Note: This blog post and the photo shoot it describes were joint efforts by LTJG David Schwab and myself. I had previously photographed several events for the Office of the Surgeon General, and here, LTJG David Schwab and I requested a sitting with Acting Surgeon General RADM Steven Galson. RADM Galson was concluding his final days in office, and we thought that this might be our most fitting way to commemorate his service. In addition to LTJG Schwab, I’d like to thank RADM Galson’s aide, LT Tomas Bonome for coordinating this event.
Destination: Washington, DC.
Mission: To skillfully and artistically photograph three Admirals of the Office of the Surgeon Generals, and their aides.
We headed to HHS Headquarters, armed with an assortment of photography equipment that we would use to capture images of Admirals Galson, Williams, and Romano. The shoot was scheduled to begin at 1:30pm, so we planned to arrive early enough to assemble our mobile studio. After winding our way through downtown DC from our Rockville office, we found our designated parking area and schlepped our not-so-portable equipment across the street to the Humphrey Building. Once our elaborate assortment of gear cleared security, we headed upstairs to the Surgeon General’s suite.
It was immediately apparent that the space designated for our shoot was woefully inadequate. I prefer to shoot long focal lengths whenever a flattering perspective is called for, so LT Bonome quickly located a vacant conference room. With our new room secured, we got down to business. Lacking a background support, we mounted white paper on the conference room wall using gaffer’s tape. This was done in a “T” fashion so as to provide both horizontal and vertical composition options. Given that the uniform of the day was the Summer Whites, we knew that the white-on-white aesthetic would give us the high-key look we were after. This narrow tonal range makes exposure selections rather unforgiving, but we were up for the challenge.
After some schmoozing with security, we also secured a secondary spot on the roof of the building which had a great view of the U.S. Capitol building. Once we set up the bulk of the gear in our conference room, we proceeded to the roof to begin our shoot. The weather on this summer day was brutally hot and humid, typical for August in D.C. We hurriedly grabbed as many quality shots as possible before the sweat started to roll. We used a large diffuser during many of the shots to help block the unwanted light and prevent squinting from the direct sun. Normally, I would not have aligned the sun directly in the subject’s face, but the choice of background superseded this concern. I would also prefer to shoot without harsh mid-day sun, but schedules are rarely so accommodating. For key, we used a pair of speedlights in a classic crossed umbrella configuration to give soft frontal light. We settled upon a conservative configuration with an amazing view of the U.S. Capitol behind all of our subjects.
After being chased off our perch by a group who need the adjacent room, we moved back inside to the conference room where we had our lights and umbrellas all setup for the individual shots. A 45 degree umbrella provided key light, an on-axis ringlight gave fill (and some unwanted flare off the white backdrop), and third strobe on the floor lit the background. This rather conservative setup was chosen to allow the subject to command attention, rather than the lighting itself.
Lately, I’ve been inspired by the ability of Richard Avedon and Platon to penetrate photographic facades and elicit genuine personal expressions. I this spirit, I mounted the primary camera to a tripod, and rather than hide behind it, I stood adjacent while triggering it with a cable release. This arrangement allowed myself and LTJG Schwab to talk to the subjects while photographing, and while many images mid-speech were useless, those captured during fleeting moments of reflection offered glimpses into their personalities that would be otherwise difficult to summon.
Admiral Romano was the first to go and we shot simultaneously as she interacted with us providing excellent human emotions expressed as she answered our questions that were tailored to junior Public Health Service officers. We marked a spot on the floor where we instructed her to position her feet, which retained the proper focus distance while otherwise allowing the rest of her body to move naturally.
Admiral Galson was scheduled for the next session. After an unexpected delay of an hour or so, we proceeded with the shoot-and-discuss setup that hed been so successful with RADM Ramano. We were thankful for the opportunity extended to us to complete this shoot, and we hope that the resulting images will provided a lasting momento for the staff of the Office of the Surgeon General.