The President of the United States is one of the most photographed people in the world. Listen to any press con- ference or announcement and you will hear hundreds of shutter clicks sounding like a hailstorm on the hood of a car. To photograph the President in a private setting is exceedingly rare. To do it with a 20×24 camera seems to happen once a decade.
Chuck Close has been using the 20×24 camera and Polaroid film since its inception and has made portraits of over 100 people with the camera. His signature style is a very close–up, strongly lit unrelenting rendition of his subject. Nearly all of his images are made to be converted into paintings up to 7×9 feet. Some are also transformed into edition prints in a variety of traditional printmaking methods from screen prints to paper pulp constructions. Since the late 90s Chuck has also embraced digital transformations of his portraits, embracing inkjet technologies and also a digital tapestry process.
The Obama portrait had been in the works for quite some time. Chuck has done portraits of politicians before, from President Clinton in the Oval Office in 1996, Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1998 and Vice President Gore in the 20×24 studio in 2000. Discussions were held with the Obama team in 2008 but nothing ever came of it. As the 2012 campaign went into full gear and the demanding fund raising ratcheted up, the Obama team sought out Chuck, whose previous editions were significant fundraisers. A date was chosen in late June, and of course it conflicted with a previous commitment the day before in New York. The Obama session would be in Washington, D.C. the following afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Unfortunately, the Secret Service wanted the equipment at the Jefferson Hotel in D.C. by 10:00 a.m. for security screening.
As we packed the camera and lighting the day before we had to account for two very different shoots, one for black and white with soft lighting and the other for color with Chuck’s point source lighting. The 20x 24 camera is a 235 pound machine that by brilliant design can compact itself into its 24 by 40 inch frame and reduce to 60 inches in height. It is wrapped in moving pads and tied to its studio stand for stability. It is a bit like moving an upright piano. For lenses we packed a Rodenstock 800mm, a 600mm Fujinon A and a 360mm Fujinon SW. The Rodenstock is a process camera lens and as such does not have a shutter. We have adapted a Sinar shutter to mount in front of the lens, giving us flash sync and shutter speeds up to 1/60th of a second.
As Robert Pattison drove the camera, we took the Acela from Penn Station to D.C. Accompanying Chuck are his nurse, Thais Lizarra, myself, Myrna Suarez, photographer and Nafis Azad, our NYC Director of Photography. We arrived at 10:30 a.m. and then took a van to the Jefferson Hotel on 16th Street and M. The truck had been cleared by bomb sniffing dogs and the equipment was already upstairs.
We were provided with two rooms, each about 10×16 feet with nine foot ceilings. This is about as small a space you can shoot in with 20×24. Our extra challenge is that Chuck is in a motorized Segway wheelchair, whose footprint is nearly as large as the camera. We staged the equipment from an adjacent bedroom, and set the lights as close as we could to our normal setup, restricted somewhat by the confines of the room and a huge furniture chest on one side that was not removed.
Chuck’s lighting for 20×24 is not your typical portrait lighting. His 20×24 portraits are often transformed into paintings and prints so the lighting is harder to reveal more details for that transformation. Our key light is a Broncolor Pulso 4 with a large reflector, medium grid and a sheet of diffusion cut to fit behind the grid. Slits are cut into the diffusion film so the head won’t overheat. The fill is a 3×4 foot Elinchrom softbox on another Pulso 4 head. Two more Pulsos with small reflectors illuminate the background with black flags keeping the light off the subject. The final light is a Pulso 4, with small reflector and medium grid coming over the subject’s shoulder to provide a strong highlight. We started our setup around noon with the President due at 3:00 p.m. In the studio that would be plenty of time but adapting to the smaller room was taking a bit of time. We started testing around 1:30. Chuck introduced a new wrinkle and asked us to experiment with colored gels to heighten the color. These images would be transformed into the new digital watercolors Chuck had recently been producing and the extra color would give them more range. To complicate that further, he wanted the color on the fill side, which meant putting the gels inside the softbox near the flashtube.
Gels that covered the whole softbox would have been better, but we only brought sets of 12×12″ gels. We tested a shot on Chuck’s nurse, whose skin tone was close to Obama’s. Our first tests were good, but it soon became apparent that we did not have any viewing lights in the hotel room. The hallways had fluorescents, which would not work. Because we had gelled the shooting lights we could not use those. We finally discovered that there was a spa down the hall that had some tungsten lights we could use to properly evaluate the exposure and color. That meant that after every test shot, Chuck and the crew had to maneuver through the lights in the studio and head several rooms down the hall to the spa to evaluate. We were now five or six tests in and it was getting alarmingly close to 3:00 p.m.
The Secret Service let us know that the President was on the way. Here we go ready or not! Five minutes later the President arrived and headed right for Chuck (whom he knows as Chuck is on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities). He thanked Chuck for doing the shoot (it is a benefit for the DNC) and then turned to all of us on the crew and shook our hand one by one. He had never seen the camera but seemed well briefed and sat right down to pose.
Chuck likes to shoot quite magnified and we used the equivalent of a 450mm lens (combo of front element of 600mm and rear element of 360 lens) at about 55 inches of bellows extension. That’s approximately one and a half times life–size magnification. Depth of field is very narrow and often first time sitters tend to move a lot while Chuck engages them in conversation while we frame and focus. The President didn’t skip a beat in his conversation with Chuck and sat rock solid while we focused. Framing and focusing completed, we moved to close the lens, the back door of the camera and brought the film into place.
10,000 watt seconds of light fired with a pop and the President took it all in stride. Nafis processed the image in the hallway on our lighting crate. Our P7 film takes an excruciating two and half minutes to develop and in a pressure situation like this seemed like 10 minutes. The Secret Service agents in the hall gather- ed around and finally the camera buzzer sounded. I peeled the negative away, scooped the excess puddle of reagent off the bottom and brought it in to show Chuck and the President.
Things were looking good with one small problem. The President’s flag pin was angled towards the key light and was completely blown out. We raced through another half a dozen color images, changing the pose slightly. President Obama got up between shots and somehow managed to hit his focus mark every time he sat back down. Usually these shoots are five to 10 minutes and were already pushing a half hour. Chuck, who had been making the most of his time with the President discussing arts education in high schools decided to go for broke and asked the President if we could switch to black and white film. “I have been making 7×9 foot tapestries from the black and white Polaroids and I know the National Gallery will want one.” The President agreed and we scrambled to pull the color film, open the case of black and white and get it into the camera as fast as we could.
With no time to test, I quickly made the exposure calculations for the change from an ISO 125 film to an ISO 600 film leaving the colored gels on so we wouldn’t get a density change. The first print came out looking great, with the exception of a small flare in the upper right corner. The President agreed to one more and this one was perfect, an excellent finish to a great shoot.
Before he left I asked the President if he would mind signing an autograph for our truck driver Robert Pattison. I explained that he left NY at 4:00 a.m. to get the camera there. He said “That’s great, that’s great, you make sure you tell him how much I appreciate his efforts.” And with that he once again shook all of our hands and walked on down the hall.