portraits of 52 strangers


Week 5: Tanner

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the wedding of my friend Stu to his lovely wife Kathryn. The wedding and reception took place in Asheboro, about three hours from where I live, which is one of the prettiest areas in North Carolina in the fall second only to the Appalachian Mountains in the western part of the state. On Saturday I drove out to Asheboro and attended the wedding ceremony at the local Presbyterian church and then moved on to the reception – hosted by the bride’s family – where I was seated with several longtime friends who I don’t get to see nearly as much as I would like. What followed was a lovely evening of food, fun and dancing and an opportunity to watch two talented wedding photographers at work.

Tanner & Brit

While at the wedding I was introduced to my friend Brittany’s boyfriend Tanner. What I like about this project is that not only am I meeting new people but that I am learning that I have things in common with people that I wouldn’t have known about had I not been asking for this blog. In Tanner’s case, we’re both Eagle scouts and that is something special. In scouting less than 2% of all scouts in the organization ever reach the top rank so meeting a fellow Eagle is a special thing and something to be cherished. Needless to say, I like the guy.

Come to find out, Tanner isn’t the only Eagle in his family. Both of his brothers have also reached that lofty goal which is extremely impressive. All three brothers also have the initials S.T. which led me to refer to them as the “Three Saints.”

Since Tanner is an outdoorsy sort of fellow I wanted to get some greenery in his portrait so we went over to a wall hanging on a nearby barn that was being lit from underneath by a blinding spot. Now I have to say that this is not my favorite portrait and I feel bad about it because I don’t think I did Tanner justice with it. Everyone was pretty shagged out after the awesome reception and I hurried through framing and lighting ( a single gelled flash at roughly his eye level) which left me with a less than satisfactory portrait. Converting it to black and white and punching up the contrast has redeemed it somewhat by giving it a grittier feel but it’s still far from my best work. Given the chance to reshoot this at the same time of day and location, I would move it inside so I had more available light to play with. However, I’m not going to have that chance anytime soon. C’est la vie!

Stranger #5: Tanner


Week 4: Karen

This past week found me pretty busy between prepping for a charity event, doing a headshot session downtown and finishing a commercial contract with my old employer, Carolina Blueberry. All this activity left me with little time for searching for a new stranger. As luck would have it, a friend of a relative and a regular reader of this blog got in touch with my family member and asked to be involved as a stranger. Normally I wouldn’t do requests however I’ve been wanting to meet this individual for a while so I made the arrangements.

K&W Logo

On Friday morning I headed out to the local K&W to meet my new stranger and other local artists for a quick breakfast. I sat down with the aforementioned family member, local fabric collage artist Betsy Perkins, and my stranger for this week: Karen Carter. The four of us sat down and had a nice breakfast while discussing a few art-related topics as well as the blog itself. Seeing as all the ladies are readers I had little to explain outside of what motivated me to begin this fifty-two week project. After breakfast we headed outside to do Karen’s portrait. However, before I get into that let me tell you a little bit about Karen.

Karen is a fiber artist and quilter originally from the Burgaw, NC area. Born and raised on a farm in Pender Co., Karen grew up learning to work with fabric so as to fashion clothing for the family. Over the course of her life Karen has owned her own specialty fabric store and has been a traveling instructor for Pfaff sewing machines. Her collection of fabrics and tools has grown so much over the years that she has forced herself to ascribe to the mantra: “Use what you have.” As a photographer who always wants the latest and greatest lens, light and camera body I can totally understand where she’s coming from!

When we went outside for her portrait it was still early in the morning so the sun was fairly low in the sky so the shadows were not very strong and the light wasn’t very contrasty. Seeing as Karen is an avid gardener I chose to set her up on one of the raised flower beds outside the cafeteria and snap away. The light was even front to back – more or less – so I didn’t need a reflector or a flash this time. The sun coming from camera right meant that there would be few reflections in Karen’s glasses and little risk of lens flare. The light in this portrait is a little flat for my tastes. As anyone who has seen my body of work can tell you I like shadows. Focus-wise, it also seems a bit soft to me and I cannot figure out why. It may be time to send in my lenses to have them recalibrated. Overall, a good portrait but it lacks the “oomph” of some of my previous works.

