11 Minutes with Bruce Springsteen
January 10, 2018
“With a lot of environmental portraits I’ve done in the past year, I’ve tried to accentuate the light that’s there,” says Bryan Derballa, who enhanced the window light in this portrait. Click through to see more photos from the Springsteen shoot and other recent celebrity portraits Derballa's photgraphed for The New York Times.
Springsteen, photographed in the driver’s seat of his vintage wood-paneled Ford as Derballa sat in the back of the vehicle. Letting the windows blow out created a simpler backdrop behind the subject's face.
“We all have a dream list of who we want to shoot as portrait photographers. I think of anyone living, Springsteen would be number one on the list,” says photographer Bryan Derballa, who recently photographed recording artist Bruce Springsteen for The New York Times. The Times published four portraits Derballa made on property the singer-songwriter owns in New Jersey.
Derballa was working with Jolie Ruben, photo editor of the Arts & Leisure section of The Times, on a portrait of a TV personality when she mentioned that she would need some portraits of Springsteen for a story about “Springsteen on Broadway,” a one-man show of music and spoken-word performances that opened in September 2017. Derballa was eager to do it. Five days later, he was photographing Springsteen.
Derballa, 35, shoots portraits, fashion and lifestyle imagery for magazines and commercial clients such as J. Crew, Levi’s, Adidas and Nike. His Springsteen portraits “weren’t the most ambitious” in terms of lighting or technique, he says, but he wanted to make something classic. “I wanted to be able to look at these photos in 30 or 50 years and be excited by them, and not have them be pegged to one particular time or style.”
His desire for simplicity, and the knowledge that he would have only a short time to get multiple environmental portraits, influenced his choice of lights, lenses and setups. After the shoot, when he checked the time stamp, he saw that he had shot four setups in 11 minutes.
When Derballa and his assistant, Perry Hall, arrived on Springsteen’s property at the same time as the publicist, Springsteen came out to greet them. Derballa says, “I’ve photographed a number of celebrities. I don’t get too nervous, but this guy means a lot to me.” When he started out in photography shooting documentary work, he says, “All I thought was, ‘I wish I could tell stories with photos the way Bruce tells stories with music.’” Derballa’s long-term personal project, “Before We Land,” is about kids on the edge of adulthood and responsibility. He says of Springsteen, “All the feelings that I get from his music inform my feelings about youth that come up in my personal project.”
While Jon Pareles, music critic for The Times, conducted an interview with Springsteen, Derballa and Hall had one hour to find locations for three environmental portraits and set up lights.
They first saw Springsteen’s recording studio, which was filled with guitars. Then an assistant for Springsteen showed them around the garage that houses a collection of vintage cars. At Derballa’s suggestion, the assistant drove a wood-paneled Ford outside, and parked it by a meadow. Derballa noticed the walls of the rustic garage, lit by sun coming through small, high windows.
He decided to make the first photo in the studio, next to a window. Springsteen’s assistant moved all the guitars except for one, which would be silhouetted in the window. From there, the shoot would move to the garage. Then he planned to photograph inside the Ford, with Derballa sitting in the back seat to photograph Springsteen in the driver’s seat.
Derballa used Springsteen’s assistant as a stand-in during tests, which left Hall free to set up lights. Derballa notes that The Times doesn’t typically pay for an assistant, so he’ll often hire one out of his own fee. “It’s worth it to me,” he says. The time he gets to shoot a celebrity is usually tight, “and having an assistant helps ensure that I’ll get something I’m happy with” to show in his portfolio. Derballa often makes the money back through syndication after The Times’ seven-day embargo expires. The Times syndicates photos through Redux Pictures, and Derballa has a syndication agent in the UK. (His Springsteen photos have so far been licensed by The Times of London, AARP and some overseas news outlets.)
When Pareles and Springsteen finished their interview, the portrait shoot began.
“I didn’t direct him too much,” Derballa says. “He has done this more than I have.” At one point, Springsteen asked him, “What’s your joke?”: the line each photographer uses to get a subject to laugh. Derballa recalls, “I honestly couldn’t think of a worthy one.” He was also conscious of the time crunch; if they talked too much, “his mouth would have been moving.”
“In the past, I would have blasted light around and made something that looks lit,” Derballa says. “With a lot of environmental portraits I’ve done in the past year, I’ve tried to accentuate the light that’s there.” To enhance the early afternoon sun coming through the studio window, he placed a Flashpoint Streaklight 360, fitted with a medium softbox, outside the window, pointing into the studio at an angle that mimicked the sun. The light illuminated some details in the couch, but Derballa wanted the wall behind Springsteen to be in shadow, so it provided a plain background. “Iconic photos are often simple,” he says.
In the garage, Derballa had Springsteen lean against one of his old cars. Visible in the background is a window that reveals other windows in the stalls inside the garage. Another small, high window was at camera right. Just outside the window, Hall held up a monopod with a Flashpoint Streaklight 360 and a Photek SoftLighter attached. The SoftLighter is “basically an umbrella with a sock,” says Derballa. “It’s probably one of my favorites.” With the Streaklight, he notes, “You can change the power on the transmitter from the hot shoe on my camera, so I don’t have to tell Perry to power up
When he planned to shoot inside the car, Derballa had originally wanted the viewer to be able to see out the windows to the meadow, so he and Hall tried bouncing sunlight using reflectors. During tests, however, Derballa decided that letting the windows blow out slightly provided a simpler background for his subject. When he had that photo done, Derballa asked for one more photo: Springsteen obliged him by sitting on the hood of the car in open shade, under a tree.
Derballa shot handheld with a Nikon D810. He regularly uses prime lenses from the Sigma Art line, and on this assignment, “I wanted to use classic portrait focal lengths,” he says. For the window-lit studio shot, he used an 85mm at f/ 3.2 at 1/160th. Shooting at ISO 400, “I was underexposing the ambient just a bit,” he says. For the garage shot, he used the 85mm at f/2.8 at 1/125th, at ISO 640.
Derballa estimates he got about 300 photos. He edited the take to about 80 photos , then he brought them into Lightroom to adjust colors. Derballa initially sent Ruben a wide edit. “I trust her taste,” he explains. Ruben then asked him for high-res, toned files for about 25 images, “and I threw in about eight or nine of my favorites.” The Times doesn’t allow any retouching beyond the digital equivalent of dodging and burning. The Times ran one shot from each setup, including a shot of Springsteen sitting on the hood of his car.
When the article appeared on September 27, The New York Times posted one of the images on Instagram. “My Instagram started blowing up,” Derballa says. As he sat down at his computer to work, he tuned into an all-Springsteen network on Sirius XM. The radio hosts were discussing The Times article, and Derballa’s portraits. Derballa decided to call into the show. Both the hosts and later callers to the show said “it was nice hearing from the photographer,” Derballa recalls. “It’s nice that being a photographer is still worthwhile to people.”