On the Job: The Stand-in

Nate Seltenrich, Oakland writer, inside Terrapin Crossroads

Hey, Tim, I’m often asked, what’s the secret to killer lighting? (Really, it happens all the time).

They’re thinking I’m going to say expensive Swedish strobes (got ’em) or compact, go-anywhere Nikon speedlights (got those, too) or even a hand-painted, Avedonish backdrop like Annie uses (don’t have that).

John Truong, photographer, in front of the Lark Theater

Wrong. Wrong. And wronger.

What I tell them is this: The secret to killer lighting is a stand-in — someone to be in front of the camera while you fiddle with the power or feather the softbox or pile sandbags on the stands because you’re doing an outdoor shoot in gale-force winds.

Sometimes the stand-in can be an assistant, someone you’re actually paying, such as photographer John Truong, left, posing with the Lark Theater behind him in preparation for a shot of the movie-house’s owner (here’s the final shot).

Other times the stand-in might be a writer you’re on assignment with, such as Nate Seltenrich of Oakland, above, who occupied the velvet couch for me inside Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael while we waited for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his wife, Jill. (Writers are generally less thrilled about standing in than assistants.)

Oftentimes, the stand-in might be a somewhat reluctant PR person (whom I won’t show for fear of losing future favor) or and even more reluctant spouse (ditto).

Who the stand-in is really doesn’t matter as long as they have the patience to hang in there until you get the lighting just right — that is, killer — so when the actual subject shows up (often someone with no patience whatsoever) you can make his or her picture straight off just like the professional you are.


On the Job: Bernice Baeza: 1943-2012

Bernice Baeza, photographed in April 2011 outside the Lark Theater in Larkspur for Marin Magazine.

Bernice Baeza was sticky, meaning you only had to meet her for a few minutes, like I did, and she’d stick in your mind for long time.

At least that’s how she was for me. I photographed Bernice in April 2011 outside the Lark Theater in Larkspur for Marin Magazine. The magazine was writing about her successful resurrection of the moribund movie-house into a thriving community center that not only showed first-run and classic movies, but filled its seats with Oscar parties, simulcasts of opera and London theater and a long list of other events. When we met, she had just undertaken a similar project with a shuttered movie theater in Novato.

Bernice died on July 21, of lung cancer, the paper said. Nothing could have surprised me more. Was she sick when I made this photograph? She certainly didn’t seem so — although a disease as relentlessly deadly as lung cancer surely had to have been at work in the background then.

My first impression of her on the April evening was how un-Marin she was. The way she stood, solid and occupying her ground. The way she spoke, gently but directly. The way she dressed, dark even on this warm Spring night. All said New York, not Marin.

We chatted as I fussed with the lights and waited for the sky to darken so I could get the colorful neon of the Lark just right in the background, and I learned she was indeed a New Yorker. I told her a story about incident in my misspent youth when I rolled a car on the thruway near her birthplace of Nyack. She smiled knowingly and I thought we had a bond.

But maybe not. Maybe that’s just how she made everyone feel, welcome and worthy. Whatever it was, she stuck. I wish I had known her better. (Her family is maintaining her Facebook page.)

California Dreamin’ (Marin County style)

Novato and Fairfax theaters

Lots of work this month with little time to write, but I want to share some of the images I made for the August issue of Marin Magazine and its annual Editors Choice awards. The package featured a perfect day in each Marin community, from Sausalito to Novato to Point Reyes Stations. I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph the entire series. Click on the image above for a quick slideshow (and a bit of California dreamin’ on this summer’s day.)

As always, my photos are for sale. If you just MUST have a print of the Novato or Fairfax theaters on your wall, or any of others from the series, visit my Pictopia gallery.

Thanks for looking.