Chris Crisman: Master Of The Person In Their Place

1

A University of Pennsylvania graduate, Chris Crisman creates masterful environmental portraits. The art of environmental portraiture is to show something about a person by incorporating key elements of their work or other avocation. On these pages, you can see how Crisman does that and how he uses dramatic lighting and composition to guide the viewer to the critical elements within the frame.

The goal of any environmental portrait is to place the person being photographed in the surroundings that reflect that individual’s personality. The very best photographers are able to inject just enough of their own personality—their impressions and evaluations of the subject—to enable the viewers to gain a further insight into the person being photographed. Whether he’s photographing billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson for Wired or a local Titusville gunsmith, Chris Crisman brings enough of himself into the photos to create images that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Like so many accomplished photographers that have come before him, Crisman didn’t wait around for assignments to build a creative body of work. Rather, it was a series of imaginative test shoots that brought attention to his unique eye.

DPP: What is it about environmental portraiture that interests you?

1Chris Crisman: When I started in photography in the middle of college—I went to the University of Pennsylvania—I was really into the landscape. That had a lot to do with my upbringing. I’m an only child. We were in the countryside, 10 miles from Titusville, in a very wooded and hilly area in rural Pennsylvania. I did a lot of exploring and played a lot of make-believe. It was just me and my dogs. I was driving a tractor and a four-wheeler by the time I was 10. It’s like in The Return of the Jedi, when they’re on Endor flying through that awesome forest. That’s how I thought of it driving four-wheelers there. That was a pretty big influence to me. My parents managed the land, making sure nobody did any illegal dumping or illegal cutting of trees.

My father had been a steelworker and that gets into how I started with the environmental portraits. In the area I grew up, the steel mills boomed with the two World Wars, then tapered down, but were still very active into the 1980s. Then the steel industry left and the town has never really been the same. My dad was vice president of the steelworkers union at the time, so the process of getting laid off, then retiring and disability—his story is very impactful on my story.

DPP: How so? Did you document those transitions?

Crisman: The closing of the steel mill happened while I was in middle school. It emotionally had a major impact on me, though I wasn’t expressing it with a camera at that time. I was documenting it mentally. When I got into photography, the first couple of years, I was mostly interested in landscape work and really loved working back close to home. I wasn’t actually a fine-art student at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in environmental studies and have minors in cultural anthropology and biology. I took a lot of elective photography classes. For my senior project I documented what remained of the steel mill, as well as its environmental and social impact. The pictures are a metaphor for what I felt the whole town was going through and what it’s left with. Even then—2002, 2003—when I was still shooting with film, I was trying to do some things with manipulation to express what I wanted to say with my images.

DPP: How did you transition out of school into being a successful photographer, with clients ranging from Infiniti and AOL to Red Bull and Cirque du Soleil? That’s not easy, given the economic woes of the past decade.

Crisman: After finishing school, I had about six weeks of flailing about and working at restaurants. Then I got a full-time assistant/studio manager/retoucher job with a photographer in Philadelphia. Some nights I also did retouching for a wedding photographer. Eventually, I built up enough of a personal body of work that I could go after my own assignments.

DPP: What’s the photographic scene like in Philadelphia? Why there as your base?

Crisman: I haven’t been convinced to move yet. I went to school here. When I graduated, I was super-broke and couldn’t move. We have a little more creative freedom here than I think we would have in New York. I’d probably do more editorial and celebrity-type stuff if I lived there, but mentally, I like a little more space. The work I get comes in from everywhere, and I’m 15 minutes from the airport. The biggest job this year came out of an agency in Austin.

2DPP: Both your assignment and personal work often have an illustrative look to it. How do you achieve that?

Crisman: It depends on the project. When we’re talking about my environmental portraiture, it’s often about heroic characters and archetypes. To support that, I shoot a certain way— the hero in the foreground carrying strong weight against a background that’s still very important to the picture. I’m very precise in how I light people, how I like skin tones to look. When I get into the retouching side of things, it’s almost case-specific. I don’t think I’m an incredible documentary photographer, so I don’t feel the need to have freedom with the camera. I like to make a decision about the place that I’m shooting and the edges of the frame and shoot from a tripod. What this allows me to do is to interact with the subject.

