Photographer’s Q&A – David Lipnowski
Winnipeg-based photographer David Lipnowski started his photography career as the photo editor for his student newspaper at the University of Manitoba. He is currently a commercial photographer shooting portraits, corporate and personal events, family portraits, weddings and more.
A year ago on January 1, 2013, David started a personal project he called the 365 Portrait Project in which he promised to produce a new portrait each and every day throughout the year.
“Every single day during 2013 I will make one high quality portrait,” he vowed. “I am aiming to produce high quality portraits that look like they could come straight out of a magazine. I want the quality to stay consistently high throughout the year, with a broad range of photo subjects.”
His web site: www.davidlipnowski.com
01/01/2013 – Salwinder Singh – 4:19PM – Winnipeg – I was a little stressed about the first portrait of the year as I had made tentative plans to photograph someone I knew but that fell through at the last minute. So I started wandering around outside with my girlfriend.
Shortly after leaving my front door, I saw a taxi waiting to pick up someone. I noticed the driver’s beard first and I explained my project to him. He was glad to help out and I’m happy with the first portrait of this project.
My girlfriend held a homemade beauty dish with a hotshoe flash on his windshield while he sat in the car.
EXIF: f4.5 1/160sec ISO100 @ 70mm
Why did you start your portrait-a-day photography project?
By the end of 2012, I had already won a few awards for my portrait work but I was not getting as many jobs to shoot editorial-style portraits as I would have liked. That meant my portfolio of portrait work rarely got updated. So I decided to do something about it. As a New Year’s resolution, I gave myself the challenge to make one portrait every single day during 2013. The goal was personal growth as a portrait photographer.
I’ve had a passion for portraiture for some time and I figured that, at the very least, I would create some portraits of which I would be proud. Now it wasn’t that I thought my previous work was boring but National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson’s words rang through my brain: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff”.
So not only would I try to make a portrait every single day, I would also try to find the most interesting subjects that I could.
In the days leading up to the first portrait, I had no idea how difficult it would be to keep it going and to keep the quality up to my standard. However, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it and it would not be unique.
Although I’ve been a professional photographer for nine years, this was the first personal photography project I’ve ever attempted. I have completed many personal shoots for myself but it seemed that I never had time for a project. But in actuality, I never made time for one. And this project took a lot of time. At least three hours each day were devoted to it: finding a portrait subject, shooting them (usually the quickest part of the whole process), editing and then writing a story to go with the picture on the project’s blog.
There were not a lot of rules for this project but the main rule, which I never broke, was that I must go out every single day and create a portrait. I never shot several on one day and stockpiled images. Each portrait was made on that particular day.
Author Malcolm Gladwell often cites the “10,000-Hour Rule” in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He writes that the key to success in any field is practicing a skill for 10,000 hours to master it. I figured that by the end of the year, I’d have an additional 1,000 to 1,500 hours of practice because of this project.
What would you do differently if you were to start a similar project today?
If I were to take on another personal project, I most definitely would not set such rigid requirements of doing it daily. While the daily rule kept me on my toes and forced me to go out, it took a toll on my creativity a few times.
The project was both physically and emotionally draining. Carrying the equipment with me every single day constantly reminded that I would not have one day off during the entire year. It also meant that I would be away from home each day longer than my normal working day.
I often put calls out on social media and to friends, asking for someone to come over or meet somewhere nearby and be photographed. But those requests often went unanswered. So before the end of the day, (and some days went up to 11:30PM so that I could make my midnight deadline), I would have to drive somewhere I could find people, (often difficult in Winnipeg, especially during the winter months), and then ask complete strangers if I could make a portrait of them. I often had to ask at least 5 to 15 people before someone would agree to pose for me.
11/21/2013 – Colleen – 4:24PM – Winnipeg – It was another brutally cold day but I vowed to find someone outside. After spending over an hour in -20°C weather asking people to participate, Colleen agreed to be photographed.
When I first met Colleen, I told her I really liked all the green she was wearing. She told me that green is the colour of growth and that all the people in her life are like flowers in a garden. She really enjoyed the portrait process and she was so great to get to know (albeit quickly).
Colleen is 80 years old and a retired paediatric nurse. She spent many years living up north and working in small communities. She told me that she helped open Whitehorse General Hospital back in 1957. She also regaled me with stories of working with dog teams in Gods Lake, Manitoba. She explained that she would go out on a dog sled to pick up patients – a dog-sled ambulance service!
