Welcome to The f/64 Club: A Front Row Seat at the 2013 GPP Shootout
Sure, the Gulf Photo Plus shootout might be fun to watch. But for the photographers competing, it is all about a week of anticipation, stress and nervousness. And come shootout day, all of that is on display live in front of an audience of 350 armchair quarterback photographers.
Below, the shootout video, how each photographer handled the stress and a challenge for you.
In case you don't know the rules, here they are:
1. You have 20 minutes to conceive, shoot and post-produce your image in front of a crowd of 350 and two mic'd hecklers—this year, McNally and yours truly.
2. You don't know what the assignment will be until the moment you have to start.
3. Those are the only rules.
So here's the video, which obviously pales in comparison to the actual event. Bear in mind you are seeing a 10:1 compressed version of the evening. It's like editing Das Boot down to a YouTube short. One day, you'll wanna go see it live.
A View From the Cheap Seats
When I say cheap, I don't mean bad seats. McNally and I were right down front, mics in hand. I mean cheap as in we did not have to pay for the experience with a week of stress and nervousness.
And let me tell you, it is a nerve-wracking way to spend the week, much less the evening itself. Like being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum.
Your assignment? To photograph, live, one of the pre-eminent portraitists of our time, Gregory Heisler. No big whup. Kinda like throwing a dinner party at your house, only the guest list includes Julia Child. No pressure.
"Are you not entertained!?"
So here we go.
Channeling the Stress: John Keatley
All BTS photos by Juliette Bisset/Gulf Photo Plus
I am gonna say right out that John Keatley gets my vote as winner. He didn't win, as Zack clearly grabbed most of the applause meter juice. But Keatley is the only one who, IMO, took a deep breath then went out there and made a Keatley picture.
He was smart: he brought a device, a gimmick that could have been useful in a few different situations. And God only knows what else he had secreted away in that bag.
And while you could tell he was nervous, he was sorta like juiced nervous. He channeled it. He seemed to thrive on it.
Here's the thing: Keatley was the only one of the three from whom I really learned something while watching. He took control from minute one, painting a scene and developing a narrative for his portrait. Much of this progression and patter is lost to the edit, but it was a thing to see.
He started off by having Heisler imagine an "alternative path" to his life, and went from there. It's a wonderful device to knock a subject off guard—and, I suspect, something Keatley pulls out pretty often. At least it looks like he does, 'cause he was pretty good at it. It also gave Heisler an excuse to step outside of his persona, which is gold for a portraitist.
Finally, it short-circuits the dreaded What do you want me to do? question from your subject and gives you creative control as a photographer. I love it, and I am so gonna steal it.
Photo by John Keatley (under extenuating circumstances)
To my mind this is a Keatley photo. It's quirky (John's all-but-trademarked adjective) and funny. Almost something out of a Saturday Night Live skit. It's not a revealing portrait of Greg, per se. (Honestly, none of them were.)
But there was a showmanship to the process—and to the result—that I thought no one would be able to top. I thought Keatley had won it right out of the gate as a rookie.
As it turned out, I was wrong.
The Kobayashi Maru: Lindsay Adler
Faced with the challenge of shooting a portrait of Gregory Heisler in the Dubai Knowledge Village Auditorium, fashion photographer Lindsay Adler did a complete end-around. Much like the fictional test at Star Fleet Academy on Start Trek, she attacked the test itself by rewriting the rules.
She photographed Heisler then composited him into a stock backdrop.
Now, as someone who has competed in the shootout twice, I was split on this one. Part of me was like, this is Polaroid Boy II (hi, Joey!) and the other half was like, if it works, it will have been genius..
Plus, it was a great device to figure out in advance how to control what you could not hope to control: subject and environment. You could drop anything into anywhere with this trick.
Photo by Lindsay Adler (under extenuating circumstances)
The risk to this strategy is that it is binary. It's either gonna be a walk-off home run, or a routine fly ball out to end the game. So if you do it, you gotta bring real power to the swing.
In other words, this risk-averse concept lets it all rest on the one thing you can't control: Your subject's expression on the frame you are going to composite. After all, that's the only thing that is real.
And that is where Lindsay dropped the ball, IMO. She literally used the first frame where she was happy with the light, and that moment was a somewhat of a dud. No life at all. If she would have spent two minutes coaxing different responses out of Greg, I think she could have pulled it off.
But the armchair QB's job is an easy one. And in Lindsay's defense, the time pressure and it all happening live really grinds on you. It'll make you do things you would not normally do, especially when those things seem like efficient use of time during the crunch.
This is a complete 180 from Heisler's performance last year. Sure, he was nervous. But even so, he went a full eighteen out of twenty allocated minutes before pressing the shutter for the first time. Dayum.
I'l let you in on a secret. As hecklers, Joe and I had decided to go easy on the two newbs (John and Lindsay) and save it all for Zack.
That said, after Lindsay had her photo safely in the can and was just going through the compositing motions, she looked up at us and said something to the effect of, "I sure haven't heard much out of you guys…"
Easy to say now, Lindsay…
Eff Nervous: Hurricane Arias
The photo up top, by GPP's Juliette Bisset, pretty much says it all. Zack Arias faced his nervous jitters head-on and then kicked them in the groin. He danced his way in looking like G Love and Special Sauce meets ZZ Top, with a Daft Punk-esque flash-poppin entourage to boot.
Holy shit. McNally and I were rendered speechless. Which, for the record, does not happen often.
What do you say to that? How do you heckle that? Oh, I tried. But … I got nuthin'.
There is a strategy to winning the GPP Shootout that says just try to win the crowd with something different. I went that route my first year, choreographing a five-flash VAL assault that looked like random paparazzi but was in fact carefully planned.
It's a good strategy to wow—and thus win over—the crowd.
Zack did just that with his entrance, and then proceeded to do it with his photo. Which, good photo and all, but I think he got some applause juice from his entrance, too. Plus the photo was certainly a crowd pleaser:
Photo by Zack Arias (under extenuating circumstances)
Zack swears he came up with the idea live. A week of sipping water from little plastic foil cups to avoid dying of dehydration, funneled into a moment of inspiration.
This was a one-shot deal. Heisler would only be dry for one attempt. Zack nailed the timing, and the audience ate it up.
One of the water throwers was none other than your own Sara Lando, who had just finished spending the week as Heisler's assistant. (Oh, yeah, posts coming this fall…)
I asked her what she would have thought six months ago, if someone would have told her she'd be coming to Dubai, would work as an assistant for Greg Heisler all week, and at the end of said week, would throw a cup of water in his face.
But Zack won the crowd, and thus the shootout. Not even close. And like in previous years, you can't really just vote on just seeing the photo. You kinda have to be there. And you kinda should find a way to just be there one year.
What would I have done? That's the question I ask myself of every GPP Shootout in which I did not have to compete. But it's different when there is no pressure.
And the moment I heard what the subject was, I knew how I would have shot it—my own version of the Kobayashi Maru, if you will. I would have thrown the spirit of the competition under the bus and taken advantage of having twenty full minutes of Heisler having to sit for me for a portrait.
I would have explained this to the crowd—only chance I'll ever get, yada yada—and apologized to them that I was going to ignore the main goal of the shootout and make a portrait for me. Might have worked. Might not have. But I'd have my photo.
So that was them, and that was me. What would you have done?
Before yu get all cocky in the comments, remember that it's different when you are the one up on stage. And trust me, if you don't get the "f/64" reference in the headline, just compete in the GPP Shootout one year.
You'll instantly know exactly what we mean by the f/64 Club.