Today’s featured photographer and guest blogger is Appleton, Wisconsin based Brett Stoddart. He shoots abandoned buildings. He shoots people. Sometimes he combines the two. He is a husband. A father. A traveler. An art and music lover. He says he has a wicked sense of humor, albeit an odd one. Check out his blog. Follow him on Twitter and or friend him on Facebook.
Recently I wrote about my experiences exploring and shooting in abandoned buildings. These places offer a plethora of interesting and unique shooting experiences. There are ornate interior design elements of days gone by; from peeling paint to exposed lathe and plaster and even the occasional hideous wallpaper (hideous by today’s standards).
As photographers we are always searching out the next best location to shoot our clients, whether that is truly on location or a backdrop that has been procured to transform our interior shooting spaces to something they are not.
For me, the locations of choice have become those buildings that I so passionately explore. The grit, the grime, the decay; they have all become interesting elements in my portraiture.
I began my journey into portraiture at the urging of a friend and fellow photographer who also happened to be a model for many local merchants. Up until that point I was aiming a camera at another person or limited to your traditional snapshots at bars and parties. Now, I had practiced a little, I had studied, I kind of knew what was going on and I had watched others soaking it all up, but I never fully intended to become a portrait photographer. People scared me: they move, they talk. My buildings, not so much.
So it was with reluctance and great trepidation that I acquiesced.
A client and I drove out to a local farmhouse that had been abandoned for over 30 years, nearly empty of all remnants of human occupation. I set up my one light and softbox and shot that first frame. Wow. I was stunned. Who knew? The textures of the walls popped and at that moment I knew that I was on to something. We continued shooting and even went to a second location to shoot more. Three years later I still have 2 of the images from that day in my portfolio. Luck? Maybe.
Shooting on location always presents us with many challenges that we don’t have to worry about in-studio: the logistics of getting there, hauling everything in, powering it, set up and tear down, etc. Many location shooters have probably been told to ‘move along’ at some point in their career. It usually happens just when you’ve gotten into that groove and things are flowing nicely.
For me that is the risk 95% of the time when I shoot on location. Everyone wants their portraits at one of the abandoned buildings I shoot. But there are inherent risks in bringing a client into a structure that is not truly ‘safe’. In addition to potential structural damage, there could be health concerns, legal issues, and a myriad of risks that most people don’t have to contend with. I try to obtain permission whenever possible if I will be shooting clients in these places. I have no problem signing waivers of liability that prevent me from taking action if something were to happen while on their property. Having the necessary legal documents tends to show that I am serious and not just a random trespasser. I carry blank forms with me for just this reason and it always helps to carry a book of my work. But finding owners is not always easy and truth be told it is rare that I get a chance to obtain permission.
I mainly shoot models in these locations, however this year I started shooting high school seniors too. The demand was too high to ignore although I have a different set of criteria for suitable locations for each.
For seniors, I really go the ultra-safe route by going to places where I know that our being there won’t cause ‘trouble,’ or have de facto permission from owners. They are the ones that are structurally sound, free of the most common health risks and in general: safe. The associated risks and nature of location are always discussed in depth beforehand.
When I’m with models, we will take a few more chances. We will go to the locations that are riskier, but with that risk there is certainly reward. In my opinion, a place rarely seen greatly enhances the value of an image. Models also understand the risks associated with these shoots, and I would never put them – or anyone – into a particularly dangerous situation. But we definitely push the envelope.
I am not a natural light shooter, I use off-camera flash. I don’t like shooting natural light portraits; it doesn’t give me the drama I like to create and presents a whole other set of logistical nightmares. How do you ‘sneak’ into a building carrying 4 strobes, stands, modifiers, etc. and not be seen? Chances are you can’t.
I usually have a good idea going into the shoot of what type of images I want and that allows me to plan my gear accordingly. Very frequently it is just one light, one stand, and one modifier. Travel light, get in, shoot and get out. Also, I always like to know the location I will be using beforehand. I don’t like going into a fashion shoot location blind. It’s not safe for me or the models.
Whether I choose to take a model in a $5000 wedding dress to an abandoned gothic cathedral, or clothe her in heroin chic and stick her in a filthy corner of a nasty factory, there are options to compliment or even contrast the look we are going after. I am in love with the juxtaposition of classic beauty mixed in with the beauty of decay.
Sure I can take safe studio shots of models and composite them into my abundance of already shot images from locations, but that would take all the fun out of it, and I don’t like to continually be cooped up inside. I feel constant studio shooting drains me of creativity, although winter is approaching the Midwest faster than I would like.
Hmmm, maybe it is time to start to practicing those compositing skills … until next time, happy shooting and stay safe.[blogshow id=9d07 player=1 autoplay=0 toolbar=1]
Read thru and thru…beautiful images and the background of decay really offsets the classic beauty of these models and their outfits! Like the photog says the “juxtaposition” is truly striking. And he writes so well too!
Erin Watson says
Great post Brett!
Denver Engagement Photographer says
Love the images in the post. Really excellent stuff. Great abandoned locations as well. Good stuff.