The Light Is Fantastic

Photography: Portraits of a stage artist, student and tech wiz

I love working as a photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. The light is fantastic, there are numerous locations offering great architecture or interior design, and because of the culture’s embrace of creativity and innovation, many of the subjects are game to play and experiment during photo shoots.  To show you what I mean, I’ve selected just three images from some recent assignments.

Theater artist Taylor Mac won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2017. Mac writes, directs, acts, sings, and performs experimental works that work as theatre and social commentary. I had about 15 minutes to photograph Mac for the MacArthur Foundation. Between performances of the groundbreaking “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” Mac was staying at the Hotel G in downtown San Francisco, built in 1909. The hotel room abutted a stairway; I peeked inside, saw the color of the walls and the window light, and immediately knew this was the place to make a picture. I had Mac play the ukulele, which was slightly difficult due to a hurt finger from stumbling in high heels during last night’s performance. Nonetheless, Mac was able to strum two or three chords, humming a quiet melody as I made pictures.

Photographed for the MacArthur Foundation.

Aaron Chow, an economics freshman at UC Berkeley, decided to research and investigate a real estate investment trust that a friend had invested in, only to discover that the trust had failed to file all kinds of SEC paperwork. Oops! Good for him, and probably bad for shady investment firms, once this young man graduates and starts his career. Chow suggested we shoot at the Asian Studies library because it has "cool architecture." By the Japanese periodicals, I custom white-balanced the fluorescent light by his head, which pushed the huge skylight in the background into a deep blue. I love it when I can employ optical physics instead of a dolly full of lighting equipment to make a compelling portrait!  Photographed for The Wall Street Journal.

Aaron Chow, an economics freshman at UC Berkeley, decided to research and investigate a real estate investment trust that a friend had invested in, only to discover that the trust had failed to file all kinds of SEC paperwork. Oops! Good for him, and probably bad for shady investment firms, once this young man graduates and starts his career. Chow suggested we shoot at the Asian Studies library because it has "cool architecture." By the Japanese periodicals, I custom white-balanced the fluorescent light by his head, which pushed the huge skylight in the background into a deep blue. I love it when I can employ optical physics instead of a dolly full of lighting equipment to make a compelling portrait!

Photographed for The Wall Street Journal.

David Wallerstein, the “Chief Exploration Officer” for Tencent, works in a converted church in Palo Alto. We made a number of moody pictures by the stained glass windows, and thought we had it in the bag. As we were walking back to the front door, we passed through the kitchen area where I saw the yellow-green wall with symmetrical clocks. At this point, we were warmed up and talking. David was using his phone to play some of his band’s heavy metal songs for me, and I commandeered his public relations assistant to hold a strobe. As you can see, David rocks!  Photographed for The Wall Street Journal.

David Wallerstein, the “Chief Exploration Officer” for Tencent, works in a converted church in Palo Alto. We made a number of moody pictures by the stained glass windows, and thought we had it in the bag. As we were walking back to the front door, we passed through the kitchen area where I saw the yellow-green wall with symmetrical clocks. At this point, we were warmed up and talking. David was using his phone to play some of his band’s heavy metal songs for me, and I commandeered his public relations assistant to hold a strobe. As you can see, David rocks!

Photographed for The Wall Street Journal.

Right-wing rally at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park

It was a busy weekend here in the Bay Area, ending with a sometimes violent rally held at at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. The event began quietly and then quickly ramped up into violence. I avoided the main scrum and stayed around the edges. However, quite a bit of activity happened where I was stationed near Allston and MLK, where I made the photos below. 13 people were arrested, but thankfully nothing happened as tragic as what took place in Charlottesville a few weeks ago. 

On Commission: Non-profit photography for Plant It Forward Farms

A recent commission to create fresh imagery for a Houston-based non-profit organization allowed me to see first-hand how refugees are being helped to establish themselves in their new country. Plant It Forward serves mainly Congolese refugees by allowing them to farm unused land in urban areas while letting participants keep all their profit. Farmers sell their fresh veggies at local farmers markets as well as farm-to-table based restaurants.

The images were used to build a new website, create print collateral and for social media publication. 

Protest coverage for the San Francisco Chronicle

Last week was busy in the Bay Area with multiple rallies and protests connected to the presidential inauguration. I was sent to cover two protests, both at or near Oakland City Hall on two separate days, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

As this was the same area that was exposed to rioting following the 2016 election, it was all-hands-on-deck. For the protest following the inauguration, photojournalists, myself included, would work in overlapping shifts that began at 7am in the morning and didn't end until 15 hours later. For those who've never experienced it, covering a large, all-day protest with the threat of possible violence in the evening required a bit of planning and mental preparation. Having covered the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, where I was shot in the arm with a "non-lethal" projectile and sucked up plenty of CS gas, I made sure my ducks were in a row: putting the flak vest and helmet into my car, as well as making sure I had a fresh respirator cartridge in my gas mask.

While covering Ferguson, I learned an important lesson. I had bought a gas mask from local Army surplus store the day after my first night of coverage where I found out just how nasty CS gas is. Like clockwork, gas came again the next night. It was only then I learned that filter cartridges have expiration dates. Whoopsy! Luckily, things didn't progress in that direction in Oakland this time around. After all was said and done, I think only three people were arrested out of a march of thousands, which I've learned is apparently very tame by Oakland standards.

By the way,  I'm totally great with tame protests. Imagine looking for moments to photograph while simultaneously keeping an eye open for anarchists looking to punch me, or grab my camera, while carrying about 30 pounds of gear following four hours of marching. It's a lot to think about.

The images I've included in this post aren't necessarily the most storytelling or dramatic, just my favorites from the last couple of weeks. Enjoy!

Toni Hickman - Overcoming Obstacles

Toni Hickman, an Atlanta native, overcame two aneurisms to become an aspiring hip-hop artist. Doctors originally told her she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life. Through her own efforts and the efforts of the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, she was able to beat the odds. We wanted a hip-hop feel, so we used the east-facing wall at Java Java Cafe in the Heights neighborhood of Houston. The owner was very accommodating and even let me use his AC outlet for my lights. Also, we had to shoot on what was probably the coldest day of the year, another testament to Toni's grit and determination underlying her beauty.

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