The Actor

I recently met a fellow improvisor, who is also an aspiring stage and film actor. (He also has a PhD in Applied Physics, so the guy’s talents are diversified!) I photographed him for my Improvisors project, and afterward he asked me to do some actor headshots for him sometime. I hadn’t done many actor portraits recently, so this would be a fun change of pace. We met for his photo shoot this past weekend.

My client wanted candid, natural light portraits (which is the type of look most popular for actor headshots these days). There are lots of good urban outdoor locations near my studio that I had yet to try, so the day before the shoot I scanned the neighborhood with fresh eyes, looking for something new. I found a couple of good locations, and the next day the weather was great and we got a ton of great shots.

Our first look was a bit dressy, bordering on corporate, but with just a little edge. We shot on an exterior walkway outside a modern low-rise office building. We got a bunch of winners, but this is my favorite image:

After we had the polished professional look in the bag, we changed to a more casual outfit and a more casual locale—this time under an overpass, down by the railroad tracks. Again, we got lots of great looks, but here are my two favorites:

I liked my model’s look a lot, and it reminded me of an idea that I had a while back for a lighting test. The look was moody, with a noir vibe. Since things were going well, I asked if my client would be interested in coming back inside the studio to model for a little experiment. He wouldn’t have to pay for the extra time (since he was modeling for my concept), and if I got a good shot, he would get a free bonus image for his portfolio.

Back at the studio, I quickly set up the simple but dramatic set-up: A blue-colored light hung up high, washing the subject and background in a cool glow from behind. From the front, a harsh, direct light, cast through an narrow opening in a black panel, designed to create a crisp, narrow beam of white light. Here is the result:

The lighting test came out exactly as I had envisioned. My model made the perfect ruggedly handsome subject for the cool noir look. I’m glad I went for the extra shot. It will make a nice addition to my portfolio, and my client gets a dramatic portrait that contrasts with his primary headshots.

Hey, actor headshots are fun! Actors are so expressive, and good at taking direction. Maybe I’ll focus more on this type of work in the future…

The People Behind

Last Fall, I was asked to photograph the executive team at in Oakland. The company was doing a complete redesign of the corporate information page on its website, and high on the priority list were portraits of the leadership team.

The folks at Ask were great to work with (I first wrote about the project here), and they even brought me back a second time for some additional portraits of new hires (pictured below).

After much work by the marketing team, the new corporate information page just went live on the company website. The leadership team profiles and headshots are here:

I think the page they put together is great, and shows off the photography really well. The savvy marketing folks chose a large, horizontally composed portrait that stands out from the typical corporate headshot.

I am grateful to have been involved in this project, and kudos to the folks at Ask for an awesome redesign!

The Committee

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I recently had the opportunity to attend The Committee 50th Anniversary Reunion in San Francisco. I was able to make portraits of many founders and legends of improv theater. It took some time for me to process all the images, but I am excited to finally share some of my portraits.

Committee co-founders Latifah Taormina and Alan Myerson:

Other original 1960s Committee members (in order), Larry Hankin, Julie Payne, Jim Cranna, Gary Goodrow, Paul Willson, Ruth Silveira, Chris Pray, Howard Hessman, Carol Androsky, Beans Morocco, Wavy Gravy, Howard Storm, Edward Greenberg, Barbara Bosson, Peter Bonerz & Peter Elbling:

Summer Camp

I’m going to camp!

I was lucky enough to be one of the attendees at the very first Camp ImprovUtopia summer camp and improv workshop intensive. This education and team-building retreat was started by Nick Armstrong a few years ago, and is held each Memorial Day weekend in Cambria, California.

This Camp draws improvisors from all over the country, and internationally. It was, in part, what inspired me to start my Improvisors project, because when I was there I saw what incredible range and depth of talent there was in the improv community.

I missed Camp last year, but am glad to be going back this year—to sharpen my improv chops (which is great for working with my wide range of portrait clients) and to make portraits for my Improvisors project. Nick has given his blessing to have me set up and make portraits while I am at Camp. I can’t wait to meet everyone, and to share my results on the blog when I return!

Here is my portrait of Camp ImprovUtopia founder, Nick Armstrong, made when he was in San Francisco to perform at the San Francisco Improv Festival.

The Founders of Improv Theater

As readers of this blog know, I am a practitioner and fan of improv. Last year I started a portrait project that documents the many faces of the improv community. Last month I had the extraordinary opportunity to make portraits of many of the early pioneers of improvisational theater at an event in San Francisco.

