Anatomy of a Portrait: Governor Wilder

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Normally I am just a garden variety schlub but in a case of mistaken identity, I was running for a shuttle bus at some forgotten airport.  With camera bag & suitcase weighing me down, I was sweating profusely.  Just before I reached the vehicle it pulled away.  I was livid.  Then it screeched to a halt in the middle of the intersection.  Puffing I lumbered the remaining distance & climbed aboard.  The driver looked me up & down disappointedly & exclaimed he thought I was Governor Wilder.  Like he would be carrying his own luggage.

Preproduction:  The higher you dine on the food chain the more you have to swallow.  Politicians are amongst the biggest morsels.  When we got the assignment to photograph Douglas Wilder, former Governor of Virginia, ex Mayor of Richmond, grandson of a slave, we knew we had bitten off more than we could chew.  Since our client expects us to make all our own logistical arrangements, we plowed through several levels in the chain of command to secure him for an environmental portraits session.  Multiple phone calls back & forth to intermediaries were made to establish date, time & location. 

In the studio most everything is done with the computer.  On the road I still use pencil & paper.  As a consequence my travel agent has become one of my best friends.  He comes to my exhibition openings because we give him so much work.  He makes plane reservations & books hotels.  He makes the process easier.  We arrive in Richmond, Virginia under the cover of darkness.

9:51am             Using ubiquitous GPS my crew arrives at Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University.  I have never photographed anyone that had a school named after him.  My assistant, the art director & I scout the location.  The mandate is to compose some form of narrative echoing his life or part of it.  My preconceived notion is a photograph of the mandatory-one-term politician in front of his building with students in the background.  Weather looks foreboding.

            Q:   How many photographers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
            A:   Only one.  However it takes two editors and three reporters to decide
            if the bulb should be turned clockwise or counterclockwise or just shoved

10:02am           Enter building looking for contact person who set up the appointment.  No one seems to have ever heard of her.  We finally track her down in the last room on the fourth floor & immediately engage in chit chat.  Ruth Jones has been with Wilder for his entire career: as a lawyer, through all his campaigning, during his tenure as governor, for his term as mayor & now as executive assistant while he is teaching.  It is not hard to see why she has endured.  Her southern disposition is infectious.  The honey just drips from her lips.

10:09am           Keith, my assistant, with his head always buried in the handheld device informs me his PDA is predicting 60% chance of rain.  After all this planning we are confronted with changing venues at the last minute.  Ruth mentions that there is also a library that is named after Wilder at another college in town.  Maybe we should consider it as an alternate.

  "The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us
            to ignore and wrong too often for us to rely on it."
                                                                        --Patrick Young

10:19am           I ask my assistant if he can GOOGLE a picture of the library interior on his PDA.  The Internet changes the spectrum of photo production.  The school website has excellent image & we decide to move the whole thing indoors.  Mrs. Jones calls president’s office of the other college.  President is unavailable.  Par for the course.  They pass her off to director of library &, after much deliberation, she secures permission.  She humbly apologizes for delay.  But I point out that if the building were named after me it would have taken…longer.  It begins to rain.

            "…best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…"
                                                                        --John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

10:29am           The three of us pile back into the rental car & follow Ruth’s Infiniti across town to Virginia Union University.  VUU is a historically black college & Wilder’s alma mater.

  But when they said run, they didn’t mean “run for office,” they meant
            “run away” and “quit running your mouth”!

10:42am           Finally arrive at L Douglas Wilder Library.  Scouting begins again.  We are guided into a recreation of Governor Wilder’s office at the state capital.  There are snapshots of him with just about every celebrity you can name.  8”x10”s, 5”x7”s, all framed on the walls.  Faces wheeze out in black/white, revealing the changes in style & hairdos.  An illustrated museum of his past.

I find myself running layouts, composition, equipment placement behind my eyes as I walk.  But with time of the essence I decide to take advantage of the architectural significance in the vaulted lobby.  On such tight deadlines we often change direction but rarely go in reverse.  We quickly unload the equipment from the car & begin setting up the speedlights & softboxes.

10:51am           I send the art director off to enlist students to be in the photograph.  Delegate.  I then send her off on another errand to the student bookstore to borrow some better clothing for our “models”.  It is not like on television with all pretty people & scantily clad beauties.  Students are like herding cats.  Ordering them to do the same thing at the same time proves daunting

10:59am           We start testing lights giving special attention to line of sight so the remote/slave speedlights fire in sync.  The schematic ends up needing five flashes.  Two of the lights are more than eighty feet from the Master & on another floor but the infrared triggers work flawlessly.  Strobes accent the unflattering, available interior ambiance.  Gels are added.  It begins to pour outside.

11:17am           Douglas Wilder arrives to his eponymous building dressed in impressive gray suit & power tie.  I have never photographed anyone with a library named after him.  He is very charming & engaging & shakes hands all around.  He has done it so often it is now in his DNA.  My fraternity used to call it “glad handing”.  We chase down the student/models.  I step into place to show Hizzoner how I want him to pose for the pictures.  It is immediately clear he is accustomed to being in front of a camera.  He has a politician’s quick smile.  I touch him physically to establish the shift in who is “alpha male” for the next few minutes.

            We will make certain that this is the people’s city hall.  It’s open to all,
            the outside has been cleaned, we’re gonna clean the inside too.

