When I was a teenager, I worked in a liquor store that sold what might be called picture magazines. They weren’t magazines in the great tradition of Life or National Geographic or Sports Illustrated, but magazines in the great tradition of those wrapped in plastic. One in particular had some great creative writing and almost every story began with the sentence, “I never thought this would happen to me, but…” That sentence reentered my mind the day I received the assignment to photograph snowboarder Tara Dakides.
Sports Illustrated assigned me to shoot Tara Dakides for a story titled The It Girl. The title was perfect because there was really no question that she was the “it” girl of competitive snowboarding. She was smart, she was sexy and she was one of best snowboarders in the world. Some of her male fans even painted their chests with the words, “Tara Dakides is my goddess.” When you meet her face to face you immediately understand why a guy would stand bare-chested in the snow and hope she’d notice. She has a magical mix of charm, beauty, savvy worldliness and irreverence for convention. She’s clearly a rebel and she relishes the goddess title.
The location for the shoot was her home in Mammoth Lakes, California and the five hour drive up from Los Angeles gave me plenty of time to consider the possible options for pictures. As I drove, I tried to imagine something visual that combined her world-class snowboarding ability with the sexy persona that she had carefully cultivated among her fans. I settled on the idea of planting her up to her knees in snow—alone, quiet and alluring. Many of the pictures I’d already seen were of her standing on her board, posing with her board, or in competition strapped into her board. What I was after was something more subtle, compelling and—how best to put it—spicy.
The goal was that if you already knew who she was, you’d enjoy looking at the pictures and then read the story. If you didn’t know who she was, the pictures would make you want to know more about her—and then you’d read the story. Ultimately, what I want the reader to do is stop, look, and then read the story because the pictures makes them want to. When that happens, my picture did what it was supposed to do. My philosophy has always been, if the reader sees my picture and then turns the page, I’ve failed.
I arrived two hours ahead of our scheduled 3pm appointment and I spent the time scouting all around her home for possible locations to shoot. She lived at the foot of Mammoth Mountain—one of the premier ski and snowboarding destinations on the West coast—in a stereotypical ski lodge complete with a lovely forest of trees, several beautiful friends to hang with—and a hot tub. The photo gods had smiled upon me.
To get the most out of the situation, I decided to stay close to her house and shoot everything within fifty feet of her front door. The main image of her knee-deep in the snow was the one that I thought held the most promise, but I also wanted to make a “safe” image that included her board and also a lifestyle picture inside her home that captured her in a more natural way. She was completely open to anything I proposed and her attitude about the session was both gracious and accommodating.
I chose to work without an assistant because sometimes a smaller “scene”—assistants, make-up artists, hair stylists—makes a subject more willing to take risks in front of the camera. When it’s just the photographer and the subject, trust comes more easily because there’s no publicists to run interference, no managers to object to a concept and no writers doing interviews while you’re shooting. It’s just two people trying to make a nice picture together. After talking about my ideas for a few minutes, she went inside to shower and dress after a morning on the slopes while I started constructing the sets.
I’d settled on the idea of shooting at dusk so that the light that surrounded her would have a quiet and calm quality to it. I also wanted to juxtapose her sensuousness with the chill of the icy snow. So, I decided to shoot with a tungsten balance under daylight conditions and then filter the strobe for tungsten to produce very warm light on her—but leave the surrounding available light a cool blue.
I used only one light for the main shot—a spot projector that gave me complete control over the shape of the light. This was important because if any of the light struck the snow, it would distract the viewer’s eye from Tara and ruin the shot. The spot projector has a focusable beam of light that is adjustable both in size and in definition. Four internal blades control the actual shape of the beam and two adjustable lenses control the size and the focus of the spot itself. I used the four adjustable blades within the projector to shape the light so that it would strike only her face and body and then fine-tuned the focus to feather the edge so that the light would fall off in a natural way.
The second shot was simple image of her and her board leaning up against a tree. The image was illuminated with a medium-sized Plume 140 light bank set off to the side so that when she looked off camera, she’d be looking directly into the light. The board was separately lit with a 20-degree grid so that it wouldn’t be lost in the shadow of her body. Both shots were set-up while she was doing makeup and hair, so after the first image was complete, she just had to walk 20 feet to the second setup and pose there. The total time she spent in front of the camera was less than ten minutes—just enough time before she’d get chilled with so much skin exposed. The important work was the time spent on the scouting and setup—four hours, in total.
The strategy of complete preparation often pays off in a subject that’s so grateful that you stood in the snow for four hours that she invites you to join her and her friends for a home-cooked dinner at her home in Mammoth. Just one of the benefits of shooting someone like Tara Dakides.
Five ideas that helped make Tara Dakides a successful shoot:
- Arrive early.
- Consider working alone if too many people might affect the mood.
- Do all you can to keep the subject comfortable—and warm.
- Give the editor choices.
- Accept the kind reward of a dinner invitation and a warm fire.