As 2013 came careening to the finish line, our whirlwind schedule never quite let up -we wrapped up the year in such a rush that I almost forgot to mention one of our favorite and most humbling features to date. We have been included and interviewed as a 2013 Master of Photography in Digital Photo Pro Magazine. Deemed a master of expressive environmental portraiture, we are honored to be featured among such a visionary group of artists such as Howard Schatz, Marco Grob, Zack Arias, and Emily Shur.
If you missed the December issue, no need to worry – weâ€™ve transposed Chrisâ€™s interview and chosen our favorite questions and answers. Keep reading for the interviewâ€¦
DPP: What is it about environmental portraiture that interests you?
Crisman: When I started in photography in the middle of collegeâ€”I went to the University of Pennsylvaniaâ€”I was really into the landscape. That had a lot to do with my upbringing. I’m an only child. We were in the countryside, 10 miles from Titusville, in a very wooded and hilly area in rural Pennsylvania. I did a lot of exploring and played a lot of make-believe. It was just me and my dogs. I was driving a tractor and a four-wheeler by the time I was 10. It’s like in The Return of the Jedi, when they’re on Endor flying through that awesome forest. That’s how I thought of it driving four-wheelers there. That was a pretty big influence to me. My parents managed the land, making sure nobody did any illegal dumping or illegal cutting of trees.
My father had been a steelworker and that gets into how I started with the environmental portraits. In the area I grew up, the steel mills boomed with the two World Wars, then tapered down, but were still very active into the 1980s. Then the steel industry left and the town has never really been the same. My dad was vice president of the steelworkers union at the time, so the process of getting laid off, then retiring and disabilityâ€”his story is very impactful on my story.
DPP: How so? Did you document those transitions?
Crisman: The closing of the steel mill happened while I was in middle school. It emotionally had a major impact on me, though I wasn’t expressing it with a camera at that time. I was documenting it mentally. When I got into photography, the first couple of years, I was mostly interested in landscape work and really loved working back close to home. I wasn’t actually a fine-art student at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in environmental studies and have minors in cultural anthropology and biology. I took a lot of elective photography classes. For my senior project I documented what remained of the steel mill, as well as its environmental and social impact. The pictures are a metaphor for what I felt the whole town was going through and what it’s left with. Even thenâ€”2002, 2003â€”when I was still shooting with film, I was trying to do some things with manipulation to express what I wanted to say with my images.
DPP: How did you transition out of school into being a successful photographer, with clients ranging from Infiniti and AOL to Red Bull and Cirque du Soleil? That’s not easy, given the economic woes of the past decade.
Crisman: After finishing school, I had about six weeks of flailing about and working at restaurants. Then I got a full-time assistant/studio manager/retoucher job with a photographer in Philadelphia. Some nights I also did retouching for a wedding photographer. Eventually, I built up enough of a personal body of work that I could go after my own assignments.
DPP: Both your assignment and personal work often have an illustrative look to it. How do you achieve that?
Crisman: It depends on the project. When we’re talking about my environmental portraiture, it’s often about heroic characters and archetypes. To support that, I shoot a certain wayâ€” the hero in the foreground carrying strong weight against a background that’s still very important to the picture. I’m very precise in how I light people, how I like skin tones to look. When I get into the retouching side of things, it’s almost case-specific. I don’t think I’m an incredible documentary photographer, so I don’t feel the need to have freedom with the camera. I like to make a decision about the place that I’m shooting and the edges of the frame and shoot from a tripod. What this allows me to do is to interact with the subject.
For a portrait, we might do five different shots in a day. They’re going to be five different frames, but amongst those groups there’s not going to be a lot of variation. Using the tripod, I shoot the space without the subject, plating it essentially, making a full range of exposures. Then we bring in the subject, and during that process, we might make a minor move. If we do, I ask the subject to step out of frame for a moment and we quickly replate it.
DPP: Which image would serve as a good example of this approach?
Crisman: The picture of the gunsmith from the Titusville project. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the golden age of the town in that shot. For that image, I did some shots with some of the ambient lights on, then offâ€”a lot of different ways to get to the final feel. I wanted the viewer to be able to see all the details. In post, multiple plates were put together. I wanted only the gun and the bullets to pop, so we used pieces of those things to pull it all together. Once I get to the point that I like a certain frame, I want to keep it flexible for the postproduction phase where I’m working with my digital artist Taisya Kuzmenko to pull everything together. I haven’t retouched my own work since 2009, due to the volume of what we do.
I think the reality of environmental portraiture, or any kind of portraiture, is you’ve got to dance with the subject a bit, especially someone who has never been in a formal portrait session before. There are a lot of “real” people in my work. With a lot of the celebrities I photograph on assignment, we often have only 10 minutes, so you need to create flexibility for the client on the back end. We might spend two weeks in post.
DPP: Tell us about the Richard Branson shots you did for Wired magazine. Was that one of those assignments with major time constraints?
Crisman: We had him for 10 minutes and we did three pictures with him in that time frame. One of them was for a cover. We had to shoot two other people into the cover. We spent about five minutes on the cover, about three minutes on the secondary shot and about two minutes on the shot that I wanted to make, which is the portrait of him pulling his hair back.
DPP: Was he actually shot where the background is?
Crisman: Yeah. That’s actually as simple as it gets. We were at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Mojave Desert where they’re building the scaled composites of the Virgin Galactic, the spaceships.
DPP: In your work, it’s obvious people skills are an important component.
Crisman: I try to get people to look at my work ahead of a shoot; they usually can find some people in some of the images who they can relate to. If it’s about just getting through the session in time, I try and show that that’s what I’m concerned about, too. If they’re worried about looking bad in front of the camera, I’ll discuss what their concerns are. There’s a lot of therapy involved with this. They’re putting themselves out there for the world to see, so there’s fear that comes with that. I think it’s a good idea to get yourself in front of the camera once in awhile to remind yourself of the experience.
DPP: You often use the word “we” instead of “I” when talking about your shoots. Your team seems to play a big role in your work.
Crisman: In the last few years, as the productions get bigger, the schedule gets tighter and the expectations become a lot higher, it has really become a lot more about trusting and collaborating with the people I work with. We’re trying as a team to do unique thingsâ€”not be boring, not be simpleâ€”and produce special, meaningful work.
If you can find a copy of the December 2013 issue of Digital Photo Pro, take a look at the full article in print! Meanwhile if you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to let us know in the comments below orÂ @crismanphotoÂ and/crismanphoto!