For nearly two years, I had been driving past this grand deserted building, as it was down the street from a friend’s house. It was surrounded by chain-link fencing and sections of the building were literally crumbling, the sight of decay was strong. I had never thought anything of it until I started photography and wondered what exactly the building was and what was inside.
It wasn't until one day in March when the pieces started to fall into place. Josh and I had spent the entire day scouting for cool locations. We had nearly given up on finding anything worthy of a photoshoot, we had scoured a few fields and old buildings but nothing of substantial weight. Our last stop was the very building that I had drove past so many times. I didn't expect any results, but we gave it a shot. We parked near a business in the back of the structure and found a small opening in the fence. We stepped through an open window and the instant smell of abandonment hit me. We were only in the first room and I already liked it. It was apparent that we weren’t the first visitors there, as the walls were covered with graffiti and colorful tags. Our sunlight was closing fast and the place was pitch black, so we armed ourselves with the only artificial light we could, our iPhones.
We meandered into room after room until we hit a main room with a spiral staircase, we were floored. Jaws dropped, both of our minds literally started exploding with ideas. Although it was one of the most disturbing dark environments I had ever explored, it was also the most satisfying. We went further into the black.
I felt like a modern day Indiana Jones and heart pounding, was literally waiting for the moment when a meth-addicted-frantic-blind-homeless person would come running out for the attack. Luckily, that didn’t happen and we didn’t run into anyone lounging around. Room after room, we found a new architectural spectacle that pleased our eyes and minds. After two hours and 2% battery remaining on our iPhones, we wandered back through opened window.
I believe it was right then and there that we officially decided that this was the location of all locations. We had to do something bigger then anything we had ever done before. We had to do a sequel to Searcher/Specter and it had to be on a spectacular scale.
The plot of 9 buildings turned out was a old facility that was once home to the Shaefer-Meyer Brewing Company, a facility which operated until the prohibition in 1919. Upon which is changed hands to the Fehr Brewing Company and then the Merchants’ Ice & Cold Storage Company. It was abandoned in the 1980’s and it is on the list of National Register of Historic Places.
We officially made the announcement of the project in April 2012 at a theme party with Maui Crane, a Lexington designer.
I would be representing the “dark” or “specter” side, a more edgy, dark and dramatic imagery. While Josh would be the “light” or “searcher” side, a more natural, contrasted counterpoise with beauty and light.
Not only would it be a great narrative through imagery, but also a great way to cross promote each others work. An 100% team collaborative effort and something that the regional fashion industry had never seen. This was a true example of how professionals working together can create a wonderful body of work.
My style is dark, I like shooting in the dark and creating a very dramatic ambiance. So this time around, I was ready and completely enthralled.
TALENT AND TEAM
The most time consuming and thought provoking part of the entire project was assembling our team for “Searcher/Specter II - A Portrait Set”. We went back and forth on every model, had many conversations about our subjects.
One of our first picks was Ashley Brock, a model with the agency Ford Europe. I had seen her work in a collaboration called “Spy-Wear”, as I thought with Leah Cultice, I had to work with Ashley Brock. Josh and I were actually pleasantly surprised when she agreed to come on board. I thought of her as the “rockstar model”, I loved all of her work and was completely enamored that I would have the chance to shoot her, especially in a portfolio concept.
We reached out to several models, which all lead to dead ends. So for the time being we moved onto formulating the rest of the team. Our first addition for styling was Raina Trimble on hair, whom we knew could bring this project to an entirely new level. Her pieces are BIG and make a statement, we needed someone like her to make this concept shine.
In addition to Raina, we asked Lexington master stylist and accessory designer Maui Crane to be apart of the shoot. He was immediately on board, we were all confident his eye for clothing and accessories could give the icing on the cake.
It took some time and reasoning to come to terms with our makeup artist. We wanted to give someone new a shot, someone who had a big mind. We bounced around quite a few names but as time moved on we set our gaze on Bethany Hood, model and makeup artist extraordinaire. Although she did not have a large portfolio of makeup work, Josh and I had seen her creativity and style at a few Maui events, which we regularly attended. She had big ideas and we admired that.
