How I Got that Shot: Re-Imagining Tibet
April 16, 2018
Photographing a room in a dark monastery, Amy Luo used the daylight seen through the curtain as her motivated lighting, then used set a softbox and a grid to help illuminate the scene.
From Luo's “Till We Meet Again Series," in which she was working in sometimes small spaces in her subjects' homes.
Photographer Amy Luo describes her work on the fine-art series “Till We Meet Again” and “Secret Scriptures,” which she shot last year in Tibet, as a kind of “collaboration” with her late grandfather. Each of her intensely saturated, crisply lit tableaux has an association with a line or poem in the journal he kept during his own travels in Tibet.
Luo’s grandfather was a poet and a literature teacher long fascinated by Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. When he was in his 40s, he suddenly left his family, went to Tibet, and spent four years there as a pilgrim and “wandering monk.” Luo, who now divides her time between New York City and Beijing, says that she was close to her grandfather when she was a small child, growing up in a village in southern China. But after she and her parents moved to a city, she had contact with him only on holidays. The family never talked about his time in Tibet, and she never got a chance to ask.
After he died, she returned to his home for the funeral. She found a booklet of poems and observations he made of people and places he had seen then. “When I read these lines,” she says, “I thought: Why don’t I go to Tibet and see what I can do there to honor his memory?”
Traveling with a photographer friend who acted as her assistant and an interpreter who could get access to several monasteries outsiders rarely see, Luo spent seven weeks traveling in Tibet, meeting people, and coping with her grief. Whenever she saw a scene that reminded her of her grandfather’s writings, she asked permission to make a photo. “It was like recreating what he described by using real life characters and locations,” she says.
Her tableaux are cinematic, reflecting one of the strongest influences in her personal work. Now a commercial and studio photographer, Luo studied film theory at the University of Edinburgh and the Sorbonne. She worked on film productions before she studied photography at the International Center of Photography. There, her lighting instructor, Frank Franca, encouraged her interest in fashioning narratives within a single frame. She also took a workshop with Rick Sands, Gregory Crewdson’s director of photography and “a master of cinematic lighting,” Luo says. “What most portrait photographers focus on is the person, and some of them tend to ignore the scene. Rick has the whole scene in mind and lights it like a film set.”
While working in Tibet, she used studio lights, adapting them for use on location, often with little time to set up or plan her shots.
In an earlier fine-art series, “Dreams,” Luo asked people to re-enact their dreams. She would light a location, then observe her subjects from a distance, firing her camera using a remote trigger as they acted out a scene from memory. “I was interested in knowing how I could use photography to describe people’s inner, mental landscapes.”
While working in Tibet, she would talk to people through her translator, then ask for permission to observe and photograph them as they went about their usual routines. “Sometimes when they were in the middle of something I let them go back to what they were doing,” she explains. “I hardly posed them, but I’d ask them to carry on with their activities.”
She took the photos in her series “Secret Scriptures” in monasteries, many of them remote and not found on maps. Though some monks were happy to converse with Luo and her team, she often had little time to set up and shoot before her subjects were called to their work or prayers. As they talked, she would be deciding how best to light the space. This was a lesson she learned from Sands, she says: “Read the scene as if everything is in the dark. Then compose the scene with imaginary lighting.”
Traveling in a rented van, Luo packed two Profoto B2 heads and stands, two camera bodies and three lenses. She also had some small LEDs. “I’d throw a small LED on the floor or put them behind someone’s robes,” she explains.
“On some occasions, the monks were really nice and friendly and enjoyed talking, but then their supervisor would come in and say, ‘No, you need to leave as soon as possible.’” Luo notes, “I lost two or three LEDs because we were in such a hurry to pack up.”
Luo says Sands taught her to look for motivated lighting in a scene. She would find or imagine a light source in the room—a window, a lamp or a candle—then set up her lighting so it appeared to be emanating from a logical source.
One photo in the series shows three monks in a large, vividly painted room in a monastery. The room was very dark, but she could see daylight through slits in a curtain hanging in a doorway. While talking with the monks, she decided to set up her lights to suggest that the sunlight coming through the curtain was illuminating the back of the large room.
She placed a 4×5-foot softbox on a stand about 8 feet high positioned just behind her to her right. She pointed it towards the wall behind the monk on the left. “It’s a large softbox, so it’s covering a large area in the scene,” she says. The figure by the door was slightly backlit, so to get light on him and the area by the door, she placed her grid just out of the frame to the back left, on a stand about 9 feet high. She directed the light toward the head and torso of the monk by the door. The skirt of his robes were touched slightly by the light from the softbox, but the folds of the fabric cast some shadows to bring out texture.
Working quickly in the large, high-ceilinged, but often dark rooms of monasteries, having a large light source was useful. The images in the “Till We Meet Again” series, however, were shot inside private homes, where the rooms were small, so Luo needed to flag her lights to prevent spill.
In one home near the Tibet-Indian border, for example, she photographed a woman and her small son. Luo’s translator had learned that the village was having a festival in the evening. Luo asked the woman, elaborately dressed for the festival, to talk about the event, “the idea of going out and offering food and seeing your girlfriends,” Luo recalls. Luo captured her combing her hair. “She may have been looking at my camera, but her mind was not on me,” she says.
As the woman combed her hair, Luo set up her softbox behind her camera, and pointed it towards the woman. Because the woman was seated in front of windows and near a door opened to the outside, Luo first metered for the ambient light. To control spill from the softbox in the small corner of the room, she had her assistant stand to her left, holding a black flat to cut the light and keep it from bouncing against the wall.
Luo shot with a Canon 5D Mark III with a 50mm f/1.2 lens. “I always set the aperture between f/8 and f/11 because there’s depth in the scene,” she says. For the image inside the monastery, she shot at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/200. For the photo of the woman combing her hair, with bright window light behind her, Luo shot at f/11 at 1/200.
“In my retouching, I don’t remove or change the person in the photos, but I do change contrast and adjust layers,” Luo says. In the photo of the woman, she removed a reflection of her light stand in the mirror.
Previsualization is as important in her post-production as it is in her lighting. She recalls how the scene looked when she saw it, and how she wants her finished image to look. “You can retouch a photo for hours on end but it looks less ideal than before,” she says, “You really need to previsualize what’s important in the photo, and what parts should be darker or lighter.”
Luo is planning another trip to Tibet, and hopes to work with young Tibetans torn between tradition and the effects of rapid economic transformation. Images from “Till We Meet Again” were exhibited in London last year and chosen for Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50. “But the most important thing was that I looked at Tibet through my grandfather’s eyes,” she says. “It’s been a joyful experience.”