Who? Wait, What? That's the reaction I received when I first began talking about this project featuring Baddie Winkle. A combination of concept and people brought together for an incredible end placement: my photography of Baddie painted on the side of two buildings in New York City.
Baddie Winkle came into fame through Instagram. An uncommon series of events sparked the interest of millions of people to follow Baddie and her social media. Baddie is a rock-star, a 90 year-old that has no problem flashing the bird or wearing a trendy swimsuit while making some witty caption like “Stealing your boyfriend since 1929.” It all began when Kennedy Van Winkle posted a picture of her grandmother Baddie, sporting a tie-dyed t-shirt and a pair of socks, branded with pink marijuana leaves. The picture blasted into the viral universe and set a course of Instagram stardom for Baddie.
When Stash, a mobile investment app, first approached me with an idea, it was ambitious. The campaign was to not only celebrate Baddie's 90th birthday through print, but also promote "Your Best Life, Your Whole Life," a happy retirement by investing wisely through Stash. The deadline that was approaching very fast and vision that required a very talented team. We didn’t think it would happen. But, I really wanted it to happen. I really wanted to photograph Baddie and I really wanted to see my work painted on the side of a building. I had to make it work. So I did, while on “vacation” with my family. A vacation I hadn’t had in two years. I took a conference call with my Producer Craig Oppenheimer on the beach and negotiated the agreement while sipping on a margarita. Tough life, right?
Nevertheless, it all finally came together by the time I arrived back home: two colorful setups and two final photographs. The project would take place in a studio in Nashville, Tennessee, along with a team, including a production assistant, hair and makeup artist and a prop stylist. With the production only a week away, we had to get everything in motion. We locked in a gorgeous studio in the heart of Nashville: White Avenue Studio and set a plan in place. Prop styling was a crucial piece to the puzzle, so our prop stylist, Emily Buckner Pierce, had to get to work as soon as possible. She was in charge of wrangling props such as a purple couch, a birthday cake, balloons, beach balls, inflatable pool floats, sunglasses and even a bedazzled Stash-Logo necklace which had to be 3D printed.
I was in charge of the set itself, including the seamless paper background that would play as the color base. With the help of my friends at Savage Universal, we reccieved few color options to choose from, including: Turquoise, True Blue, Purple and Studio Blue.
I yearned over the lighting for days and drew out several scenarios to test and blocked out a studio day to do so. Set after set, I altered artificial light to work within my vision, but nothing was working. At first I wanted a soft light with a “party-flash” punch, but it wasn’t translating, so I switched to a single hard light and soft fill, but that didn’t work. I finally landed on a direct soft light, that I thought would serve as a good starting point when we finally got into White Avenue Studio.
I had recently made the largest financial purchase of my career through my friends at Digital Transitions, who made it easy; a Phase One Kit, which included the Phase One IQ350 Digital Back, the Phase One XF Body, a Schneider Kreuznach 35 mm LS f/3.5 Lens and a Schneider Kreuznach 55 mm LS f/2.8 Lens. While I had used this camera kit for a production or two in the past, this was the first project using this camera as a real owner. So, not only did I have to test light, I had to test the camera, before I put into action.
I was nervous. I wanted to make this great. I wanted to be the best possible photographer and director I could be. Every day I processed what I wanted in my head like a old rotoscope clicking through an animation frame by frame.
The day of the shoot started early, we loaded in equipment and began setup. Step-by-step we started to build the two sets, which Baddie could jump in-between if need-be without the requirement of changing the setup, lessening the overall time we need Baddie. After a couple of hours of setup and various different scenarios of light, we finally landed on our final set.
