Photo editor: Myles Little
Photographer Michele Asselin’s portraits have appeared in TIME, The New Yorker, Fortune and The New York Times Magazine, and have been used in campaigns for IBM and Verizon. But four years ago, she decided to be more selective about the assignments she takes, in order to spend more time on long-term, personal projects about social issues. Her fine-art is now in private collections and will be included in an upcoming show at the Orange County Museum of Art. Since shifting her focus, she says, “The assignments that I accept are usually of people I admire and am interested in.” In the past year, she has photographed breast cancer survivors for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and, for TIME, Apple CEO Tim Cook, director Martin Scorsese, and Stephen Frears, director of Florence Foster Jenkins, and the film’s star, Meryl Streep.
Her first long-term portrait project was “Full Time Preferred,” a series of portraits of nannies and the children they are paid to look after. Asselin, who is now based in Los Angeles, began the project when she hired a nanny to look after her then six-month-old daughter. She says of her daughter, “I watched her fall in love with another woman.” She wanted to apply her portrait skills to documenting “a work force that becomes so deeply entrenched in a family.” Her images reference Madonna-and-child iconography, but “replace the traditional mother with the hired mother who was filling the role,” she says.
“It was the first time that I was able to combine my personal experience and my photographic practice, and it was in line with what I’d done for so many years: Formal portraiture, but this time taking on a whole host of social issues, political issues, issues of immigration, the family structure and the global marketplace.”
Whether she’s shooting a portrait for a personal project or for a story in a magazine, Asselin says, her goal is to capture “genuine reactions,” so she gives her subjects little direction. “I don’t ever wait for the perfect static pose to happen,” she says.
PDN asked Asselin to describe the making of her photo of Streep and Frears, and her portraits in “Full Time Preferred.” Though the finished photos look different, she took a similar approach to meeting the challenges of each shoot.
Whoever she photographs, Asselin likes to walk around the room while she talks, triggering her camera remotely. “There’s a moment where you say, ‘OK, look at the camera.’ But that’s not the whole shoot.”
The TIME assignment called for Asselin to get some shots of Streep alone, but the priority was to photograph the actress and director together in one shot. “Photographing two [subjects] is really hard. I think even photographing three is easier in terms of composition,” she says. The personal dynamic between two subjects who know each other can complicate her ability to establish a rapport. She says of Frears and Streep, “They were comfortable and happy to be together. However, when one is happy and comfortable with a friend, and then confronted with a camera and a photographer you don’t know, it’s a different experience.”
She adds, “It’s always unpredictable, just how close people want to stand next to each other, who’s physical and who’s not. It’s not something you can ask a publicist.” Knowing she would have only a short time to get several variations during the shoot at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, Asselin and her assistants set up the lights in advance, but prepared to adjust to the subjects’ body language or positioning.
She had to account for a different dynamic when photographing nannies and children while working on “Full Time Preferred.” “You have a young child walking into the room with a strobe that’s firing. It’s not like you could tell them to be ‘normal,’” she explains. “I think what came out is a very genuine relationship—because they’d either look to the nanny if it was strange and they were feeling fearful, or they would be playful if it seemed fun to them.”
She wanted her lighting to recreate the chiaroscuro of Renaissance paintings. She was also interested in applying “a really formal approach and composition to address social issues,” she says. Asselin shot most of the portraits in her own apartment in New York, where she was living at the time, and in a space she borrowed from a friend. She needed a “super minimal,” portable studio she could carry herself, since she couldn’t afford an assistant. She bought a sheet of black velvet that attached with Velcro to a collapsible, 12×12-foot frame she could fold and put in a tote bag. The small backdrop created “an intimate, calm place” for the kids and women to interact.
For the double portrait for TIME, she used two Profoto 8a strobes running on their own 2400 w/s packs. On the first strobe, she placed a six-foot Octabank, and set it in front of her subjects, raised so the light was a few feet above the subjects’ heads and aimed down at a 45-degree angle. She then placed a beauty dish with a grid directly in front of the Octabank. Together, the small gridded beauty dish and the larger Octabank function like key light and fill: “You have a stronger, sharper light and then softer fill, but in my setup, they’re coming from the same direction,” she explains. “I want the light to be simultaneously soft and beautiful but to have a little strength, a bolder, sharper quality.”
Asselin and her assistants also use foamcore V-flats, using either black and white “depending on how much fill we need, or if one [subject] has darker skin tone,” the photographer explains.
In her images of Streep, the actress appears to glow. “I don’t think I can take credit for that,” Asselin notes. “I feel that a big part of it is that when people are relaxed and comfortable, they look more beautiful.”
In contrast, in each of her nanny portraits, Caravaggio-like shadows contour the outlines of entwined bodies of woman and child. Asselin used a single Profoto 8a head outfitted with a 5-foot Octabank and a soft grid, to give the light more focus. She placed the light almost directly above the subject’s head so that it cast their bodies in a narrow pool of light.
Parts of their faces are obscured by shadow. Unlike the Streep and Frears shot, which had to call attention to the subjects’ facial expressions, the nanny portraits “were more symbolic,” she says.
Asselin photographed Streep and Frears using a Hasselblad H series camera with a Phase One IQ260 back, which she likes for its speed. “I almost never stop shooting,” Asselin notes. She shot at f/11 with a 100mm Hasselblad lens.
She also shot a Hasselblad for the “Full Time Preferred” series, using an earlier Phase One back. She recalls that she used a 80mm lens at f/16. She had the camera on a tripod that she could adjust to each subject’s height, maintaining a consistent distance between lens and subject in each portrait in the series.
Whether she is on an editorial shoot with a digital tech or shooting alone for herself, Asselin says, she typically shoots tethered. Shooting fast, she’ll check the monitor when her subjects need a pause. “After the shoot I’ll sit down and go through the images, then I think it’s good to wait a day, if you can,” she says. She typically sends her clients a selection of ten to 20 shots from each setup, and recommends her top pick.
“I never do a ton of retouching on anyone. I think people look better when they’re natural,” says Asselin. She previews shots in CaptureOne, but prefers to use Photoshop when she wants to “mess a little with the exposure, the contrast.”
Since The New York Times Magazine published a portfolio of her nanny portraits in 2012, Asselin has gone on to shoot other long-term projects, including a series of portraits at a now-closed racetrack in southern California, and she’s sold prints to collectors. Her portrait of Streep and Frears was published in TIME in August 2016.