At some point during the summer I started working with sensational filmmaker Antonio Pantoja. After a few conversations, we thought it would be a cool addition to have the entire process and shot documented through cinematography. We invited Antonio to bring on his video skills and create a story with his vision.
April 28,2012 we created the secret Facebook group. We immediately started uploading our iPhone pics of the abandoned factory. As we assembled our team through the summer months, the ideas started flowing.
We had our location, we had our concept, but we still lacked a third model and a date. After what seemed like discussion after discussion we finally landed on the agreement of Alessandra Keedy. Both Josh and I had seen her work from a few photographers and really admired her look and technique.
With the small team we had assembled, I knew this would be big and was nervously excited, but a date had yet to be set.
Scheduling this project wasn't easy. My schedule was absolutely crazy and Josh had picked up a lot of weekend shoots, not too mention his crazy travel schedule. After 2 months in hibernation, the vision started to progress again and dates started to be thrown out. We landed on September 2nd, the official date. We had exactly one month to get the project in motion. I can’t really speak for Josh, but I’m confident we both felt pretty nervous about the shoot. This was to be the most intense concept we had ever done, we weren’t even close to being prepared for it. We didn’t know if we could even get the entire team into the facility.
The date was nearing and the entire team was in the game and interactive. We had to make a last minute change to our lineup replacing one of the models. The replacement was an easy choice, a stunning model with Puerto Rican roots, Melanie Hernandez. We quickly realized that we would be working with no one from the local Louisville area. Every person, with exception of Antonio, Josh and myself was from outside of Louisville, KY. For me this was an amazing feat. A regional powerhouse. When we brought Melanie on board, her excitement for the shoot gave it the energy boost it needed.
However, at that point 2 weeks passed and nothing had been prepared. It was the week of the shoot and I think Josh and I were both worried. The ball had to get rolling, Josh and I setup a planning session and sat down for some beer and pizza on August 28th, 5 days before the shoot and ironed out absolutely every detail.
For myself, this project couldn’t of come at a worse week, I was between jobs and the busiest time of my entire career. I was shooting nearly twice a day on top of my dayjob. The savior of the shoot was Josh, who had taken a vacation week off work and had ample time to prepare in my absence. Nevertheless, we had to step this up, we had make this better then the first.
After the 2 hour meeting, we decided to hit the factory. This time around 1:00 in the morning. It was far more eerie with zero ambient light pouring through. We managed to scout the place and plan out a few sets. We even climbed the 13 flights of stairs to the top of the building which overlooked the Louisville skyline. At that moment, I had regained confidence in the concept. We planned to re-visit the site one more time Saturday, September 1. The day before the shoot. Nevertheless, there were still so many concerns, from the wardrobe and weather to the safety of our crew in a crumbling factory.
Josh said it best, a literal “logistical nightmare”.
We had to find some wardrobe options. We called in a favor to our friend Scooter Ray and Josh ran around for a few hours during the week to check out some options at several boutiques. The day before the shoot, I only had a small 3 hour window to get what needed to get done, as I had a shoot booked later in the afternoon. Fortunately, for me mother nature worked in my favor and the shoot was rained out, which provided the entire day for preparation. It was a true blessing.
We ran all over city; General Eccentric, Nitty Gritty, Apricot Lane, Ace Hardware, Kroger, JoAnn’s Fabrics and Missy Brown’s apartment to borrow some necessary gear. It felt like a blitzkrieg of preparation, battling the clock. We were able to pick out all the entire wardrobe, giving us tons and tons of options.
We also had the opportunity to re-visit the factory for the final time before the shoot. Unfortunately, the place had been locked up pretty well since we had last visited. So we had to cut an opening in the fence, as well as create an entrance through the outer window in which every team member would have to enter with a 6 foot ladder. We spent a chunk of the day in the factory, analyzing every crevasse and crease of light. We broke down each of our sets, testing with example shots and compositions.
