Say hello to McIntosh

Sian McIntosh, unpublished photograph for the Trinidad Guardian.
Click on the image to view the image larger. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

"We have to do a photograph of Sian McIntosh," Franka Phillip said on the phone, "You know her? You up to it?"
Franka's the Features Editor of the Guardian, and we've been working on some interesting portraits for the paper recently, images that I hope illuminate and enhance the stories while offering their own visual narrative of the people I'm photographing.

Know Sian? Well yeah, kind of. I'd encountered her behind the scenes several times at Tribe's promotional photo sessions.
She's damned hard to miss. Tall, attractive and shapely, she's the type of woman you don't look at directly for too long if you're a guy with any sense of propriety.
Hold a look on a woman like that too long without good reason and it quickly becomes a leer.

Of course, I didn't know her at all really, but I'd had a good sense of her casual sense of humour on the few occasions that I'd very briefly seen her. As for her physique, to be frank, it's unforgettable.

Fit without being muscular, shapely without being excessively curvaceous, it's a figure that speaks agreeably to almost any woman, which accounts for her popularity as a model at Carnival band launches while declaring itself quite clearly to any man with an interest in the unique attributes of the T&T woman.

So, I pitched two alternatives to Franka, one that emphasizes her figure and another of her bundled up, perhaps working out. We agreed to suggest both concepts to Sian.
I found an image that approximated what I had in mind online and sent it along to the young model along with a link to my website.
To my surprise, and an altogether pleasant one at that, Sian not only expressed interest, but trust in the possibility of the project. The final story, published in the Guardian,
is online here.

So what was the concept?
Here we have this attractive, smart girl who has probably had to think, if not outright say, to young men all her adult life, "Hey, I'm up here!"
How do we address that in a photograph that would be about her body?
How to show that figure, but not exactly show it?

I'm a little past lighting images so that they look cool. I'd prefer that the light I use disappear in favor of an idea, a mood, a sense of character that should always lead anyone looking at the photograph to a clear understanding of what I have in mind.

Even while I was talking with Franka that Monday afternoon, I knew exactly what I wanted the image to look like. Her body rimmed with light and a tight beam spot illuminating her face with all the womanly bits that normally hold the attention of her admirers dressed in shadow.

So I began the complete re-engineering of my normal studio setup, which is by default set to do captures on a clean white background to one that would deliver what I had in mind.
After two hours of setup, I was ready for a serious test of the scenario.

Here's the setup diagrammed...

Two White Lightning 10,000 strobes in 3x4 foot soft boxes as kicker lights to the left and right rear of the subject.

One White Lightning 800 Ultrazap in a 4 x 0.8 foot striplight angled to the top rear of the subject.

One White Lightning 3200 Ultra with a 30 degree grid and a snoot pointed directly at the subject. The two light modifiers create a tiny beam of light, but they also soak up light like crazy. The strobe is at half power and the resulting beam of light is like a Maglite positioned above her face.

Dean Collins Finelight collapsible panels (no longer manufactured) with black skins positioned to flag the spill from the rear strobes, killing flare and deepening the shadow on the front of Sian's body.

To describe the light I've deployed here is to miss its fundamental cruelty. Skimming light across human skin is a particularly efficient way of pointing out its flaws, and slamming a narrow beam spotlight into a woman's face may actually be illegal in some parts of the world.

Both techniques have been used as part of the lighting of women, but usually in conjunction with some type of softer, flattering light. That's what I've left out here to create an image that's all shape and face. If it works, it should echo the impression we form of Sian, filling in here for many, many women judged almost exclusively by the distribution of their bodies.

I suggested that Sian think of herself as a sculpture for the image. This isn't so much a photograph of Sian Macintosh as it is a photograph of the idea of Sian and her peers.
To wrap up the shoot, we did some traditional portraits with much softer light to round out the coverage of the subject for the story.
It was during these photos, as Sian really relaxed, that her fun, vivacious personality really emerged in the photographs.

So much so that I invited Franka down to the studio to look through the final selects. There was a bounty of imagery, and I really wanted her to decide based on the tone of the story she was working with.

In one of those quirky turns that provides some of the unexpected excitement of working as a photographer, this photograph, the one that I'd been working on conceptually from the start got turned down for publication in the paper *cue chorus of I'm too sexy for my paper*.
Right, said I.

There was also some concern that the press wouldn't be able to hold the extremes of the image, but this is an image with a flowing histogram that's just weighted to
the quarter tones . There are no combs in the data, the payoff for editing in 16-bit mode and it would have printed just fine.

So I returned to the overall collection of photographs to choose other images that were unlikely to be deemed too risqué for general readership and completely retooled the approach to the image support for the story, pulling a photograph of the model from an earlier bit of journalism I'd done while Tribe was preparing its band for public viewing.
So that's what I did for publication.

Those photographs are fine representations of an attractive young woman, but this image had another mission beyond depicting young Ms McIntosh's awesomeness.
I'd hoped to bring a subtle sense of disorientation to the traditional scrutiny of a pretty girl in a swimsuit. I apologize to Sian if I've burdened a simple photo for a Guardian story with needless conceptual weight, but I really hoped for an image that would draw a viewer in and then leave them with a sense of disquiet.

The viewer is offered no visual consummation of the promise of her body. Where there should be the fulfillment of lush feminine beauty, instead, there is a visual hole, darkness where they should be abundance.
And atop it all, there is a person, looking intently and confidently back at the viewer. Perhaps the image says, without the benefit of words, "Hey, I'm up here."
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