Studio Photography & Design
Most of us remember watching “The Sound of Music” as a child or maybe even as an adult. While I worshipped the musical, one of Julie Andrews’ lines always stood out for me. She said that whenever a door is closed on someone, a window always opens. Portraitist Alan Weissman reminds me of this childhood favorite. For 16 years, he made his living as a freelance window decorator. The doors slammed shut on that business in the 1980s, when The Gap and other retail stores did away with store front showcases. Then a different “window” of opportunity flew open for the 40-something, shy, Brooklyn-born, California native.
Weissman decided to lean on his hobby, photography, for income. Up to this point, his photographic pursuits had gone no further than the walls of his garage. He took pictures of his wife, a clothing designer modeling her latest fashions.
“I always loved to play with the lighting. I would use spotlights and clamp-on bulbs in different areas of the garage. The pictures began to take on a 1940s film-noir look,” said Weissman.
Claiming lack of courage as the reason he hadn’t followed his dream earlier, gradually his career began moving toward photography. He first placed an ad in a local industry magazine and started doing headshots for aspiring, “starving” actors at $75 per roll.
A decade later, his client roster reads like a Who’s Who in Holly-wood. Many celebs are drawn to him, through word of mouth, for his skilled film noir, renditions—the very renditions that were born in the shadows of his cobwebbed garage. Ignoring those that claimed he couldn’t do it—that he had to “pay his dues” in Europe first—Weissman taught himself the art.
Today, he does two shoots a day, continues to photograph aspiring actors, and relishes working slowly and carefully.
“Because this is my second career, I am always inspired. It’s never a case of in and out with my clients. I do three lighting setups and three make up styles per shoot. Most junior actors believe their headshots should take on the typical commercial or stage look to be viable.”
When he shoots, he always takes one roll of them looking like they are working actors. He tells them to forget the rules for a minute, to wear something funky, something where they look like themselves. They usually choose a T-shirt and jeans.
“I tell them to forget about their agents and managers and just do it for ‘you and me,’” he explained.
Weissman said that 60 to 75 percent of his actor clients ultimately select one of these shots as their main pose. In many ways, Weissman prefers doing the up-and-coming bunch, rather than celebrities, because he has more time to experiment.
“It’s always hard when someone like Morgan Freeman says he has only 20 minutes, and I can only shoot one and a half rolls. Richard Harris once had to leave after 12 frames.”
Quite frequently, he will order extra photos for the client, out of his own pocket, that he thinks they should have chosen as well. “Quality control is important; sometimes the client can’t visualize what will look great in a 4x6.” Weissman still loves to manipulate the light in his large, windowed studio, even when thick rays of sunlight are streaming in. “I always feel like I’m painting. I keep adding and subtracting lights. I mix daylight in with tungsten. I never use natural light on faces, but usually as back light, and strobes and tungsten as filler.”
Using an average of six lights per shoot, Weissman claims he is a man “without a plan”—preferring to improvise as he goes along.
“This is part of my personality. In my window display days, other window decorators would be armed with computer drawings of their concepts. When a retail store owner would ask me where my plan was, I would sit down and draw my concept with stick figures,” he said. This in-the-moment style is working for him. Not only has shooting allowed Weissman to venture out of the garage and into the light, it also has allowed him to come out of his shell. And as this confidence grew, it worked its way into his photographs.
“I’ve come to understand actors better and the fact that they, like most people, always look for the worst in themselves. Many come in too prepared, feeling like they have to be perfect—conscious of every wrinkle.”
And although many of these imperfections go unnoticed by audiences around the world, Weissman believes he has a responsibility to create pictures his celebrity clients will be comfortable with. And that starts with photographing personality.
“When I started I made great pictures, but they did not speak. Now they have that special twinkle. If you capture life in your photographs, people don’t notice the wrinkles.”
While photographing actors like Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Jeremy Irons, Geena Davis, Charlize Theron, Kevin Costner, and Jack Lemmon may seem glamorous, Weissman is surprisingly grounded. He still self-promotes, works five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., takes walk-ins, and has no agent to help him return dozens of phone calls daily. And most importantly, his dog, Rex, still greets all his clients at the door and serves as his faithful assistant. For a cookie, Rex rushes downstairs and brings up rolls of film.
Like recording snippets of daily life, Weissman’s method of photography involves talking to his subjects, getting to know them, and then stealing their expressions.
“Sometimes I want to put a sign up—‘No Posing In My Studio.’ What I do is sneak pictures while we talk. This usually takes a lot of time and becomes a problem if someone answers in run-on sentences,” he said, laughingly.
Weissman certainly doesn’t live his life behind the security of a window anymore. Julie would be proud.
ALAN WEISSMAN’S GEAR BOX
Stella Pro Lights by Light & Motion
MEDIUM FORMAT CAMERA (S)
I mac pro