For a portrait, we might do five different shots in a day. They’re going to be five different frames, but amongst those groups there’s not going to be a lot of variation. Using the tripod, I shoot the space without the subject, plating it essentially, making a full range of exposures. Then we bring in the subject, and during that process, we might make a minor move. If we do, I ask the subject to step out of frame for a moment and we quickly replate it.

DPP: Which image would serve as a good example of this approach?

Crisman: The picture of the gunsmith from the Titusville project. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the golden age of the town in that shot. For that image, I did some shots with some of the ambient lights on, then off—a lot of different ways to get to the final feel. I wanted the viewer to be able to see all the details. In post, multiple plates were put together. I wanted only the gun and the bullets to pop, so we used pieces of those things to pull it all together. Once I get to the point that I like a certain frame, I want to keep it flexible for the postproduction phase where I’m working with my digital artist Taisya Kuzmenko to pull everything together. I haven’t retouched my own work since 2009, due to the volume of what we do.

DPP: Both your assignment and personal work often have an illustrative look to it. How do you achieve that?

Crisman: It depends on the project. When we’re talking about my environmental portraiture, it’s often about heroic characters and archetypes. To support that, I shoot a certain way— the hero in the foreground carrying strong weight against a background that’s still very important to the picture. I’m very precise in how I light people, how I like skin tones to look. When I get into the retouching side of things, it’s almost case-specific. I don’t think I’m an incredible documentary photographer, so I don’t feel the need to have freedom with the camera. I like to make a decision about the place that I’m shooting and the edges of the frame and shoot from a tripod. What this allows me to do is to interact with the subject.

For a portrait, we might do five different shots in a day. They’re going to be five different frames, but amongst those groups there’s not going to be a lot of variation. Using the tripod, I shoot the space without the subject, plating it essentially, making a full range of exposures. Then we bring in the subject, and during that process, we might make a minor move. If we do, I ask the subject to step out of frame for a moment and we quickly replate it.

Picture_002_fs

DPP: Which image would serve as a good example of this approach?

Crisman: The picture of the gunsmith from the Titusville project. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the golden age of the town in that shot. For that image, I did some shots with some of the ambient lights on, then off—a lot of different ways to get to the final feel. I wanted the viewer to be able to see all the details. In post, multiple plates were put together. I wanted only the gun and the bullets to pop, so we used pieces of those things to pull it all together. Once I get to the point that I like a certain frame, I want to keep it flexible for the postproduction phase where I’m working with my digital artist Taisya Kuzmenko to pull everything together. I haven’t retouched my own work since 2009, due to the volume of what we do.

DPP: Both your assignment and personal work often have an illustrative look to it. How do you achieve that?

Crisman: It depends on the project. When we’re talking about my environmental portraiture, it’s often about heroic characters and archetypes. To support that, I shoot a certain way— the hero in the foreground carrying strong weight against a background that’s still very important to the picture. I’m very precise in how I light people, how I like skin tones to look. When I get into the retouching side of things, it’s almost case-specific. I don’t think I’m an incredible documentary photographer, so I don’t feel the need to have freedom with the camera. I like to make a decision about the place that I’m shooting and the edges of the frame and shoot from a tripod. What this allows me to do is to interact with the subject.

For a portrait, we might do five different shots in a day. They’re going to be five different frames, but amongst those groups there’s not going to be a lot of variation. Using the tripod, I shoot the space without the subject, plating it essentially, making a full range of exposures. Then we bring in the subject, and during that process, we might make a minor move. If we do, I ask the subject to step out of frame for a moment and we quickly replate it.

DPP: Which image would serve as a good example of this approach?

