How do you photograph a former mob boss?
How do you photograph a former mob boss?
I was in Los Angeles, packing my car and getting ready to drive to the airport, coming back from doing that swank portrait of director John Carpenter when Tara Murtha from the Philadelphia Weekly called on the phone. I’d started paying attention to Tara about a year ago when she was covering Occupy Philadelphia better than anybody else in the city. She got inside, people trusted her and she did that with other investigative stories. In a world where real journalism was waning, Tara was the real deal. She asked if I could do a portrait early the next morning, she couldn’t tell me anything else until I was on-board.
I told her I’d be jet-lagged and probably couldn’t do it but to keep me in mind in the future & we hung up. About 10 minutes later I rethought the whole thing. “You’re not in this life because it’s convenient,” I told myself, “you’re doing this so you can look back and see that it’s done.” I reasoned that it would be miserable for a few hours but years later I wouldn’t remember the misery. Plus, I was intrigued by the idea that she couldn’t say who it was. I called Tara back and said “Sleep is for the weak. Tell me where to be.”
When I got to the airport there was an email telling me where to be at O’Very Early In The Morning and a cryptic line about still not being able to tell me who I was photographing other than that it was a former mobster who couldn’t have his location known.
I called and told her I’d see her at about two a.m. and that I now had to get up crazy-early the next morning and go do a portrait. “Who are you photographing?” I asked. “It’s Top Sekret,” I said, “I won’t be able to tell you for a few weeks.” “OK,” she said.
She’s used to it.
One of the great things about going on a photo trip and coming back to a photo trip is that all your gear is already packed. All Tara had told me was that the story was about the mobsters eyes, so some closeups might be good. I added to my camera kit a very small portable softbox and a ring-flash.
The next morning I took a cab to the Top Sekret Location and met Tara, some guys who may have been lawyers or may have been federal marshals, and a very small, pleasant, well dressed, affable man named Ralph. We shook hands and I immediately started to set up.
Photographing rock stars is excellent preparation for doing portraits of everybody else because you’re already paranoid, like a rat in a cage of cats, trying to minimize your time in the center of the room because you know you don’t have long, your photo is ancillary to something else, so you get in, you shoot, you get out.
While I was setting up I scoped out every available inch of the space we were in. All the walls, all the windows, and I also checked out Ralph. What did I want to show? What did I not want to show?
I figured that since he was a mobster, I’d light him like a mobster, with some very directional light from the small softbox which would give dramatic shadows, but I’d do a few other options — a strong, direct light from overhead can also make someone look beatific — maybe it was a story about redemption — I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to give the photo editors as much to choose from. I also wanted to show how sharply dressed he was. He had just gotten a new pair of shoes which I thought looked very nice and wanted to get in the shot.
I put Ralph in a comfortable chair near absolutely the only blank wall available, put the small softbox on a stand up and to his right, down at about a 45 degree angle. I could have put a gel on the flash to “warm” the light but I oped rather to do that in post production, mostly to save time but also to give me more options.
Ralph Natale, you may Clickenzee to Embiggen
I took a couple of photos of Ralph looking towards the light, and then turned him towards the camera and put a grid on the softbox. The Grid makes the light even more directional and decreases “spill” — any light that might “spill” out to the left or the right. Turning him towards the camera gives much deeper shadows and a more dramatic look.
At one point Ralph looked over at someone else in the room and said “Should I give him The Look?”
There was a chuckle. “Definitely. Give him The Look.”
Ralph gave me The Look. i will count it as one of the memorable moments in my photographic career. When Ralph gives you The Look he doesn’t look small anymore, and he doesn’t look pleasant.
Ralph Natale, You may clickenzee to Embiggen
Ralph didn’t give me The Look for very long and turned back to his affable self. Finally I put a ring flash on a 28-200 zoom lens, cranked it to 85mm’s, 160th of a second at f/16 and did about five photos.
Ring flashes were originally designed for medical microphotography — the flash is built in a circle and goes right around the camera lens so that the shadows go in all directions at once. It’s really useful if you’re photographing a bumble bee at 1:1, but if you use it on a person from 5 feet away it looks … weird. One thing you try and do as a photographer is make your photos a little weirder than ordinary photos, so people stop and look. The ring flash allowed me to get close, shadowless photos of his eyes.
This photo also shows really, how Ralph was while I was there — he was pleasant, he was polite, he seemed happy. I’d no idea what he’d done and if Tara hadn’t told me he was a mobster I would have assumed he was a singer or an actor. Part of photography, documentary photography anyway, is not imparting your feelings on a subject. Photograph everybody the way you’d photograph your parents.
Ralph Natale, You may Clickenzee to Embiggen
I was pretty happy with my photos. In total, I shot for eight minutes packed up & got out. Then began the weeks of waiting. Trillian didn’t ask about what I did and by the time I got to my bus, I’d actually forgotten his name, I’d make a great portrait artist for the Mafia.
Click here to read Tara Murtha’s Philadelphia Weekly article about Ralph Natale