Portrait specialist Robert Seale went back to his roots in newspaper journalism with an ongoing assignment to produce striking cover images for The Houston Chronicle’s monthly health magazine. Photographing a pregnant ballerina onstage, en pointe, in a traditional tutu with belly exposed, required both technical expertise and tact. Seale lit his subject to simulate a performer’s view of the audience, and then used his well-honed people skills to produce a vibrant and intimate portrait.
Web site: www.robertseale.com
Project: Cover portraits for The Houston Chronicle newspaper’s monthly magazine Chronicle Health.
All images in this article © Robert Seale.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
RS: I’ve been shooting professionally full-time since I graduated from college in 1992. I was a staffer at several newspapers and a national sports magazine, and I’ve always freelanced, but I left my staff security blanket and went out on my own in earnest in Dec. 2006.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
RS: 8 years.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
RS: Portraiture of athletes, celebrities, and business leaders for advertising, annual reports and editorial.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
RS: We tried to research each subject, and photograph them with locations, wardrobe, and content relevant to their health stories and experiences.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
RS: Tie: Adobe Lightroom and Canon EOS1DS MkII cameras.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
RS: 1. I have a ton of experience dealing with difficult athletes and sports celebrities in very limited time frames.
2. I’m incredibly fast. With few exceptions, the sets are set up ahead of time and totally wired and choreographed before the subject arrives. I can photograph three set-ups, while keeping the subject happy and interested in the time it takes many photographers to take a meter reading. If you respect their time and shoot with confidence, you’re more likely to get the call to shoot them again next time.
3. I’m an absolute freak about studying the history of photography and art.
4. I can use any number of lighting techniques to solve the problem. I’m not a one-trick-pony photographer with a ring-flash. Although this makes marketing difficult, I’ve always admired the versatile approach of someone like Greg Heisler over the one-trick guys. I want to be like him when I grow up. ;-)
5. Coming up in newspapers, and then doing portrait shoots with celebrity athletes as a magazine staffer, I have a lot more experience doing these types of shoots than most photographers my age. Assisting is a great route to take, but an assistant might shoot photos for him/herself maybe once or twice a month … as a newspaper staffer we often did 5 assignments a day. It really helps with people skills as well as photography/lighting skills.
6. I’m a really nice guy to work with. ;-)
ASMP: How did you connect with The Houston Chronicle for their health magazine project?
RS: Smiley Pool, now the Photo-Coach there and a good friend of mine, pitched the idea in a meeting with the features department, and they contacted me.
ASMP: You mention that your newspaper days are long behind you. Is that how you got your start in photography? If so, what were your primary motivations and opportunities for transitioning from editorial to commercial work?
RS: Yes. I was actually an intern at the Chronicle in 1992. I went on to work at the Augusta (GA) Chronicle, and the Houston Post (which closed in 1995), and The Austin American Statesman (briefly in 1995-6). I worked at The Sporting News, (a national sports magazine founded in 1886) from 1996-2006, where I shot over 200 covers of the magazine. My workload there was about half cover portraits and feature stories, and half action photography at sporting events all over the country.
ASMP: How long have you been working on this series for Chronicle Health, and how often are the shoots scheduled? How many covers/subjects have you photographed in this series so far?
RS: We just finished our 13th cover. I do one every month.
ASMP: Please describe your involvement in the creative planning for the cover shots. Who is involved with this process and what criteria, including budget, logistics and deadlines, are included in the planning?
RS: The Chronicle Health editor, Diane Cowen, and the photo editors The Pham and Catherine McIntosh, and I email back and forth. Diane usually interviews the subject ahead of time, so we have ideas and material to work with. The logistics are usually dictated by the subject and their representatives … but I’ve been fairly successful in tweaking times and locations on several of them.
ASMP: You describe your Chronicle Health assignments as not the “typical” newspaper freelancing experience. Please elaborate on how this assignment differs from the norm and what kind of terms and conditions you (or your rep) were able to negotiate?
RS: Actually, we negotiated a rate commensurate with other decent magazine editorial assignments. They pay for an assistant. There was no medieval rights-grabbing contract to sign … they were wonderful to work with. (As far as the rep goes, I don’t have a rep yet, but if any are interested my number is 832-654-9572. ;-) ).
