Friday afternoon in Baltimore, Maryland and 6 of us from the MEMPHIS tour set out to a warehouse in the Baltimore Arts District for an afternoon of dance, photography, and fun. As it turns out, it ended up being that and so much more; a great experience in a really cool venue with some amazing people…
The ‘graffiti warehouse‘ here in Baltimore is a place I found online a few years back, and at the time wanted to go photograph it, but never found the time. This time through I thought would be a great place for some dance photography, contacted the owner, and arranged for access to the space for a few hours. Boy was I right. This place is INSANE.
A self-proclaimed part of the “underground street art” scene here in Baltimore, it serves as a haven of sorts for street artists of all types. As the name implies, it’s an old warehouse (and former car dealership) that has been covered with street art. From regular spray paint based graffiti to large-scale prints of photographs and digitally printed art pasted on the walls there was something different around every corner of this building. We were basically given free-run of the building for 5 hours on Friday and definitely took advantage of a few areas throughout this massive building.
The highlight of this place is the graffiti alley in the back. Offered up as a safe haven for graffiti and street artists in the community to share their art without any threat, this alley has been covered with a myriad of colors shapes and textures as red brick, grey cinderblock, black asphalt, tan mortar, and even the once blue trash dumpster have been covered by layer upon layer of color. Initially taken aback at the task of competing with daylight in this alley armed only with a few small speedlights, (Nikon SB900’s to be precise) I decided to look elsewhere in the space to begin with.
A few days prior to the Friday photo-shoot, Todd, (the MEMPHIS tour’s Head of the Audio Department and fellow photographer) and I went to the warehouse to do some reconaissance and get some ideas for photos with a few dancers from the show. After considering the timeframe that we would have at the warehouse, we decided on 4 locations. As it turns out, 4 were a bit much and we never did make it into the alley at the end of the day. Thankfully the first 3 locations on the list were incredible.
Having passed on the alley because the light was a bit too extreme to try and overpower with the army of AA batteries that I brought with, we headed for the one location where the sun would prove to be even more of a challenge, as I knew that I wanted photographs of Jarvis, Justin, Whitney and Chelsey on the roof of the warehouse. Thankfully it proved to be a gamble well worth taking as we decided taking our gear to the top and working our way down would be much easier than traipsing all around the building without any order.
I should digress for a moment to say how amazing it was that Chelsey, Jarvis, Justin and Whitney joined me for the day. It was an absolute thrill to have such talented people as the subject of these photos. Their incredible talent and skill is evident in the photos, however their incredible patience may not be, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I was able to get to know four extremely talented and unique dancers through the lens of my camera, and in doing so I was able to make and capture a connection in hundreds of photos we made throughout day.
In addition to the amazing talents of these incredible dancers, the day would have been a complete bust if it weren’t for the help of Todd, the head of our sound department on the MEMPHIS tour, and a photographer in his own right. Todd managed not only to keep me on my toes throughout the day, but also was indispensible in helping me schlep gear throughout the 5 stories of this warehouse. Somehow in doing all of that Todd also somehow managed to share some photographic insight and snap a few hundred photos himself. Needless to say, without these five people this day of photography would have never happened, and I am extremely grateful that they were all a part of it.
With that all being said, we start our day on the roof. Atop this 5 story warehouse was a small green-house-esque structure that housed the roof access stairs. Built of brick and mortar, the wood floor and green stairs, railings, and drainage pipe contrasted with the rusty red of the roof beams and ended up giving this room a nice feel. This was the smallest space that we photographed in all day, and it actually proved a very useful tool to make something interesting happen with the extremely harsh and direct sunlight. The hut was roughly 10’ tall, and had a clear (but dirty) corrugated plastic roofing material set atop the brick walls. This material allowed the sun to penetrate enough to cast amazing shadows of the support beams on the floor, stairs and the back wall of the room, creating an amazing atmosphere in this tiny space. With the addition of four flashes clamped around the room, I was able to fill the shadows and push the light level inside the room to make the photos just a bit more dramatic in the camera than they were to the naked eye. We made some truly incredible photos in this little roof-top-hut, but they just got better when we added props.