This image was made in a parking lot, slightly sheltered from the wind. We just missed the setting sun by about five minutes so I had to use a wall as a background. Although the entire shoot took only two minutes and five seconds, by feathering the umbrella light, I was able to create this painterly look in the portrait which I really love.
EXIF: f5 1/80sec ISO100 @ 70mm – 1 flash in a shoot-through umbrella camera right
What were your best, worst and strangest portrait experiences during the year?
Best: When I think of the best portraits, my mind goes to two different definitions: best visual images and best moments surrounding the process of shooting an image.
07/20/2013 – Carole – 8:50PM – Paris, France – She is my chef, chauffeur, pillow, co-pilot, voice-activated lightstand, lover, masseuse, and best friend.
For a little while now, I’ve had a special photo in mind: I would make one of the most important portraits of my girlfriend, Carole, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I knew exactly what I wanted to do but couldn’t quite find the right spot to have the tower appear only as a subtle element in the background. And to add to that, Carole is very camera shy.
The spot that I needed was likely another few kilometres away and the light was fading fast. I knew the best way to create her portrait was to capture a candid moment and that is exactly what I did here, just steps away from the Eiffel Tower.
EXIF: f2.8 1/500sec ISO500 @ 70mm – Available light
Worst: Hmmm, tough one. There were a few bad situations in which I found myself while attempting to make portraits. There was the time a drunk old man grabbed my girlfriend’s ass. Another time, an angry employee of a wrecking yard threatened to punch me in the face simply for asking to make a portrait of him or any another employee. When I was making a portrait of a homeless person, another man, clearly on snuff, grabbed the camera strap that was around my neck and tried to rip it off me.
I don’t want to single out any one of my worst portraits, as there are probably about half a dozen that I wish I could do over. But the worst experience was not while making a portrait. It was the countless rude people I encountered while trying to talk to people on the street.
06/03/2013 – Iain Wight – 3:36PM – Winnipeg – Iain is a piercing specialist at Iron Lotus Body Art on Pembina Highway. I met him a few months ago when I stopped into his shop to see if I could find a portrait subject for the day. He offered to be my subject that day but I had just photographed someone the previous day who also had large gauge stretched ears. Since I never like to photograph similar-looking portrait subjects back to back, Iain’s portrait didn’t happen that day.
But during that initial meeting, he told me that he had once cut open his forehead. He thought that if he did it again, it could make for a cool image.
I hadn’t really thought about what he had said until several weeks later when I had a realization that some of my portraits might be getting a little repetitive, due to the nature of stopping strangers on the street. I wanted to do something a little different and I’m always looking for different ideas for portraits. So I gave Iain a call.
Doing this portrait was only the second time that he cut open his forehead on purpose. The first time was on his last birthday. Iain doesn’t drink or use drugs and he doesn’t really go out and celebrate a birthday like most people do. For a previous birthday, he got a tattoo. This year, he tried something a little different as this portrait shows.
Blood has always amused Iain, both its colour and its healing properties. For a large portion of the shoot, we talked about blood and the relationship between pain and healing. He spoke about how there is no “us” without blood and that no matter how damaged we are, blood heals us.
Iain used needles to make a few small punctures in his forehead. He initially tried a large 16-gauge needle but found that the smaller 13-gauge worked better.
I was having a bit of difficulty deciding on which portrait to use. There was another image that I really liked but it was a close-up of his face with a lot of blood showing. But I thought that it may be a little too graphic.
EXIF: f11 1/200sec ISO100 @ 24mm – 1 flash in a shoot-through umbrella camera right
How did you convince strangers to be photographed on the spot? Were people suspicious of you or did they think you were a creep with a camera?
Surprisingly, over the course of the year, there was only a small handful of people who were outwardly suspicious of what I was doing. I had a prepared speech, in English and French, which I must have repeated some variation of at least 1,000 times this past year.
Every situation was different and I quickly learned which situations would be less susceptible to my requests. Even though I have a degree in psychology, I learned quite a lot about human interaction by talking to strangers every single day on the street.
I learned about group dynamics and especially the socio-psychological phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility”. When approaching groups, I re-learned that people are almost always less likely to say “yes” when in a group. Basically, each person thinks that someone else will agree but in the end, no one will even speak to me.