Karen Carter

Karen Carter

Week 3: Dr. Clint

This summer and fall have seen me go to new places in a familiar town and have introduced me to plenty of new and interesting people. As some of you know I tag along with one of the local judicial candidates – Robin Wicks Robinson – and document her campaign and the people she meets along the way. Through working on the campaign I have met a WWII bomber crewman, several compelling local political figures and now my third stranger: Dr. Clint Meyer.

This past week I accompanied Robin and Jackie to a meet and greet at a home on the sound here in Wilmington. It is – in my opinion – one of the best homes I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. The architecture is modern and slick yet still very cozy and the back yard is…well it is the back yard of my wildest dreams. Not only is it massive but the arrangement of the surrounding trees and hedges makes it quite possibly the perfect green space to take portraits in the two hours following dawn and leading up to sunset. You heard me right: I have yard envy. But enough about the greenspace of my dreams, I have a stranger to talk about.

Dr. Clint Meyer – and his wife Kathy – were our hosts for the evening’s meet and greet with Robin. The evening was very fun and, I’m sure, informative for all of the guests. It was also very enlightening for me. From the beginning of the evening Dr. Meyer and I talked off and on about photography, starting with the very obvious camera in my hands. As the evening wore on and we got more comfortable with each other we delved into more talk of photography and Dr. Meyer’s love: painting.

Dog artCome to find out, Dr. Meyer – a specialist in gastroenterology- is himself a photographer, having studied the art in college. Now he uses what he learned in college to capture images that he wishes to paint later. I was fascinated by his paintings, all of which I believe were oil, and particularly his use of color and composition to draw the eye to the details he wanted you to see. Being able to see lines and how they draw your attention to objects in an image is something I’m still working to be consciously aware of. We also – after having done his stranger portrait – poured over some of his black and white photography work from the 60’s and 70’s, all of which was really, really impressive. I think I’ve found new inspiration for my B&W work in his older pieces of street photography.

Upon showing me his in-home studio, I knew I had to make the good doctor my third stranger so after taking a few quick snapshots for Robin, I asked him if I could do a more formal portrait with him for use in this project. Obviously – since you’re reading this – he said yes. So with the help of my faithful buddy and sometimes model, Jackie, I set up in the studio to take the doctor’s portrait.

This shot was going to be more complicated than my previous two portraits for a few reasons: 1) It was after sunset and despite the large windows in the home we had no natural light; 2) It was indoors and the lights in the house were setup in such a way that I could not just click the shutter and expose the foreground and background evenly; and 3) The lights in the house are tungsten (read: orange) lights which do not match the color of a flash bulb, a problem I would run into in post production.

I had Dr. Meyer take a seat in his studio with his easel behind him displaying one of his waterfront paintings and had Jackie hold my flash which was connected to the camera via an E-TTL cable. On the flash head I placed a Lumiquest II softbox, a light modifier I rarely use because of its size and ugly appearance. This time, however, it did what I needed it to. After balancing my flash and ambient exposures and getting the flash in the right spot (to hide a flash reflection cast on the window behind Dr. Meyer).


Dr. Clint Meyer

Dr. Clint Meyer


I really enjoyed talking with Dr. Meyer and learning about his artwork. I hope in the future he and I can talk more about the art of photography. Maybe we can each learn something from the other.

Week 2: Gibbi the Homeless Guitarist

Week two brought with it crazy rain that kept myself and most people in Southeastern North Carolina from going outside much. Though I did get to go out on Tuesday night for a date with local blogger and social media guru Sarah Barbee, writer of 52 Squires in a Year. I’d go into the details of the date here, except I want you to go check out Sarah’s blog. Suffice to say: we had fun and may collaborate on some acrylic transfers in the future. The week also saw me heading out into the rain to attend the Dirty Martini’s September Networking Social. I met a lot of cool people there that night ranging from graphic artists to hairstylists and even two awesome massage and pain relief specialists who helped me get my marketing groove on.

