A Self-Portrait in Quarantine
After four days without human contact, I decided to conceptualize a portrait in a contained location.
When I touched down in Sydney four days ago, the United Airlines flight attendant instructed everyone to stay in their seats. An Australian Federal Police member boarded the plane and announced the arrival protocol: keep masks on, complete the Covid-19 and immigration forms, report to airline or military personnel immediately if you are experiencing any Covid-19 symptoms, and do not take photos of the military personnel. We were all going to be moved to a facility for a 14-day quarantine period.
After clearing customs and boarding a bus with the other 23 passengers on the entire Boeing 787 from San Francisco to Sydney, I was dropped at the Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel at Circular Quay. I checked in with hotel staff through a plastic screen and lodged my government paperwork at a pop-up military desk in the lobby. The whole thing felt reminiscent of a pop-up base from Hollywood movies like Arrival, or Green Zone. Australian army personnel input my details into bulky black laptops whose power cords spilled over the front edge of the desk, and uniformed personnel stood around watching with cast-iron expressions. I was escorted to my room, not given the key, and told not to open the door except to collect my daily delivery of three meals.
When I woke up this morning, I looked around my room and started to conceptualize a self-portrait, much like I would for an assignment when I make a portrait of someone else. What's my story? What’s the story I want to tell? How will I light this portrait in a way that illustrates the tone or feel of that story? What elements of the environment should I use as context? Shall I isolate the subject? How will I pose the subject?
The answers to these questions weren't easy. It's hard to have enough perspective to make creative decisions about myself, but I attempted it anyway.
First, I looked for an area that would make a good backdrop. I lifted my camera to my eye and started scouting the hotel room and let myself become drawn to a composition. I gravitated towards the corner, near the only window, because it was the simplest part of the room. Curtain and wall and carpet intersecting in a banal, three-star hotel.
The story—my story—is one of boredom and isolation. Fourteen days in a hotel room with no real-life interaction or fresh air. It’s day four, and even though I have food, internet, and ample tasks to keep me busy, the psychology of being in a pseudo prison is stifling and boring. My creative energy has been sapped, and this post has taken way too long to write.
To illustrate this mood in a portrait, I decided I would sit in the corner and stare away from the camera. I often ask people to pose, but it felt contrived for me to act or do anything particular for my own image, so I just stared and presented the mood I had: boredom.
The hotel room has a drab grey and white color scheme. If I used a large light source it would have created a very bright, clinical feel to the space. Instead, I decided to light myself in a dark space with a small spotlight to accentuate a feeling of isolation, similar to what I have done in previous work. By creating a mood that felt cinematic and surreal, I tried to make an image that belonged to an uncertain time of day, neither dark nor light, somewhere in twilight.
Equipment and Specs
1/30 shutter speed
35 mm lens at F 5.6
Profoto B10 Plus
This portrait was made with a DSLR and a 50mm lens set at F 5.6. I stopped down the metered exposure by two stops to make the room feel darker than it was.
My key light was a Profoto B10 Plus, and I used the modeling light at half power and at its warmest color temperature. I wrapped cine foil around the flash head and used it as a malleable snoot. This allowed me to shape the light into the area I would sit.
My fill light was the natural light coming through the gap in the curtains, and I adjusted this gap to moderate the amount of light coming in.
Don't know why this was the one that got me to pay for a sub, but here we are. I think it became imperative that I throw some cash into the hat after I'd forwarded this newsletter to my professional photographer friend — and realized it was the third time I'd done so along with the message "so good". as an ex-reporter turned pr flak and hobbyist photog with unrealized pro photo dreams i'm always swept away by your missives. thanks for all you do.
I'm always so grateful for your insights and your process. As I teach myself lighting, this is invaluable information, made that much more so by your emphasis on the concept behind any given portrait. Adam, just a quick technical question, if you might have the time; what temperature do you set your camera to? The light you mentioned was at its warmest, but how about the camera? Thank you so much for this newsletter, and good luck in quarantine!