Crisman: The picture of the gunsmith from the Titusville project. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the golden age of the town in that shot. For that image, I did some shots with some of the ambient lights on, then off—a lot of different ways to get to the final feel. I wanted the viewer to be able to see all the details. In post, multiple plates were put together. I wanted only the gun and the bullets to pop, so we used pieces of those things to pull it all together. Once I get to the point that I like a certain frame, I want to keep it flexible for the postproduction phase where I’m working with my digital artist Taisya Kuzmenko to pull everything together. I haven’t retouched my own work since 2009, due to the volume of what we do.

I think the reality of environmental portraiture, or any kind of portraiture, is you’ve got to dance with the subject a bit, especially someone who has never been in a formal portrait session before. There are a lot of “real” people in my work. With a lot of the celebrities I photograph on assignment, we often have only 10 minutes, so you need to create flexibility for the client on the back end. We might spend two weeks in post.

3

The work can be challenging. When he photographed Sir Richard Branson for Wired magazine, Crisman had 10 minutes to shoot three subjects for the cover, including Branson. Once he got the shot Wired wanted, he took two minutes to take the shot he wanted, the image of Branson shown here.

DPP: Tell us about the Richard Branson shots you did for Wired magazine. Was that one of those assignments with major time constraints?

Crisman: We had him for 10 minutes and we did three pictures with him in that time frame. One of them was for a cover. We had to shoot two other people into the cover. We spent about five minutes on the cover, about three minutes on the secondary shot and about two minutes on the shot that I wanted to make, which is the portrait of him pulling his hair back.

DPP: Was he actually shot where the background is?

Crisman: Yeah. That’s actually as simple as it gets. We were at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Mojave Desert where they’re building the scaled composites of the Virgin Galactic, the spaceships.

DPP: How did you create the image of the young boy with the spaceship?

Crisman: The pieces were shot separately. The kid was shot in the studio. The rocket was actually an 18-inch- high model. That was personal work.

4

In addition to his stunning still photography, Crisman has branched out into motion work. Inside many still photographers there’s a budding filmmaker. Crisman is using RED cameras in his motion projects.

DPP: What camera and lighting equipment are you working with to create these photos?

Crisman: As for cameras, it depends on the project. The Canon cameras are easier to use and there’s a lot of flexibility with them, but the image quality from the IQ back is amazing. When I need to get faster shutter speeds to bring the background down outdoors, the Hasselblad is fantastic for that. When I use the Hasselblad, I like to shoot on a remote so I’m not bumping the tripod and also have the mirror up because that mirror slamming down can cause camera shake. It’s a nice sound, but it doesn’t help the pictures.

My strobes and battery packs are Dynalites. It’s what I learned on. We use a range of small to large Octabanks with them. Sometimes, I like using the extra-small Chimera softboxes. Sometimes, we use grids on them. So, they’re a direct light source, but soft. I don’t like hard shadows on a face, but I like shaping the face. The general idea is real people in real spaces. That’s what I’m trying to convey. I want to give a summation of that person’s experience. I almost always want something to be inspirational, even if something has a darker tone to it. I want people to connect to it and for the pictures to be thoughtful.

DPP: In your work, it’s obvious people skills are an important component.

Crisman: I try to get people to look at my work ahead of a shoot; they usually can find some people in some of the images who they can relate to. If it’s about just getting through the session in time, I try and show that that’s what I’m concerned about, too. If they’re worried about looking bad in front of the camera, I’ll discuss what their concerns are. There’s a lot of therapy involved with this. They’re putting themselves out there for the world to see, so there’s fear that comes with that. I think it’s a good idea to get yourself in front of the camera once in awhile to remind yourself of the experience.

DPP: In addition to your still photography, you’re working with motion on occasion, as well.

Crisman: It’s the reality of the times. The general idea that I like to shoot from a tripod and shoot remotely frees me up to direct. It’s a similar process. We’ve done some behind-the-scenes videos of my shoots and some pieces for AARP. Those were shot with the RED. I’m not the cinematographer. I’m the director.

