Behind-the-Scenes: Ash Angel ~ Part 1

Fairly often I am asked how I achieve a certain look or effect for my photography. The simple answer I give is that I never treat it like photography, the term is never even considered, what I practice is motionless cinematography. I control as many physical aspects of the image as possible. From lens and film choice to wardrobe, props, sets, lighting, et al. To me these are all static movies, cinematic photography. Sometimes my narrative is literal, but I prefer when it's loose enough that each viewer can take away a unique meaning.

Of course that's just my methodology, it really doesn't describe how I do any of that. While that answer does satisfy a great many people, the real "how" is more difficult to explain in a conversational setting. Most people can't ever get past the fact that I exclusively shoot on film to continue a discussion. What I do and how I do it has never been a secret and the revelation of my process(es) won't diminish the final product. Instead of touching upon a single photograph I fell that it would be more beneficial to examine an entire series, from concept, to execution, to completion.

Ash Angel began as a script, the same as countless other shoots. It was produced for my exhibition, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, which was comprised of forty-two images across six series. Ash Angel was the first concept I had for the exhibition and was shot over the course of three months, along with thirty-three other photographs and a dozen others that didn't make the final cut. A frenzied and hectic schedule I don't ever want to repeat. I had originally structured the concept to be easy, which was relatively important when trying to produce forty-two original works over the course of a hurtful Florida summer. But the fact that the first and final shots of that entire production were for Ash Angel means that I underestimated its difficulty.

The original shooting script.

Its "simple" single-page script was broken down into six scenes/shots, which were eventually expanded into seven photographs. The script was drastically edited and altered during pre-production and production. As with much of my work, it began life with a simple placeholder name, one that was obviously replaced with "Ash Angel." Which marks the first time I've ever named a series or photograph after a book. I've always hated naming my work, loathed it. Since I could never create an original title that didn't reek of pretentious crap, I long ago vowed to only name my work after what inspires me. This resulted in literally everything but Ash Angel and The Blood-Dimmed Tide (thank you W.B. Yeats) being named after songs. Even the individual pieces in those series owe their names to music. The mood and atmosphere of music are what I'm trying to visually replicate, so to me I feel I owe a creative debt to those chosen musicians. A debt that in this instance extended to author Ian Rogers and his short story The Ash Angels (Burning Effigy Press), a title which he graciously gave me permission to use.

Even before attending film school I had wanted to shoot a B&W film noir piece. Whenever I got close to shooting one, I failed to find a way to make it unique, make it mine. I didn't want to shoot for a purely technical exercise, I wanted something that made full use of the noir genre, something mercilessly dark and full of beauty. A quasi-adventure of a nameless gun-for-hire that descends into a vile underworld at the behest of a woman, and with superior violence escapes. The themes are styled after the crime fiction of Andrew Vachss with a personal nihilistic edge that I took great care never ventured into crass exploitation. Without a script and a clear creative direction it would've been impossible to execute this (or any) series with a clear emotional and narrative resonance, it would've devolved into rote photography.

Some of the photographic equipment employed on Ash Angel. My Bogen tripod, Sekonic incident and spot light meters, contrast viewing glass, filters, depth-of-field chart, and my Mamiya RB67 medium format camera.

For the look of Ash Angel I decided to shoot two different film stocks, Ilford Delta 400 and Fomapan 400. Both of which were rated at 200 for the entire shoot. While both have the same rated speed, they also have markedly different latitude, grain size, and structure. Utilizing two different film stocks within a narrative series can be tricky, as visual continuity is usually very important and every film stock has a unique look. However I decided that a different rendering for some of the images would be extremely beneficial, so I decided to employ the Fomapan on the "grittier" images. The carryover of the lighting style and wardrobe helped mask the visually different stocks. Theoretically any B&W stock can yield a noir style, but I needed something that had a soft falloff to black and had excellent shadow detail, since I knew I'd have a lot of black on black imagery. These stocks gave me the most control over the blacks and shadows. This series, along with all of my work, was designed to be printed and it is in that manner that they can best be appreciated.

Episode 1: Never for the Damned - Ilford Delta 400

Never for the Damned

The first image in the series was actually the second to be photographed. The "hourly motel" location is a set my Production Designer and I built in my studio. The props were carefully chosen, from the bleeding heart shot glass, to the archaic pay phone, to the newspaper, to the motel key, to the matchboxes from a St. Louis bar, to the modern Sig Sauer .40 caliber automatic. The floor was created with salvaged linoleum tiles and a throw rug, and the bed is actually plywood and 2x4's atop cans of paint. The open door actually leads outside to my 2nd floor studio balcony, and we had to wait until just after sunset to shoot. So that the exterior was 2/3 of a stop underexposed and the interior light was more dominant. The deep background was necessary to show the isolation of the scene, even though it is an interior, and remove any pretense of artificiality of the setting.

The empty and undressed set during a production meeting.

The lighting was a relatively simple three-light setup, using all tungsten fresnel and open-faced lamps. It's not prominently noted in a lot of film literature but B&W film is around 1/3 to 1/2 stop less sensitive to tungsten light (3,200K) than it is to daylight (5,500K - average), for which it is nominally rated. This means that if you meter and shoot B&W film at its rated speed under tungsten lamps it will be underexposed. This is only a problem if you realize it after you shoot, the compensation is to merely rate the film slower. A 2K fresnel (camera right) was used through a set of venetian blinds to create the pattern on the far wall, with its excess spill lighting the "Detective" character. A heavily diffused 1K open-face (camera left/rear) was used to light the victim on the bed, with its motivated source being the table lamp, which was bulbed with a dimmed 211 Photoflood. The table and props were lit with a tightly controlled 1K open-face (camera right), which apart from the table lamp, was lit to be the brightest spot in the scene.