ASMP: You mention that you retain the copyright to these images. Please describe any arrangements you have for additional licensing of these portraits or any limitations or restrictions to licensing connected to this work.
RS: They are only embargoed until they run in the magazine. After that, there are no restrictions.
ASMP: Did you have any interaction with the writer of the Chronicle Health stories or get to read stories in advance of the shoot? If so, please describe any impact this had on your planning or process for photography.
RS: The stories are usually a quick Q&A interview about the subject’s health regimen. If the interview is conducted before the shoot, it definitely helps so that you have information and context to work with.
ASMP: Please describe your preliminary discussions with Sara Webb, the pregnant ballerina, to help make her feel comfortable as the model for the cover shoot.
RS: Diane, the editor, arranged the shoot, and I had seen pictures of Sara, but the first time we met was when we arrived for the shoot. We showed her pictures on the camera and kept her updated. But honestly, she was wonderful and wasn’t really that uncomfortable.
ASMP: What were your trepidations and concerns as you prepared to photograph Ms. Webb?
RS: Honestly, I was worried about shooting a pregnant woman for the cover in the beginning. However, I quickly changed my tune. All the cliches about pregnant women glowing turned out to be true in her case. It was probably my favorite photo from last year.
ASMP: Please describe the lighting setup used for this shoot. Has your approach in lighting these Chronicle portraits been different than the lighting you do in your commercial portrait work?
RS: There are four lights: two 1000 w/s Dyna-lite strobes on either side of the theatre from behind the subject on each side; a custom Flash-Clinic optical-spot (adapted to Dyna-lite, with a 2000 w/s pack at full power) behind her in the center of the theatre, mimicking a theatre follow-spot; and a 6' Plume Wafer Hexoval on another Dyna-lite 1000w/s pack on stage, near her to the right of the camera. We used a giant fan borrowed from the opera to make her hair flow.
The lighting for commercial work is dictated by what is appropriate for the subject and mood; and what the client is trying to showcase. As I said before, I try not to be a one trick guy.
ASMP: Who else was on set for the shoot? What roles did they play in helping to establish a comfortable environment?
RS: Her husband was there, as well as a PR person from the ballet, and a great makeup artist, Wendy Martin, who did her makeup and also airbrushed the exposed parts of her body. She was originally wearing a loose gypsy-Stevie Knicks sort of outfit, which was kind of see-through. We changed her into the traditional tutu, but the top didn’t match very well. The PR person actually suggested ditching the top of the costume and revealing more of her belly, which I wouldn’t have been comfortable suggesting — especially in front of her husband! I told them (she and her husband) to discuss it, and they decided to go for it. I never thought they would run the picture.
ASMP: How did you (or others present) interact with the ballerina to get the movements and poses you wanted?
RS: She showed us a menu of ballerina poses, and we adapted them from there. We knew from previous pictures that she looked better “en-pointe” than flat on her feet, so we had her doing variations on that most of the time. Obviously, once she was topless, we were pretty limited on what she could do with her arms/hands.
ASMP: Did this image generate a response from readers after it was published? Have other cover images generated reader response and, if so, which has been the most popular?
RS: Diane, the editor of the mag, said the only responses we received about the ballerina were very positive. The cover that generated the most response was a cover of Astros catcher Brad Ausmus. He surfs in California during the off season, so we shot him shirtless, wet hair, yellow surfboard, blue sky… pretty Men’s Health-ish. We got tons of calls asking for prints — and it was pretty much a 50/50 response from women and men. He was teased mercilessly in the Astros locker room and he probably hates me now.
ASMP: Has this shoot had any effect on how you approach working with other portrait subjects?
RS: No, not really. I’m always very nice to people — I try to make them feel comfortable, and I always try to have all the set-ups ready to go or planned out ahead of time. I always try to respect their time and make them look good.
ASMP: Are you (or the paper) planning to publish the Chronicle Health cover portraits as a part of any future projects?
RS: Not really. I add the ones that I like to my Web site,