Delivering on Challenging Assignments: Christie Hemm Klok’s Poppy Chicken Portraits for the Washington Post

September 12, 2018

By David Walker

San Francisco-based editorial photographer Christie Hemm Klok says that when photo editors call her with assignments, “one of the big requests is that they’d like to see poppy color. That’s what I strive for. I’m drawn to color and bright, contrasty images.”

“Christie’s a great collaborator and always brings enthusiasm and creativity to her assignments,” says photo editor Marisa Schwartz Taylor, who recently moved from The Washington Post to The New York Times. When she was looking for a photographer to shoot a story about chickens as a new Silicon Valley status symbol for The Post last winter, Schwartz Taylor considered having Hemm Klok document a family with chickens in their urban backyard. After Schwartz Taylor and another editor looked at animal portraits, Schwartz Taylor recalls, “we thought it would be hilarious to give the chickens Christie’s distinct tech-portrait style.”

Hemm Klok studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and honed her skills while working as a photo editor and in-house photographer at WIRED magazine. Freelancing since 2016, she achieves her look with a simple, straightforward lighting kit: two Bolt VB-22 bare-bulb flashes, equipped with scoop reflectors and medium diffusers. “I use those in 90 percent of my shoots,” she says. “I don’t like to be bogged down by heavy, cumbersome strobes.” She explains that most of her assignments are on location and in the short time she’s given with her subjects—“maybe 15 minutes,” she says—she likes to move the subjects and lights around in order to shoot from multiple angles and distances, with her subjects in various positions, sitting as well as standing.

© Christie Hemm Klok

Schwartz Taylor’s idea was “to get bright, poppy portraits of chickens” Hemm Klok says. © Christie Hemm Klok

Often, her shoots are at tech offices, which tend to look similar—and uninteresting. “One way to get creative is with lighting,” Hemm Klok says. She usually doesn’t have the luxury to scout locations in advance, so she always asks for access to the space an hour prior to the shoot. “That’s important. It gives you time to walk around and see what the possibilities are,” she says.

Hemm Klok starts with one light. “I tend to instinctually light from the side,” she says. “I don’t like direct, on-camera flash.” She experiments with the angle, and elevates the light a foot or two above her subjects’ heads to avoid casting shadows behind them. She also positions the light at a distance of five to ten feet away from her subject to avoid blowing out details. Once that key light is dialed in, she might use her second light for fill, especially on the background, she explains.

Hemm Klok has photographed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and tech executives, as well as activists and artists. But her assignment to photograph chickens for The Washington Post was one of her most challenging, she says. The assignment started with a two-word text from Schwartz Taylor: Chicken portraits!

“Her idea was to get bright, poppy portraits of chickens,” Hemm Klok says.

Hemm Klok wanted to make the chickens look regal. Her plan was to place a chicken on a table against a colored backdrop and light the shots with Elinchrome strobe heads inside a large overhead softbox. She spent a day experimenting with the set-up. On location the following day, nothing went according to plan. “My preparation made no difference,” Hemm Klok says. She couldn’t take the chickens out of the coop, which was a cramped space under a deck. She couldn’t get the Elinchrome strobes and soft box into the coop. The backdrop was also too big.

“A mild panic goes through my head, and then my mind went to, ‘How do I still make this work?’” she recounts. She focused on what was possible to pull off inside the chicken coop: There was room for just one light—a Bolt flash. She had to substitute a piece of colored paper for the backdrop. The table wouldn’t work—not only because space was tight. “I had this preconceived notion that I could put a chicken on a table” and expect it to hold still, Hemm Klok explains. Instead, the owner had to chase chickens around the coop to catch them, and then hold them up for five seconds while Hemm Klok photographed them. Her light was positioned over the chicken’s head so shadows fell away, out of the frame.

And it worked: Hemm Klok got the portraits she had envisioned—and Schwartz Taylor had asked for. “I have a client expecting something, and my responsibility is to provide that,” Hemm Klok says. “You become a creative problem solver…By sheer will, you make it happen.”

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