Joel Aron: Secrets of a Passionate Portrait Photographer, Part 2

Joel Aron has an obsession with perfection and a passion for shooting revealing portraits. In part one of our interview, he spoke about what turned out to be the most gut-wrenching and intensely creative assignment of his life — shooting a series of commemorative portraits of over 400 creative people at Lucasfilm who had just lost their jobs in a massive downsizing. “Shooting this portrait series of departing friends and associates was really tough even though the end result was extraordinarily fulfilling on a personal level,” says Aron. Here, is part two of the amazing story of how he executed what turned out to be a remarkable project.

Q: The portrait portfolio you provided includes images of people who were about to lose their jobs at Lucasfilm, yet you have captured most of these individuals as creative, thoughtful, complex, engaging, even assertive. Most don’t express any obvious sense of impending stress or loss, or ironic detachment. Do you agree, and if so how do you account for this or how did you achieve it?

A: I do agree. It was a very unusual time for everyone at Lucasfilm. The months leading up to the announcement about the layoffs had us all waiting for the shoe to drop, or if there even was a shoe. We were all still focused on the job we all had to do, and for us at Lucasfilm Animation, we had no time to stop and think. Sadly, we were the first group impacted by the layoffs with the announcements that our TV shows would not be continuing. It was weeks after that, when we were informed on a Tuesday, that Friday would be the last day of employment for a very large portion of the teams at Lucasfilm Animation. Lucasfilm was handling the week with such amazing support for everyone with job fairs to help find people a position in our outside of the company.

Honestly, we were in good spirits. But with the portraits, it was me, one-on-one with each person in my office. Just about 90% of all of the portraits were employees who were leaving the company. If I didn’t know them well, then I did by the end of our portrait session. We mostly just talked about the future, and where next was.

The true feelings of everyone that came in for a portrait were raw and exposed. I can’t tell you how many times I was shooting with my eyes welling up as I listened to them tell me about what they were feeling, and how they would miss that family that Lucasfilm. I would always try to keep each session lighthearted, and even though we were laughing for a good part of each short session, you can’t hide the feeling of breaking up with someone, or something. I have to quote Andy Heitz, the first portrait that I shot. He posted to Facebook on the Friday night when he got home after his last day of employment, “So that’s what breaking up with 150 people feels like.”

I would talk incessantly in each session, doing my best to keep the conversation rolling, often talking with my camera held by my side for nearly the entire shoot. In some cases, I would only get five shots, and talk for minutes in between the shots. But the true secret to nearly every single image is when I would ask each person to find an object on my desk behind me. I would spring this on them towards the end of the session when I felt that they had become comfortable with my shooting and talking rhythm. It would take the entire conversation and the newly forming bond with each person, to know exactly when their moment of shutting down all emotion and focusing on that one object would occur. When I shot the sessions that were not held in my office, I used the same trick with whatever was in the room with me.

Q: All the images in this series are output in warm tone black-and-white that almost looks like sepia or selenium toning. It certainly gives the images a timeless or retro look. Was this your goal and were there other reasons you decided to present them in this way? What specific characteristics of the B&W medium do you find especially compelling?

A: It was at lunch on the first day of shooting that I started to see what post process would work best. It was clear from what I had shot so far, that these portraits had to be in some form of B&W. There was no reason for these to be in color. B&W would bring all of the images together, as the team that we were. Color would be too individual, and cause some to upstage more than others. For me, it’s always been that B&W images are about shape, contrast, and tone. I had the shape with the compositions, and the contrast with the lighting. The warmth in the images came about when I started to view them all in order of how they were shot. They needed to not be cold, to not be obviously B&W, and to connect with each other like a perfectly aligned type font. Warmth was it.

Plus, many years ago I fell eternally in love with the selenium-toned images of Lisa Fonssagrives by Irving Penn. I’m a recovering film addict. I am obsessed with grain structure and what it does for contrast and tone. When I started shooting with my M9-P, it took many months for me to find my happy place in converting the images to B&W. I started to bounce between Capture One and Lightroom, but nothing really clicked until I started underexposing my images at ISO 800 and pushing them in my Pavlovian ways in Photoshop. Only recently have I started using Silver Efex, as it was my M240′s dynamic range that brought me to its doorstep, but it’s not something I go to that often. I prefer a layer stack as long as I’m playing in Photoshop.

Q: In this image, the subject, a bearded man in a Homburg hat and leather jacket cradling what looks like a bizarre form of automatic rifle, is confrontational, if not menacing, a quality accentuated by the plain dark background and the gorgeously diffused, but directional studio lighting. What’s going on here?

A: This is a portrait of one of the coolest, sweetest, and most genuine of producers, Gio Corsi. Gio was the lead producer on a game at LucasArts that was being phased out. The bizarre form of an automatic rifle belongs to Boba Fett. Gio, Boba, and the rifle were to be prominent elements in the defunct game that so many were pouring their hearts into at LucasArts. It was his idea to hold the rifle for the last two shots. The previous shots were more casual, and didn’t close the circle that I wanted to capture with Gio. As soon as he picked up the rifle and lifted his head to the light, I spotted the wrinkles in his leather jacket sleeve creating a frame for the bottom right third, and knew the image came together. It’s difficult to take a serious picture of Gio as he’s so infectiously jolly and expressive, so to see him as he is in my portrait, cradling something proudly that means something to everyone that worked on the project, breaks my heart.

Q: This portrait of another bearded man is compelling in an entirely different way. He is composed asymmetrically, toward the right-hand edge of the frame, and seems to be intently fixated on something unseen but significant that is outside the frame. What were you trying to say by composing this picture in this dynamic but unconventional way, and what does this picture mean to you?

