Sunday, November 29, 2020

Men in Hats, Part Three

Most of the images in the series, Men in Hats, are candids of friends, acquaintances, and passersby on the winding road of life. You may have noticed that most are of old people for obvious reasons. That’s my social set. But I have also done the occasional formal portrait session either on location or in the studio. Yes, I do have a professional set-up in Peggy’s studio, but it needs to be dusted off, re-assembled and relearned for the rare formal occasion. Come to think of it, my Profoto lights, soft boxes, Pocket Wizard transceivers and the rest of the gear were all acquired after taking a portrait lighting class with Alan Thornton at the Santa Fe Workshops a decade ago. I am an unapologetic gear slut. Thankfully, I bought the pricey Profoto strobes on Ebay so my cost per use is down to $500. There's an interesting sidebar about Thornton. After stints as a commercial photographer in Boston and Portland, OR he became a wilderness firefighter and shoots from the field for Getty Images. The man craves action. 

In Alan’s class, Lighting on Location, we used reflectors and Profoto units with an array of modifiers, most notably 4-foot soft boxes of which I have two. While we also dabbled with beauty dishes and grids in various combinations, I gravitate to the diffuse and forgiving softbox. I even use a small LumiQuest for my Speedlight. It's an easy to use, portable tool when I can't find open shade.

Beyond the bounty of gear afforded by the Santa Fe Workshops were a bevy of professional models. Donald Blake shown here is the most exemplary of them. Famed location photographer Joe Nally calls Donald his favorite model ever and he's photographed hundreds maybe thousands.

Upon Donald’s death a couple of years back Reid Callanan, the founder and owner of the Santa Fe Workshops, wrote that Blake had modeled for his organization for twenty years and that the school published a retrospective to commemorate his passing. In his commentary Callanan extoled Donald’s amazing grasp of the portrait-making craft and not just from the model’s perspective. Callanan suggested that Donald. “offered more insights and advice than many of our instructors.” I can attest to this. While I was making his portrait, he told me where to place the lights, what angle would work best, even the f-stop. He was unfailingly right.

Donald was recovering from a life-threatening illness at the time. He appeared frail but was 100% engaged. Since we were shooting in a recently abandoned hospital, we had ghoulish props aplenty. In fact, was sitting in a wheelchair between green walls when these were taken.

It's fitting that the first two photographs in the book, Donald, are by Joe McNally. It’s available from

This post was going to feature two professional models but I've changed my mind. Donald Blake must have his own post. JT, the self-proclaimed former street tough from Chicago can wait his turn. Whippersnapper.


Blacks Crossing said...

Your "Men in Hats" part three was the best literary offering in the group. The story of Donald Blake and his ability and willingness to direct the lighting and his own placement during photo shoots is amazing. I can see your experience in Alan Thornton's Portrait Lighting workshop also served you well as a model while we were photographing the Babb-Varianen wedding two years ago. As you know, being a great model requires either a natural talent, training, or a combination of both. A certain look helps as well and Donald Blake had it. You did him proud!

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