Plastic People: Part 3 Instant Intimacy

Here in the last two blog posts, I looked at portraits, and what makes a great portrait.  I suggested a great portrait doesn’t hide every, single flaw but connects the person viewing the image to the person in the image.  A great portrait causes the viewer to stop and think:
“I know that person.  I like that person.”  This knowing, I said, may not be a literal knowing, but a spiritual one.
But how do you capture that intimacy?  
I call it “instant intimacy” and it’s a skill that requires you to be the instigator of connection.  In a long portrait session, it starts with the moment the person steps into the door.  In an event meet and greet, it begins as soon as both the celebrity and the participant enter the photo area — and, maybe before.
And, it’s not just the participant you have to worry about relaxing: often, the celebrity is a bit nervous about having their photo taken.
Do you know how hard it is to hear someone as beautiful (Despite what US Magazine says is true!) as Leanne Rhymes say, “I hate to have my picture taken!”?  Where does that leave us average looking schleps?  If Ms. Rhymes is sellf conscious, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I have a little story about my last meet and greet with President George W. Bush.  This is based on a feeling, not a fact, so keep that in mind.
Whenever I have a celebrity meet and greet, I wait for the celebrity to enter through their special back door.  I wait half way between the camera on it’s tripod, and where the celebrity enters.  I stick out my hand as they enter, say (in this case), “thank you Mr. President for doing this.  I’m Mike Gatty, your photographer, and let’s get started.”
I did just that this past week with the former President.
And, George W. Bush is a very personable man (though those of you who read my blog might remember my last W story….)
Here’s the thing.  You know when you stick out your hand to greet someone, and they look like they are surprised by the gesture?  There’s a flicker of “WTF is this guy doing?”  Then they recover, shake your hand rather quickly, and move on.  That’s what happened here.  I got the distinct feeling it’s been a while since any photographer greeted the President in any situation.  He seemed surprised.  Not put off, mind you, just surprised.
Why should he be?  What should we do, as the photographer, just start shooting?  What would those photos look like?  I can’t even imagine.  
At one point, the chairman of the organizatioin sponsoring the meet and greet posed with his familly and the former President.  The youngest child, who was clearly shy, hid behind another participant.  I moved the boy to the front.
The Secret Service agent whispered in my ears, “DON’T POSE THEM. QUICK! QUICK! QUICK!”
I ignored him.
Why?  Simple.  These photos will live long beyond the people in them.  They become part of family history.  Do I care if making the photo great takes 1/2 of 1/2 a second?  No.  Secret Service agent or not, he is not the photographer.
While you are shooting — in every situation — you have to be the one in control.  You have to be the one calling the shots, and you have to retain a cool confidence while doing it — even if you think you are going to hurl at any second.  No one can see you sweat.
Handlers follow celebrities, and it’s their job to watch the talent’s back.  They are just doing their job, but that job is sometimes in direct conflict with your job, as a photographer.  It’s also enough, on top of an already stressful situation, to cause you to make a mistake.
Anyway, during the GWB shoot, one handler motioned with her fingers for me to zip it.
Now, here’s what I was saying:
“Hi, OK, look here.  Great.  Thank you”
How can I do a shoot without saying anything?  Not well.  Handler, again, isn’t the photographer.  I am the photographer.  This is a photo shoot.  That means, despite what she may think, I’m responsible for capturing great photos.  And that requires communicating with the people you are shooting.  Our jobs are in conflict: I must communicate to photograph, she must make sure things are going smoothly.  She does not know me.  She does not know if I’m any good.  Despite, I assure you, me telling her I am wonderful!   Some handlers aren’t even that experienced — and they are the worst.  They try to micromanage everything.  The result? Tension.
By the way, when the shoot ended, GWB approached me.  “Great job,” he said, “thank you.”  He shook my hand.  This time, it was me who was a little surprised.
He walked away.  Even the former President cares what he looks like in a photo.  He knew I cared, too.  That bridged the gap.
This post took a direction which has suprised me.  Oh, well.  My subject is portraits.  But what is a meet and greet besides a series of portraits?  It uses studio lighting.  A formal background.  The only difference, really, is you get one shot.  One and done, say the handlers.
Still, for that one shot, you better have set the ground work.  Before GWB walked in, I eyeballed the line.  I went over and spoke with anyone who looked nervous.  One lady was very nervous, and asked me to take more than one shot.  Under the rules, I couldn’t do that, unless she shut her eyes.
My job was in conflict with the rules: again.
“Don’t worry,” I said, touching her arm, “I am very fast but I want you to look good.  If I don’t like the photo, I will say, ‘HOLD ON!  SHE SHUT HER EYES!’ and take another.”
In the end, it was a great photo of her.  Simply knowing I was watching her back was enough to get her to relax for the one and done shot.
Years ago, my mom conducted a similar meet and greet with General Schwarzkopf.  As is always the case with these, she had similar rules.
One of her colleagues, a writer, attended the meet and greet, but was shy about getting a photo.  “Nonsense!” Said my mom, and dragged him up to the general.  My shyness was inherited from her.
That colleague died a few weeks ago.  At the service celebrating his life?  Right next to the podium for the speakers?  On an easel?  The photo of this colleague with the general taken by my mom.  It turns out, it was his favorite photo.  It turns out, his family didn’t even know my mom was the photographer.
No matter what type of portrait we take, they live beyond us.  We have to remember that.  We must have the courage to follow our passion, and capture the spirit of people.  If we do that one small thing, we won’t capture plastic people, we will capture the heart.
We will create great portraits.

Here is the photo with the boy who wanted to hide.  Doesn’t look shy now, does he?  (“A smile is where your lips go up, people!”  Handler:  SHHHHHHHH!  SHHHHHHH! SHHHHHHH!)
I‘m not quite ready to finish my rant on portraits.  Next,  I’ll look at traditional studio work.  The rant will continue.