A couple of months ago, I was approached by Mary Washington University’s Alumni Magazine to shoot the cover and 2-page inside spread of acclaimed New York City Beat Poet, Hettie Jones. The editor and I spoke at length about Hettie’s reluctance to be photographed and that even though I was being hired to do the assignment, she was not certain the piece would even run. Ah, a challenge! How do I win over Hettie and make her not only feel good about being photographed, but also have her look good. I was fortunate to schedule a call with Hettie and we had a great chat. She told me straight out that in all the years of being photographed, she’s hated pretty much every photo of her and much prefers being photographed on the street with her bicycle from afar rather than up close and personal. I mentioned that for the cover and inside spread how some nice environmental portraits of the artist in her workspace would really drive the piece home and and she agreed. It also worked out that she scheduled me to shoot on the same day as the writer would be visiting so as not to demand any more of her precious time.
I got to Hettie’s Bowery apartment building and carried my gear up the 4 narrow flights of stairs to her apartment where I was greeted with all 5 feet of her! I hadn’t accounted for my subject to be so, well vertically challenged, however I knew I would have to do my best to de-emphasize her stature as I wanted to portray this strong, powerful woman in all respects.
Hettie welcomed me in to her home that’s she’s lived in since the 1950’s. Sparse, yet tasteful decor with a very warm feel. This apartment is one of those drool-worthy spaces that location scouts would be all over, however considering how private Hettie is, it’s apparent that I was of the very few that made it across the threshold.
I noticed in her kitchen an incredibly stunning polaroid enlargement that turned out to have been shot in the early 70’s of her kids on their rooftop – which she also has exclusive access to. I toured around the apartment looking for different locations that may be suitable for the portraits. The skylight over the nook by the kitchen table, yes. The long narrow hallway with skylight, yes. The book case with antique lamp, yes. And then I saw her writing desk. Like a command center for someone who’s truly in command of their craft.
Hettie mentioned all of her concerns with being photographed and I took them to heart. I used a small shoot-thru umbrella on a boom to get nice soft light and balanced that with the ambient light in her apartment. We got into talking – about her craft, her kids, her career and she told the most amazing stories as well as read poems from her work and others.
I felt honored to have spent the afternoon with Hettie and thankfully she not only enjoyed the session, but she very much liked my photos. In fact, she told me that I’m the second photographer to ever have photographed her in a way she felt flattering. That was one of the best compliments ever and I felt I had done my job and risen to the challenge.
Please subscribe and leave your questions and comments below.