Making the Clay Man - Profoto EDU Poster
If you've been following my work for a while then the photo I'm going to talk about today is (hopefully) very familiar to you. It's been the face of my website for years and thanks to the lighting company Profoto it was featured on their blog and was also used for their promotional posters around the United States. Creating this photo was quite a learning experience and brought a lot of positive changes in myself and in my mentality as a photographer. In this blog post I’m going to walk you through the entire process that brought "The Clay Man" to life.
Before the Shoot: Finding the Soul Underneath
Some of my most favorite ideas really have come from weird places. The inspiration for this shoot came from watching two street performers display themselves as painted statues in New Orleans, Louisiana. One man was painted silver, and the other was painted gold, and when they weren't performing acts of silliness and mimicry they were hanging out with their bling-wearing alligator (I know I sound crazy but look closely in the picture lol). I snapped a quick touristy shot of the guys with my point and shoot camera and went on my way to explore more of Bourbon Street, not really thinking much of what I had captured.
It wasn't until years later when I was studying in photo school that I came across that picture again. That's when the gears really started turning and I wound up spending several hours online staring at pictures of people covered in things for inspiration. Mud looked alright but felt too common; Paint was beautiful but I didn't have the skill; Birthday cake was just...strange; But clay? That was both simple and fascinating. When clay dried on a person's face it drew out incredible, surreal features. It looked natural and somehow symbiotic. It reminded me of the countless stories that we hear about from multiple cultures. The ones that talk about how humans were molded from the very ground we stand on.
My notorious inner monologues started to kick in. Who is the person behind the clay? Behind each crack on his skin, is there a small window into his soul that is slowly being revealed? Was the clay a shell of his past life that was shedding off so he could begin life anew? So many fun and interesting things to think about! My questions and theories could have gone on forever (and that is the beauty of fine art portraiture), but most importantly I felt like I had found a strong emotional narrative that we could all relate to. Just like a layer of clay, we all have things underneath that we want to reveal but rarely share with others.
Finding the Right Clay Man
After I had settled my mind on the shoot concept it was time to gather resources. Obviously I needed a model who was bald so I could completely cover his head in clay, but I also needed that person to know how to convey subtle emotions while wearing a seemingly rigid, statue-like face. I personally prefer working with actors for these more emotional situations, and thankfully at my photography school they were never in short supply. Just a few weeks earlier I had met an actor named Tory Scroggins who had participated in a photoshoot with a fellow photo student. Tory was a gentle, quiet man with a bald head, large expressive eyes, and beautiful dark skin, and just as I had hoped, he had plenty of experience in portraying drama. He was the perfect combination of skill, features, and temperament that I needed to make this shoot a success.
When I talked to Tory about the shoot he gave me an immediate and relieving "yes", and after recruiting my girlfriend Michelle as our makeup artist I shifted my focus towards finding which type of clay we would use. This was especially important because I needed a type of clay that would contrast with Tory's dark skin and also form large cracks when it dried. Harvesting clay from outside was never an option due to the chance of bacteria and other terrible things that could live in it, so I decided to order a powdered version online. In the end I settled with a great product called Aztec Healing Claywhich stated it was white in color and only costed about $10-$15 on Amazon.
There were also some other additional items that I purchased around town. Here is the complete list:
1.) Aztec Healing Clay - $10-$15 on Amazon
2.) Large bowl - $1-$5
3.) Large wooden mixing spoon - $3
3.) Large paint brush - $1
4.) Small paint brush - $1
5.) 1 gallon of distilled water - $1
6.) Portable Electric Fan - $20-$35
In the Studio
After gathering the supplies and receiving the clay in the mail it was finally time to shoot! We started the process by grabbing the large plastic bowl and pouring in a moderate amount of the Aztec Healing Clay. The color was initially a dry, chalky tan, and as we began adding our distilled water (for sanitation purposes) it quickly transitioned to a medium marshy green. We then applied a thick layer of the clay all over Tory's head and upper body with the large paint brush. For the smaller areas like his eyelids, nose, and ears we used the small paint brush. We avoided the most sensitive spots like his inner ear and nostrils, and later on after the shoot was over I added the clay in Photoshop.
It only took about 5 minutes to see the metamorphosis. As the clay dried it began to crack and fissure with enthralling detail. The color also transitioned to a bright near-white which perfectly contrasted with Tory's skin. Another pleasant surprise was that some smaller, thicker sections didn't completely dry and as a result they left a few intriguing color breaks. We added a second coat wherever it was needed and turned on the fan to speed up the process. Within 15-20 minutes Tory was completely reborn as the Clay Man. Everything turned out exactly as we had hoped!
