We need a portrait of Shirley,” Marianne says. “It’ll run full-page. And just in case the illustration we plan doesn’t work out, it’ll be a backup for the cover image.”
This is typical of how an editorial assignment unfolds. A specific need is identified, contingencies are built in for several, as-of-yet unknown variables, and then the constraints are piled on.
A “full page” means two things: an exceptionally strong image, and a vertical composition. Additionally, a “cover” image also requires quiet space at the top left corner for the masthead, as well appropriate space for copy announcing the magazine’s feature stories.
“President Tilghman is retiring,” Marianne continues, “and we’re running a story on her tenure as President of Princeton University.”
It is no accident that Marianne has called me for this assignment. The portrait we are about to make is critically important to Princeton’s alumni magazine as well as to President Tilghman’s legacy. In closing this chapter in President Tilghman’s career, our photograph cannot help but be judged by standards of historical significance.
“We need a new, fresh photograph!”
This is no easy feat. President Tilghman has already been photographed countless times during her ten-year tenure. Furthermore, both the Marianne and I know that we’ll have only a brief opportunity to complete the portrait, and there will be one – and only one – chance to get it right. Moreover, whatever we do has to be appropriate to the person who Shirley Tilghman is.
“Princeton University has named a walkway in her honor,” Marianne continues. We’d like to photograph her somewhere along Tilghman Walk.”
The question now becomes where, and how. We agree on a scouting trip exactly one week in advance of the shoot date, at approximately the same time of day as that when we’ll make the actual portrait. Assuming the weather will be consistent, we need to know what views are available, and the sun position in each of the potential views.
“The actual walk has to be in the picture,” Marianne reminds me, as we slowly proceed from one end of Tilghman Walk to the other. “We want a setting that will enhance her placement in the environment, but also not distract attention from her or from her presence there.”
After several close misses, we settle upon the breezeway of the Icahn Laboratory. This scalloped-front building overhangs Tilghman Walk and shades it from direct sunlight with a series of timed louvers. The louvers are computer-programmed to adjust their position relative to the sun’s location. At this very moment, during my and Marianne’s scout, they look perfect! But will they still be perfectly positioned a week from today?
I look at my watch. It is 1:54 PM. Praying to the sun gods for comparably good weather next Friday, I make some test photographs.
“OK,” I say to Marianne, “here is what we need. First, we need to shut down this walkway, from one entrance of the Icahn Lab to the other. Pedestrians randomly wandering into our shot can’t distract or disrupt us. Second, we need access to the control panels for those louvers.”
Marianne looks at me as if I just swallowed a goldfish. After a few moments she speaks with a conspicuously composed voice, “I can ask for help from Security, but I don’t know whom to ask about the louvers, or even if manually adjusting them is physically possible.”
Unfazed, I reply, “Sure we can. Just tell them it is for President Tilghman. I’m sure Security will be all over this. And as for the louvers, this is the 21st century. We live in the computer age! If they can program these louver to adjust for the sun, then I am confident that they can adjust them to meet our needs.”
Marianne looks at me as if she is afraid I might swallow a second goldfish. I almost add, but don’t for fear she might take me seriously, “And make sure they bring us lunch, too. ”
Sure enough, Marianne succeeds on both counts. It is now Shoot Day. We are lucky to have another sunny day, just like that of our scout. Marianne, my assistant and I are on-set at 1:00, an hour before President Tilghman is scheduled to arrive. Security has closed off this section of Tilghman Walk. Curious passers-bye linger safely out of camera view.
The louvers, however, are entirely out of place. I advise a maintenance man at my side they need to be closed further, and he communicates via walky-talky to a colleague at the control panel in the building’s basement. It is this unseen soul who makes the actual adjustment. We learn that the louvers can only go so far in one direction, so I request that they be fully turned in the other. As the sun shifts, so do our adjustments, and thus we stay perpetually prepared for Shirley Tilghman’s arrival.
From my scouting shots, I know that the louvered sunlight will be harsh upon a woman’s face. We need a soft fill light. Yet, whatever fill light I provide, it must not wipe out the beautiful, checkered, pattern of shadows falling upon Tilghman Walk.
I carefully position a strobe umbrella for the required fill. I place it near where President Tilghman will stand, taking care to keep it (and its reflection in the adjacent, curved glass window) out of camera view. I direct the umbrella upwards, so it will illuminate her and not the walkway she stands on. A few test shots later and this light is balanced. Just enough fill to bring up the shadows, but not too much so as to disclose the strobe’s presence.
President Tilghman arrives. She is exceptionally gracious. She speaks with, and thanks, each of the individuals present. She engages Marianne, my assistant and me in warming small talk. I am careful not to rush her, even though every minute is precious. It is far more valuable to have a relaxed sitter than unusable shots of a stiff, uncomfortable subject.
In due time, President Tilghman moves into position for me to make her formal portrait. Within a period of three minutes (later confirmed by my camera metadata) I have the shots we need. I thank President Tilghman and let her know. She is genuinely surprised by the brevity of our session, but accepts the news with welcome relief. She once again engages members of our group with inclusive small talk. With her permission I get a few more, candid shots, then I put down my camera and join the conversation.
Painless. In a matter of minutes we complete our mission, seemingly without interrupting life’s rhythms. This portrait will go on to run full-page, as originally planned. President Tilghman thanks us and takes her leave. Marianne smiles, knowing that we’ve done our part to help secure the legacy of a very gracious President.