DPP: You often use the word “we” instead of “I” when talking about your shoots. Your team seems to play a big role in your work.

Crisman: In the last few years, as the productions get bigger, the schedule gets tighter and the expectations become a lot higher, it has really become a lot more about trusting and collaborating with the people I work with. We’re trying as a team to do unique things—not be boring, not be simple—and produce special, meaningful work.

Information and images taken from the December 2013 issue of Digital Photo Pro. 

chris

See More Of Chris’s Work

Frankie Leal

“I love the Dynalite products! I won’t show up to a shoot without my lights! They are consistent, dependable, durable and very easy to operate. They always produce the quality of light needed for my standards. One of my favorite features is the built-in pocketwizard™ inside the powerpacks. Thank you for your awesome products that make my job easier.” – Frankie Leal

Frankie-Leal-HeadshotAt the age of 20, Frankie began his professional career as a graphic designer. With his natural artistic aptitude and eye for detail, graphic design came easily to him. At first he hired photographers to take photos for his design projects, but then he realized that he could at least take pictures as well as they did. In 2006, he drove to the local camera store and bought himself his first digital camera; a 6.3 MP Canon Rebel.

His education in photography began from analyzing pictures published inside his favorite magazines. He studied the picture’s highlights and shadows and would then recreate the light quality with his subjects in his studio. He absolutely fell in love with the art of strobe lighting. “I couldn’t get enough of the craft and therefore strived to improve my photographic ability by teaching myself through workshops, books, blogs and reading interviews of those whose work I admired,” said Frankie.

Today, he shoots out of his Los Angeles and Central California studios, but you can also catch him on-location throughout the United States shooting for a wide variety of clients that include several in the entertainment & advertising industries. Frankie’s photographic images are frequently used for print ads, magazine covers, corporate marketing, web-sites and social media marketing.  See more of Frankie’s work at www.frankieleal.com

 

Ellen Denuto

 

My unique and varied creative background began as a child who asked the universe to show her everything there was in the world. Never really able to express myself through other mediums, that world opened when I picked up a camera and it became my constant trusted friend. Now I could capture the concrete and invisible subtleties I sensed but could not put into words.

My mother recognizing my talent or direction for this different child, entered me into a relatively major juried exhibition where I won Best In Show. It was then that I realized that what I did mattered.
After studying Art and Education in college, I went on to represent and have professional affiliations with the Minolta, Agfa and Ilford Corporations, as guest Speaker and contributing photographer for their product publications and trade shows.

I have used Dynalite products since they were introduced to the photography market.  The small power packs and daylight balanced modeling light were just what I needed when shooting fashion on location.  I still have my original power pack, and use it with the additional packs, heads, and beauty dishes.”

An original contributor for The Image Bank – founder Larry Freed selected abody of my personal images at to be part of his International Collection which led to assignments with Japanese agents and publishers, as well as worldwide exposure. An exhibition at The Lever House Gallery in NYC won a review from Fred McDarrah of the Village Voice naming me “A brilliant punk fashion
photographer to watch”.

This caught the attention of city Art Directors and soon I was on the pages of magazines such as FOTO, Darkroom Photography, GRAPHIS, Minolta Mirror, Japanese Playboy and the face
of the new generation of photographers in the poster AMERICAN VISION for NYU’s Washington Square Gallery exhibition of the same name. While enjoying commercial success, I stay connected to my artist self through personal projects such as The Artist as Art and The Other America.

Ellen is a regular juror, guest speaker and workshop leader for the American Society of Media Photographers, Professional Photographers of America, Professional Woman

Lisa Sciascia

Lisa Sciascia has pursued her passion for photography for over 20 years and loves the life that goes along with it. Always excited by the daily challenge of developing an idea into a strong visual concept to a final beautiful image that fulfills needs of her clients with quality images that they want, need, and expect. Forward thinking Lisa and her team always embraces, tests, and master the latest technology.

