It was my good fortune recently to be given an assignment to photograph veteran jazz pianist Emery Smith at his home in Hartford’s Blue Hills neighborhood. The assignment requested a portrait of Mr. Smith to go with a story running April 22 in the Arts section in advance of his appearance in the Baby Grand Piano series at the Hartford Public Library on April 29. Upon my arrival at his modest Cape on a quiet street, I had to knock a few times before he heard me since he was inside playing piano at the time. When he came to the door, he greeted me warmly and invited me in. I asked him where his piano was. He led me to a small room where his baby grand sat snuggly surrounded by shelves of books, knick knacks, and stereo equipment. Although the assignment asked for a portrait, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sitting down to play while I took pictures. I don’t necessarily think a portrait has to have the subject sitting staring into the lens. Some of the best portraits capture the subject working their craft. Smith willingly obliged and as I began setting up lights he started playing a string of jazz numbers that delighted and soothed me as I worked. The room was a challenge, and its cramped space left me little room to work with. I tried several angles to see what worked best. The problem: how to eliminate some of the room clutter to make Smith stand out without losing all the ambiance. I started with one light with a small soft box on the other side of the room. I liked the way the light skimmed Smith’s face and lit his hands, but I would need a higher angle to avoid my light.
I started moving the light back toward the side wall to get better illumination on Smith’s face, but lost light on his hands in the process. In order to avoid the bookshelves behind his head, I had to take a lower vantage point, but still needed to move the light back further behind the piano top.
Now the soft box was hidden, but it was illuminating the rest of the room too much. And I still had to add light to Smith’s hands.
I added a second light fitted with a grid and a snoot to direct the light onto Smith’s hands. As it was, I was shooting from a tight corner with no room to maneuver, and I had to place the light just to my right, up against the wall. I wanted the viewer’s eye to go to Smith’s face and hands, rather than to the surroundings. I also thought darker tones would better fit the subject, since when I think of jazz, I think of a dimly lit, smoky room. But there was still too much light spilling into the room from the soft box, now at a 90 degree angle to Smith.
By replacing the softbox on my main light with a snoot, I was able to achieve the effect I was looking for, highlighting Smith’s face and hands in a dramatic way, while leaving hints of his environment. An hour and several adjustments later, I had my shot – serenaded the entire time with Smith’s silky tunes.
Once I had my shot, I asked Smith to pose for a more traditional portrait in case it worked better with the story. At the very least, it would be good to have for our files.
Working in tight spaces can be challenging, but with perseverance and trial and error, problems can be solved.