I first met Jamie Wright and Sam Shaw when they were producing the San Francisco Improv Festival. They are also film-makers, and are working on a documentary about The Committee—a groundbreaking improv theater founded in 1963. I won’t try to re-hash the full history of The Committee in this blog post, but in short, it was composed of some of the boldest and most talented performers ever gathered, who were WAY ahead of their time in terms of improv, comedy, and theater in general. (For more information on The Committee, and on Jamie & Sam’s documentary, visit the film’s website.)

The 50th Anniversary of The Committee was in April 2013, and Jamie & Sam put together a reunion event, gathering almost every living member of the group, plus fans and family members. They invited me to be involved—both to document the reunion, and to make portraits for my Improvisors project.

I will share some of my formal portraits in an upcoming blog post. In the meantime, here are some photos from the festivities.

Many former Committee members clearly hadn’t seen each other in years (or decades), and the reunions were heartwarming to see. These people shared some great history.

Reliving memories of youth clearly brought out the inner child in everyone.

Lots of vintage posters and memorabilia were on display at the event, and Committee members re-discovered younger versions of themselves.

The reception was followed by a presentation and a teaser preview of The Committee documentary film. Things wrapped up with speeches by the co-founders of The Committee, Alan Myerson and Latifah Taormina, and an honorary certificate presentation by State Senator Mark Leno.

Kudos to Jamie & Sam (pictured on far left and far right, above) for putting on a terrific event that was fun for me to witness and precious to the honorees who were in attendance.

Improvisors NYC – Behind the Scenes

When I make portraits for my Improvisors project, I find that the key to success is creating a safe space to play and embrace whatever happens…much like in an improv scene.

When I was in New York making portraits at the Magnet Theater, we worked on the main stage, which heightened the sense that we were playing in an improv scene.

Here are a couple of “behind the scenes” images of me and my portrait subjects at play (photos by Jacklyn Altuna):

And here is a photo that my fiance, Jacklyn, took just after I wrapped two busy days of shooting in New York—exhausted but elated:

Improvisor Portraits – New York City

The past six months have been unexpectedly busy for me, and one to-do list item that got massively delayed was reviewing the huge batch of portraits I did in December 2012 for my Improvisors series. (If you haven’t seen this project, check out my website or my earlier blog posts about it.)

By the end of 2012 I had been working on this portrait series for a while, but all my portraits were made in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was dying to explore other improv communities. So, when an opportunity came up to tag along with my fiance on a short-notice work trip to New York, I didn’t hesitate.

New York is one of the improv meccas. Aside from being the world headquarters for all types of theater, and a major overall talent market, there several improv training centers, including Upright Citizens Brigade, Peoples Improv Theater and Magnet Theater. Unfortunately, none of my personal connections were in the NYC improv scene, so when I suddenly had to find a venue and spread the word in less than two weeks, I was in a jam.

I reached out to two improv veterans who have performed in taught in New York, and who had already participated in my Improvisors project–Rachel Hamilton & David Razowsky. (If you enjoy improv, but don’t know who these people are, stop reading this blog post and look them up immediately!!) They saved the day. With their help, I was quickly connected to the folks at Magnet, who graciously invited me to shoot at their theater. I ended up getting great promotional help from Magnet, UCB and PIT, all of which spread the word about my project to their members. I love the improv community!

My bulky lighting, backdrop, camera equipment, and computer got packed into 5-6 large cases and put on a plane. There was a lot of production involved with taking this project on the road. More than I had expected. But it all worked out in the end. I got great help once I arrived in New York, particularly from Magnet’s Quinton Loder.

When all was said and done, the trip was an incredible success. I got a phenomenal turnout—62 people over two days! I shot for about 3.5 hours each day, so for those keeping track—that’s one portrait about every six and a half minutes, with no breaks!! Many people took time off from work and braved cross-town traffic in Manhattan just to participate. I am so grateful.

And the results?

Well, you be the judge. Here are just a few of my favorite images from those two days in New York City, which I just now had time to process after much delay.


Ten years ago today I became a photographer.

On May 1, 2003, I left a career in the corporate world—everything that was familiar, everything I had been formally trained to do, and what all my peers were doing—to place a risky bet in pursuit of my long-term happiness.

I had been an artist all my life, but my art was practiced as a self-guided hobby. My academic degrees were in Rhetoric and Business Administration. Most of my oldest friends were business and technology professionals, working very far from the creative arts. Up until age 28, all of my work experience had been in business and technology. In my 20s, I had no reference points for the creative arts as a professional endeavor.

