A commission from Sports Illustrated is always much more than an ordinary editorial project. Each one arrives with 60 years of fine sports journalism and legendary imagery as a part of the assignment. Throughout the years, some of the most storied names in photography have been featured among it’s pages and their iconic pictures have been viewed by its 23 million weekly readers. So, even after producing more than 50 portrait projects for them, receiving an assignment comes with both reverence and responsibility.
The assignment to photograph soccer superstar Alex Morgan began with a phone call from the Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated, Brad Smith. Brad is a dear friend and one of the most important people working in photography today. Among his other roles in photography, he’s been picture editor at The White House in the Clinton administration, the sports picture editor at the New York Times, and he’s now the director of photography at Sports Illustrated—his second tour at the magazine. Brad knows pictures and understands the delicate dance that’s often necessary to make a shoot like this happen.
One of the realities of editorial work is that there are often ideas being formulated at the magazine long before the photographer receives the initial call. Usually the managing editor, the picture editor or others at the magazine meet to determine what the story is about and how the pictures will most effectively illustrate that story. In some cases though, the editors formulate an idea that may not ultimately be possible because of logistics, weather, or the whims of the subject. There are always advance negotiations with personal publicists, team publicists, career management, the athlete themselves, and then a list of logistical hurdles that must be cleared in order to simply get the athlete and the photographer in the same place at the same time. A subject or handler who won’t “play ball” can just as easily derail a shoot as can a rainy day. In this case, however, Alex was game for just about anything that would make the shoot a success and was delightful to work with every step of the way.
The main photographs we needed were for a two-page opening spread and a possible cover. Brad and I discussed in detail the goals for the shoot and how the images should look stylistically. I sent him dozens of example pictures with the goal of making sure that the pictures that were ultimately delivered were pictures that would dovetail with the story. I sent over pose ideas, environment ideas, and lighting examples that would hopefully get us on the same page visually.
After several discussions, we decided that it was going to be most effective to do the shoot inside of a studio near her home in Portland, Oregon. By working indoors we would have the most control over the space, the weather, and the timing.Also, since Alex had some minor skin issues that would need to be addressed in makeup, staying inside a studio and controlling every aspect of the lighting would give me the ability to minimize any skin imperfections in the final shots. The downside of using the studio though was that we’d be greeted by an empty space devoid of furnishings or practical fixtures that might help us to stylize the images. Without the budget or time to rent a truck full of props, we were destined to be confronted with four walls and a floor when we arrived.
Shooting a project with an elite athlete is always filled with logistical details and challenges. First and foremost is always going to be the time constraints on the subject. You rarely get the time you’d like to have, and what you do get is always less than you need. In this case though, I was given a relatively luxurious total of two hours. In that span of time she would need to go through hair and makeup—which would consume more than one of the hours—and then we’d need to complete four completely different portraits with clothing changes using the remaining time. Wardrobe was critical to work out in advance because once she arrived, whatever she had with her was all we’d have to use.
Working with me on the project was Shawn Cullen who is always so valuable to have on a project like this. Shawn and I flew into Portland on the morning of the shoot in order to minimize expenses at the magazine—an increasing necessity with sharply reduced budgets and limitations on expenses. After a quick bite and a stop for some catering for the shoot, we arrived at the studio around 2pm so that we’d only be charged for a half-day usage of the space. Alex was scheduled to arrive at 4PM for hair and makeup which would give us a total of about three hours to build four different sets from scratch. She had a hard out at 6PM, so once the sets were built we would have about an hour to get all the photography accomplished.
Click Diagram to Enlarge
She arrived a few minutes early, but as is often the case with an elite athlete she and her team needed to “double-use” her limited time to accomplish a seemingly endless list of tasks. She had countless soccer balls to sign, dozens of her new books to autograph, and decisions to consider with her management before she began the process of makeup and hair for the shoot. At about 5:15pm we would begin shooting—quickly moving from set to set in order to accomplish four distinct images in just under an hour.
The first look was going to be a “girl next door” kind of photograph so we needed to create something within a sterile photo studio that would make the shot look fairly organic and casual. It turned out that there was a natural wooden door to an office that had the appearance we needed. By inserting a movable flat behind her and then setting up an arrangement of flags to create some shadows, we were able to introduce some shapes that might appear to be light coming through a window. The lighting for Alex was fairly straightforward with the main light in a medium box and the fill and hair lights in smaller boxes.
The other shot we needed was what Brad referred to as the, “I can kick your ass,” shot. Before leaving for Portland, Brad and I discussed what this might look like and decided that an image that appeared as though she’d just finished a workout and was “staring through,” the camera might be ideal. Since we were in a photo studio, creating a look that might pass for a workout space was going to be hard to pull off. Fortunately, we were able to remove a frosted sliding door from its anchors, bring it out into the studio, and then try to make it appear instead as a frosted window. In order to make the most of the lighting gear that we brought with us to Portland, I decided to set this shot up in the exact same place as the “girl next door shot.” By simply reorienting some of the lighting (see diagram) and re-composing the shot to include the frosted sliding door, I was able to minimize gear movement during the limited shooting time.
One of the most important responsibilities that a photographer has is committing to decisions that ultimately will deliver the best photographs. Sometimes that means abandoning a shot that isn’t working or devoting time to an image that although unplanned, might work very well. There are all kinds of decisions that rest with the photographer including where to shoot, how each image should be lighted, what the subject should be wearing, how the picture should be framed, how that framing will work with the layout, and probably most significantly, whether the image accurately represents the subject. Trying to shoehorn a subject into a concept that doesn’t work will always show in the final image. So, it’s always valuable to be on the lookout for opportunities that might present themselves unexpectedly.
In this instance both the gritty windows of the studio as well as an oddly-shaped interior frame lent themselves to very different images than the first two concepts. Chosen on the spot, these last two images would give the SI editors options when it came to laying out the magazine and hopefully make them think of me once again the next time they needed a contribution to an iconic magazine.