Beers With: Edward Hopper

It's been a while since we got a chance to chat with any dead artists, and Edward Hopper was actually in the news this month.

So I caught up with him last week at (appropriately) a bar in Fell's Point in Baltimore to chat about the use of light in his most famous work.

Strobist: First of all, Mr. Hopper, I'll confess to being a big fan. You have long been an influence on my lighting. And also for a lot of other photographers, from the look of things.

Hopper: Don't mention it. Really. Influence is one thing, but some of the "homages" are another thing altogether. And please, call me Edward.

Strobist: Thanks. I don't want to waste any time before getting to the painting you are most associated with: "Nighthawks" (1942). It has become a cultural touchstone.

Hopper: Well, that's one way of putting it…

[Ed. Note: Click on the pic to open it bigger in a different window for reference.]

Strobist: So, here's the picture. And I think it is damn-near perfect, if you don't mind my saying. Was that available light?

Hopper: Oh, no -- it was lit.

Strobist: So … it was also staged?

Hopper: Yep. The redhead is from Model Mayhem. $150 (and a CD) for three hours.

Strobist: And the guys?

Hopper: Locals. They cost me a coupla beers. We did it after hours. We paid the barkeep a C-note to stay late and pose, too. Pretty bootstrapped, really. Fortunately, we did it before that stupid $300 NYC shooting permit crap. Ridiculous.

Strobist: Indeed. So it is lit, then. Mind if I give it a go?

Hopper: Be my guest.

Strobist: Okay, so everyone has front light, and that can only be coming from one place. Direct light up in the ceiling?

Hopper: Close. It's actually a tight bounce. Direct might have looked better, but it would have been hard to hide the bare reflection in the coffee machines. With a near-surface bounce, we mostly tone down the reflection in the top dome. I actually considered pulling one of the coffee machines and using that window divider to hide the light's reflection on the other machine.

Strobist: Ah, and that would have given you an easy way to use a bare light.

Hopper: Yep, but what all-nite joint wouldn't have caf and decaf?

Strobist: Exactly. Thus the bounce?

Hopper: Yep. And that was the only interior light we used. It was an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra, by the way. It kicks out 400 watt-seconds, but was small enough to gaffer-tape the whole damn thing to the ceiling fixture. With a Skyport remote, we could control the power remotely, too. But we ended up running full power. The bounce ate up a lot of light.

Strobist: So, you say that's the only interior light. Were there more?

Hopper: Yes, there is one more strobe -- another Ranger Quadra.

Strobist: Where is it?

Hopper: You tell me.

Strobist: Well, shadows on the right side of the far window point to the light, so I know it is somewhere around that corner.

Hopper: Keep going…

Strobist: Any Photoshop tricks?

Hopper: Nope.

Strobist: Then it has to be behind the back right wall, on a very high stand ... and a boom?

Hopper: Yep, thus the tiny little Quadra. Head just weighs a few ounces. You can stick it way out there. Stand goes up behind the back right wall, boom comes out to the left, light is hanging out over the street and hidden by the wall over the window. That give me a hair light on Red, and separation on the guy sitting next to her.

Strobist: Is that important?

Hopper: Oh, yeah. Look at the other guy. See how he gets lost against the background on his camera left side?

Strobist: Yep.

Hopper: No separation light on him. That kinda makes him secondary to the couple as a subject. That back light is catching the barkeep's face a little, too. But we gobo'd it to keep it from hitting the area across the street directly behind the bar patrons. We left that nice and dark.

Strobist: Sweet. And everything else is ambient?

Hopper: Yeah, about 3-4 stops down. We dragged the shutter for eight seconds -- always bring a good tripod when lighting at night. Had the interior lights off in the bar, so no ghosting issues if they sat still. Ambient-wise, the bar is actually darker than the street outside. But the strobes reverse that.

Strobist: So, do you just wing this kind of stuff, or do you comp it out?

Hopper: Oh, no. I plan everything. Even did a run-thru a few nights before.

Strobist: Really? So you just lay it out on a cocktail napkin, McNally style?

Hopper: Used to, not any more. Now we do nice charcoals, on acid-free paper.

Strobist: Wait, what?

Hopper: Let me explain. Case in point -- see this?

Strobist: Yeah. Nice, I guess.

Hopper: I guess? That baby went for $352,000 at Christie's.

Strobist: The rough draft? Are you kidding?

Hopper: No kidding.

Strobist: Wow. I use my iPhone to make lighting diagrams.

Hopper: Aren't you cool.

Strobist: Apparently, not. Let's get back to the idea of the homage.

Hopper: You mean, ripoff?

Strobist: Whatever. So, here is "Boulevard of Broken Dreams II," (1984) by Gottfried Helnwein. Kinda cool, really -- James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis. It's cool because they all died before their time, and here they are in a bar together at night.

