I was a photo assistant to a series of commercial still life photographers at the start of my photography career in the early 1980s. Much of what we shot was tabletop product photography. I spent one year working for a guy who shot almost exclusively for Avon, which involved hours of making bottles look pretty and making sure the hand model was comfortable on the set. We primarily used large format view cameras, 4x5 and 8x10 Sinars, which required exposing each piece of film individually. The superior resolution these cameras provided was critical to meet the rigorous demands of advertising. While this highly precise photography was providing me with an excellent education in color, lighting, exposure and detail, I found it to be uninspiring and often extremely tedious. I was lured into photography as a career because I wanted to create beautiful fashion and lifestyle photos, like the images I saw in Vogue, a magazine I started to subscribe to right after I graduated from high-school. Sansui TVs hurtling from space on painted backdrops was not what I signed up for.
As luck would have it, midway through my assisting tenure, I got the opportunity to work with an exciting young portrait photographer who was shooting all the hottest and hippest stars of sports, music, fashion, and film, for cool publications like Interview, which was originally founded by that arbiter of the zeitgeist, Andy Warhol. Drew Carolan had been one of Richard Avedon’s assistants for the legendary portrait photographer’s milestone project, "In the American West". Avedon is still regarded, along with Irving Penn, perhaps even more so, as the penultimate documenter of the human face. “In the American West” is indisputably one of the most profound documents of the true face of America ever created, equal in stature to Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. Avedon employed a stark approach to his project, positioning each subject on a bright white background, all distracting elements removed, the eye is drawn directly into the canvas of the subject’s face. Carolan, as his assistant, had clearly absorbed an aspect of his mentor’s technique, for working with him was a watershed moment in my own journey as a photographer, not least of which was the fact that he used an exciting new camera that I had not yet encountered during my time in commercial advertising. Carolan used a Hasselblad 500CM.
As Carolan’s assistant, I was liberated from the confines of the studio. The medium format of the Hasselblad, its 21/4” x 21/4” negative size, made it the perfect camera for shooting environmental portraits. We shot the band Crowded House on the rooftop of Carolan’s East Village apartment building. We photographed Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy of The Cult at Electric Lady, Jimmy Hendrix’s former recording studio in the West Village, Isaac Hayes in a Soho rental studio, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs in the living room of Carolan’s apartment. The defining factor of all of Carolan’s portraits, for me, was how he wielded the perfect square format the Hasselblad is legendary for to compose his riveting portraits. He seemed to intuit just how to fit a face, a body, faces and bodies, within that frame. Carolan understood the impact of the square and its power as a tool of the portrait photographer. Ironically, Avedon was also a user of Hasselblad, but for “In the American West” he used larger format cameras.
Carolan created his own masterful portrait series, in the spirit of his mentor’s landmark project, using a Hasselblad, to shoot the habitués of famed downtown music venue, CBGB. “Matinee” is a series of photographs made between 1983 and 1985 on the Bowery in New York City. The intent was to intercept the kids on their way to afternoon All Ages Hardcore Punk shows at that underground music Mecca and photograph them in his makeshift outdoor studio. This constituted Carolan’s set up of white seamless paper gaffer taped to the sides of Bowery buildings, right on the sidewalk, where he set up individual and group portrait sessions. The resulting document is one of the most in-depth portrayals of a pivotal moment in the history of New York City’s downtown music scene.
The impact of the Hasselblad in the creation of this type of strong portrait cannot be underestimated. The resolution the camera gives the photographer makes it the perfect tool for mining the planes, angles and unique features of a subject’s face. In many ways, it might be considered the ultimate portrait camera, as far as photography is concerned. The highly precise performance of the Zeiss lenses, the central lens shutters that make them stable, quiet and particularly useful for flash work at fast shutter speeds and many other tricky lighting situations, gives the photographer a versatility that is unrivaled by any other format.
