How I Got That Shot: Simulating an Iconic David Bowie Image

August 24, 2016

By Interview Holly Stuart Hughes

CLIENT: Lea DeLaria
CREATIVE DIRECTORS: Chelsea Fairless, Steven Smith

Throughout her career, New York City photographer Sarah Wilmer has spent equal time on fine-art projects and commercial assignments. She shows both in her portfolio and on her website, and many of the clients who contact her for editorial stories and portraits, album art and promotions have asked her to recreate the eerie, poignant mood of the images she’s shot for herself.

Her “Small Hours” series, which was exhibited last year at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles, feature the hallmarks of her style. Most of the images, which were made over the course of a year, are dark, and the time of day is ambiguous. “What they all have in common is a quietness, a stillness,” Wilmer says. That describes the signature image in the series, which shows an albino deer standing on the edge of a dark forest that’s dense with tangled branches and undergrowth. Wilmer captured the photo while on a road trip with a friend through the Blue Mountains in Virginia.

“It looks like a diorama from a natural history museum,” Wilmer says of the deer. “That’s when I’m most interested in a picture, when it doesn’t seem real.” Wilmer waited months before reviewing the images she shot during her trip. She then chose the deer photo and about a dozen other improbable images of forests and fields or isolated humans and animals to “sculpt” in post-production, enhancing tones and underscoring the ominous mood. “I hate highlights,” says Wilmer. “I use a lot of layers of density to make it feel that you can’t tell the time of day.” She also works to make the image look as good as possible when printed. She offers most of her work in editions of five and prints on metallic paper, “which makes the shadows watery and beautiful.” She recently sold one image from the series printed at 36×40.

In her personal series such as “The Small Hours,” Wilmer likes to shoot with available light. On assignment, however, she typically relies on lighting to capture the mood required. She was asked by creative directors Chelsea Fairless and Steven Smith to shoot the cover and a portfolio of images for Lea DeLaria’s album of David Bowie cover songs, House of David. Wilmer photographed the singer and actress among sets onto which she projected iconic photos of Bowie. For the cover, she needed to create a modern homage to the cover image on Changesonebowie, taken by Tom Kelley, but adapt it to capture a sense of DeLaria’s personality.

“I wanted her to look as good as possible,” Wilmer says. In the finished shot, she says, “I think you can see the reference image but also see something new which has to do with Lea’s character and personality.”


An image from Wilmer’s fine-art series “The Small Hours.” © SARAH WILMER


“I started by studying the reference image and trying to figure out where the lights were, whether they were continuous or strobe, and figuring out what I’d need to emulate that style,” Wilmer recalls. She decided to use continuous lights, and rented a lighting kit offered at the rental studio where the shoot took place. “I prefer how [continuous light] looks—it wraps better on the subject,” she says. The hot lights presented challenges, however. “It’s uncomfortable to be in hot lights, so you have the subject for less time.” She used her assistant, a creative director and anyone else she could grab on set as stand-ins while she adjusted lights. In place of a table and chair, they stacked apple boxes. Once the shoot began, one of the most time-consuming challenges was getting DeLaria’s pose and expression just right. “Is it an intense gaze, is it thoughtful, is it daydreaming?” Wilmer recalls. “Whatever it is, it is subtle and specific. We made tons of photos of Lea expertly expressing the many nuances around these possibilities.” They worked in phases, to give the subject breaks. DeLaria was “super patient and professional” throughout, Wilmer says.


Before the shoot, Wilmer and a photographer friend studied the reference image of Bowie. Wilmer concluded that she needed three continuous lights: a keylight, a hairlight and a background light. She and her assistant arrived at the studio early to set up. When one head in the studio kit died, she had to run to another rental house for a replacement. “We had time to go and come back before Lea was even ready,” she notes. However, with no continuous lights available, Wilmer had to improvise, and light the background with the modeling light on a strobe head. “It’s not ideal, but it can work in a crunch,” she says.

The keylight was a Mole-Richardson 2K placed at camera left, about seven feet high. The hairlight, a 1K, was placed higher and angled down towards the subject’s head. Gridded reflectors and barndoors on all the lights prevented spill.

Wilmer used the modeling light to light the background, which was about five feet from DeLaria, placing it just to the right of the camera and close to the background. Creating the right glow of light required the longest period of testing and experimentation. “It was just hard to get the shape right,” Wilmer says, adding, “I didn’t want to do it in post.”

She also brought in several modifiers. “We were using cards, cinefoils and weird paper cutouts.” She had some on clamps, and used gaffers tape as well. “It was a craft mess.”


Wilmer shot on a tripod using a Canon EOS-5D Mark III and an EF 85 mm f/1.2 L lens. “I wanted to use a fixed lens for the best quality,” she notes. She shot tethered and used Capture One, while Smith and Fairless moved between the set and the monitor to preview the shots. Wilmer recalls, “There were people hovering and saying: Almost.” She adds, “It was a very specific look we were going for.”


“Thankfully, I had Steven and Chelsea helping put the edit together. It’s a luxury when I have someone to edit with,” Wilmer says. After making a first pass, she sent her picks to the creatives. Then they debated the options before choosing one that had the expression, camera angle, mood and tone they wanted—reminiscent of the reference image, but also different. “There were a lot of ‘almosts’ to go through. It seems really obvious looking back, but at the time, when you are in it, it can be hard to see.” Wilmer, who does her own retouching, says she retouched the hair and makeup, “but not much.” She called on a retoucher friend to help correct a gradient that was visible on the backdrop.

The image appeared on the cover of House of David, which was released last year. Wilmer’s images of seven other setups made over the course of her day in the studio with DeLaria were featured in a booklet enclosed with each CD.

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