Hopper: Oh c'mon. It's a watercolor on cardboard, for pete's sake.

Strobist: Yeah, but…

Hopper: Really? You like it? REALLY?

Strobist: I have another small confession -- for the longest while, I thought the Broken Dreams painting was the original one.

Hopper: Are you friggin' kidding me? Look. I really gotta go, okay?

Strobist: But...

Hopper: Bye.

Strobist: Well, in that case…


Abruptly ended fictional interview aside, this painting was in the news this month. After much painstaking research, it was determined that the bar in Nighthawks -- real tho Hopper made it -- probably never actually existed.

You can read more about that, starting here.

And if you enjoy beers with dead guys, you can read our earlier conversations with Rembrandt and Vermeer.


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Blogger Nicholas said...

David, you consistently crack me up.

Thanks for breaking it down. If you're ever in a bar in Fell's again give me a ring - drinks are on me. All of them.


July 12, 2010 7:37 PM  
Blogger rb said...

Almost creepy, but a great read!

-your blind photographer

July 12, 2010 7:38 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

quality as always, keep it up!

July 12, 2010 7:42 PM  
Blogger Jessica Deeks said...

Haha! I have a poster of this in my room! I've loved this shot since I learned about it in high school. Absolutely love his style and light in his paintings. This picture actually inspires me.

Another homage to him, a CSI ad by Art Streiber I found a few months ago.

It's in his Media section. He also has a Lewis Hine homage!


July 12, 2010 7:54 PM  
Blogger john l said...

Question...if it was a tight bounce, would the gentleman beside the redhead have more shadow below the brim of his hat just like the gentleman sitting with his back to the windown? Secondly, instead of a tight bounce, could Mr Hopper have used a small gobo on a bare bulb to hide the reflections on the coffee machines? Mr Hopper seems a little irritated near the end of the interview...I thought imitation was the greatest form of flattery. But I quess flattery doesn't pay anything. lol. Very entertaining read!

July 12, 2010 8:01 PM  
Blogger S A Stevens said...

Cool concept; I missed the earlier ones, so I'll have to go back. As a lighting beginner, I'll try not to go around telling people I'm learning about strobes via fake interviews with dead painters. Don't think that would do good things for my street cred, even if it's true.


July 12, 2010 8:04 PM  
Blogger john l said...

question...with a tight bounce, should there not be more of a shadow from the rim of the hat on the gentleman beside the girl? secondly, could Mr Hopper have used a bare bulb and use a small gobo to hide it on the coffee machines instead of a tight bounce? I noticed that Mr Hopper was a little irritated at the end of the interview...I thought imitation was the sincerest form of flattery...but I guess flattery doesn't pay much. lol. Very entertaining interview indeed.

July 12, 2010 8:09 PM  
Blogger GeoDesigner said...

As i've said before: the "beers with" series is one of the best features on this site, and one of the reasons I read Strobist since year one.

July 12, 2010 9:01 PM  
Blogger OaklandMisfit said...

Very nice read! I like the idea, dead artists are a fun educational tool, gotta remember that for my 5 year old!

I also read the series of blog posts by Jeremiah Moss where he is trying to find the location of the diner, very interesting.


July 12, 2010 9:03 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

Great work on these interviews!

I actually live near The Hopper House, the place he grew up. It's now a museum and gallery. I'm have to show the staff this. They will love it!

July 12, 2010 9:41 PM  
Blogger James Bong said...

This has to be one of my favorite features of yours! I can't wait for the next installment. It always cracks me up!

July 12, 2010 10:16 PM  
Blogger Senorito<- Ako said...

I wonder if he has a Yongnuo 560 strobe ?

July 13, 2010 1:27 AM  
Blogger xxberg said...

Fantastic post - I'm surprised there were no gels involved in this shot though.

July 13, 2010 3:21 AM  
Blogger Bill Anderson said...

What a great and fascinating painting. Thank you for giving it the treatment on Strobist. Your site is an invaluable resource.

July 13, 2010 6:52 AM  
Blogger tim said...

Honestly David,
this was the most weird but awesome piece of blogpost i've ever read! It's fun, you learn a lot.... Just to quote a very important man:
"I think it is damn-near perfect, if you don't mind my saying".
Thanks a lot for your postings, for your work, for your lessons and last but not least (!!!) for your inspiration! Thank you!

July 13, 2010 8:48 AM  
Blogger John said...

Actually, the red head was his wife, Jo. She posed for nearly all of his female figures, especially in his later years. Also, she was a blond, but surely a dye job is not out of the question these days. However,if the main light is a bounce up near the ceiling inside the diner, shouldn't there be a more dramatic drop off in light on the sidewalk? Are you sure he didn't sneak a third light in there?

