How I Got That Shot: Creating the American Dream

August 19, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Jeff Minton

 The final Jeff Minton image that appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see behind-the-scenes images from the shoot.

Client: TIME
Director of Photography: Kira Pollack
How do you illustrate “the American dream”? That was the challenge Kira Pollack of TIME magazine presented to Los Angeles-based photographer Jeff Minton when she hired him to shoot a cover to accompany the story “The History of the American Dream.” The graphic overhead shot he created, showing a man mowing what appears to be a giant lawn where a girl is playing with a dog and a boy is sprawled out with a baseball and bat, was published on the July 2, 2012, issue. 
Minton says Pollack had seen a previous image he had taken—an overhead shot, looking down on a scenario he had set up. “We knew that graphically it would look awesome,” Minton says of planning an overhead shot for the TIME cover. However, thinking of how to illustrate the American dream was a challenge. “We initially threw out ideas of doing something older, [like] the Statue of Liberty, but we eventually landed on the classic 1950s imagery, based on the idea … that if you worked hard and were a good Samaritan, you would be rewarded with a comfortable life and future.” They came up with the idea of showing a big backyard, and Minton suggested several scenarios he would stage, including a mom and dad, a kid playing with a dog, people using a backyard barbecue or someone mowing the lawn. 
He had only a short window in which to get the shot: The shoot took place on a Saturday afternoon, and the final high-resolution files had to be delivered on Monday. He also knew he had less than two hours in which the sun would be at an optimal angle for casting shadows of the right length and darkness, but the shadow of the crane wouldn’t be in the frame. To make sure he delivered what the client needed, Minton came to the shoot with more of everything than he actually needed: more concepts, more models, more lighting gear, more cameras, and more contingency plans in case any of his plans for previewing and storing the shots failed.
“We were hell bent on getting the shot in-camera,” says Minton. In part, he says, he was caught up in trying to capture an idealized view of America—without retouching. “It’s such a romantic idea, we said, ‘Let’s try to get this in-camera.’”
Logistics: The first stumbling block was finding a wide-open stretch of green grass. Minton recalls, “We thought we’ll just go find a big park and we’ll just shoot it there.” But few parks were willing to have a crane and lawnmowers on their grass. At the advice of location scout Jesse Lerman, Minton looked for a farm about an hour outside Los Angeles that grows large swathes of lawn for transplanting. “You’ve probably seen them if you’ve flown over the area. They’re about a mile across, and there’s a giant sprinkler in the middle that waters the grass.” Minton’s crew found one that gave permission for the shoot.
About the casting, Minton notes, “It’s funny because you’re basically casting people based on the top of their heads.” It was not an easy modeling gig, however. “It was brutally hot and windy,” he explains. 
Among the concepts he and Pollack discussed was to show lots of people mowing the lawn at once. “We were thinking that graphically it would look interesting to see not just one person but different people mowing the lawn in different directions across the page.” That meant finding at least ten adults, ten identical lawnmowers, as well as a child and a dog. “You always like to throw a dog in the mix,” he says. 
The crew arrived at the grass farm at 7 AM, but the crane was delayed, and didn’t arrive until 9 AM. Minton needed to figure out how he could get his camera up on the crane and raise it roughly 50 feet above the ground, and how he and Pollack could preview the shots on the monitor. “I was thinking: I want to collaborate on this with Kira. That means we both have to go up in the crane, where it’s hot and windy and there’s no bathroom, and I’ve got to talk to the talent through a bullhorn. It was too much.” 
The digital tech, Brandon Kalpin of Running Pixels in Los Angeles, agreed to remain in the crane during the shoot. (“He was awesome braving the elements in the crane for two hours,” says Minton.) Kalpin had set up a wireless system so Minton could fire his camera and the strobe placed next to it using a PocketWizard. A monitor was set up in a tent near the field, where Minton and Pollack could see each capture. Kalpin set up a networking system to link the camera and the monitor. The network bogged down, but as a back up, Kalpin had also tethered the camera to the monitor using a 50-foot-long cable. Says Minton, “Our final fail safe was the tech would trigger the camera manually and toss cards down to us. Luckily we only got to our second backup.” 
Directing: The setup allowed Minton to direct the talent the way he usually does. “It was great because I could just walk up to the talent and tell them what I was looking for. I could sit with the girl and say, ‘Just play with the dog, roll around with him, have fun.’ When she was set up, I could move on to the next talent, position them, give them an action. Then when they were set, I’d jump a few feet out of the frame and trigger the shot. I’d never have gotten it if I’d been yelling through a bullhorn.”
One of the first scenarios Minton tried was having ten people run ten lawnmowers around the lawn. He says after five minutes, he and Pollack knew they had to stop. “It was loud and they were bumping into each other like bumper cars. We had to say, ‘Sorry guys, it’s not working.’” 
He shot several more scenarios. “I wanted to do an upbeat image, and I wanted something unexpected,” he says. “I don’t do moody.” He photographed a man throwing lighter fluid at a barbecue grill so it would flame up, kids playing, a woman nursing a baby. As he staged more and more shots, he recalls, the scenarios became more and more simplified. “We would ask, ‘What will tell the story?’”
Lighting: All the scenes were shot between 1:30 PM and 3:30 PM, the optimal time, Minton says, to get shadows that were “crisp.” Later in the day, the shadows would get too long. “We didn’t want the shadows to overlap. When you see it from above, if the shadows are long, it just becomes all about these black shapes.”
As he had on previous crane shots, he set up a strobe next to the lens of the camera, to provide on-axis fill. “I wanted to be prepared to fill the shadows if the sun was too harsh. Or if there was no sun at all, the strobe would give it some pop.” He used a Profoto bi-tube head rigged to two Profoto packs. He powered the heads from a generator. “I wanted to make sure I had enough power and didn’t have to deal with switching out batteries.” In the end, however, he preferred the effect he got with sunlight alone, rather than using a strobe to bring out more detail in the shadow areas. “I tried it but it looked too plastic, too Photoshop-y. I just eliminated the strobe and went with natural light.”
Camera: Minton used a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One P 45+ digital back; a 50mm prime lens. He says he chose medium format because “it’s higher resolution and it’s faster. I can shoot at 1/350 of a second with a strobe and it’ll sync up.” He used Phase One’s Capture One software while previewing the images. 
Post-Production: Working on a short deadline, Minton and Pollack edited the day’s take over dinner, and sent off their favorites to the TIME office. In reviewing the images, Minton notes, “The lawn wasn’t perfect enough.” He had to retouch spots and flaws in blades of grass. “I think it would have been fine if we’d left it, but it changed the concept of the story,” he says. “We wanted the ideal—graphic and crisp—for this type of shot. Once you see imperfections in the grass, it changes the message.” 
TIME’s policy is to identify any photos published in the magazine that have been retouched, so Minton’s photo credit was listed as “photo illustration by Jeff Minton,” which has inspired many people to ask if he composited several images. He says, “I think it’s funny that we put all this work into this to get it in-camera, and then we were dealing with a grass problem.” He adds, “Ever since the shoot I’ve been overwatering my lawn at home.”

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Jeff Minton Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery