Ben Zucker Interview: How to Capture the Best Environmental Portraits

Ben Zucker

With portrait photography being one of the most viewed and captured around the world, environmental photography has been a new niche carved. Ben Zucker a name that has devoured this field is interviewed exclusively by PhotoWhoa.

E.B. White, one of the most studious writers that has ever lived (he co-wrote “Elements of Style” but is best know for “Charlotte’s Web”), once remarked that, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” Of course, Mr. White was only slightly exaggerating. The New Yorker has never been known for taking things casually. Their copy desk, like the content and the artists they’ve asked to contribute, has always sought exactitude. They know good work rarely comes easily.

So when they call, it’s probably best if you pick up and listen. New York photographer Ben Zucker did just that. Having met one of their photo editors while assisting years before, Zucker was asked to contribute for their recent Journeys issue. Zucker seemed to fit the part exactly. They were looking for a strange way to see NYC, and he was known for being adventurous, and as an avid sailor, he could photograph the city from its seldom-seen-from waterways. Never intimidated, Zucker accepted and, at 24, is well on his way to proving that The New Yorker always discovers the greatest talent.

In this interview, Zucker talks about his feature in The New Yorker, explains how he crafts environmental portraits, and reveals some secrets about finding work in New York City.

environmental portraits

Unrelated to photography, but crucial for our readers, I must start by saying that you have a great narrating voice – NPR? – if, indeed, that was actually you speaking in your recent New Yorker feature. Anyway, how did you get your start in photography? How would you describe your work?

Thanks. The New Yorker story on sailing was my audio debut, and it was fun to work on. I like to think it takes the viewer one step closer to having been out on the boat that day. Whenever I tell a story I really try to think about what happened, remember it and tell the story from there. I hate hearing stories when someone is just “pressing play” on a script they have in their head. I’ll give you the nutshell version of how I got interested in photography. In high school, I was really more interested in making silver prints in the darkroom than in the shooting any aspect of photography. I had a couple of after school jobs that were photo-related as well. I worked at a photo lab and at an art gallery, which allowed me to save up some cash for film. One of the first things I focused on shooting was skiing. In high school I started shooting with some good athletes. I was able to graduate from high school a semester early moved out to Utah to focus on shooting skiing for a winter. After that, I moved to NYC to study photography. I soon realized that I really enjoyed shooting portraits more than skiing. I would say that in the last year of school I began to approach photography with a similar sensibility to as I do now. After I was done with school I began assisting. I mostly assisted two photographers. One-shot editorial portraits and the other was a celebrity portrait guy, but none in the environmental portraits genre. All this time I was also shooting personal work for myself. Eventually, I started getting my own shoots and tapered off the assisting. That’s the quick version of it….

New Yorker story

About that feature, how did it come about? Did you pull any strings? How did you get your name in their radar?

The New Yorker shoot on Sailing was a fantastic assignment! I really enjoyed working on it. I didn’t “pull any strings.” The New Yorker photo editor contacted me with the idea for this story. The way I got on her radar may have been a little out of the ordinary. I knew her from assisting in years past. We hadn’t been in touch, but followed each other on Instagram. I sent her a promo a few months ago and she had me come in to show my portfolio to her and another photo editor. From Instagram, my portfolio and conversation, they learned that I was into sailing and had a sailboat in City Island. They wanted to do a story about sailing in New York City in conjunction with their “Journeys” issue. I was the right guy for the job given my interests and experience with sailing.

portfolio

Looking through your portfolio and blog, it’s easy to see your attraction to environmental portraits. What’s the attraction to this kind of portrait to you? Is it a matter of helping the viewer understand the person better?

I think a well executed environmental portrait can really help to tell a story, in a way that just shooting the person in the studio or just shooting the environment cannot. And I don’t necessarily mean “story” in a linear sense. I think when its done right you get a gut feeling of the experience, the person, and the place. So, yes, sometimes environmental portraits help to give a better glimpse of the person, but sometimes of the place, and the experience too.

attraction to environmental

For instance, this one from Sudbury includes a dummy that communicates to the viewer a sense of absurd loneliness – not altogether joyless, nor altogether bearable. Was that a conscious decision you made to include the dummy?

It was definitely an intentional decision to include the dummy. I didn’t move anything in the frame other than having the fireman sit there. I think it comes back to trusting your gut feelings. I can definitely see the way you described it; how the the feeling of absurd loneliness could come across. There is also a humorous element at the same time. What each viewer feels is different, even if we are all reacting to the same visual cues.

intentional decision

In regards to technique, how do you go about making an environmental portrait, versus a studio one? I assume you have to spend more time with the person, right? What’s your first step in pre-production, exactly?

