Just wrapping up editing and delivering portraits of Razorfish's Executive team. All the “Fish” met last November at the beautiful Solage resort in Calistoga, CA at an event titled Upstream 2013.
Big thanks to Lindsey Lower, Mardi Hamilton and especially Cathy Carl, VP, Global Communications Director, for commissioning me for this assignment a second time. (The first being in Atlanta, GA a year ago.)
(Opening spread: February 2014 issue of Portland Monthly.)
Death is difficult. Death is sad. Death is certain. So how do you tell the story of a woman who is doing everything she can to alleviate the stress and stigmas associated with this seemingly inevitable, difficult sadness?
This past summer, I was contacted by my friends at Portland Monthly magazine to photograph the very photogenic, Oregon native and small-town funeral director Elizabeth Fournier for a feature highlighting her views on death and the after-death care industry. Those views? Simple things like compassion, environmental sensitivity and affordability. Views that, as of late, seem to be catching on. Any avid fan of HBO’s Six Feet Under knows the contrast between small, family-owned funeral homes and their larger, “upselling” corporate competitors. Recently, with the rising popularity of internet personalities like Caitlin Doughty’s “Ask a Mortician" webisodes, it’s becoming obvious that we, as a culture, are tired of just burying our feelings about death.
Gallows humor: Humor in the face of or about very unpleasant, serious, or painful circumstances.
I am a fan of the above. Whether dry wit or crying from laughter, it’s always better than the alternative. So when Portland Monthly Art Directors Mike Novak and Kate Madden began talking about this shoot, it was obvious we wanted some lightness on this unavoidably dark subject. The idea of “green burials,” one of Fournier’s specialties, immediately came to mind. The idea of taking the care of the deceased back home to the family—away from strangers with latex gloves and embalming fluid—rose to the top. We also knew we wanted the opening portrait to be a subtle, but striking visual metaphor that conveyed all the aspects of this emotionally complex subject. The supporting vignette images throughout the feature would also make us smile and relax the creases that inevitably form on one’s forehead while reading a story about burying grandma.
To take the DIY aspect of this story to new heights, or depths in this case, the decision was made to build a small, simple elevated set whereby we could have more control as opposed to just digging a fresh earthen grave. On a slightly overcast, but warm summer day we all three set out to build a hole in the ground. Not as easy as you might think. Mike brought in a segment of fence, Kate affixed sod to plywood. My assistant Laura and I set up lights all while fending off Monkey, Kate’s energetic Boston Terrier who insisted on participating. (I mean, c’mon! We were digging a HOLE in the ground! He had some expertise!)
The following day Fournier arrived in her best black. (And leopard print gardening boots as backup props.) Immediately I understood why this woman was such an appropriate diplomat for the dead. The camera loved her and she loved it back. (See her web site for all her broadcast and publishing extracurricular activities…) Fun and animated, she was as invested in this shoot as we were. We shot various scenarios over the next hour or so. With shovel—and without. With lawn flamingos—and without. Smiles—and solemn. I even hopped in the grave for a few frames for some of that gallows humor. It was, dare I say, fun? Here is where one realizes Fournier’s strength; she’s an easy-going, caring, warm personality who cares as much for the living as the dearly departed.
We lit this entire portrait with four lights. Two Profoto Pro-7b heads and two Profoto 600R monolights. Key was the boomed shoot-thru umbrella over the subject to give her the spotlight she deserves. The soft umbrella light matched the diffuse light from the white, overcast skies. To minimize the shadows and also fill some of the low-key parts of her black dress, we used a medium softbox just out of frame to the left of camera and Profoto 5-foot reflector with a monolight just below the elevated camera; which was about 6 ft off the ground attached to a fiberglass ladder with a Bogen Magic Arm and tethered to a laptop. We also used a Pro-7b head with a warming gel and grid on a floor stand in the grave itself to add some texture to the soil. The umbrella and boom was removed digitally in post-production along with some grass smoothing and fence extending.
Client: Portland Monthly Magazine Art Direction/props/set: Mike Novak and Kate Madden Portland Monthly feature writer: Nancy Rommelmann Photo Assistant: Laura Jennings Subject/Hair/Make-up: Elizabeth Fournier