Chokra-and-Awe: Loren Wohl Blasts Through The Fog and Noise

On the face of it, music photographer Loren Wohl's backlit photos of performance artist Chokra are themselves a series of cool photos. But dig a little deeper and they are a textbook example of gaining access and building out your book.

And the latter is just as important—if not more so—as the former.

Have a Plan, and Work To It

The photos grab your attention, but the process of getting to the photos should be the real takeaway. This line from one of Loren's emails struck me instantly:

"I picked up my first camera in March of 2009 to get closer to musicians ."

Simple, huh? But most people never take a moment to consciously analyze why they shoot. Maybe it is just that you like it, which is fine. But you are on a journey, and every journey needs a compass point.

So, too, does your photography. And it is a simple as finishing this sentence:

I take photos in order to _____________.

"I always wanted to work in the music industry," Loren goes on. "And photography became a way for me to be creative while working with people I deeply respect and admire. I produced music in high school, was in a really terrible band with my friends, and thought I'd go on to DJ or produce records."

So he knows what he wants to do. Or close, anyway— he knows what field he wants to explore. The camera is really just a small tool that allows you to do the things you really want to do.

"I just want to take photos" is perhaps the least useful reason to want to take photos. Find The Thing you really want to do, or accomplish. Then use the camera to help you do The Thing.

The camera is not the end-all. It is a catalyst.

Gain Access and Make Contacts

Knowing why you want to shoot will point you to what you want to shoot. Which leads you to your next challenge, which is to be where that thing is.

Wohl started out shooting for the (now defunct) blog, RCRD LBL. Not Rolling Stone, but it got him into the music scene. Since then, he has shot for Red Bull, MTV, SPIN, The Fader, NPR and Time Out New York, among others. And in that same capacity, he was shooting events for MoMA PS1.

It was there that he first photographed performance artist Chokra. Typically at this kind of job you are not going to have a lot of control, or the ability to make the kind of photos you want.

But you now have two very critical things: an intersection with a cool subject (Chokra) and some currency (the photos you made.)

"He (Chokra) was easily one of the more interesting performers I saw while working there, so I made sure to get in touch with him afterwards," Wohl said. "I sent him the photos and he was really happy with them. He reached out to me a few weeks ago, almost two years after the PS1 performance, and asked me to take photos in October.

Now you have access and political capital. And make no mistake, there are always politics involved in this stuff. Who you are shooting for is key. Shooting for MoMA PS1 gets you access. But shooting for Chokra gets you control.

Step it Up a Notch

Wohl said he had grown considerably in the two years since first shooting Chokra. So he brought to bear he new technical skills and a desire to do something really cool.

Having a built-in familiarity with the style of performance, he worked with Chokra to essentially create a studio around the event.

Because of the use of fog and color, he decided to backlight the entire scene and count on the reflectance of the fog and wall behind him for any frontal fill. The room was fairly small, which also helped.

"My camera handled the contrast nicely," he said. "I shoot with the D800 and I think it's incredible how much detail you can pull out of the shadows and highlights. The megapixels have steered people away from the camera, but for me it's more about the dynamic range."

He backlit the performers from one wall, and the audience watched from the other three directions. Again, shooting for the artist gives you access and power you would not otherwise get.

While I was in college, I shot the NCAA Gymnastics Championships for the NCAA themselves. They pay was shit, but the access was the nearest thing I have ever been to video game-style invulnerability. I leveraged that unlimited access that weekend to shoot at the same time for a dozen different college Sports Info departments.

I did 12- to 18-hour days on no sleep, but I cleaned up. I ended up throwing an epic party with the proceeds—and buying a Nikkor 200/2 with the leftovers. (Priorities, right?)

Even with good access, Wohl had to sell the idea and concept. He explained how the flashes as positioned would look during the performance. Chokra (rightly) agreed they would actually be additive to the event. Win-win.

Restriction Equals Creativity

Wohl knew he wanted to backlight it, but there were still variables. Using multiple backlights as opposed to one would make the scene much more three-dimensional. He had 4 Einstein e640s and grids: 2 30's and 2 40's. From there he designed his light.

He put the 40s on the insides and the 30's on the outside, to help to control and concentrate the overall spread. That's really smart, actually, and he might not have thought of it if he had 4 40's and 4 30's. The older I get, the more I find that restriction is the best catalyst for creativity.

The strobes were dialed down to 37ws each, meaning he technically could have done this with speedlights on half power. Which is also pretty cool for those of you with ideas in your heads at this point.

The light was clean (all strobe) at 1/250th at f/5.0 at ISO 100, but Wohl dragged the shutter throughout the performance to pick up the ambient with needed.

He covered the strobe heads with plastic bags to protect them from the powder/spice combo that Chokra uses in the performance. He also got a little pro tip from the artist himself on removing the clingy color from himself after the fact: use Swiffer refills.

Color run shooters, take notice.

To see more photos from the evening, hit Loren's blog post. Also (and I love this tidbit) check out Loren's website where he is doing something I have not yet seen.