Its funny you should bring up time, sometimes I will have hours with a person and sometimes just a couple of minutes. But here is my step by step (and a lot of this definitely applies to how I work in the studio as well). First, I figure out who I want to shoot. Sometimes if I am on assignment, it’s not my choice. Trust your gut. So many times I have seen someone and thought to myself, “I have to take their portrait.” You just know. You can picture the shot you want in your mind’s eye. When I shoot an environmental portrait, the location has to relate to the subject as well. Sometimes this can be as simple as shooting where I came across them. Other times it’s in their home or where they work. If the subject has passions or eccentricities, sometimes the location will relate to that.

environmental portrait

Next, I’ll usually frame up the shot and figure out the angle and composition; what should and should not be in the frame. Usually, I light things with strobe, and this is when I start shooting test shots or Polaroids (if I’m shooting film) to judge the lighting and composition. At this point I’m usually shooting my assistant as a stand in. Once all of that is ironed out, the subject will get in front of the camera. The interaction with the subject while shooting them is super important; it really changes the way someone carries themselves in an image. So many things can influence the way they come across: what and how much you say to them, your energy, how fast or slow you’re shooting, and if you are alone with them or they are surrounded by people and equipment. When shooting a portrait so many considerations are bouncing around in the back of my mind.

shooting film

Usually I know when “I’ve got it” and stop shooting. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it takes longer. After some time has passed I will go through the images and figure out my selects. This really lets you decide how you are going to show the person that you shot, because inevitably you have a range of different expressions and feelings expressed in the various images. I then work with a retoucher. We do the color and any retouching that is needed. Usually the retouching is very, very light. And that’s how I go about it.

happens quickly

Back to Sudbury, I really like it. How did you meet all these people? Walking around? Through friends?

So this is how Sudbury came about. I was in New York, feeling a little restless and wanting to go somewhere I had never been. Eventually, I decided I would just open up Google maps and zoom the screen to show a drivable radius from NYC. I closed my eyes and just put my finger on the Screen. It ended up on Sudbury. I made a conscious decision not to research the town and just to try and learn about it when I was there from what I saw and whom I spoke with. So I ended driving up there. I didn’t have plans to make a body of work out of it, initially. But I did bring my gear and shot some environmental portraits. I ended up going to Sudbury a number of times after shooting on that first trip, probably a month’s worth of shooting days. I really enjoyed it. A lot of the people who I shot were people that looked interesting and I stopped and talked to. Sometimes they would mention other people, or places to check out, and that would lead to other things. But I definitely spent a lot of time in the car exploring that area. I really liked how it came together.

Sudbury came about

Your environmental portraits also tend to fall into two categories: the cowboy shot or the close-up. When taking someone’s portrait, when do you feel the close up will work best? If you had to explain it as formally as possible, what kind of person looks best in a close-up?

I’ve never heard it described as “the cowboy shot,” but I like that. It comes down to what is going to give a better sense of the subject. Some people have a face that tells it all. Other times showing more of the person and their surroundings tells more. Some people’s facial features are really expressive or unique. Sometimes you can look at them and make up a story based on their face alone. Those people lend themselves well to a closer shot. And oftentimes you know right away, and it’s very easy to visualize the shot you want. Other times you need to work at it more. Sometimes I shoot both and figure out what works best when I’m editing.

visualize

Your Tumblr has many great photographs you don’t feature in your website. I like this one a lot. Could you explain how you made this photograph from start to finish? There seems to be a great story behind it.

Thanks. For too long I didn’t have a Tumblr or blog. I found that I was making a lot of images that didn’t fit with the work on my website or in my portfolio. Sometimes I’ll shoot a landscape that I really love but wouldn’t make sense to show with my portraits. Or even a portrait that wouldn’t fit with my other environmental portraits. The way I use Tumblr now gives me a context for these images mixed in with “the cowboy” and close up shots as you put it. I shot this image in Chinatown in NYC right after Hurricane Sandy. The southern half of Manhattan was without power. It was surreal to drive around in total darkness in Manhattan. It felt so empty, and was so, so dark, darker than out in the wilderness. All the stoplights were out. The driving was shockingly civilized in some way, but also totally nuts. People were driving 50 or 60mph down the avenues for blocks and blocks. But the side streets were unbelievably quiet. So in Chinatown it was amazing to see this view without lights.

Chinatown

What are some lessons you took away from moving to New York and looking for work as a photographer? Any great pitfalls you want to help other photographers avoid?

I think that networking is really important, and it’s something that you can never do too much of. Sometimes you will make connections with people who are not at that time in the position to hire you for shoots but may some day be photo editors or art buyers, or will recommend you to someone who is. It can ever hurt you to be seen as a friendly, dependable person. I am also friends with other photographers, and it’s good to have that community to bounce ideas around with. Sometimes things will not go your way, and it’s so important to keep your cool and not burn bridges, and take the moral upper ground. It’s just good business.When I moved to NYC, it was to study photography, some of my peers were studying advertising and design. I became friends with some of these people, but in hindsight I really should done more networking when I was in school.

photographers avoid

Capturing the faces and their stories in their natural environment forms the crux of environmental portraits. With lives moving faster by the day, stopping for a moment sucking the experience and capturing the environmental portrait is what Ben intends to portrait.

 

Be sure to check out all of Ben Zucker’s work on his website!