The light design consisted of a series of artificial strobes, playing significant individual roles, but layered to create a natural mood. The key light sat about 8 feet from Baddie, behind camera: a Profoto D1 modified with a Profoto 20.5” White Softlight Beauty Dish Reflector with a 25º Honeycomb Grid. The fill light was two different sources of light, one being a Profoto D1 modified with a Profoto 5’ RFi Octa Softbox through a Avenger H800M 8.0 x 8.0' Modular Overhead Frame with a Matthews White Artificial Silk. Our second source of fill was a Profoto D1 modified with a Profoto 65” Extra Large Deep Umbrella with no diffusion. About 4 feet away from Baddie sat what we call our “party flash:” a Profoto B2 modified with a Profoto Zoom Reflector and a Profoto 10º Honeycomb Grid which provided that extra punch of hard light to the face. Lastly, we blasted the entire set with two Kino Flo Diva-Lite 401 Fixtures. The constant source of light provided us the light we needed for better-faster focus, as the Phase One system requires a lot of light for tack sharp focus. Each light was layered in front of one another, starting with the softest source of light to the hardest source of light. This not only filled the scene with soft light but provided the specular energy we required to complement the colorful styling.
At the age of 90, Baddie is unlike any woman of her age I’ve ever met. She likes a good smoke, she’ll enjoy a Pina Colada, and she has no issue being the life of the party. But, at heart she is just a Kentucky farm girl, who was thrown swiftly into our wild world of social media. In order to form a connection, I immediately started asking questions about her past in Kentucky. After a session of glam with our makeup artist Sarah Ryle, she sat down on the purple couch and I did my best to make her comfortable, placing her in a position that would play to my overall composition. After a quick conversation, I began to snap the shutter.
Our first set was on the Purple seamless background included a massive birthday cake, various presents and a purple couch that Emily, our prop stylist, had to paint to color-match the color palette. We also threw in some balloons, champagne and the bedazzled Stash necklace. Baddie was used to being in front of lens. Even at her age, she played with the camera and jumped from expression to expression like a dance. I was very happy with what I was seeing on my laptop to my right and I know Stash was excited about what they were seeing on the client monitor. You could feel the energy.
Our second set took place on the True Blue seamless background. But, the composition would be unique: a shot from directly overhead as if Baddie was floating on a pool and we were looking straight down. The scenario was tricky, because all the lighting had to be flipped 180º as if the floor was the wall. It required a lot of grip problem solving and all of our sandbags to make it happen. Nevertheless, the setup was fairly the same as the previous setup, only a few alterations such as the Profoto 5’ RFi Octa Softbox fill and the constant lighting of the Kino Flo Diva-Lite 401 Fixtures.
This was a fun few minutes. We placed Baddie in a static position and let her run with it. After a few shots, I realized by standing above her out of sight, I was losing some of the connection I had with her. So, I asked my assistant Ahmad Merhi to fire the shutter from Capture One and I sat on a full apple box next to her where she could clearly see me. I soon came to find she was a big fan of Blake Shelton, so we pumped the country music and I asked Baddie to imagine she was dancing with Blake. Emily, came in swiftly with various props such as various (and ridiculous) drink ware, fake money, floats and beach balls. It was perfect.
At this point, I was happy. But, we decided to squeeze one more set with Baddie. After a short break we reset the lighting similar to the first set, just on the True Blue background and Emily setup a massive shell float. I had shot both scenarios static, meaning on a tripod or locked down. So, I wanted to break free this set and shoot more unique angles. As soon as I picked up the camera, Emily and Alex brought in the bubble guns and started filling the scene with bubbles. We played around with various composition, expression, props and poses until I felt we had more than enough to work with in the end; wrap.
After Baddie left set, I took a deep breath and began to help break down the massive setup we had created. I said my goodbye to Baddie and Kennedy with a big hug, selfie and a short conversation about Kentucky. Baddie was heading to Los Angeles for the Netflix premiere of “Glow” and we headed right home.
The post production process was intense and very short. With a wild deadline, we had to make the proof selection, re-touch and delivery all in less than 4 days, but we did it thanks to my staff and re-toucher Jordan Hartley. Once we made the delivery, the murals were mocked-up by an art director handed over to the team at Colossal Media to begin the mixing and painting process in Brooklyn, New York.
When I think back to the challenges of this project, I have to think of the big picture, figuratively and literally. I’m not sure there is another feeling than to see your photography expanded that large for the world it see.
You know what they say, “teamwork makes the dream work.” So, thank you to Baddie, Kennedy, Craig, Allison, Victoria, Emily, Rory, Sarah, Jesse, Alex, Jordan, Ahmad, Emily, Danny and Dominique.