A: Chris Breithaupt is the man who made me move my light. Chris was fantastic to shoot. His personality is amazing, and on this day, his beard upstaged it. In my first shot I had him centered and looking at me, but it wasn’t coming together. We were on the sound stage at LucasArts where I had constructed the replication of the setup I had in my office at Big Rock Ranch. I was still trying to find that sweet spot that I had in my office. There were dozens of people that I had shot before Chris walked in, and I was struggling to find my rhythm with the light and my shooting angle.

Just as Chris walked in, a good friend came into the room with a bottle of rye whisky that was making the rounds with people lined up outside the studio waiting for their portrait to be taken. One intense imbibing of the bottle, and I was ready to go. I turned to Chris, fired off that shot where he was too centered, and then moved the light to nearly touch his face. We talked for a few minutes as I hunted for the angle, and then rolled off a shot where I just framed the light outside the image area, not even thinking of where Chris would end up in frame. I was literally shoving myself into the light box and was squeezing the lens just past the scrim of the light.

This is one of the last shots, and it remains uncropped, as shot. I asked him to look into the bottom corner of the light. It’s his position in frame, and that incredible stare, that give this image an amazing force. There is a second shot taken just before this one when he was looking at camera, but it didn’t connect with what I was picking up from his personality. But when he looked off camera, it came together. This is one of my personal favorites of the series.


Q: The facial expressions you manage to achieve in your portrait subjects are fraught with genuine emotion and are very revealing. These two in particular show young men looking directly at the camera in a way that somehow conveys their identity, personality and sense of being in the world. How do you get your subjects to reveal themselves in this way?

A: The subjects are Tyler Piersall and Jens Fursund. Tyler walked in and I instantly picked up on possible images of him even though I didn’t know him at all when we started.  After a few minutes of talking, I started to feather in my shots into the conversation about where he’s going to next. This is my last shot of him. He had completely relaxed when I shot this. I can’t even recall the conversation, but I do remember this last stare of his, and how it captured exactly the silent and powerfully positive feeling that he was going to land on his feet and with complete confidence.

With Jens, it was something so unique, and it’s a conversation I’ll always remember. He was the last person of the day to photograph at LucasArts. He stopped by as I was packing up, when there was nothing left outside the studio. Jens walked in and with a very Danish accent asked me if it was too late. I took one look at his eye shapes and his forehead, and said, “Nope!”

I contained my excitement to shoot his features. I knew that I would have trouble getting to know him quickly, since it was so late. I had just spent nine solid hours on my feet talking to and shooting intimate portraits of dozens of people. I also had a solid but fading wine and rye buzz, combined with the electric energy you have all day from doing all of the above. Jens also did not speak English as a first language, and my brain was rattling around with only a few weak pick-up lines to engage in conversation. I asked him where he’s from, and as soon as he said Copenhagen, Denmark, I had a conversation to shoot through. But this was nuts, because I had told him my only Copenhagen story of having a few beers near the main square, hearing a commotion, and leaving the bar to see a parade of punks that were in full expression of their culture. I followed them to an area that was the focus of a huge rally to save a legendary gathering place for the youth of Copenhagen. The shots from that rally in 2007, all with my M6, are some of my favorite images I’ve shot to date.

I had no understanding of the meaning behind that rally until I mentioned it to Jens. He went cold, and I asked if something was wrong. He went on to tell me the powerful story behind that rally, and how important it was. He was shocked to hear how connected I was to it, and was anxious to see all of the images from the hours I spent with the punks. I shot nearly 20 images of him as he told the story. To him, I was not standing there with my camera rolling off shots. He was someplace else in his head as he was telling me the story. It was at the conclusion of his narrative that I told him to look at me, and that is when I had to tell myself to stop shooting. His series of images is another of my personal favorites. My wife, Lisa, who helped me make my first round of selects, could not even help narrow down a select for Jens, so I had to go with the last image I shot of him.


Q: It is said that all humans, in their purely physical, visual aspect, bear the indelible mark of their state of being and even their life experience. This is why portraiture is such powerful and expressive genre. What is your feeling about this, and how do you know when a portrait you have created rises to the level of demonstrating that truth?

A: I’ve spent the last four years studying the entire collection of August Sander images. I first came to understand his body of work shortly after my daughter was born. I had just made the decision to sell off my motorcycles and focus on photography that was not street shooting.  My wife was happy that I would no longer threatened with having the crap beaten out of me for trying to capture the most amazing decisive moment it the history of man, that day.

Portraits took me off of the street, but my problem was finding people to shoot. When I got them in front of my lens, I struggled to capture who that person was looking at me through my camera. I knew what was missing, and it was being able to capture who that person was, and not what they looked like. It’s the eyes. I noticed in nearly all of Sander’s work, that the body was present, but the eyes seemed to pull you so deeply into each image that you felt that you know them, and that they wanted to tell you something.

It’s then that you start to study all of the decisions made in the portrait, not just how it was shot, but also what clothes the person decided to wear that day, and how they wear their hair, and on, and on into the finer details. It’s because of this, that in any of Sander’s images you can feel the slight sense of the shifting mood of 1930’s Germany. Each image by itself is a powerfully captures an individual, but together in a series they are all part of a tapestry, that when viewed as a whole presents that mood shift.

For my Lucasfilm portraits, they needed to do essentially what Sander accomplished. The only way to do that is to get to know each person. When I’m shooting, and I’m more interested in their story instead of the shot, that’s when I know that I’m going to produce a true portrait of that person.

Thank you for your time, Joel!

- Leica Internet Team

To read more of our interview with Joel, click here. Connect with Joel through his website or IMDB.