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BUFFALO SOLDIER: The Making of “Homefront”

This post will be about the third installment in my photo series, “Buffalo Soldier.” If you missed the previous installments, you can go ahead and click here and here

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Homefront |  Click Here for Prints .

Homefront provided a most welcome change to the trajectory of the series because it didn’t require any compositing. Finally, I could just take a picture without having to visualize how it would fit with several other images. Part of that is because this installment was conceived as a simpler shoot in an attempt to keep the budget down. 

Along the way I made a sketch of what I wanted. You can see I ended up going even wider.

Along the way I made a sketch of what I wanted. You can see I ended up going even wider.

I originally wanted to do a picture with the camera on the front porch looking through the window to see a scene of a Black veteran defending his house and family from white invaders. It seemed simple enough, but as the idea evolved I moved the camera back onto the front lawn and added some action onto the porch. It grew even more and the camera got pushed even farther back as I added action on the front lawn. 

By this point I had a period picture car and I had to light a huge space at night, so the scope of the picture increased dramatically. Budget-wise, I would outspend both of my previous shoots making this, but it was worth it because the picture gained so much in adding all the layers of depth. 

My lighting plans going into the shoot.

My lighting plans going into the shoot.

Night exteriors are typically the most demanding for lighting because the spaces are so much bigger. For this shoot I rented a 60 foot boom lift to use as a lighting platform with a 4kW HMI light to create the moonlight on the house. I didn’t want the whole façade washed in blue, which is why I needed the lighting unit raised up high enough that the overhang on the house would partially shade the light from the exterior wall. To me that made for a better color contrast. 

I had many more lights as well lighting the rest of the exterior and the interior of the house, all tungsten balanced to match my Cinestill 800T stock. There was a lot of concern about whether the 4k would provide enough illumination to get the light level I wanted. There was talk of getting a 9k or 12k light, but those would require a bigger generator and cause a lot more complications, so I figured we could do without it. The 4k turned out to be more than enough. The actual issue came from the tungsten lights. The 2k fresnels we had weren’t giving me as much punch as I planned, so I had to open up my lens an extra stop and sacrifice some depth of field. I would’ve needed to upgrade to 5k lights, but again they would require a bigger generator, heavier cable and likely more crew to handle it all. 

The house when we first saw it.

The house when we first saw it.

The house we shot at was basically abandoned, but we loved its look. It also had plenty of space for us to set up production tents, bring in lights and equipment, and spread out a bit. After squeezing our whole production into a couple hotel rooms for my last shoot it was a good change of pace. We passed the house by chance during a location scout and saw the real estate agent sign on the lawn. We got in contact with the owner who was happy to make any amount of money from the property, which I imagine is just sucking money out of his pocket year after year. It was cheap, but the downside was that it was a fixer-upper. We had to bring in wallpaper and furniture in addition to all the props that were particular to our story. There was also a big clean up job on our hands to remove all the trash that had been left behind on what was to be our set. 

My Camera Assistant, Kat Cameron, loading film in the lift.

My Camera Assistant, Kat Cameron, loading film in the lift.

New to this installment, we actually planned a second image. Since we already had the 60 foot lift, we could easily put the camera in it and get an overhead shot of the scene. I thought it would play a little more like a film if the second image was a moment later. Together the two pictures tell a quick sequence over time. The overhead angle also adds an additional level of visual interest. You don’t see an angle like that everyday. 

This is the car that I ordered.

This is the car that I ordered.

This is the car that I got.

This is the car that I got.

The picture car is kind of the unspoken tragedy of this shoot. I wanted a much humbler, working-class car to pull up on the veteran’s front lawn. In fact, that’s what I asked for. When the picture car arrived, however, it was not what I ordered. The irony is that the very garish car we got instead, has come to define the picture. People never stop commenting on how impressive it looks, but it personifies the characters in the scene in a way I did not intend. Also I’m pretty sure the exact same car makes an appearance in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” owned by a very different type of person from the 50s.

My Camera Assistant stands next to the LF camera with the dark cloth draped over it. The Pentax is in position atop the ladder.

My Camera Assistant stands next to the LF camera with the dark cloth draped over it. The Pentax is in position atop the ladder.

I shot this picture with my Pentax 6x7, but I did a test on set with a Large Format 4x5 camera. We were all brand new to LF photography, so it didn’t turn out perfectly, but we could clearly see that the resolution benefits from shooting with a bigger format were worth it. After I got those 4x5 negatives back I decided to invest in my own 4x5 system and learn how to take a decent picture with a view camera for my next installment.

-Sheldon J.