The Shot, no.1
I thought I’d start a series of “behind the scenes” stories about particular images that I’ve made in the past few years; some good, some bad, some neither—-just a story that needs telling. It’s fitting that I’m starting with a true behind the scenes image! I made this “on assignment” for a great new collaboration called MPLSzine whose theme for that issue was Beauty. Myself and a wonderful writer Lindsey teamed up to cover a local beauty pageant, a preliminary contest for Miss Minnesota and Miss America (not to be confused, so I’m told, with the trashier, The Donald-sponsored Miss U.S.A.).
I shot on film, in part because I love it so damn much, and in part because I felt that old school (Tri-X) black and white film pushed to ISO 1600 (a big deal for film, not so much anymore for digital) would lend itself well to the timeless subject of beauty pageants. I also shot on film because it’s all to easy with digital to point, shoot, and chimp—-look at the LCD for confirmation that you got the shot. I find that this often means that you stop looking for “the shot” as soon as you have a serviceable image on your memory card. Besides, there were pro photographers there to take the boring flash-lit “SMILE” images. My job wasn’t to be the event photographer, it was to tell a story to go with the story.
This is where the fun began for me. My “day job” of being an engineer in recovery and a law and public policy student (I should be studying for a Constitutional Law final now!) means that I don’t get a lot of time to tell stories or dig deeper (unless there’s potential liability afoot…). Via MPLSzine, I got the chance to become a photojournalist and an observer of what goes on behind the scenes in a local beauty pageant. It was kind of what I imagine travelling with a minor league baseball team to be like; conceivably, one of the players could be playing in front of 50,000 at Yankee Stadium in the future, just as one of the contestants I shared sandwiches with in a community center with a children’s basketball tournament going on concurrently could someday grace the big stage at the Miss America pageant. Were there flashes of that future self in the contestants that I could somehow capture? Or, were the contestants doing pageants for some other reason than fame and fortune? I found that all of the contestants were very smart, driven, and focused on their platform, and most surprisingly, they were all bound by the camaraderie of individuals who cannot afford to be primadonnas when they have to help push a piano off stage left (to continue the baseball analogy, consider a stud prospect carrying his bags onto a bus somewhere in small town Middle America).
Moving on to the image, I had a nice place off to the side of the stage during the pageant. I caught myself taking a few too many pictures of the contestants’ smiling faces or pageant poses—-shots that anyone could have taken because they were literally in the spotlight. I tried to push myself to look where others weren’t and turned to see this image, of the silhouetted contestants (they were winners from other regional pageants, which explains the tiaras). It looks mysterious, almost otherworldly; disembodied heads and torsos wearing tiaras. You can instantly place the scene as a pageant, but without seeing faces or obvious movement, you don’t know why they are there or what they are doing. On another level too, the symbolism of the tiaras on every person in the shot speaks to the camaraderie already mentioned. I don’t know, this shot is just one that stuck in my brain as soon as I saw it on the roll of freshly-developed film. It’s familiar, yet mysterious.
Date: February, 2012
Place: Miss City of Lakes Pageant, St. Paul, MN
Camera: Nikon FE
Film: Kodak Tri-X 400 (shot at 1600)
Lens: Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 (possibly with a 1.5x teleconverter on it)