How Do You Collaborate to Create Real-Time Photo-Painting Portraits of Iconoclasts?
This article describes the fast-paced artistic collaboration between photographers, artists, and students to create portraits of this gifted mix of people, ranging from rising tech innovators to living national treasures, from the godfather of design thinking to wildlife photographers and winner of the international beatbox championship.
At the 2016 EG Conference in Carmel, California, I was a member of a volunteer creative team tasked with documenting the conference presenters; people described as “among the most industrious and iconoclastic talents of our time.”
To see all of the photo-painting portraits from the 2016 EG Conference, go to: http://bit.ly/EG-10-Portraits
Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Few collaborations between artists emerge by accident.
Through luck or cosmic design, the water from two or more separate creative streams suddenly end up rushing over the same rocks.
Other collaborations are carefully curated by some benevolent dictator or wise maven who declares: “You two should work together!”
Then there are those collaborations that swoop down — seemingly from nowhere — and snatch you up.
My recent collaboration with an accomplished portrait photographer (and friend) falls under this delightful final category.
Master photographer Asa Mathat has (by his own description ) no filter and no “off” switch.
Asa eats no sugar, nor imbibes caffeine. This, in and of itself, is impressive, because both his mouth and his body are in constant motion.
When he is working, he is in constant physical motion, adjusting drapes, clamps, poles, strobe lights, camera gear, schedules, assistants, and his favorite artistic subject, people.
His nonstop friendly verbal patter seesaws from lewd and licentious comments to stories about famous people he has photographed : Tibet’s Dali Lama, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, or our dearly departed Spirit of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs of Apple.
The day before the conference, Asa was at Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco photographing co-founder Jack Dorsey.
Side note: Twitter’s other co-founder Evan Williams is also co-founder of Medium ;)
Over the phone a few weeks before the conference, Asa sketched out his vision for our cooperation: a unique one for me, based on an idea that emerged during another photoshoot.
A few months prior, Asa was commissioned to photograph a young street artist, who emerged as a central figure of the 2011 Arab Spring.
He took the artist around the city of Seattle with his cameras and a sheet of plexiglass.
At each location, he instructed this young artist look at the scene and to draw what they saw. Not what is physically present, but what images, imaginations, visions, came from within. Then, using the clear plexiglass as a canvas, they drew over the urban landscape.
In his pitch to me on the phone, Asa said: “Yeah. I want to do something similar, but on two huge pieces of plexiglass. And for all 30 speakers at a 3-day conference.”
All of my anxiety sensors were glowing red. It sounded tricky to pull off. It sounded messy. It sounded hard.
Fortunately, whether on the phone or on the set, Asa is (to say the least) a very persuasive person. Consequently, I did not say “No.”
After a long cold, lonely winter in Chicago, I was desperate to collaborate with someone gutsy, fun, energetic, unafraid.
I wanted to work with Asa.
I mean, this is a guy who has a photo on his Facebook page of an 800-pound silverback gorilla nonchalantly strolling by him as he lay on his belly upon the jungle floor with his camera!
Since 2006, he has been the official portrait photographer for the EG Conference.
Created by Richard Saul Wurman, who also founded the TED & TEDMED conferences, the EG Conference — known as “e.g.” — is smaller in size, more intimate in venue, and nestled in the wooded hills and twisty lanes of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
Each year, for the speaker portraits, Asa aspires to create a different experience and conceptual filter for these people to express a different side of their personality.
For the 2016 conference, Asa invited me to be his collaborator for this experimental photoshoot. Unfortunately, I could only be there for two out of the three days.
Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, an energetic volunteer team emerged to help out: two instructors from the local US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, a talented Serbian cartoonist, and several super-smart, self-declared “non-artistic” high school volunteers from the NPS STEM Internship Program.
Together, we had a unique challenge, and none of us had done anything quite like it before.
Each portrait session required a four step process…
STEP 1: Interview
Briefly interview the subject of the portrait and try to pull out a visual theme, key word, symbol, or scene that sums up who they are and what is important to them and their work.
STEP 2: Ideate
As a team, quickly brainstorm, plan out, design, and paint a unique, multi-layered photo booth set to illustrate the person’s story. Super tricky because we needed to work with the photographer on what was possible.
STEP 3: Photoshoot
Photograph the person, often with some other challenge such as jumping off chairs, flinging water or paint, rolling plexiglass stands, hanging black drapery, swinging lights, or some other perilous piece of gear ready to reek havoc!
STEP 4: Reset the Studio
And then? Wash. Rinse. Wipe. And repeat. This had to happen 30+ times in 3 days.
The resulting portraits had an emotional range as diverse as the people at the center of the photograph.
Topics ranged from deadly serious (police brutality, surviving war and disability) to the magnificent (eagles in flight, blue whales) to pure joy (performers, families, survivors).
We all had to hustle like mad. We also had to learn when to fade into the background to allow Asa to work with, inspire, encourage, and manhandle the subjects of his photography.
We had to encourage these busy famous people to come to the ballet practice room we’d transformed into a hybrid black box theater meets paint studio and car wash.
It was quite a dance. And the results were pretty dang good.
When we began interviewing each presenter, they had either just witnessed the process performed on previous subjects or they had just walked in the room and had no clue what we were yammering about.
However, when they experienced the process and (more important) witnessed Asa’s final portrait, they were surprised. They were delighted.
And, they all said something to the effect of: “Wow. I have never done anything like that before!”
All of the years of photographing world leaders, refugee families, skater punks, battered women, people on the fringes of greatness or obscurity has taught Asa one skill for certain.
As he puts it:
“No matter what someone thinks of themselves, I know how to work together and give them an image they can feel proud of.”
After working with him on this crazy project, I can say another thing for certain, that dude Asa knows how to collaborate!
To see all of the photo-painting portraits from the 2016 EG Conference: http://bit.ly/EG-10-Portraits
To see more behind the scenes photos by Asa’s talented assistant Skyler Stanley, click here.
SPECIAL THANKS to the organizers of the EG Conference, specifically: Gordon Garb, Jane Rosch, and conference director Michael Hawley. And, as mentioned above, we could not have pulled this off without US Naval Postgraduate School faculty Warren Yu and Alison Kerr, and the high school students of the STEM Internships.