This really hit home when I individually asked a few people in a bus shelter. We chatted but, unfortunately, everyone turned me down. Then when I went to another shelter and gave the entire group my prepared speech, not one person would even talk to me.
On the other side of the coin, I’ve often said that the camera is a passport. If utilized correctly, it allows you access to incredible experiences and situations.
It still boggles my mind that I could walk up to strangers on the street and those people were kind enough not only to agree to my portrait request but also, on occasion, to agree to my sometimes crazy requests. For example, I asked Katie, whom I had just met, to lie in a flower bed in a sidewalk planter on Osbourne Street in Winnipeg.
08/22/2013 – Katie – 6:29PM – Winnipeg – I met Katie this evening at the Gas Station Arts Centre Village Market where she was selling her crochet work, (her business is called Katie J’s Crochet). She is multi-talented and has several vastly different jobs. Originally from South Africa, Katie has been living in Winnipeg with her husband for many years.
EXIF: f7.1 1/200sec ISO100 @ 48mm – 1 flash in a softbox camera left.
About 90% of the portraits were made here in Winnipeg. But during the month of July, I was overseas covering Le Tour De France where I made some of my favourite portraits. There, almost everyone I asked agreed to be in the project, compared to Winnipeg where I often had to ask 5 to 15 people before someone agreed. In France, it was refreshing to have people so open to art. Although, a huge challenge for me in France was trying to communicate with my poor French. Thankfully, my French girlfriend helped me out a lot.
Other than photographing people you just met on the street, you also asked people to contact you ahead of time. How many people contacted you asking to be photographed? Did you turn down anyone who volunteered?
Not as many people contacted me early in the project as I would have liked. And when they did, they almost never followed my procedures clearly outlined on my website.
In the early days of the project, I tried setting up shoots with quite a few “volunteers” but often I got stood up. I spent quite a bit of time going back and forth with some people. In the end, they either abandoned the idea or didn’t bother to show up which showed that there was very little respect for me or my time.
I was hesitant of wasting more of my time and decided not to meet with strangers who emailed me. Of course, there were the complete wackos who emailed me bizarre photos of themselves looking deranged.
Nearing the end of the year, I received a lot of media attention for my portrait project. So then, everyone wanted to be a part of it. The majority of the portraits in late November and December were set up in advance with strangers who contacted me and were serious about making it happen. I really wish those people had contacted me earlier in the year rather than at the very end. I just couldn’t get to everyone who contacted me.
10/22/2013 – Anah Ali – 5:31PM – Winnipeg – Anah and I met about four years ago through a mutual friend. Like most of my friends from my university days, she is living and studying in Toronto. She studied interior design at the University of Manitoba and last year made the big move to Toronto to follow a dream of studying fashion in the Fashion Management program at George Brown College.
Anah has been following my project and contacted me to be a part of it. We met up while she was back in the ‘Peg visiting family and friends.
EXIF: f5.6 1/125sec ISO100 @ 56mm – 1 flash in a shoot-through umbrella camera left directly underneath 1 flash in a softbox camera left (i.e. both flashes combined to illuminate Anah)
Was there a favourite lens or lighting style that you used?
I posted the EXIF data for every single portrait and I clearly shot at the 70mm focal length the most. I also tended to gravitate to a small-medium sized softbox a lot as well.
Very few portraits, maybe around a dozen, were shot only with available light. I was rarely afforded the luxury of finding people during ideal times of the day to utilize nice ambient light, (remember, I was usually working with strangers on the street).
I prefer creating the look and mood of my portraits with strobes and I got quite fast at setting up multiple flashes on location.
I carried three light stands, two umbrellas, and a softbox in a guitar bag at all times. The bag wasn’t light but it was necessary to give the series of images some consistency in style throughout the project.
04/08/2013 – Eric Pyle – 3:34PM – Eric Pyle is best known on the streets of Winnipeg as “Eric The Great”. He is a popular Winnipeg street musician who was playing at the corner of Osbourne & River today. We talked about music and even a little about philosophy while he took a smoke break from playing his guitar and singing.
He describes his music as “down home shit-kicking music” and he definitely has a cool sound. Eric was the frontman for the 80s/90s band “The Ludwigs” and I gotta say that now that I’m familiar with his music, I really dig it.