Dressing the set.

Having the "Detective" bisect the frame in this manner was unusual for me. But this allows him to face the exterior and the mask, while ignoring the body (shot in the back) in the background. A direct implication that the audience is entering the narrative mid-way. Whatever truth came before is obfuscated with conjecture. The canted angle is a classic noir trope and sets the initial mood and expectation.

Episode 2: Beneath Black Skies - Ilford Delta 400

Beneath Black Skies

Second in the series but sixth to be photographed. By this point so much of the original script had been altered and photographed that this shot was almost scrapped. It would've been redundant to show the location that the script implied, so it was changed to an exterior "preparation shot" that's inside-looking-out.

The shot was dirtied with a heavy foreground of chain-link and chain, lit with a diffused 1K open-face (camera left), which was also used for fill on the "Detective", so that he would pop out in the shot. The Mini Cooper was chosen for more a European feel and was lit with a diffused 2K fresnel (camera right), which was also used to edge the "Detective." Another 1K open-face was directly behind the "Detective" for a hard rim light. The deep background (upper right) was populated with traffic cones, so that there was more depth to the shot than merely an infinite pool of black. They were lit with a gelled 1K Leko, since they were reflective they needed very little light. The Mini Cooper was also sprayed with water to add a little depth to the atmosphere.

While this image is definitely the most aberrant of the series, in that it heavily exists to join the first and third shots, it still succeeds as its own image, an evocative and ambiguous noir shot. Therein lies a the biggest difficulty with creating a narrative photographic series, making every image flow and continue the narrative while standing on their own merits as individual photographs. If all an image does is act as a hinge between other, better shots, it's failed. It is useless. Sometimes this can be avoided with script editing, but when a script undergoes heavy changes it can be an invisible problem up until you're ready to shoot. With the expense and rigors of shooting film, before I fire the shutter I ask myself, "is this any of this actually worth shooting." I do this every single time and it has helped me avoid many ridiculous and costly mistakes.

While this image is definitely the most aberrant of the series, in that it heavily exists to join the first and third shots, it still succeeds as its own image, an evocative and ambiguous noir shot. Therein lies a the biggest difficulty with creating a narrative photographic series, making every image flow and continue the narrative while standing on their own merits as individual photographs. If all an image does is act as a hinge between other, better shots, it's failed. It is useless. Sometimes this can be avoided with script editing, but when a script undergoes heavy changes it can be an invisible problem up until you're ready to shoot. With the expense and rigors of shooting film, before I fire the shutter I ask myself, "is this any of this actually worth shooting." I do this every single time and it has helped me avoid many ridiculous and costly mistakes.

Episode 3: Don't Belong - Fomapan 400

Don't Belong

As much as is practical and possible I prefer to use my friends as models. While there any many times when I require a professional model, I will always go to great lengths to secure my friends for productions. This makes the entire process a shared experience, something that we've all come together to create and/or endure. Of course it helps immensely that my friends fully understand what I do and how grueling even a simple shoot can be, and they take it just as seriously as I do. But there are limits to what I'll ask of friends, and when the budget has been depleted to the point where hiring a professional becomes an impossibility, workarounds need to be found.

"Don't Belong" was an unavoidably late-night shoot and the fifth in production order. It was well past midnight when I was finally ready to shoot, after hours of blocking and lighting. Much too late for me to infringe upon the time of three friends. Therefore I conscripted my Production Designer to be talent for the evening, for all three roles. This approach necessitated careful blocking, posing, and lighting so that three separate negatives could be later composited into a single image. Post-production is always a vital step in almost all forms of photography, but here I needed it to perform a more vital role, one that was hopefully invisible until now.

This is also a switch to the Fomapan stock from my primary choice, the Delta 400. The Fomapan (a Czech film stock) is a little softer with more pronounced grain, it's an older emulsion formulation with a little less latitude and a grittier style. The differences may be subtle if you aren't looking for them, but for me it was enough of a divergence to warrant contrasting it with the Delta 400. A dirty location requires a dirty film stock.

Motivated lighting is never more important than when shooting and lighting night exteriors. The light needs to have a believable source, be it the moon, car headlights, ambient city light, or in this case a mercury vapor security lamp. Without that motivation a shot will often look fake or artificially lit. We got lucky with the placement of the security light, as it was actually part of the location. If it had not been there I would've rigged one in pretty much the same place. Of course it being an existing fixture meant that I had no control over its intensity, and it was 5 stops overexposed for what I wanted to shoot. This was easily fixed by taping a small piece of Neutral Density gel (ND .9) directly onto the lens, covering only the light and a small section of the building. This dropped its intensity by 3 stops, leaving it 2 stops overexposed, a much more manageable value.

Playing the stand-in for my own lighting.

For lighting we used three tungsten lamps (powered by a generator) to play off of the practical mercury vapor lamp. Since that was the only visible motivated source, it was necessary to only have a single shadow, which was achieved by careful control, placement, and diffusion of the three studio lamps. A 2K fresnel with a 12" lens was the primary source, it was placed camera left so that it was a hard edge on the "Detective" and a 3/4 side light on the guards. It was left naked, with no diffusion, for a pronounced shadow. A 1K open-face (far camera left) was used to rake the building. It was a very hard source and cast an extremely hard shadow. For soft frontal fill, a heavily diffused 1K open-face was placed high camera left. This was primarily for the guards, as I wanted the "Detective" to be mostly silhouetted against the building. We had brought equipment to water down the location, but during setup we were interrupted by a brief but heavy rainstorm. Nature took care of it for us.

Continued...