Lisa grew up in New York and currently divides her time between New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. She enjoys travelling from one job to another to meet with clients. Lisa’s artistic interpretation combined with her distinctions of lighting allow her to create a unique image for each client. Whether its advertising, fashion, beauty, or a celebrity shoot, on location or in studio, Lisa brings her energy, enthusiasm, attention to detail and over 20 years experience all while having a fun shoot!

I think I have had my Dynalite’s for more than 15 years and they have remained my main source of lighting. They have been extremely reliable. I love the ability to vary the power in small amounts and that a power pack is light and easy to travel with. – Lisa Sciascia

 

 

 

 

 

 

See more of Lisa’s work on her website

 

 

 

Jeremy Saffer

Jeremy Saffer began making the rounds within the magazine world at the young age of 17, publishing his work on the covers of such varied publications as Metal Maniacs, Hails and Horns, AMP, Outburn and many more. Saffer has blazed his own trail, working with artists, celebrities and models from all across every spectrum. From My Chemical Romance, Jeffree Star, and A Day to Remember, to Megadeth, Alice Cooper, The Misfits, Rob Schneider, and even Gary Busey…all have spent time in front of Jeremy’s watchful eye and steady hand at one point or another.

Jeremy establishes relationships with his subjects; he has earned the trust and respect of his peers via his attention to detail, and an unerring work ethic, which can only result from years of hard work.
Recent years have seen a flurry of activity from the Western Mass native. Whether it’s organizing his own seminars and workshops, releasing his acclaimed Bring the Noise collection of band photography, or adding to the ever-growing collection of record and magazine covers featuring his work. The immediate future holds even more possibility for Jeremy, with an imminent and highly anticipated collection of Corpse Painted Nude photography set to turn the rock photography world on its ear, and even more surprises lurking around the corner.

 

One thing is certain: whatever does wait for Jeremy Saffer out there in the shadows…odds are pretty good that he’s going to shoot it.

Whether on tour, on location, or around the studio; Dynalite has been my choice of lighting since I first began my career behind a camera. The Jackrabbit kit is the perfect portrait kit; being lightweight, versatile, battery powered and most importantly, rugged.I could be in the dead of winter shooting on a frozen lake, or in the middle of a dessert shooting under a cloudless sky, and the Dynalite kit will never fail to fire, recycle quickly, and provide consistent and perfect lighting, no matter the shooting conditions. Dynalite has proven, time and time again to be the best, never fail lighting, that I can always trust to provide the most consistent and balanced lighting for anything that finds its way in front of my lens. – Jeremy Saffer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New 2012 Dynalite Product Catalog

Click To Download PDF Catalog

See all the latest and greatest images shot by our Dynalite VIP’s in our new product catalog!  Inside you will find a complete listing of our accessories as well as our award winning power packs and other products!

Vered Koshlano

Israeli born, Vered Koshlano is a NYC based photographer specializing in beauty and fashion. Her clients include Canon USA, Dentsu advertising agency, Royal Apparel, Nylon, Benzo, Italian Vogue as well as numerous cosmetic, hair salons and apparel designers.

Vered is a self-taught photographer who first became  fascinated with photography at a young age. “I always loved looking at old masters, classical paintings and try to recreate some of that feeling of perfect, ethereal beauty using my lens instead of a paint brush.”

With no formal training, Vered has found trial and error is one of the best ways to learn about photography.

“Go out and experiment, see what works and what doesn’t. Train your eyes to capture the story your brain wants to tell.”  With this, Dynalite has helped the image in Vered’s brain come to life in front of her camera.

Shooting almost exclusively in her studio in NYC Vered put various strobe equipment through the same trial and error she put herself through when learning photography, in the end Dynalite stood apart from the rest.

“The power packs are so rugged and compact and with fast recycle times I could focus on directing the models instead of counting the seconds.”  A “typical” shoot can range from in her studio with 1 light to across the country with a multiple light setup according to Vered.“The power packs and flash heads are very compact and durable which is perfect for me.  A few years ago I had to fly across the country to photograph the Canon Print Masters  and my Dynalite equipment came along and got the job done when I needed it most.”

