Parts of the Process — How to photograph Larry David, while quarantined, through a window

Posted 15 April 2020 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

What do you do when you’re tasked with photographing a subject under quarantine, and during a time of social distancing? This was the challenge Los Angeles-based photographer Jake Michaels faced when he was commissioned by The New York Times to photograph comedian – and the ‘world’s leading expert on the art of nothing’ – Larry David at his home in the Pacific Palisades. Accompanying a stellar interview by columnist Maureen Dowd, the resulting photographs are beautifully shot, humorous, and frankly, everything you’d want them to be. Here, Jake discusses everything from choosing the right equipment, art directing his subject on speakerphone, and allowing “Larry to be Larry.”

Client

The New York Times

Duration

One week (April 2020)

Team

Jake Michaels – Photography
Eve Lyons – Photo Editor

The Brief

To photograph comedian Larry David at his home in Los Angeles for New York Times article, ‘Larry David, Master of His Quarantine’ by Maureen Dowd

The finished article on The New York Times

Getting the Brief

My relationship with The New York Times started with [photo editor] Eve Lyons back in 2015. Eve and I have cultivated a relationship where she trusts me to get the best out of every situation. She contacted me a couple days before the shoot to discuss details, I think she knew it would be a good fit for this project. Eve selected me because she knew I could bring an artful point of view that was funny without being over-the-top – similar to the tones of my personal work.

I did not receive the article in advance, but I knew what the subject matter would be like and how Eve envisioned the photo to accompany the piece. I was excited about photographing Larry David, and especially with him being quarantined, I knew it would be a creative endeavour!

Defining an Approach

Usually, with these types of assignments, I will gather as much information as I can about the location and subject – but a lot of it is based on adapting to your environment. There is usually no pre-scout. Normally, my approach varies based on the subject and location. I try to look at as little photography as possible leading up to the shoot. I want the photos to be authentic, and I find planning to be difficult when you have a limited time with a subject.

But for this shoot in particular, we discussed creating a type of photo that would encapsulate the current world but could also be timeless. We shared images by [American photographer] Larry Sultan as our primary source of inspiration. It was the layering of his photos that spoke to both of us.

Larry David, photographed by Jake

Preparing for the Shoot

Because I work digitally, I am used to working in quite a fast-paced way, but I do enjoy taking my time with pictures when possible. In this case, it was about a week of turnaround, and that included making selects, editing, and sending off the photos.

I had also purchased masks and gloves back in January because I wanted to be prepared, in case I needed to photograph in the time of quarantine and social distancing. In addition to this, I also think being able to respect the subjects' home and surroundings by leaving a minimal footprint is essential as a photographer.

“Having limitations with my equipment allows me to engage more with the subject – rather than getting caught up in the specifics of gear.”

In terms of cameras and equipment, I like to bring two cameras with fixed lenses, because I feel having limitations with my equipment allows me to engage more with the subject – rather than getting caught up in the specifics of gear. I travel with a small amount of gear for shoots like this because I do not want the equipment to interfere. I try to think of challenges as inspiration to make a better photo.

I go into these kinds of shoots with minimal knowledge of the locations, so I am usually blind to the type of natural light that might exist. I had a strobe on standby, but because the light was beautiful, I didn't need to use it.

Larry David, photographed by Jake

Photographing Larry David

It was decided beforehand that Larry would be photographed around and through the window. I found the experience to be a balance of allowing Larry to be Larry without invading too much of his space.

Apart from that, there are actually not many logistics involved in these kinds of shoots. You are a guest in someone's domain, and it is my job to respect their privacy but also make a photograph that embodies their personality and being.

Larry was exactly as you might imagine him. He was very open to my direction and provided his own takes, too. We spoke on speakerphone the whole shoot, it was like talking through walkie-talkies, it kept the spirits high throughout the shoot. Having the ability to speak with him over the phone made it interesting for the photographs, but was also practical in being able to communicate. We also shared a common interest in hockey, so it was nice to talk about that, since the season was suspended.

“I found the experience to be a balance of allowing Larry to be Larry without invading too much of his space.”

Larry David, photographed by Jake

The Editing Process

When it comes to celebrity portraits, I tend to take a lot of photos while I have their attention. I took the right amount of photos to have at least three different scenarios or scenes to choose from. It is a lot for a short amount of time, but I like having the choice of variety.

If time allows it, I like to wait 24 hours before looking at photos for editing, because I feel it enables me to fully engage with the images with fresh eyes. After that, I'll make my selection for the editors, and then I will process the finals for print.

When it comes to turning around the project, the work goes through a review stage and then a finals stage where I deliver the files. Because it is journalism, there is no retouching beyond colour, contrast, dodge, and burn.

Colour tests by Jake, made during the editing process

Public Response

Looking back, I wouldn't have done anything differently. I got the photos I wanted, and all the images that accompany the story are great memories of that experience. The New York Times were also quite pleased with the images.

I was, however, quite surprised by the reaction from the public – the photos were showing up in my Instagram feed as memes shortly after being released. Apart from that, my one learning would be: Just remember to take a breath (two metres away from people).

Read the article here: Larry David, Master of His Quarantine

Some of the memes made in response to the photographs

Some of the memes made in response to the photographs

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Posted 15 April 2020 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Parts of the Process
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Jake Michaels, The New York Times, Larry David

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