As photography made the transition from analog to digital, many photographers adopted the systems of the leaders in the digital revolution. Canon and Nikon made ever greater improvements in the technology, at the same time bringing costs more into line with what working pros could afford. Hasselblad kept up with the market, however the expense of converting to the system’s digital backs became cost prohibitive for many. As the higher end models of Canon and Nikon gave comparable resolution to the medium format systems, many photographers opted to invest in digital SLR systems in the conversion to digital. I spent the bulk of my early career shooting almost every assignment with a Hasselblad 500CM. I shot two Newsweek covers with my Hassie, assignments for Time, Life, Scholastic, Sony, Entertainment Weekly and even weddings and Bar Mitzvahs with my Hasselblad. My clients came to me specifically for the black and white portraits I would shoot in my own makeshift studios on locations all over. I lugged around heavy cases of lighting equipment, light stands, tripods and portable backgrounds, all in service of my vision to pursue the ultimate portrait. It was with great reluctance that I eventually made the transition to a Canon digital system, back in 2006. I shot my last assignment with my Hasselbald system in August of 2006, a cover and editorial layout for a footwear trade publication.
I thought I would never be able to overcome my reliance on that square format for inspiration and composition, but in time I became as adept with a 35mm DSLR as I am with the Hasselblad. I pull the Hassie out from time to time and shoot film, particularly black and white, because I don’t think digital will ever replace the magic of the negative. I think my portraits made with my Canon are just as strong as my Hassie work, but that ultimately is the responsibility of the photographer, not the camera. I love shooting street style portraits with the Canon, and I love the freedom of movement the system gives me over the more cumbersome set ups I used to employ when shooting portraits with my Hassie. Fashion Week is especially exciting for a photographer, because all the glorious peacocks are assembled from all points into one central location for one entire week, twice a year. The plaza at Lincoln Center is a minefield of photographers wielding every type of camera from an iPhone to a RED. I was there with my Canon, but in my pocket I had Hasselblad’s newest gem, the Stellar.
I had my hesitations about going out to shoot my street and backstage portraits with just a "point and shoot" camera, which, technically speaking, is exactly what the Hasselblad Stellar is. I envisioned finding myself surrounded by amazing portrait opportunities and not having a camera that was up to the task. But Hasselblad had loaned out a few of these hot new Stellars to fashion designers and fashion insiders to be Hasselblad Ambassadors of Fashion during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to shoot creative candids of the New York Fashion Week scene. The designer Betsey Johnson was given a Stellar, as was Nanette Lepore, the writer Hal Rubinstein and TV personality and style expert Robert Verdi so they could take photos of what inspired them during Fashion Week. Page Six reported that David Beckham was spotted front row at wife Victoria's FW14 show, shooting with his own Stellar. So when I was handed a Stellar by Hasselblad's President and CEO, Michael Hejtmanek, I knew it was on. I was going to surrender my vision to the "point and shoot" camera. I brought my Canon system with me to the tents, but tucked away neatly in the left pocket of my jacket was the sleek little Stellar. After I shot a few portraits with the Canon, I asked each subject to allow me a few more moments of their time so I could grab a shot with my "point and shoot". After a while of checking out the images I was capturing with the Stellar, I decided to pack up the Canon and rely solely on the Stellar to shoot my portraits. I was not disappointed, in fact, I was elated as I saw a whole new world open before me. A world that did not require lugging around 40 pounds of gear in order to shoot strong portraits. The images I saw on the back of the Stellar were high resolution, powerful portraits that easily stood up next to my analog Hasselblad portraits and Canon images. And best of all, the gorgeous retro styling of the Stellar, its hand carved wooden grip and Italian made leather strap, sleek silver casing, caught the eye of almost every fashion conscious subject I photographed. Almost to a person, every one of them commented on how beautiful the camera is. I have included twenty of the 300 or so images I shot with the Stellar during Fashion Week, so the reader can judge for him/herself. For more info on the Stellar, visit: www.hasselblad-stellar.com.