 

Vered Koshlano has experience on both sides of the camera. Combining her experience as an actress with her technical expertise, she specializes in fashion, beauty, and glamour studio shots. She has been a featured instructor at the Lepp Institute of Photography and is a regular fixture in Canons Photo Shows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simply China By Dynalite VIP Nancy Brown

My Photographic Journey Through China

First and most important is that I love China and the Chinese people. I have been a photographer for over thirty years and when I stepped off the plane for my first visit to China in 2005 I began my photographic love affair with China and its people.

I wish I had gone to China many years ago. Since my first trip I have been back many times and I hope to go many more. It is heaven for me to be wandering around villages and remote areas of China with my cameras around my neck.

“Simply China” is a collection of my favorite images taken over a period of five years and six trips to China. It is a large (10″ x12.5″) coffee table book with 290 pages of images (after much editing) and my China story.

Hope you enjoy my experiences in China and the images in the unforgettable Chinese colors as much as I did making them.

Nancy Brown has been a commercial photographer for over thirty years specializing in lifestyle and beauty images for advertising agencies, magazines, design firms, book publishers, and pharmaceutical agencies. After working out of her New York studio for thirty years she now works out of her studio in Boca Raton, Florida.

Nancy has had five photography books published and was made a Nikon Legend in 2001. Getty Images is her stock agency.

Since her first visit to China in 2005 (and five trips since), China has become her favorite beauty subject. Nancy says, “Making the images in this book was pure joy and I hope that those who see the images feel the beauty and spirit of China as I do.”


Click here To Purchase

Hernan Rodriguez

“I once was told in the 8th grade, “If you ever have a career you would do for free, you know you have reached the right place. I am passionate about touching people’s lives.”

Hernan Rodriguez is an International award winning professional photographer specializing in commercial photography and portraiture. His unique style is a fusion between art and photography which has earned him 25 awards in photography, including the much coveted Black and White Spide Award for photographic excellence in fashion photography. Most recent are the three bronze awards in the 2010 Aperture Awards for portrait and illustration.

His outgoing personality and fresh approach to imagery has allowed Hernan to work with such notable clients as Guess Clothing, Playboy, Corona, EMI, and Sony Record labels.

See more of Hernan’s award winning work at www.hernanphotography.com

Eric Wagner

Click here to see more of Eric's work @ illuminationphoto.com

“I had learned a number of lighting systems as a photo assistant but was drawn back to dynalite when choosing a system for my career.  I have used dynalite for nearly 6 years and love every aspect of them.  They are obviously light weight, rugged, and very consistent.  So whether I am on location or in the studio, whether shooting food, fashion or interiors I feel I have the best tools to produce the best images.” – Eric Wagner

After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Visual Communications at Ohio University, where he specialized in photo illustration and photojournalism, Eric Wagner moved to Columbus to start a dynamic career assisting local and national photographers. He spent six years honing his skills and perfecting his style with a high-end commercial studio before breaking away to start his own studio.

Eric Wagner

Illumination, LLC is not just a name, but a fully-equipped studio space in downtown Columbus, featuring a built-in “infinity” wall, state of the art equipment, dressing rooms and in-house editing/retouching services. The word illumination also summarizes Eric’s professional philosophy. His photography is noted for its inspired use of light and the sense that the subject, be it food, architecture, or person, has been enlightened or that some aspect of their character has been revealed by the artist.

Eric’s work with local and national media venues has given him the honor of “illuminating” such public figures as Le Bron James, Drew Lachey, Justin Chambers, Tara Reid, Brandie Malay, Sean Faris, and Brady Quinn. He has also photographed pieces for such national fashion brands as Victoria’s Secret, Limited Brands, Bath and Body Works, Saks Fifth Ave. and Fashion Assassin.

See more of Eric Wagners work below as well as his website www.illuminationphoto.com