Laurent de Brunhoff
Laurent de Brunhoff

I like making author portraits. I read a lot. I write some. I like spending time with smart people, and if they’re wide-ranging Renaissance types, so much the better. So when I recently had the opportunity to make some publicity and personal photos for two author friends who have that Renaissance scope about them, I jumped at the chance. What made it more enticing was the fact they they didn’t want the usual author headshots.

Among Phyllis Rose’s writings are biographies of Virginia Woolfe and Josephine Baker, as well as a fascinating study of five Victorian marriages titled Parallel Lives. Her husband, Laurent de Brunhoff, is the author of the Babar series of children’s books. He’s been publishing since 1946, and he continues to develop Babar’s elephantine world with each new book, making the complex appear simple in his drawings and the content of his stories.

Phyllis is ebullient and outgoing. Laurent is quiet and reserved, almost shy.

My challenge was how to get engaging photographs of an 1) ebullient woman, 2) a shy man, and 3) a close marriage using three different settings within their New York apartment, images that would allude to their work, the closeness of their relationship and the nature of their personalities.

The shoot had to be straightforward for them, with minimal setup and fuss.

For lighting I chose a couple of Speedlites with basic modifiers, and not much else. Keeping in mind the ambient light and the layout of their apartment, for locations I settled on his studio, her office, and their dining room / library. Third, to help them relax and to keep whichever of them was not in front of the camera warmed up, properly un-mussed and ready to go, my wife, Cynthia, came along to smooth out hair and clothes wrinkles and to keep things interesting but relaxed.

Laurent de Brunhoff
Laurent de Brunhoff

I started with Laurent. Though his latest Babar book—Babar’s Celesteville Games—came out in 2011, he’s already working on the next book in the series, so I wanted to shoot him at work his studio. There, I noticed a homosote bulletin board pinned with new Babar sketches, so we moved his chair around to position him in front of it. There was some tungsten work light from camera left, so I used that for fill and put a Speedlite with a full cut of CTO on a light stand bounced into a corner of the room for key. That was it for lighting.

As is often the case, the technical aspects are only part of a photographer’s concerns. Laurent is, as are most of us, not at his most comfortable in front of a camera. Because I’ve read some of Laurent’s books (from both my own childhood and my daughter’s) and have seen how animated he becomes when talking about work, I knew that asking to hear about his working methods might help him relax. Not long into our conversation, he relaxed as I’d hoped, and I was able to just shoot what I observed.

Laurent de Brunhoff and Phyllis Rose
Laurent de Brunhoff and Phyllis Rose

The next series was to be of Phyllis and Laurent together. They’re bookish, so Phyllis felt their library would be a fitting location. There was a very little light coming from a window camera right, so I bounced a Speedlite off the ceiling camera right for key, another off an interior wall, camera left, to fill in the left side of the frame, and put an Orbis ringflash on the camera for front fill. 

The challenge, again, was to bring out those parts of their personalities that revealed the understated but obvious warmth of their relationship. With Phyllis’s encouragement, Cynthia did some clowning around during the light test, and they warmed up quickly. We continued to chat about relationships, and they got to bantering about theirs. The result was a series of spontaneous and animated photos of their humorous and affectionate banter, which was perfect. (And though I don’t usually pay attention to this aspect of metadata, I see that in 6 minutes, I got 35 shots on this set, out of which 7 are damn good.)

Laurent de Brunhoff and Phyllis Rose
Laurent de Brunhoff and Phyllis Rose

Phyllis also wanted some shots against a plain black background. She happens to be an extraordinary photographer in her own right, and so has, in her living room, a studio-quality background support system with black background. (No schlepping required.) Setup was quick (a Speedlite in a Photek Softlighter, ringlight fill) and they were still warmed up, so in 20 minutes on set, I got another 30 frames, nearly half of which were really good, and some of which made very good series.

Phyllis Rose
Phyllis Rose

Easier shots included: Phyllis on the same set for headshots; then Phyllis in her office, pretty simple lighting with a Speedlite bounced off the ceiling.

Then we all thought “While we’re all here and camera’s ready, what about Vinny?” Vinny is their elderly, irresistible Yorkie who is very much one of the family. We went back to the living room to swap the black background for a white one, and set up a Softlighter and ring fill. And finally we coaxed, cajoled and bribed Vinny into looking at the dog biscuits camera.  

Laurent de Brunhoff and Vinny
Laurent de Brunhoff and Vinny

In the end, we got images from 5 sets in about 2 hours, including setup and dog bribery. Here is an excerpt form Phyllis’ subsequent email: 

“These photos are great! And I write to you both because I think you really are a team and a terrific one. I see and am grateful for Cynthia’s hand (literally, with the hair) in many places. What I love so much about these pictures, besides how relaxed L and I look, which is thanks to our affection for and comfort with you, is Ed’s sense of context. And I saw, during the session, how this was supported and reinforced by Cynthia. I will always treasure these pictures for their backgrounds as much as the renderings of our faces! 

“I have to tell you that when Laurent saw the pictures of the two of us, he practically wept with emotion. He said, with typically minimalist eloquence, ‘Us!’ and hugged me. No one has photographed us so effectively together.”

Made me feel good …

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