As small talk I mention that my mother’s family is from a small town in his state.  He knows of them & counters that my great uncle was one of his teachers at VUU years ago.  He knows others of my relatives by name.  (He’s real good.)  Wilder knows their history better than I do.  I move him around quite a bit.  Like most politicians his attention span is nil.  Everything I ask of him he complies but then forgets for the next exposure.  In the meantime he tells me things about his career: how he returned a decorated Korean War veteran, the GI Bill that paid for his law degree, how he never intended to be a public figure.  I toss out my original plans.  For portraiture you have to be flexible.

I put the art director in the elevator that can be seen in the background.  The thought is to have her control it at the top of its rise but people keep pushing the down button.  I guess students persist in trying to rise to higher levels of education.  We have to wait for it between descents.  It is frustrating.

            We cannot play ostrich.  Democracy cannot flourish amid fear.  Liberty
cannot bloom amid hate.  Justice cannot take root amid rage…We must
dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. 
We must dissent because American can do better, because America has
no choice but to do better…

11:55am           Finally we pull the plug.  I would like to continue but Wilder is becoming anxious.  The more important the personality, the shorter their attention span.  Photography is so schizophrenic, bipolar, AC/DC.  Everybody signs model releases, one for my client & another for me.

            The fear of error is the death of success.       

12:04pm           Governor Douglas Wilder has left the building.  Even with all the obstacles, delays & changes we are almost on time.  It stops raining


Gretje Ferguson January 20, 2010 at 4:28 PM  

Extraodinary, Lou. Both the photograph and the commentary.

pat wj,  January 20, 2010 at 11:07 PM  

love the humor, suspense, style. Nuances that are not usually spoken or written aloud - a quick physical touch to let the mayor know you would take the alpha male position for the next few minutes. Made me smile. Thanks for the chance to learn and laugh.

Unknown January 21, 2010 at 8:19 AM  

Lou, You paint such a great picture with words, you don't need a camera. Well I guess you do for your clients so you can eat. Great story

Diallo January 21, 2010 at 8:21 AM  

The arts of storytelling, teaching, and imagemaking all neatly packed in one. I see another book in the making, hopefully...

Dick Taffe,  January 21, 2010 at 2:14 PM  

Thanks, Lou, for the behind-the-scene view of portrait taking -- a delicate endeavor with a degree of difficulty most of us can't begin to appreciate.

Michael Krupa January 22, 2010 at 8:33 AM  

Lou. Another homerun and no steroids. Another book, and I wonder if you would want to do a regular university post teaching gig?

Ethan Franklin,  January 22, 2010 at 1:10 PM  

Beautiful, as usual Lou.
It brings back memories of working with you years ago, going to IBM, Xerox... I never realized the "touch", to establish "we're going to do this my way for a few minutes" But, as i think back, it always seemed to work. And i remember the sketches, glad pencil and pad still exsist in our sterile electronic world!

Unknown January 22, 2010 at 5:20 PM  

Great story. Terrific photo. (How'd you get his tie to match the rug to match the student/model's sweatshirt?!) I've never even met someone who had a building named after him/her. --Necee

Anonymous,  January 22, 2010 at 6:02 PM  

Lou, it is great to hear (?) you tell this story - you and I spent several years together and I can just see the expression on your face after the shuttle driver's exclamation, your reaction to the changing weather, the gesture of touching "Hizzoner" - all of it!

Roger January 23, 2010 at 1:29 AM  

Great story, Lou. You display so many skills and qualities essential to a great photographer. However, few of them have anything to do with taking a picture!

Mike Radelet January 24, 2010 at 7:05 AM  

What a terrific story! Thanks for sharing it. And I never realized that Gov. Wilder is an identical twin to another great American politician, the one and only Bob Barker! Check it out:
Although the price may not be right.

Martine January 25, 2010 at 9:18 AM  

LOVED reading the commentary leading up to the image. The art of problem solving and flexibility could be a lecture series. And entertaining!

j. kiely jr. January 25, 2010 at 10:16 AM  

Very nice problem solving. Well done all around. (Although I do find the student in the elevator to be a bit on the surreal side.)
Thanks for an educational glimpse behind the curtain.

Steve Johnson,  January 25, 2010 at 2:52 PM  

Nice work--everybody's happy, and home in time for dinner. Wouldn't it be great if all the assignments could go so smoothly...

Amy Garwood January 26, 2010 at 4:36 PM  

This sounds fantastic... it's exhilarating to be kept on your toes and end up with a great image in the end. It's so rewarding!

Julie Houck January 26, 2010 at 8:23 PM  

Brings back memories from my photo days. Reminds me of a shoot I did getting a portrait of the Pres of Johnson & Johnson. It was the half day job that turned into a two day job due to weather.

So great story, but tell me, what's up with the book?

karen justice January 27, 2010 at 3:09 AM  

you continue to entertain, lou, with your photos, insight, words and attitude. we are blessed to be connected in multiple ways with your thoughts and gifts. please continue!!

Terrell January 28, 2010 at 8:01 AM  

great score LJ! looking forward to more posts.

Walt Carter,  January 28, 2010 at 11:58 AM  

Lou, I enjoyed your blog & photo. Met Wilder a few years back at a private picnic. He knows me and my wife by our nicknames. We are neighbors of his cousin. Nice, down-to-earth man.

- Walt Carter

Curtiscomeau March 11, 2020 at 3:16 AM  

I am speechless after reading this blog.
Your post is really attractive.
Edmonton Photography

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.