Location Set Build, Worth the Trouble?
By Tyler Mitchell - www.tylermitchell.photography
In winter of 2010, working as Melissa Rodwell’s assistant and retoucher, I moved to NYC from what had always been my home of California . I had a few good friends from photo school who had been in the city since we graduated, and we moved into a warehouse loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which meant I now lived in a studio. Green Point Beach as it came to be known thanks to our buddy, ex pro snowboarder and best couch surfer on the planet Matty Ryan, ended up being home to a whole crew of creatives. We had me, Michael Tessier, and Tom Sands downstairs, all out of the same photography program along with Ian Frisch, a writer who grew up in Massachusetts with Mikey and Tom. Eventually, more friends from school, Max Miller and Adam Hribar, moved in upstairs, with another of Tom and Mikey’s friends from MA, Eric Masters, and another friend and magnificent photographer Jessica Lehrman. It was an awesome group, with a convenient hole in our ceiling/their floor that enabled us to converse with our friends upstairs, or, more importantly, to leave a c-stand poking out of the floor in Jess’s room whenever leaving the house.
After a couple years of us all working, assisting, shooting, drinking, etc., Ian (go check out his new book, ‘Magic is Dead’) was interested in starting a fashion/culture magazine. We had started messing around with a blog/web mag to see if there was interest and with that going well, we all got together, formed a team, and Relapse Magazine came to be. It would eventually end a couple of years later as everyone went their separate ways, but it was an awesome time to serve as photo editor while working on cool shoots with a bunch of homies.
In addition to being photo editor of the magazine I would shoot for it fairly frequently, either fashion editorials or portraits for features and interviews. I’ve always loved shooting on location, and wanted to do something special for our September 2013 issue. My then girlfriend now wife Kim Seff’s parent’s live outside of Baltimore, and their house backs up to a creek that has an awesome little waterfall zone nearby. I got the idea to do a story that followed the model through a dream in this fern-gully wonderland. Kim and I met in LA where she did production design for film, and her father is a master carpenter, so when I started talking to her about the idea it came together quick. We’d start with our model on a bed floating below the waterfall, and end with her finding an empty door which was the exit to her dream. We had door frames at the house, but a floating bed was a different story. Kim designed a headboard and a way to attach it to a raft & air mattress. Since she basically grew up in a woodshop, she had quickly designed and built not only our floating bed, but a table as well. We painted and weathered the props and got ready to go.
The logistics on this were fortunately not too difficult for what we were trying to accomplish, since we had room for the whole team to stay at our location. I rented a 15 passenger van and removed a few of the seats to make room for all our stuff, had everyone meet at my place the night before and we made the drive down to Baltimore.
We got up early to a somewhat dreary rainy day, but there’s not a damn thing we can do about that, and it was actually helpful (well the light not the rain) since a lot of the shooting would be in somewhat dappled light which can get too strong in bright sun. We wanted to knock out the tough shots first, so bright and early we headed down to the pond and built our floating bed. It turned out to be tough to get it right where we wanted, so Kim, being amazing, jumped in the river and crouched behind the headboard to hold the bed in place.
A quick note about gear here, everything was shot with available light, and mostly on a Pentax 67 with Portra 400 that I was borrowing from Sante D’Orazio, who I was retouching for at the time. I brought my Nikon d3 as well and did shoot with it, but I liked the film vibe for the final story. Having taught many workshops with Melissa over the years and having heard way to many questions that are way too technical about each new iteration of digital camera, I would usually try to emphasize that the camera doesn’t matter all that much, aside from you needing to be comfortable with it (good lenses make a bigger difference than a couple pixels here or there). The camera should get out of your way and let you work! That being said, getting decent quality gear is a good idea. The rain probably wasn’t enough to mess up even the cheapest of cameras, but using the camera to break your fall into a rock because you were jumping around the waterfall like some kind of maniac and slipped, like I did with my D3, certainly would’ve killed some less well made tools. Even after that huge impact that camera did 10s of thousands more trouble free exposures before I eventually traded it in.
So once I was good and wet from smashing off some rocks and landing in the creek, we were able to get the bed shot and the table shot, and one other tight shot at our first location. After that the day went smooth, with the rest of the locations being closer to the house. We’d get the next look set, wait inside if it was too rainy, and run out when it lightened up enough to shoot the look then run back in to change and get a little dry again. We finished up and got everyone back to NYC that night. If you live in or have been to New York, you know that as nice as it would’ve been to stay out one more night and just take it easy after a long shoot day, ain’t no one got time for that.
One other thing I want to note, is that sometimes having everything tac sharp is not the correct answer. Take the closing image for instance (below), where the door out of the dream is in focus, and the model is not. The idea was that she’s sort of fading out of her dreamland at this point and our focus is on the exit. While I still think it sort of makes sense and I don’t hate it, I’m not sure it’s that successful either. I don’t ever want to be scared to experiment, but it’s always a good idea to shoot options just in case!
The moral of the story then, is that if you have a concept there is a way to get it done, and you can probably do it without breaking the bank. If you apply some creative thinking you can make just about anything happen, especially if you work with other motivated and creative people. If you have a concept that you really want to do, I think you should probably get right on that and make it happen. In my almost 2 decades worth of shooting, I’ve never been as bummed about having an unsuccessful shoot as I have about missing something entirely by either not attempting it or not having a camera with me. Also, when people tell you not to run on slippery boulders, they might be on to something… but don’t be scared of danger either that’s no way to live!
Huge thanks to the whole crew, listed below, for being super chill and amazing, and of course to my wife Kim for being a certified badass and to her parents for letting us take over their home!
Art Director / Set Design: Kim Seff
Stylist: Rachel Loerher
Hair: Avian King
Makeup: Jessica Padilla
Stylist Assistant: Chelsea Driscoll
Model: Toni Heath @ Elite
You can see the full issue of Relapse magazine by clicking here