We left with a sense of satisfaction, we grabbed a quick beer and returned back to Josh’s loft to prepare for the hair and makeup madness that was to start at 8:30am. We spent some time discussing plans and I hit the road home. I was worn out, but hardly slept. I don’t think I had ever been so excited for a photoshoot.
To Josh’s surprise, everyone arrived at his loft early, ready to rock. I immediately slammed a Red Bull and the party started. Maui dove into the clothes and Bethany and Raina started gathering their ideas. We staggered the models arrival so we wouldn’t have any downtime. Ashley Brock was up, her first look was to be a Searcher. She tried numerous outfits until the perfect match was made, a cocktail dress from Apricot Lane. She went into makeup as Raina started on the process for her hair. Of course, Josh and I were documenting the entire process and it must of felt like paparazzi!
Shortly after, Alessandra arrived and she would begin as a Specter. After introductions, Maui provided her with several outfits to try on. We worked together to come up with an amazing outfit. Black leggings from Scooter Ray and a black top from Apricot Lane. She followed Ashley into hair and makeup.
Among all the hubbub, Melanie arrived. She would begin as Searcher, in a dress from General Eccentric. Raina had magical plans for her, but it would take some time.
Last but not least, my video partner in crime, Antonio dropped in and was on top of things, capturing b-roll and miscellaneous behind the scenes within the first 5 minutes of arrival.
After 5 hours of preparation and packing, we finally had everything ready to head off to the location. Unfortunately, mother nature was not on our side for the day of shoot, as it was pouring down rain. Howbeit, we escorted the models to the cars with umbrellas overhead and caravanned over to the location. Upon arrival, I turned on my headlamp and Josh and I inspected our setup before escorted everyone inside. One by one we guided each team member, through the hole in the fence and up the ladder through the small 3’ by 4’ window. At this point, I was already soaking wet and dirty. The shoot had even started and I kept thinking to myself; “Well, this is going to be the longest day ever.”
We unloaded 3 cars of gear and setup our staging area near the window entrance where the most light could be found. Once the styling team was settled, Josh and I started hauling all of our gear over to the main factory floor, down the epic spiral staircase. This open floor became the photography staging area for all of our gear. I made a quick run through of the entire place to make sure the area was clear and if anything had changed with the rainfall. Sure enough, there were pools of water everywhere, so I had to find alternate routes to several of my locations.
With models ready to go, I started my first set with Alessandra, we headed to the middle of the building and started in a large expansive staircase that covered 4 floors. The area had a small section of natural light creeping in, so I figured I would just fill the space with a small speedlight and a Westcott Mini-Apollo. It worked beautifully, until my speedlight misfired. I happened to notice that misfire as I scanned through the images on the LCD screen. The ambient light provided a darker portrait, but far more intense. So I setup a Westcott 40" silver reflector and bounced some natural light. Alessandra moved in a gracious manner, she created stunning lines and ran with every detailed instruction I gave her. Her expressions played off the concept and I could tell she had given some thought into the project. Because of her technique, we nailed “the” shot within the first 10 minutes.
We moved upstairs to a spacious upper level room, with lofty ceilings. I fully planned on capturing the vast open look of the room by shooting wide at 14mm. About that time Antonio had re-joined us from a client shoot and began capturing his story. This would also be the “levitating” set. As Josh did in the first installment of “Searcher/Specter”, I would have the models look as if they are drifting in the air, posed to mimic a ghost. I had never done anything on this level of digital photography, so it was great new experience which I gladly accepted as a challenge, as did Alessandra!
The entire process is done in Adobe Photoshop, simply taking two shots, one of the model on a ladder, posing as if she was levitating and the other shot without the model and ladder, all on a tripod. Then, blending the shots together and masking over the the ladder with the background image. Pretty simple technique, the most difficult part is making it look realistic. The model has to look as if she were floating and it’s not easy to pull off with heels on a 4 foot step ladder.
Alessandra nailed the levitation set. She even suggested posing techniques and formations herself. I spent about 30 more minutes in the room working with her, then moved back down to the gear staging area to check in on Josh and the progress of his shooting. He had wrapped Melanie and was working with Ashley on the spiral staircase, I went to the front room where the styling was staged and got an update on progress. 30 minutes. No problem.