As Michelle was finishing up with Tory I started to assemble the studio. The clay cracks on Tory's face were the most important visual narrative of the shoot, so I wanted to make sure that my chosen lighting style enhanced those features. I wanted the audience to be immediately to them and stare deep into all of the intricate and emotional windows. As a solution I went with a simple, but very effective technique. I placed a small Profoto beauty dish right in front and above Tory's face and turned the head of the light down towards him. In most studios this setup is called "butterfly lighting" and it is very common for darkening shadows and bringing more defining characteristics to the face. Just like how it was applied in these model shoots, the butterfly light immediately sharpened Tory's features and brought much more depth to the cracks.
This lighting style also had one more bonus quality that I was aiming for. The small beam of light from the beauty dish as well as the direction that it was facing gave the appearance of a museum light. It was perfect since Tory now looked like a classical museum piece.
As for my choice of background, I also kept things simple. In most low key shoots you will see a dark black paper being used, however sometimes that approach gives me the impression that the model is lost and floating in space. I wanted the background to be dark, but not completely black to the point where the atmosphere felt empty. I wanted the audience to see the Clay Man in a real environment that aesthetically related to him. I pulled out some dark painted canvases and found a perfect match. The painted quality of the background and its purposefully designed imperfections matched the same art style that Tory was wearing.
Fantastic, detailed makeup? Check. Dramatic, focused lighting? Check. A dark, aesthetically similar background? Check. As Tory sat down under light, my only concerns now were to help him channel his emotions through the camera and keep the shoot scene relaxed. I played some Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix blues music to help ease the atmosphere and not make Tory have to act in complete, stressful silence. I also played it for myself because blues music has a smooth flow to it that always keeps my mind fluid and moving.
All of the shots were executed with a specific focus on "sense of self" and inner thought. We wanted to continue driving the narrative that even though the Clay Man looked like a statue, he was very real and had human emotions underneath those crumbling clay features.
A few days after the shoot I showed the final images to my photography professor Paul Estabrook (who has always been an important mentor of mine). At this same time Profoto had an open call for college photography submissions and he recommended that I send my work in. I was initially very skeptical of my chances. With a company like Profoto the competition was surely to be huge and I would be a liar if that didn't intimidate me. Paul detected my concern, but as always in his signature fashion, he looked at me square in the eyes and was completely unfazed. "Don't avoid opportunities like these. You won't be the photographer you want to be if you do." That's what I always liked about Paul. He was a strong motivator and never accepted shyness from his students as an excuse. He knew that accepting publicity was a hurdle for many of us young photographers. We enjoy watching the world at a distance and can get a little stunned when the world looks back.Thankfully Paul ironed all of that out me by the time I was out of college.
With some new courage I sent in my portfolio to Profoto. All of my work that I had created over the last 2 years in college, including some shots from the Clay Man project, were submitted. It only took about 2 weeks to hear back, and dang it Paul was right, my work had been chosen to be featured! The resulting interview and blog that came afterwards can be checked out here.
After the excitement from the blog subsided I didn't expect to hear from Profoto again. It was over a year later when I was walking around in a Michael's craft store (grabbing props for another shoot of course) that I got another email from their marketing team. This time they said that they wanted to use a Clay Man image as the face of their upcoming national poster campaign, which would be seen in almost every college photography studio in the country. I was both stoked and astonished and I ran across the store to find my girlfriend and tell her the good news. It was a no-brainier to say yes to the offer.
I didn't think my levels of happiness over the situation could have been any higher, but that roof was blown off when the physical posters came in. All photographers love seeing their work on print, but it was a special treat to see it with the Profoto logo. The initial inspirations, the hard work, and the overall spirit for the Clay Man project really came full circle. I wanted to create a photo that people could emotionally and creatively relate to and be inspired by, and now it was being shown to other photography students (the perfect audience) around the country.
I also called Tory and we met for an encore photoshoot. I was able to get some copies of the poster for him and we took tons of happy photos. It's quite amazing how different he looks with and without the clay isn't it?
Overall this experience was one of my favorite parts of my now 3 year long photo career. I'm unsure if I will ever experience something like this again, but either way, I am very grateful for the opportunity that came from it. Hopefully what it shows most is that it doesn't matter where you are in your career or how much of a professional pedigree you have (because trust me, at that time I had none!). What matters most is that you always focus on creativity first, surround yourself with other great artists, and keep trying to share original, genuine concepts that people can relate to.