Recommend you talk with Vinny Van Gogh sometime. The Potato Eaters or The Night Cafe are fascinating as well.

July 13, 2010 9:47 AM  
Blogger Brock N. Meeks said...

This was a tour de force blog post my friend! Brilliant to the last line.

July 13, 2010 10:57 AM  
Blogger Les Doerfler said...

Great read David. I was wondering the same thing as others about that bounce flash and shadow of the main guy's hat brim.

Is it possible that the barkeep is holding a small reflector to tip just a bit of light back up under that brim?

July 13, 2010 1:47 PM  
Blogger philosophicguy said...

Brilliant, David. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on more than just lighting gear with us. This kind of thing is educational, inspirational and entertaining.

July 13, 2010 1:55 PM  
Blogger Seth Bricel said...

Hey, earlier Jessica mentioned Art Streiber's page, and I thought you folks might enjoy his BTS videos in his video section.

July 13, 2010 4:16 PM  
Blogger Callegari said...

Great post.. I have looked for stuff to be inspired by and found this great artist by accident while watching a special on the History channel I believe. Michael Deas. This is the image of his that struck me the most

July 13, 2010 6:03 PM  
Blogger Callegari said...

Great post.. I have looked for inspirational paintings and illustrations and found this great artist by accident while watching a special on the History channel about US postal service commissions for stamps. Michael Deas. This is the image of his that struck me the most

July 13, 2010 6:05 PM  
OpenID adamkrausephoto said...

one of my favorites, and an early inspiration! great post!

July 13, 2010 6:44 PM  
Blogger Paulo Rodrigues said...

There's a cafe just around the corner from the Flash Centre that always makes me think of that photo, unfortunately part of their window is blocked with advertising so It will never do for a recreation.

July 13, 2010 7:10 PM  
Blogger Nionyn said...

Yay, Hopper! I've been waiting for this one. Thanks, David.
But decaf on tap in 1942? Are you sure Hopper wasn't pulling your leg? He clearly has a sense of humour, after all... ;-)

After reading this I had to listen to Tom Waits' "Nighthawks at the Diner" and Marianne Faithfull's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams". If you don't know them check them out. If you can be arsed, of course. :-)

Now, when will you be chatting with Miro and Kandinsky? :-P

July 13, 2010 7:38 PM  
Blogger Clearcon said...

You did it again. Great job!!

July 13, 2010 7:40 PM  
Blogger David said...

I dunno...

Under the brim, it is actually pretty dark. It is not until you get to the part of his face that would see the overhead light that you start seeing detail.

To me, that points to the overhead light in the room.

July 13, 2010 8:17 PM  
Blogger Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for the link. hope you enjoyed your beer with Mr. Hopper.

July 13, 2010 10:21 PM  
Blogger ambienteye said...

Not related to this post really, but uh .. did you take up singing recently? I had a dream I attended some strobist seminar/workshop and you sang the entire thing. Later I was on a bus and saw a girl lean back and the light her her just right so I memorized the position of the lights and the reflection from the window. I guess dreaming about lights is about as nuts as talking with dead guys about them...

July 14, 2010 3:11 PM  
Blogger David said...

Nope. But I am doing all of my teaching either in haiku or iambic pentameter, just to keep things interesting.

July 14, 2010 5:01 PM  
Blogger Andy Hart said...

Stencil/Graffiti/Installation artist Banksy has an interesting take on 'Nighthawks' featuring an English football hooligan, titled "Are you using that chair?". I like it!

July 14, 2010 8:50 PM  
Blogger Alexander said...

I'm afraid to know how many of your readers believe that interview actually took place.

July 14, 2010 9:31 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

That's funny, 'Night at the Museum II' was on telly a couple of days ago. The better half pointed out how much she liked this painting as they panned past it.
Later on in the film the barman breaks a bottle on the counter and waves it out of the painting as a fight kicks off.

July 15, 2010 7:58 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Where else can one find lighting tutorials presented in such an original fashion - love it!

July 15, 2010 11:42 PM  
Blogger Shereese said...

I'm not a strobist but I am a follower of Hopper. This post is cleverly written but I feel I must say Hopper would have never had a conversation like this; he would have thought it beneath him. I do however, like the humor you've added to the subject of lighting. Thank you.

July 18, 2010 9:20 AM  
Blogger David said...


Indeed. And if you are looking for scholarly accuracy, you are at the wrong place, my friend!


July 18, 2010 8:31 PM  
Blogger Shereese said...

David, I was not in search of scholarly reference; just sharing some knowledge. Thanks for the comment

July 18, 2010 9:29 PM  
Blogger David said...


No worries -- just got the feeling you were a new visitor and wanted to make sure that you didn't think the point of the dead artist series had anything to do with historical accuracy.

(Just ask Rembrandt and Vermeer...)

July 19, 2010 10:50 AM  

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