I moved my gear around and began setting up my second set, which was outside. Thankfully the rain had subsided. After a quick break I headed back to the staging area. Melanie’s look was fantastic, with the feathers and sticks protruding from her hair and dark contrasting eyes, she looked literally evil. We went onto the roof of the first building and I setup for the first composition which I had had in my head since we started scouting the area. The rusted pipes created amazing leading lines and I combined that with an 85mm f/1.4 lens, magic. We pulled off several sets, including the “zombie walk”. The idea was to have Melanie literally walk like a zombie and move the light with her, creating a slight motion blur. It worked beautifully. Melanie created strong lines, I was blown away by her effortless and dramatic poise. She lived through her character, the expressions were flawless.
We moved downstairs and prepped for the levitation scene after a failed set(on my part) at the top of the stairs. With the ladder in place I wedged myself between two pipes and setup my tripod. Melanie grabbed the pipe above her head and bent completely backwards over the handle of the ladder. I fired off my shutter like a machine gun. Even though I was shooting at a high ISO, I believe the grain worked in my favor. As I had done with the other sets, I used one off camera speedlight for dramatic fill. Just like that, Melanie was a wrap and it was onto my final model Ashley.
By this point nearly 5 hours had passed and time was running out. I hadn't planned to shoot on the top roof when I first entered, but I had to give it my awe. I had to give everything to this concept, all my energy. So, I went ahead and carried my gear up to the top roof of the factory, 13 stories above ground floor. When I reached the top, I took a breather and composed myself. Prepped my set and walked back down. When I returned to the other side of the factory, Ashley’s look was still being prepared, so I went to check out Josh and his “light painting” set with Alessandra. We shared some of our images and I was completely thrilled with what we had captured. My feet hurt, I was soaking wet and covered in decay, at this point, I was ready to knock out this last set and get into some dry socks.
By approximately 6:15pm Ashley was ready to go and I hit my second and final wind. We climbed up story after story and stopped at several points through the way up to take a few shots on the different levels. It was more of a strategy not to kill the entire team on the climb up. Not too mention, Raina had badly injured her foot the day before creating a piece for hair.
We arrived on the roof and stepped out on the lower platform. I had the light ready to go and we started snapping away, set after set, all of them on the roof. I could tell Ashley, being a model for Ford Europe, was a true professional. She understood the project and I had to give her little to no direction as her expressions and poses were stunning through every shot.
After we rocked the first shot, we kicked out the ladder for the levitation image. We spent some time on the poses and I really played with composition. We even had Brian, Ashley's boyfriend, assist on the shots to help her balance. All the while Antonio was running around in the background capturing some time lapse stuff and filming b-roll.
30 clicks later, I was spent. We moved onto one more set and then headed back down the stairs. Honestly, at that point, I was glad it was over. I had never worked so hard on a photoshoot in my entire career. Although, I tried not to show it… exhaustion had set in and legs began to dramatically shake. We packed up the gear and started transporting everything outside and into the cars. It was a true team effort and I feel extremely blessed that we pulled it off like we did.
We arrived back a Josh’s and took a celebratory shot of vodka, reviewing the events of the day. Antonio got some amazing footage, I was confident in my shots and I knew Josh’s images would be nothing short of stellar. 12 hours earlier we had started styling, the shoot was a complete success.
With all the behind the scenes camera uploads and Instagram photos, Josh and I had to move quick. We met the following day to go over plans and come up with a teaser image to release the first image set the following day.
The post process is an extremely important element to my photography. Coming from a graphic design background, I like to use certain techniques to enhance my images and make them just that more interesting. Popping color, re-touching and adding texture. I spent meticulous hours on each image, trying new things and really thinking outside the box. During a few editing sessions I had to walk away and return back to it a few hours later, only to change the entire feel.
Nevertheless, I truly believe these are some of my personal favorite images I have ever created and I have the entire team to thank for it. This was a collaboration that will not be soon forgotten. The bar was raised with the first project and I’m happy to say we leaped right over that bar with this.
Searcher/Specter is now full circle.