EXIF: f13 1/200sec ISO100 @ 70mm – 1 flash in a softbox camera left
What did you learn about photography, about portraits, about people?
I made some portraits of which I’m extremely proud and I met some incredible people along the way. I journaled each day in words as well because I wanted to share something about each person I photographed.
It has been a big surprise to me that people whom I’ve just met will open up and tell me about their lives.
I photographed everyone from celebrities and scientists (e.g. astronaut Chris Hadfield) to homeless people, from high-profile athletes (e.g. Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista) to national political party leaders (e.g. the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair) specifically for this project.
The portraits were mostly made here in Winnipeg but I also made some across the globe while traveling on assignments for work. During the month of July, I was overseas covering Le Tour De France. I also spent one week in Montreal on vacation and shot portraits there as well.
No matter where I went, I met extremely interesting people with interesting stories to tell. Canada is so multicultural and I was awarded opportunities to speak with people from all over the world and hear their stories. I really learned a lot about people, especially not to judge a book by its cover.
06/27/2013 – Michel Chinardet – 2:51PM – Hyères, France – While walking around town with my girlfriend Carole, we spotted Monsieur Chinardet riding his bicycle. I ran up a hill to where he was and asked him in French if he spoke English. He said he spoke only a little so I explained myself in both French and English. He told me to come back to this same spot in an hour.
Carole and I went back to her grandmother’s home to have lunch but, regretfully, we lost track of time. We went back to the spot where we originally met Michel Chinardet but he was not there. After wandering around the city for a while, we went back in the direction of Carole’s grandmother’s house.
On our way, we saw Michel reading a newspaper at an outdoor cafe. After a sincere apology for missing him earlier, he agreed for a portrait.
Michel is retired but worked in the aeronautics industry. While making his portrait, several tourists photographed me photographing Michel. I guess with my big camera and lighting equipment, people thought it must be an important shoot.
I asked him about his style of dress. Although I may not have completely understood his explanation or perhaps it was lost in translation, I believe he said that his style is a result of trying to be different or more special than the ordinary French way of dressing. He also mentioned that he doesn’t like to like to live in the same place for too long although he has been in Hyères for ten years.
EXIF: f8 1/100sec ISO100 @ 50mm – 1 flash in a softbox camera right
Now that the project is done, what’s next?
I’m certainly taking some time off for myself now that the year is over. I’m going to post a poll on the project’s website to see if there’s any interest in creating a book from the portrait series. My original plan was to turn it into an art exhibition and I’ll likely be trying to find funding or grants to do this.
Many people have asked if I’m going to continue the project into 2014 but I don’t see that happening any time soon. If I run into an interesting person on the street and I happen to have my gear with me, I will likely ask that person if I could make a portrait of them. But I definitely won’t be carrying all my gear with me searching out those people.
I have thought about doing another interesting project but I need some time to think more about the parameters surrounding it before announcing anything. If I do go forward with another project, it will definitely not be daily.
07/06/2013 – Didi Senft – 2:37PM – Col de Pailhères, France – For cycling fans, Didi is a familiar face. He can usually be found along the side of the road at all big European cycling races as well as other large sporting events.
I was especially happy to see Didi at Le Tour de France this year, as he missed the 2012 race due to medical issues. That was first time he has missed Le Tour since 1993.
I saw him for the first time in person today during the beginning of the massive uncategorized climb, the Col de Pailhères. I stuck my head out of the car window and got a few grab shots. Though it was incredibly awkward to park the car just off the race course on such a steep incline, I had to get out and talk to him.
He doesn’t speak much English, (he is German), but it was a pleasure meeting him. Without asking, he automatically did his signature look and his signature jump. It was really tough to just pick one image to post for my portrait-a-day project.
He is such an epic character. The caravan, the fans, the media and everyone else love this guy. Everyone stopped to get a photo with him which clogged the narrow mountain road.
Didi has been at major cycling events since 1993 and usually wears a red devil suit. Today was the only time I’ve ever seen him wearing yellow, a special outfit for the 100th anniversary of Le Tour de France.
As well as being a super fan of cycling, Didi is also the creator of over 100 weird bicycles. He holds a Guinness World Record for the largest mobile guitar which, of course, also happens to be a bicycle.
EXIF: f10 @ 1/200 ISO100 @ 11mm – 1 flash in a softbox camera left