Portraiture – the challenge and art of revealing the essence of your subject – is about always striving to go beyond what is superficial or obvious. Sometimes, all we have is a “moment”; a moment to capture a mere glimpse of our subject’s true nature. It is those moments that give an image life and offer connection with the viewer. Ultimately, the reveal is about uncovering humanness. That is when the magic happens . . . When the life of an image is born and the image and audience make an emotional connection. And that is the reward for me – knowing an image has the power to evoke intrigue or emotion with the viewer.
I recently shot a portrait of Silken Laumann for the cover of her new memoir “Unsinkable”. This portrait was a creative delight, not only because I was allowed to read the manuscript in advance (giving me more than a “moment” to chew on the idea), but also because it was laced with complexity. I had both a plethora of humanness to pull from and the time to process it.
In fact, the creative process started a few years before there was even a manuscript. Silken told me she was writing a book and wanted me to shoot the cover. She had the name for the book and she had a vision for the cover. Today we laugh about her initial vision: Silken sitting on a wooden floor or dock, tastefully nude and painted bronze, with her wooden oars and her scar visible. Although intrigued with the idea, I did spend time worrying about how I would pull that vision off.
What was very clear after that conversation was her reason for writing the book. She had been living a very public life as an inspirational speaker and was a hero to many. But the story she shared wasn’t the entire story. As a result, she felt like she was living with an inauthentic persona. There was a huge weight with the bits and pieces she chose to share with the public and also a heavy weight in trying to hide imperfections and mask adversity to avoid societal judgment. She was desperate to free herself from the pain of hiding her “humanness”.
Fast forward to this past summer when I was given the manuscript for “Unsinkable”. As we spoke, Silken told me she had become uncomfortable with her original idea for the cover. Relieved – and free from any preconceived visions – I opened my mind and started reading. This is where my vision for the cover really took shape.
There were a lot of surprises in the book. But perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was the humanness that Silken explored – both as an adult and as “little Silken”. The idea that no one is immune to life’s trials and tribulations, at any age. That the human spirit is beautiful and limitless in its ability to adapt, survive and conquer. And what fuels the journey is the resulting character and grit. Perhaps, the book also reminds us that it’s okay to show the world our unvarnished self . . . For that is where real beauty lives. And that was the beauty I sought to capture in this portrait.
I began preparing for the shoot by pulling together all of the notes and quotes I had been scribbling down as I read the manuscript: Vulnerability, strength, authenticity, courage, serenity. These words written in my sketch book would serve as my portrait checklist.
Most of all, I couldn’t shake the vision in the book of “little Silken”. I found her haunting and Silken’s words echoed in my mind and heart.
“The little girl with long, flaxen hair and bright blue eyes . . . so impossibly visible, so impossibly silent”.
That description soon anchored the shoot for me. I wanted to capture the vulnerability and spirit of “little Silken”. I wanted her to be present with the older, stronger and sage Silken.
But we would keep things visually simple, with no distractions. It would be a black and white – monochromatic portrait. Black velvet would be the backdrop to give the image powerful darkness, depth and contrast. I would use natural light to illuminate only the important features – eyes, expression, hair, muscle tone and, of course, the scar. Silken wanted her classic wooden oars by her side, so I had to fit them in somewhere without cluttering the look.
Finally, just before the shoot began, I gave Silken a collection of quotes I had pulled from the book. I had her read them before we started shooting. I wanted the mood to be set by her words, her story.
We shot a number of images that day. But we both knew when we saw this image in my viewfinder we had nailed the shot. We called it a wrap, both feeling very confident we had ourselves a great cover image.
Soon, the realization of my next challenge set in. The publisher, HarperCollins, had been a little nervous and unsure about the black and white concept. Although the editor and production seemed open to the idea, they had warned me it would ultimately be the sales force that might push for a colour image and they requested I include colour versions.
That terrified me. There was no place for colour in my vision. In fact, I was so convinced that I took the risk of shooting specifically for the black and white concept with no colour backup plan. I sent HarperCollins 2 edited images, in black and white. I also included an impassioned pitch on the centrality of black and white for the cover.
And they agreed.
Today, years after Silken and I first talked about the book, months after the photo shoot, and mere weeks after its release, the image remains one of my favourites. Not just for how it turned out. But for how much I learned through the challenge of bringing it to life. Thank you Silken for trusting me and thank you HarperCollins for being open to the idea.