In "tearsheets," he is including not only traditional print tears but screen grabs of online uses as well. And even smarter, he is screen-grabbing his interactions with his subjects and including those, too. Brilliant.

All photos ©2013 Loren Wohl, used with permission.

OA Next: Cellist Carolyn Rosinsky


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Blogger anotherview2 said...

I take photos in order to fulfill myself. As a youngster, I had no ambition or direction, and saw no future for myself. I enjoyed body surfing in my late boyhood. As I grew older, I realized I had a future because I’d lived it. Yet, I still lack ambition or direction. I do photography for its own sake. This approach to doing photography requires no other rationale.

November 13, 2013 1:27 PM  
Blogger Jimmy Strong said...

I've been reading your blog for years and have learned so much relating to the technical aspect of lighting, but this post really resonated with me. Prompting us to state why we take photos is simple, yet genius. Exactly what I need to think about. Also love the "tearsheets" on Wohl's website.

November 13, 2013 1:38 PM  
Blogger Ave said...

Very cool photos. I wonder if gelling the lights would have been too overwhelming?

I'm also liking the theme of restriction equals creativity. It's one thing I have plenty of.

November 13, 2013 4:35 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I take photos to capture the feeling of a moment. I would probably paint or draw if I had the skill (or the patience to learn the skill); to me, photography takes advantage of the technology to allow me to make the image.

November 13, 2013 10:18 PM  
OpenID shutterbugshub said...

This got me thinking into why I love photography. Quite can't grasp my reasons at first, but I think it boils down to my love being around enthusiastic people when I'm taking portraits and my love to travel and be with nature when Im taking landscapes.

November 13, 2013 11:19 PM  
OpenID kenhayden said...

Is the world of "music photography" still one of all rights buyouts by the labels at (relatively) low pay?

November 14, 2013 7:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

kenhayden said...
Is the world of "music photography" still one of all rights buyouts by the labels at (relatively) low pay?

Trust me, photographers don't fare any better than the musicians and songwriters when it comes to low pay and rights buyouts - if they even offer a "buyout". It's been that way since the "Business" started.

Of course the business has changed which is why you'll find lots of music given away for free with the money being made at the back end with live performances.

The best advice I can give anyone wanting to explore music photography is to focus on the behind the scenes aspects of it all.

While shooting a concert is great fun the photos that have the real value will be the ones that show the bands in their unguarded, off stage lives.

I speak from personal experience - the payday, for 30+ year old photos I did with a band was more than I ever made (in total) for everything else I ever did of and for them. Why?, because no one else had the type of photos I had. Getty images has lots of "on stage" performance photos that could have been used, but I had the ones from backstage, the dressing room, the recording studio and the rehearsals.

Getting the multi-national corporation that put out the package which used my photos to actually pay for them (which they ultimately did) is a story in itself best left for another rant.

November 14, 2013 10:34 AM  
Blogger anotherview2 said...

Unknown: Thanks for your interesting story of the business-end of photography. You apparently developed a relation with a personal touch in doing your music photography. I've seen photographs from that approach, and they present musicians with their hair down, so we appreciate them all the more.

November 14, 2013 2:35 PM  
Blogger Garrett Brady said...

Very very cool.

I started on a very similar road (music) and went into weddings, portraits, etc. And I've come back around to music out of a love for it.

It's all about the compass point. Great advice.

November 15, 2013 8:56 AM  
Blogger Fred LePiere said...

Stating clearly why one does somethin in a business enviroment is widely known as a mission statement. This definition is from Wiki, but any Business 101 text will parrot the idea:

A mission statement is a statement of the purpose of a company, organization or person, its reason for existing.

The mission statement should guide the actions of the organization, spell out its overall goal, provide a path, and guide decision-making. It provides "the framework or context within which the company's strategies are formulated." It's like a goal for what the company wants to do for the world. [1]

November 16, 2013 9:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! Semi-related to the 'cleaning up' aspects of the shoot, I just photographed a GWAR show and I have to say that Suran Wrap makes a great blood (water) tight camera case.

I've always wanted to 'light' a performance but still find the process of learning a particular venues lighting patterns and exploiting them for your live photos to be very rewarding.

November 18, 2013 1:06 AM  
Blogger Rod Taylor said...

It is slight presumptuous David, to put down the "I just want to take photos".
For a professional, I completely agree this would not be good, but at this stage of my development, I do it for fun. When my skills and opportunities are ready, then for sure, I'll get me sharper compass.

December 03, 2013 9:38 PM  
Blogger Jerry Milton said...

I shoot live music w/ multi-flash set ups all the time, mounted w/ superclamps and usually gelled & set on manual control either via iTTL or chinese triggers... as alot of the clubs LIGHTS suck. so I make my own light/contrast. of course hauling in studio lights is NEVER an option in live music capital of the world. or MOBILE capital as it may be.

December 06, 2013 5:25 PM  

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