My business career had been going along ok, but despite the challenge and stimulation of the tech industry, it never inspired me. The topsy-turvy wave of the dot-com boom and bust left me exhausted and cynical, and craving the ability to chart my own course. Some bad work experiences left me desperate to make a change. And 9/11 made me re-evaluate everything.

At the beginning of 2003, the economy was in recession and I had an expiring contract position that I wasn’t eager to renew. For the past few years, I had been doing photography more and more seriously as a hobby. I even bought some fancy professional lighting equipment and taught myself how to use it. When my contractor gig ended, I took a long and much-needed trip overseas. I backpacked through Japan for three weeks with a friend who was living there at the time. I took a lot of photos, but mostly just got away from all of my day-to-day reference points. I returned home just before my 28th birthday, which I spent reflecting on my adult life so far.

I was terrified of stepping out of my comfort zone. The corporate world had started to suck pretty bad, but it was familiar. It paid well. It had validation from peers and society. I wanted to be a photographer, but I also didn’t really know what that meant. Where would I go when I got out of bed in the morning? How would I determine my goals and set about achieving them? And how on earth would I pay my rent while I was figuring all this out? (After all, I was already a month into unemployment and had spent 3 weeks traveling in one of the most expensive places in the world.)

I took the leap.

For the first time in my life, I shut my analytical brain off and made a big leap of faith. I had some money saved up. The corporate job market would be down for a while anyway. Why not give photography a shot? So I did. For a year. Or for however long my savings lasted.

Ten years later, I have never gone back. And I have never once wanted to. In fact, I have frequently thought to myself that I wouldn’t trade my worst day as a photographer for my best day in the corporate world. I have been lost at times—creatively and professionally. I have been broke. And I have occasionally been very, very lonely. But I have also been more alive than I ever had been before. I own every bit of my successes and my failures. My work has meaning, at least to me. I feel like I matter.

I feel very lucky.

After ten years, I am not as far along in my career as I would have wanted. Honestly, I am a bit embarrassed at how much is still left to figure out and to achieve. But I am also proud of how far I have come, and how purposeful my life has been. It makes me excited by—rather than intimidated by—all of the challenges that are left to face.

Thank you to the people in my life, particularly my parents, who have supported me through the most challenging and important decade of my professional life. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Sam in Japan, April 2003

Father & Son

It is a brand new year, and I am slowly emerging from the fog of holiday craziness. December was busy with work, travel and family gatherings, all of which were fruitful. I am very fortunate.

Alas, this blog suffered from a month of non-posting. I promise to remedy that as 2013 gets started. I created some great new work for my Improvisors series in December, which I hope to start sharing in the next few weeks. Also, a new super secret personal project for 2013 is in the works, which will be shared in the coming months. And hopefully some regular features, to keep the blog fresh.

For the moment, I still find myself reflecting on a lot of what was nice about the holidays, especially time with family. With that in mind, I’ll share one of my favorite family portraits last year, photographed just before Christmas.

A woman requested a portrait of her husband and young son as a holiday gift for her. The whole family came by the studio, and the boys stayed for some father-son play time in front of the camera, while mom stepped out for a stroll.

Here are my favorite images from the portrait session:

A Portrait for the Holidays

Most of my time is spent making portraits of professionals for business purposes. However, at this time of year, things shift for a few weeks toward family portraiture. Lots of folks look at the holidays as an excuse to get an updated personal portrait. It’s so easy to print up custom greeting cards with online services. The addition of a really nice portrait on the front makes a special (and easy) gift. And of course a good old fashioned custom print (remember prints?) makes a very special gift indeed.

Along with the traditional nuclear family groups with one or two kids who always call during the holidays, this year I have received a lot of requests from young couples. I have found myself really enjoying working with this client base. They are almost always youthful, photogenic and very much in love, which makes for good photos.

This past weekend I photographed a couple who didn’t have a decent portrait of them together taken since their wedding 3+ years ago. Well, we fixed that.

We started in the studio, with a simple, elegant portrait:

After a couple of set-ups and wardrobe changes in the studio, we decided to step outside and shoot some more casual portraits. My studio is located in a somewhat industrial zone, but there are soft spots, if you know where to look. They strolled and chatted while I hung back and captured candid moments. Here is my favorite:

I enjoy the change of pace when photographing couples, families and kids during the holidays. I love the people I meet, and a well-made portrait really does make a unique and memorable gift. For all you holiday procrastinators out there, it’s not too late. Whoever you hire to do your photography, act fast to ensure that prints can be ready in time for gifting.

Happy Holidays!