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On Assignment (5): Making a Photograph

Matt Bradley (mbradley)


Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, previsualization, photojournalism

This is the fifth part of a series on On Assignment.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Ansel Adams (Photographer 1902 - 1984)

A feature story on my home state of Arkansas proved to be my second assignment for National Geographic magazine. At the time, I was very new to professional photography, and I had not yet considered making it a career. Nor did I have much of a clue as to what I was doing, other than pursuing a dream while flying by the seat of my pants. In late October, while exploring the town of Eureka Springs searching for picture ideas, I kept driving by a Victorian home with a gingerbread front porch and golden maple trees in the yard. On the porch were two small jack-o-lanterns. I had the same thought every time: That’s almost a photograph. Almost. Had I taken a shot of the charming but empty front porch, my photo editor would have responded with something like: “OK, so that’s where you were... where’s the picture?” In other words, there was no compelling visual statement to share with a viewer. 

Finally, I stopped and knocked on the door. That’s when I met twins, Meg and Amanda Williams. After a brief conversation with these charming young girls, the missing visual statement quickly became obvious: a portrait of two cuties holding their pet cats. I grabbed my camera bag and tripod, and headed to a corner of the porch. The twins were wearing jeans and matching dark red plaid shirts. Perfect! I asked them to sit on the porch rail and lean against a post, trying for a casual-looking pose. The cats were totally uncooperative (of course), two squirming fur balls hard to hold. But the girl’s kept their beautiful smiles as I took a number of shots.

Driving back home to Little Rock, I was pumped, thinking Meg and Amanda provided a great start to the assignment. But when I carefully reviewed the girl’s pictures… a sick feeling of disappointment hit hard. The image looked dark and the girls were not tack sharp. I knew the light on the front porch had been iffy, forcing me to use a slow shutter speed. Due to the restless cats, it had been difficult for my models to remain still. Their dark jeans and shirts only made matters worse. I felt like I was about to blow a dream assignment. So… I promptly packed my gear, hopped in the car and made the four-hour trip back to Eureka Springs. The girls and I repeated the process using the same pose, but this time I had them wear white shirts. A reflector behind the camera directed more light at my subjects. The resulting photo ran a full page in National Geographic magazine. It was the lead picture for a story entitled, “Easygoing, Hardworking Arkansas.”

Thanks to Lady Luck and a little work, my career as a freelance photographer was launched.

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