Noam Pikelny

Noam Pikelny is the preeminent banjo player of his generation. He is a member of the progressive bluegrass band, The Punch Brothers, a supergroup of sorts. Each member share a common background of being young prodigies in their respective instruments, growing up in the small, insular bluegrass circuit. Together, they push the boundaries of the genre and cross over into classical, rock, jazz and anything in between. Prior to the Punch Brothers, he was a member of Leftover Salmon and played in John Cowan's band; Cowan of the New Grass Revival fame, the early progressive bluegrass band that is perhaps the progenitor of the Punch Brothers. Pikelny also has the distinction of being the first recipient of the "Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass". Yes, that Steve Martin. And no, not a joke but a pretty serious and prestigious award established by Martin to recognize extraordinary banjo players.

On March 5th. Pikelny made his debut at McCabe's Guitar Shop playing a solo performance to a sold out audience. Two days prior, his solo album "Universal Favorite" was released. UF isn't a solo album in the sense of an individual from a band recording an album apart from his band with another group of musicians. This is a SOLO album; Noam and his instrument. That's it. Anybody who plays an instrument knows that solo performances are very taxing mentally. For an hour and a half, it's just you. There's no coasting. There's no laying out while others take a solo. There's no sharing of the weight. JUST. YOU.

Pikelny did a long soundcheck that went close to the start of the show and needed to get ready. So he requested that we shoot the portrait after the show. Ideally, I like to shoot the portraits just before the performance. Waiting till after the show can be a crapshoot depending on how the show went, how many friends are at the show wanting to hang out and other factors that can easily lead the musician to say, "maybe not tonight."

He was playing his fourth show in as many days in as many cities. And with the new album out, he was doing lots of interviews in addition. He played the show (now mind you he's not strumming three chords and singing but playing some very complex stuff) and met his fans and signed albums. After talking with his last fan, he just deflated from fatigue. He was tired! He said he hadn't been that tired in a long time. He could have easily begged off from the shoot but pressed on without complaining.

Thanks Noam!


Deb Eschmeyer

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.    

The team. John Skowronski, Kevin Bishop and myself. post shoot. To honor the location, I asked everyone to dress in suits. John got a pass on jacket and tie because he was lifting gear. 

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.

Brandon our WH liaison and I showing our...umm...affiliations.

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! 

Getting my tourist shot. At this point, my face and mood is beginning to acknowledge all the pressure and stress that had been building up.

All BTS photos courtesy of Kevin Bishop

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.   

Portrait Gallery from Good Food Awards 2016

The sixth annual Good Food Awards was held at the Fort Mason Art Center on January 15-17. I attended as I was honored to have my "Culinaria" project shown as the featured exhibition during the Awards weekend. 

During the GFA Mercantile, open to the industry professionals, and GFA Marketplace, open to the public, I took portraits of some of the crafter participants, staff, volunteers, luminaries and friends who stopped by the pop up photo studio. 

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American Teacher-Esther Wojcicki

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Esther Wojcicki

Holy Smokes! what kind of journalism program is she running at Palo Alto High? The school...the HIGH school, publishes a newspaper, web-based paper, a general interest magazine, sports magazine, fine arts magazine, and some other magazines. The founding editor of the arts magazine told me the magazine got its start because she and her friend wanted to do an arts magazine so they started one! Wow! Simple as that! The kids here are driven.

I had lots of fun photographing Esther. She had a calm coolness about her that comes from years of experience and knowledge of her abilities. A laconic assuredness that gave confidence to her comments without any sense of ego. While I was setting up the shot, Esther was meeting with a student editor who was absolutely furious at the action of one of the reporters who she felt violated journalistic ethics. She’s pouring her heart out at Woj the way only a high schooler can, just LIVID at the stupid antics of this reporter. The whole time Woj is listening, almost detached, voice flat near monotone. Just like the no-nonsense, seen-it-all paper editors you see in movies. “Um hum”, she’d say. “Yes that’s terrible.” “Yes, I see what you mean”, she’d say calmly, flatly. but the thing is, she WAS listening. And what struck me was the way Woj spoke to her editor, less a teacher to student and more professional in tone.

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This reminded me of something she said the beginning of the day; she gives the students a platform to do what they want and publish what they want and tries to stay out of their way.  The way she figures it, She doesn’t need to tell her students the importance of proper spelling and grammar. The students implicitly understand why they need to know proper grammar because they can’t write an article without the ability to spell and write correctly. I love this “teaching without teaching” method.

American Teacher-Daryl Bilandjiza

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For next several weeks I will be blogging about my experience photographing for the book American Teacher published by Welcome Books in Fall of 2013. I hope you will enjoy!

Daryl Bilanzija

My participation with the American Teacher project kicked off with the photoshoot of Daryl Bilanzija. It was trial by fire. Well, maybe that’s too rich. More like trial by really hot sun. That week in March, we were experiencing a heatwave. The week before, it was 59 degrees. The week after, 75. The day of the shoot, the high was 90 degrees! The kind of weather where old ladies and little kids pass out crossing the street and you break a sweat just thinking about stepping outside.

Daryl won the “Great American Teach-Off” contest held by Good Magazine the year before for the innovative ideas he brought to his classrooms at Odyssey Charter School. Besides teaching English and Theatre, Daryl built an edible garden where he teaches his students topics such as ecology, natural science, nutrition and practical hands-on problem solving by way of gardening.

As subjects go, Daryl was a great one to start the project off with; Ruggedly handsome with an athletic build, charismatic both in person and in front of the camera, and a bundle of energy. I always jokingly tell people rule number one in getting a great portrait is to have a good looking person in front of the camera and he was that person.

I knew going in that the garden was a location that we wanted to feature in the portraits. After finding the angle, I had to figure out who was gonna be in the photo and what the kids were gonna do. This is where things always get hairy for me. A minute after I meet the students, I have to figure out who they are and where to place them in the photo. I don’t have much time with them. I don’t know how many kids there will be. And I have to get really great photos of them. It’s a process of trial and error moving kid from one spot to another trying to find the nice balance of faces. The worst thing I can do is to have them lined up into one big lump of mass of bodies. And I try to make alterations and adjustments as fast and few as possible as I don’t want to lose the subject’s interest and focus. I literally sweat buckets in these kinds of situations due to my brain going 200 mph trying to solve all the problems of this photographic puzzle and the intense heat isn’t helping.

The sun is so bright and intense, Daryl and the kids had the kind of sheen on their skin that you find in Spaghetti westerns. It’s so bright I’m blind cause the pupil in my eyes are the size of a pinhole. It’s so bright I can’t see the images on the laptop monitor where the photos are shooting into. I’m a couple of degrees fahrenheit away from passing out but thankfully Daryl and the students are still engaged, having fun with the process. They don’t complain one bit.

After the session with the students, I photographed the solo portrait of Daryl. He had some chickens around (don’t we all) so we took some photos of him holding a chicken.

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The one good thing about the intense sun was that it made the colors really pop; A small sacrifice for good photos.