Making an Album Cover - Adrian Bellue's "Steppes"
As a photographer I find myself being asked quite frequently what my most difficult photoshoot has ever been, and honestly as I pursue more crazy and technical quests this question might forever change. There is one shoot that consistently sits at the top of my list however, and that is when I got to capture images for world touring fingerstyle guitarist Adrian Bellue's new album, Steppes. The difficulty from this shoot never once came from anything that Adrian or I did, but from a series of very strange and extremely unexpected occurrences. However that is also why I am very proud of this shoot, because no matter what the universe threw at us we stayed determined, found that sweet artistic silver-lining, and ended up creating something very special.
Adrian and I took some time to discuss creative concepts a few weeks before we jumped into the actual photography session. I asked him what his album was about and he emphasized that peace, balance, and strength of spirit were key themes. He also highlighted that in the title track, Steppes, he had applied his own modern adaptation of Tuvan throat singing. "Tuvan throat singers are amazing", he said excitedly. "Someday I want to travel to their country and study their music." Seeing how important this element was to Adrian, and having no idea what Tuvan throat singing was, I spent a few hours with professors Youtube and Wikipedia to learn.
From what I had saw, Tuvan throat singing is a beautiful, traditional music genre crafted by the mountain people and herders of Tuva and Mongolia. The musicians who practice this art are profoundly aware of the earth and will often traverse the countryside in search of the perfect river, canyon, or mountainside to perform near. They will then sit down, reach deep into their souls, and use the surrounding terrain to echo and carry their voices far across the land. It's some pretty powerful stuff, and Adrian's modern adaptation is a worthy testament to their magnificent passion and skill. I would highly encourage you to watch the video below if you wish to take a short, spiritual journey with Adrian and experience throat singing for yourself.
With all of the album's aspects now studied and in mind, I decided that Bonsai Rock (a place that I had once visited before) would be a perfect fit for Adrian's music. For those of you who may not know what Bonsai Rock is, it's a unique rock located inside a small, hidden cove at the Northern Nevada-side of Lake Tahoe that has three unexpected trees growing through the top of it. The rock has a serene, zen-like aura to it, and typical of Lake Tahoe, the surroundings are composed of crystal clear waters, epic rock formations, and majestic mountain backdrops. It was easily the most impressive natural aesthetic that we would find within a 3 hour drive, and since we couldn't afford a trip to the actual valleys of Tuva, this was certainly the next best thing.
The Rough Road
Adrian and I agreed that mid-June would be a good time to shoot, and we were especially excited for this timing because our hometown of Sacramento was being plagued by its third year of drought and triple digit summer temperatures. The cooler mountain ranges awaited, but unfortunately as we made our escape the drought wouldn't let us go so easily. On the first major climb through the mountain pass my old '95 Camaro overheated, the head gasket blew out, and after years of loyal service it had finally kicked the bucket. Defeated, I got a tow back home and Adrian and I then rescheduled the shoot for the following month.
Soon it was July and I had a new car, and for the second time we tried leaving the boiling temperatures behind. The unexpected wait had actually turned out in our favor because during this time Adrian was given a special Tibetan outfit that he was now going to wear during the shoot. Adrian told me the story behind the outfit and it was actually quite touching.
During our hiatus he had driven a few hundred miles away for a gig in Ashland, Orgeon, but unfortunately when he arrived the scheduled music venue had cancelled on him. Understandably frustrated but also looking to make the best of his time, he decided to check out some small shops in town. "I ended up in this small Tibetan store and while I was shopping I heard some chant music being played overhead," he said. "I started to throat sing with it and then the owner walked over to me and asked me to keep going. Apparently it really meant a lot to her, so I sang a few more songs and gave her one of my CDs. We couldn't say much to each other because of a language barrier but she was very thankful and gave me this handmade Tibetan outfit for free." Adrian's face then suddenly transitioned from content and happy to completely shocked and worried. "Oh no, dude! I forgot the outfit! It's still sitting at the front door in my house!"
