A guest blog: by Eli Dagostino
FOR 25 YEARS Alison Shaw and her students have posed together for a group photo at the end of each of her fall photography workshops. Alison has always enlisted the help of her partner in crime (the workshop assistant) to take the photo. Last year was my first year assisting the internationally renowned fine-art master, and when I was put to the task of taking the traditional photo for our group, Alison made it clear that she didn’t want the shot rushed and that it definitely had to be something fun and creative.
I made the same mistake as assistants past and waited until one of the last days to take our group photo. We planned to shoot in Menemsha that evening, and I decided this would be a great time to get everyone together and quickly (without taking the students away from their shooting adventures) take THE shot. We notified the students in the morning and proceeded to put together a shot that night. It was eh…. Being someone who really appreciates a story telling portrait, I would compare the viewing experience of this “eh” shot to eating terribly executed scrambled eggs:
Luckily, I had the perfect opportunity to redeem myself later that evening when Alison and I were watching the sun go down. Over the jetty, we noticed how absolutely beautiful the silhouettes of the few students still shooting looked against the post-sunset sky. We looked at each other for one split second and it was as if the same idea popped into both of our can’t-help-it-but-we’re-creative heads. With some polite but inspired screaming we beat the fast approaching darkness and got all of the students to line up on the jetty, and pretend that they were either shooting the sunset or each other. I was about 150 feet away from the students. Competing with the loud rolling waves of the choppy Vineyard Sound, it was Alison’s job to yell messages to everyone regarding where to move and how to pose. The result of our efforts attempting to recreate what popped into both of our heads speaks for itself:
I was honored to be asked back to assist both workshops this year and was excited to make a tradition of these creative group photos, to help the students bring back their fond memories of our week together. Alison half challenged me to top what was created against the fiery sky last year, and with a smile I agreed that it was a challenge that I was surely up for. I pitched a couple of options, and together we were most inspired to honor the amazing space that we were newly working in (The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center). Although the plan was full of unanswered questions, we were thrilled to embark upon the photographic adventure together.
The photo option Alison and I agreed upon took some serious pre-production thinking and had to be executed with the utmost patience. I wanted the photograph to highlight the new space as well as each individual’s unique personality and attitude towards their photography. I spent the first six months of this year shooting carefully lit environmental portraits as a part of a project that I called The 365 Project. Combining both my creative and technical skills, I knew how to coax my subjects into emoting the way I wanted them to and how to execute a clean composite consisting of 17 original raw files all masked out onto a clean plate/pre-shot background. In other words, I shot each person individually (setting up lighting for each one), then shot the empty Film Center, and put it all together in Photoshop:
The September 2013 group photo was such a great take-home bonus for the students, but it also gave them all an opportunity to learn how to shoot better portraits. So many of the students I’ve helped teach come to the Alison Shaw Workshop with a background in “people photography” expecting to refine their fine-art eye with the help of Alison. Showing them how I approach the craft of portraiture shines new light on what might’ve gotten old for them, and I hope that my future group photos will inspire students just as much as this year’s did. I am so lucky to spend two of my fall weeks with Alison teaching and hope that the opportunity will be offered to me for years to come.All photos by Eli Dagostino