Scattered around the odd little room we found a few props left by god knows who doing god knows what. An orange plastic children’s chair that spent most of the day propping the door open, the broken down floor lamp sat in the corner and a green plastic folding chair lovingly decorated with spray-paint and markers sat around decorating a few photos from the day. A broken down old chair made for an amazing dance partner for Whitney, however the highlight of the props we found was this incredible gold painted frame. I am still tempted to drive back and try to buy this frame from the owner of the warehouse. It added that one extra dimension to the photos that we used it in and made it one of my favorite found objects of the day, and one of the best decorative and at times compositional elements in the rooftop photos.
After almost two hours shooting photos in this room, and trying to reinvent what we were doing in it with each different person, we decided it was time to move. Before doing so however, I wanted to catch Jarvis on the rooftop. He was messing around earlier behind me in a quick iPhone photo shoot, and I wanted to get a few photos of their idea myself. Posed on the uphill slope of the roof, with parts of Baltimore behind him and the clear blue sky as the backdrop, Jarvis donned Chelsey’s green dress and a green knit hat and we started to create some incredible photos. Todd graciously grabbed the softbox from in the hut, and we added a third SB900 to it and closed off the outer layer of diffusion. With Todd juggling the softbox and the three battery packs connected to the flashes, we were able to squeeze it in as close as possible to pull every last joule out of the three flashes at full power. The sun provided an incredible rim light highlighting the edge of Jarvis beautifully and the flashes were only there to fill in the shadow, and boy did they. These were by far some of my favorite photos of the day, and they were almost an after thought between moving from the roof top hut to the next location.
After the impromptu shoot with Jarvis on the edge of the roof, we headed in and down 2 flights into one of the closed off studio sections of the building, in which was this amazing window. I have always been enamored of these enormous single pained warehouse windows. A wall of light in which someone could so easily play and dance and it would look stunning. The one part I was forgetting was that this single pane of glass reflects light like a mirror, and boy did it do just that. Thankfully Chelsey was extremely patient, and understanding as I danced with light stands and moved around the room trying to find a lens and angle combination in which there weren’t big white reflections around her. I finally found something that I could work with, and keep the reflections out of the way enough to make my new favorite composite image for the dance section of my portfolio.
Next I tried pulling the subject away from the big mirror like surface, thinking that if I didn’t point the lights AT the mirror it might not reflect as badly. I took two strip light soft boxes and made an alley of side light, completely twisted away from the glass and towards Chelsey, with the octagon shaped softbox about 10’ overhead and boomed almost above her to add just a bit of fill light from above, I was able to come up with this really cool, almost behind the scenes image. Again, one of my favorites, and one where the idea reminds me a lot of a guest post on strobist.com about the fake reality of portraits and how Brad Trent of damn ugly photography created them. Mind you, these are much less exciting and much less powerful than the ones included in that article, but working with the ‘small’ battery powered flashes that I have it still shows the artificiality of how the image was made is interesting to me.
On to the main floor of the building, the assumed car dealership show room floor, where Justin’s brilliant idea of a tower of broken down speakers, assisted by a blue backlight, and a thin layer of haze in the air made for some really REALLY fun portraits. Justin donned his tap shoes and was dancing on and off of the speakers and this amazing blue chair that we found. I wish I could take credit for the speaker idea, but that one was all Justin, and I have the photos to prove it. ) This room with it’s graffiti canvasses hanging over the windows and from the ceiling beams was the perfect place to end the day and cool down. Took quite a few photos of Justin here and ended with a few of Whitney as well, making what I have dubbed her 1980’s Disney Chanel headshot. As I mentioned before we never did make it into the alley, but we did manage to create some incredible photos in this amazing location. Lots of fun with strobe lights right here in Baltimore, MD the back yard of the strobist himself. Be sure to check out my photo of the day blog at www.dswalecphoto.com/365 for more updates throughout the year 2012.
Click on the gallery below to view even more photos!