Despite all the interesting people I met, I didn’t find my stranger until Saturday. After an aborted attempt to do a portrait of a fire fighter in Castle Hayne (very politely declined) I headed downtown to the Wilmington Riverfest once again with good buddy Jackie at my side. She was there on behalf of a local campaign she’s managing and I was there to continue the search for my second stranger. And let me tell you, there were a lot of choices. We had people with giant dogs (one Great Dane and two Bernese Mountain dogs), people dressed as pirates, an old fella who could and would boogie to the local bands, and cops and vendors a plenty.

Stranger + Entourage

One person stuck out to me though, partly because of his super loud yellow shirt and green bandana and partly because this young guy had himself attracted a small following. Jackie and I passed him by twice while I decided whether or not I was going to ask to do his portrait. It took a little nudging from my trusty companion but I did it and after taking an establishing shot of the young guitarist, I swung up to introduce myself to him and his entourage.

I told the brightly-dressed musician a little about the blog and the strange year project and asked if I could feature him as the stranger for week 2. He was very happy to oblige. A little internet publicity could go a long way. I asked him to back up a bit to the fountain a few feet behind him and he started rocking out while I snapped a few quick pictures. The lighting was waaaaaay bright but even and largely shadowless thanks to the great fluffy white cloud cover we had that weekend. Overall, I’m not as happy with the photographic outcome of this shoot as I was with last week’s but that’s only because I didn’t take the time to do a posed shot and instead opted for a performance shot. But enough about the technical stuff, what you want is to know, “Who was this guy?”

His name is Gibbi, short for Gibson and he is a traveling, homeless guitarist. He’s 23 and has been out on his own since he was 13, travelling the country and playing music for the masses. He’s good – whether he’s rocking the Stones or Gaga he does so with confidence and skill – and from the photos I got of him you can see how passionate he is about his craft. When he plays, he really gets into it. I really should have asked if he knew any Andy McKee. It would’ve been a trip to see this very hip looking guy playing some awesome finger-picking classical guitar. I hope he comes around to Wilmington again so I can get him in front of my camera one more time.

Gibbi the Homeless Guitarist

Gibbi the Homeless Guitarist

Week 1: Pam

Image Courtesy of WWAY.com

See Spot Swim, Swim Spot Swim!

This weekend I tagged along with my good friend (Jackie) and her mother (Cheryl) to the North Carolina Spot Festival. There was music, crafts, kids amusements (bouncy castles and the like) and of course lots and lots of spot. The spot, if you don’t already know, is a fish. This is what Wikipedia has to say about it:

The spot croaker or simply spot (Leiostomus xanthurus) is a small saltwater fish. The species inhabits estuary and coastal waters from Massachusetts to Texas, and derives its name from the prominent dark spot behind each gill. It is the only species in the genus Leiostomus. Spot are frequently caught by recreational anglers and make excellent table fare.

Now I’m not a seafood person so I can’t tell you much about spot but what I can tell you is that this bony little fish is pretty popular at the festival held in its honor. I overheard that over 2,000 spot dinners were sold in the course of a single day! That, my friends, is a lot of fish.

The Tea Table

On Sunday, Jackie, Cheryl and myself volunteered at the spot dinner tent along with Pam Stringer, priest of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Hampstead, NC. The four of us served up sweet tea – the wine of the South – to the overheated masses from 11 AM until about 3:30 PM. I’m guessing we must have filled at least 1,000 cups of tea and water in that period.

As we were working I asked Pam if we could take a minute to do a portrait of her for this project. She was happy to contribute so when we had a lull in tea sales, we stepped outside our tent and onto the parade ground. Now since Pam is a priest I wanted to do a portrait with not just her but other people as well. Thankfully we had a crowd to use as a backdrop. The lighting was nice, soft and perfect. A storm front was moving into the area and thick grey clouds had evened out the light and made it perfect for outdoor photos. The shoot took all of 2 minutes and came out beautifully, if I say so myself, but I’ll let my readers be the judge of that.

