Stretching the Olympic portrait limits
By Lucas Jackson
Over the course of three days Reuters, along with several other prominent outlets, was given a space and (almost) guaranteed time with every member of Team USA that was able to attend a media summit in Dallas this past May, in order to take portraits of the team members. It was a win-win situation for all involved. The athletes were able to take care of a great deal of their media availability in one weekend and members of the media were not required to travel all over the US in order to get portraits of these elite athletes before they head off to London for the 2012 Olympics. As the photographer from Reuters assigned to this portrait marathon there was only one issue; how to take a single space along with extremely limited time with each athlete to make unique, interesting, and ideally self-explanatory images of dozens and dozens of athletes.
It was a daunting task to say the least but I started with a simple lighting setup that played off of several portrait collections I had seen, including Douglas Kirkland’s, and work that tends to appear in either men’s health or sporting magazines. I finally settled on a dual setup where my first setup would use a simple grey background and light to enhance the muscle tone of the athletes. My second setup was to use a large American flag (given to me by my brother as I arrived in Jalalabad, Afghanistan) to take photos of the athletes who were involved with sports that did not lend themselves to the flexing of muscles or shedding of clothing. I wanted to use ProFoto lights as they have a remote controller and trigger called the “Air Remote” that I could put on my camera to control the light’s power output from the controller mounted on top of the camera. This would save me precious time as I wouldn’t have to physically go to each of the four lights to change their outputs depending on whether I was shooting on the grey seamless backdrop or the flag.
I cannot think of a single athlete who was not gracious and accommodating in the time we were given. Some of the times were shorter than others. The uber-popular yet incredibly bouncy gymnasts gave us between 30 seconds to one minute. Overall, everyone was up for whatever pose or idea that you could come up with. Some of the competitors brought the tools that accompany their sport like racquets, rifles, bows or fencing swords.
Others wore the uniforms that they would be competing in, some being more obvious to the sport than others. As the photographer, it was a cavalcade of short conversations where I had to attempt to figure out who they were and what they did. I attempted to either convey that in an image or show them in an honest moment as they thought about what the next few months would hold in store for them. I tried to stray from the “hello, nice to meet you, where are you from, what is your sport, and give me your game face.” But after having so many five minute conversations it was difficult to keep the energy high enough to eek out an honest reflective moment or casual pose. Most of the time I had photos that I knew would work but that I felt looked a little too forced and also too similar to what everyone else was doing. I wasn’t managing to catch something more honest in the camera it seemed. Then, almost by accident on the last day, my eureka moment hit me as I was asking assorted members of the wrestling team to stretch in order to highlight the incredible muscle tone that they possess.
For every athlete there exists a moment in time where he or she transitions from preparation to competing, and in that moment the athlete is in a world of their own. It is in this moment where they are free to reflect on the path that has brought them to this point and where they are able to envision the victory that lies before them. It is a time of rampant and complete optimism where self doubt is pushed to the back of the room and they only see what is possible and not what is probable.
It took me over two days to find that I could ask these athletes to go into this state of mind while they were standing in front of me for a few brief moments. Often they asked if I had particular stretches in mind but I always replied that I wanted them to go into the same preparations or stretches that they would before a match, game, or event. Sometimes the stretch might have been as simple as limbering up an arm but sometimes they went into a stretch on the ground or reached their hands high over their head as they arched their back. I turned down my main light behind me and raised the power of the side lights to highlight the muscle tone as much as possible and it was here that I finally started to see a cohesive collection of images that I really liked.
Some stretches aren’t as interesting as others and I wish I had started with the stretching earlier but overall I felt it made a nice collection. Now my only frustration is that it’s going to be four more years before I have more subjects that are in this amazing shape in order to continue the series and refine the look. Oh well, I suppose 2016 isn’t THAT far away.