People often ask me how I reach the people I photograph for the Culinaria project. It usually starts with an email. And the emails can take me to interesting places. The photoshoot with Deb Eschmeyer is one such example.
Last year in January, I reached out to Deb with a request to photograph her for the Culinaria project. She was the Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House under the Obama administration. Prior to taking on that role, she was the co-founder of Foodcorps and is the recipient of the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. She is a formidable presence in the food world as a policy maker and influencer.
Deb responded fairly quickly and passed me onto Joanna Rosholm, the Deputy Communications Director. That began a short series of emails vetting the project. When she asked me whether I needed the White House for the shoot, I knew things were getting serious! Within a week of my initial email, they agreed to Deb's participation in the project! Easy! Now, I just had to figure out the shoot date with the intern tasked with the job. I hoped to photograph Deb around June.
After several email exchanges with the intern I got radio silence. I waited several weeks before reaching out. Again, nothing. It wasn't until May that it was discovered that the intern had left and my emails were left unread. At that point, June wasn't happening. I went through the process again with the next intern. After all was said and done, I would cycle through three interns.
Eventually, I was given a date in late September for the shoot and a conference call was scheduled for September 1st with Joanna, Catherine Oakar from the office of Let's Move!, producer Kevin Bishop and myself to talk details. Knowing that I'd have limited time at the White House and VERY little margin for error, I asked my friend Kevin to produce the job for me so that I can focus on the photography only.
On September 1st. I'm heading into San Francisco from a location. The plan is to get in town then pull off somewhere to talk. But before I make it into town, an hour before the scheduled conference call, I get pulled over for speeding! The last time I got pulled over was when I was sixteen and NOW is the time I get pulled over again?! Unbelievable! I make it into SF, pull off into the Palace of the Fine Arts and do my best to focus on the upcoming conversation. We start the conference call and Joanna and Catherine immediately tell me the date in September will no longer work! That was not a good day but at least now I knew they were committed to the shoot happening and we nailed down the East Portico as the location.
We settle on a day in October for the shoot and for the next month, I'm in research mode, studying all the photos I can find of the East Portico and exterior environmental portraits taken at the White House. I'm looking at the White House image on Google Earth and Google Maps with the sun path chart in hand. Two weeks from the shoot, I start checking the weather reports for Washington DC. A local assistant John Skowronski joins the team.
The day before the shoot I drive from a shoot at Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia into Washington D.C. I meet Kevin at the hotel where we're staying and after dinner go over the plans. We have an hour to set up (which is pretty generous, considering) thirty minutes to shoot, then thirty minutes to pack up. I diagram out the two setups we can do in the thirty minutes and a possible third set up. Normally, I wouldn't go into such details of the shoot with a producer but Kevin's an accomplished photographer himself alongside being a great producer. I wanted him familiar with the lighting set up so that in the event I get tied up, Kevin can direct John on what needs to be done. The next morning, we meet John near the White House and go over the game plan with him. It's good for Kevin and I to go over the plan again ourselves so that it's fresh in our minds. East Portico here we come!
We go through security and meet Catherine. She says hello then tells me the East Portico is not available for the shoot due to a last minute event! She can instead offer a room in the East Wing. Will that work? She asked. I asked her if I had any other options? No, she said. "Then the room is perfect!" I replied. My biggest concern throughout the months of planning was the cancellation of the shoot due to a national or an international emergency. (I actually called my photo insurance company to see if they had any sort of coverage for such cancellations. No dice!) After all I've invested in time and money, there was no sense of losing it an hour before the shoot. The loss of East Portico meant the month of research was now useless but we could probably adapt our shot lists and lighting plans to the room. Besides, we have a room, we still had the hour to set up, we're in the WHITE HOUSE and Deb was still gonna be photographed! So all in all, eh, no big deal.
We go to the room reserved for the shoot and I realize I know this room. I'd seen it in a video during my research. The room is rich, warm, and inviting due to the wood paneling. Okay, good! Now, my mind is racing to find the composition. I settle on an area next to a Federalist style credenza with a Mary Cassatt painting in the background for shot one then a placement for shot two and we begin setting up. We immediately discover the profoto strobe heads won't fit on the c-std arms because the arm is painted black! Dammit! Never seen that before! I can't get the lights exactly where I want them. Okay, we need to slightly alter the lighting position. Then we find the batteries for the second set of strobes we rented is near dead. Sonofa...! Okay, no big deal. We simply will use the power pack from shot one for both setups. We just have to remember the setting for the two setups and change accordingly when we move. A hassle but nothing major, but I'm definitely having low opinions of the rental house at this point. The set needs a little life so I ask if we can get some fruits or vegetable from the White House Kitchen. They bring in the fruit bowl from the First Lady Obama's office with her apples and oranges. Perfect!
At this point, I have my recurring thoughts. What will Deb look like? Will she be coming from a policy meeting, harried and frazzled? What will she be wearing? sensible business attire? Something fashionable? What IS her sense of fashion like? (couldn't get a good sense from the google search) Should I have hired hair & makeup person after all? I'm just not sure what I will get.
At the appointed time, Brandon, our WH liaison called to let them know we were ready and Deb came in. And she's gorgeous! Her raven black hair is luxurious, her makeup just so. She's wearing a fashionable silver-gray form fitting dress that contrasts wonderfully from the warm, wooden hue of the room. She looks ready for a White House ball. And she's nice and friendly the way a farm girl from Ohio will be. At this point, I just knew the shoot was gonna be a success. I've gotten great results with much less before.
We turn on Beyonce and start shooting. Usually at this point on a shoot, I have flop sweat going from setting up the lights and nerves. But today I'm good. Because John did most of the work. Because I know I have Kevin here making sure everything's taken care of. Because Deb looks great and is a natural in front of the camera and because everyone in the White House team have been super nice and helpful. We were so efficient that we had time to do a third shot. Then the thirty minutes was up. We chatted a bit. She thanked us and left and it was all over!
In the end, it took me nine months to get to the White House to photograph Deb Eschmeyer. One thing I quickly learned photographing people is that important people are busy. Some people took two years to schedule the shoot so nine months was nothing. I can be patient.
And it all started with an email.