Pam, Stranger #1

Mother Pam

After taking the portrait, Pam and I ducked back into the tent to resume our tea slinging duties. While there I asked her what was one fact she thought people should know about her, she had to think. What she came back to me with was pretty cool: Of all her father’s children (her father was also a priest) she was the only one to follow him into the priesthood, her three younger brothers pursued other careers. She also spent twelve years as a physical therapist because, when she got out of college, women could not yet be ordained as priests.

I really enjoyed my first week of a strange year and if the remaining 51 weeks are anything like the first one, I’m in for a good time!

The Rules

Tough Cop

Follow the rules...

A project needs to have guidelines, rules, etc. if it’s going to work. These rules have been developed to help me meet my goals. I will try to follow these rules as much as possible but I recognize that even now I’m going to have to break a rule on occasion just to meet the goal of photographing a new stranger each week.

Here be the rules of the a strange year. . .:

  1. One stranger*, one photo per week for 52 weeks. Barring dire emergencies I need to create a portrait of one person per week, every week for a year. The stranger I am photographing must be aware that I am taking their photo, have given their consent, and have told me something about them that I can put on my blog.
  2. A card in the hand is worth two in the pocket. Each person I photograph will be given a little business card. The card will have the name of the blog, the address, and the person’s week number. That way when they go to the blog they know exactly what post to look for.
  3. Catch and release. Be quick. I don’t want to take up anyone’s time. One of my goals is to get faster at this whole process, like, NYT’s photojournalist fast. Introduce myself to a stranger, give a rundown of the project, ask them if they want to participate. If Yes, do a quick portrait, ask for a quick fact, thank them for their time, give them a blog card, move on.
  4. Referrals are ok, meeting before the portrait is not. If a friend knows someone who wants to participate they are welcome to schedule a meetup with me. However I cannot and will not meet any strangers before taking photos of them. If we have a cup of coffee and then do a portrait a few days later, we’re no longer strangers.
  5. No means no! If a stranger doesn’t want to participate in this project, smile, thank them for their time, encourage them to check out the blog anyway and move on. If my subject is uncomfortable then I’m not going to enjoy creating their portrait and I want this to be FUN!
  6. Copyright. Like with all of my images, I retain the copyrights and participants will be notified of that before I take any photos.

*Strangers are defined as individuals to whom I have not been introduced before. They can be introduced to me by friends, colleagues, etc.

The Inaugural Address

Here it is! My first 52 week project. The purpose of this blog – titled a strange year. . . – is to get me out into Wilmington, working on my skills as a photojournalist specifically improving my environmental portraiture. For a year, starting October 4th, I will create one portrait of a stranger per week and post it to this blog along with my story of how the photo was taken, technical details about the photo (time, camera settings, lighting, etc.), and a little something about the stranger I met and photographed.

Why do this? Well besides the previously stated desire to improve my technical skills I want to meet people. I figure that meeting and photographing 52 strangers over the course of the year will – if nothing else – introduce me to 52 cool people I never knew before. I will expand my social circle, create interesting portraits for people I have never met before, and by the end of the year have many interesting stories to tell.

This project is also a serious challenge to me for two reasons:

  1. I’ve never done street photography before. I’ve never really been comfortable just walking up to a random person and asking to take their photo. There is a certain amount of anxiety there that has kept me from doing that before and I’ve finally decided that I need to get over that. Being able to work with complete strangers comfortably will likewise increase my confidence with future clients and anyone I need to photograph for a freelance assignment.
  2. Street photography is – technically speaking – a challenge for me. I am a studio photographer; I am most comfortable in a setting where I control all the variables: the light, the backdrop, the props, the pose. In street photography I only have the luxury of controlling the pose and, to a certain degree, the backdrop. For lighting I can only rely on what the environment provides plus a single flash (maybe). This will force me to work with what I’m handed rather than what I own which is a situation I will have to deal with often when on assignments. You can’t always drag along 100lbs. of studio lighting to every shoot. Sometimes it’s just you, the subject and the Sun.

It’s going to be an adventure and one I very much look forward to. So without further ado, sit back, relax and enjoy what I hope will prove to be a wonderful, exciting year; a strange year. . .