girl next door” vibe is evident, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect who she is in real life. But that wasn’t the point of that shoot. A good model knows how they look, how to best portray their body, and it’s the job of the photographer to use that and make it look authentic with respect to the image concept. In general, real people don’t know how to pose, and as a photographer I’m not so motivated to tell them exactly what to do. I know this is what photographers are supposed to do, but if you direct 20 different people the exact same way you end up with 20 nearly identical portraits.

Respect the Person

The faces change, but the form of the body basically stays the same if you direct everyone the same way. How boring is that? Oh sweet, another picture of a band in front of a brick wall. Think outside the cookie cutter softbox. The goal of Web Portraits Zurich is to give people a platform to be themselves in an artificial environment, to create portraits which present their personalities as they see themselves. Naturally I add a lot of interpretation through shooting, lighting, and post-processing, but only so long as I can maintain that authenticity of the person in the portrait. I’m not saying I’m succeeding in this respect, I’m just saying I’m doing what feels right. Be true to the integrity of the image, and all the details will fall into place.


By the end of the shoot we’d gone through a variety of looks and killed a few beers. We had the idea of following a certain combination of color and jackets. Lukas had a shirt from Guzuu in Yellow with a tape on the front (one of the most popular items) and I let him borrow my version in red. Near the end Lukas brought out the DJ headphones an I switched to a wide-angle setup, shooting him like he was leading the crowd of a fanatic music rave calling out to the Gods of nights. Of course, the images aren’t finished, I’ll now move into the abstract stage and start putting together some post processing concepts for the images.