We made a split decision on whether we should continue the shoot without the outfit, but after hearing that story there was just no way that we could shoot with out it. We bolted back to his house and retrieved it, and now for a third and thankfully final time we saw ourselves leaving Sacramento.
The next 2 and a half hours of travel were thankfully uninterrupted, but as we arrived to Tahoe there was one last obstacle that hindered our quest - a road construction site held us at bay for over 20 minutes! By this time we knew that the universe was not on our side, but the one thing that it didn't anticipate was just how unbelievably stubborn we could be.
There was no going back. We finally descended the mountain pass and began traveling the around the lake, but just to make things more hectic we found ourselves racing the sunset. Rich golden rays were already cutting through the airy pink clouds, and now we only had about 15 minutes of acceptable sunlight remaining. This was going to be a close one!
About 5 minutes later we finally arrived. We got to the Nevada side of the lake, parked, and with zero hesitation and 2,000 percent purpose we sprinted down the steep hill towards Bonsai Rock. Adrian jumped into his Tibetan clothing, and with a guitar in one hand and a music bow in the other he frantically leaped across the rocks and perched himself in the center of the cove. I followed suit with a few test shots from the shore, but after a while I began to realize that shooting with a zoom lens on land wasn't going to offer the strongest perspective. I had to get near Adrian with a wide-angle lens so I could capture his passion and facial expressions up close.
I weighed the pros and cons of risking all my photography gear in one fell swoop and after everything else we had already dealt with I decided "F- it!" and pursued Adrian into the water. I planted my tripod in front of him and balanced it on some rocks, praying that I wouldn't fall in. I then looked up at Adrian, who was already fully absorbed into his environment, and I told him to do his thing.
It was a gorgeous scene. Adrian closed his eyes, reached deep, and brought all of his emotions to the strings. The music harmonized with the gentle waves and soothing colors, and I could easily see his inner warrior spirit revealing itself. I wasn't the only one enthralled by what was I was witnessing, and when I looked behind me I was surprised to see that a small crowd had assembled. Thankfully for us, a very generous landscape photographer named Karen Hutton was present and she took some invaluable behind the scenes photos and video.
Adrian easily had the artistic part under control, and after I established the composition I began to shift my mind towards technicalities and lighting. The sun was far below the horizon, and with not enough ambient light falling on Adrian to capture his movements by natural means I decided to use my Canon 600EX-RT speedlite and umbrella to compensate. I placed the camera on a ten second timer and then waded around Adrian so that when the strobe fired it would mimic the sunlight. I repeated this process at least 20 times in order to capture the small variety of facial expressions and movements that Adrian would make as the song progressed.
No sunlight? No problem! Photo by: Karen Hutton
Moving on from lighting, the final step in the process was to capture Adrian's surroundings in a way that would further compliment his peaceful, calm demeanor. Without moving my camera or the tripod, I exposed for the sky and captured some shots with a fast shutter speed. This froze the clouds in place and also helped maintain their rich, bright colors against the darker cobalt blues. Then I took long exposures for the water (about 5 seconds each) which allowed the waves to blur and become more smooth and tranquil. Later when I returned home I photo-shopped all three of the photos together.
The final photograph, which would later be printed on the album cover.
After the final shutter click Adrian and I just looked at each other and smiled. We could feel the artistic fusion, and somehow - despite all of the misfortune that we had just dealt with - we had self generated and bottled the ultimate lightning.
There was still a modest amount of twilight left, so we hurried back to shore and decided to continue until the light ran out. Adrian moved his performance to the top of some large rocks and I captured some silhouette photos as he played his encore.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog: determination can really pay off. Creativity, attention to detail and technical understanding are also insanely important traits for an artist, but if you don't have the will to push though the most challenging and unfortunate of situations first then those other qualities will never shine through. Keep working hard, keep your motivation high, and don't let anything stop you.
Don't forget to check out Adrian's outstanding album! I think you'll all love it!
* And if you REALLY love it then make sure to support Adrian by purchasing it! *