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ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with a Pro: Kenneth Wajda

This week’s Questions with a Pro features Kenneth Wajda.

Kenneth is a portrait and editorial photographer with both national clients and clients concentrated in Denver and Los Angeles. He started his career as a photojournalist with The Times of Trenton in New Jersey over 30 years ago and has been photographing ever since. Here, Kenneth explains how he ensures client comfort on set, how and when he chooses to utilize film, and how his work came to focus around portraiture. 

We asked: How do you work through the obstacle of a client not being comfortable in front of the camera? Do you have any tricks that seem to work for most clients? 

Kenneth said: First, thanks for having me as part of this series.  

Now, about making the client comfortable. I often photograph politicians, business leaders and artists, people who are somewhat in the public eye, so they’re used to being photographed. My approach is always to be friendly and personable, and to work quickly knowing they probably won’t have much time. I make sure I’m all ready and set up for them so that they’re not waiting for me once they arrive on set. If I can find out something about them before I photograph them, other interest or hobbies, I’ll mention that knowing that people like to talk about things they like to do. And I’ll be shooting between their answers. It’s certainly a mix of friendliness and a bit of good humor. There are some people who have no interest in chit-chat and you just have to work with them as quickly as possible, and try for something unexpected or out of the ordinary which sometimes happens once I tell them the shoot’s over. Then they let their guard down and I say, “Oh, wait, that looks good,” whatever they’re doing if it’s less posed, I’ll shoot that. Mostly, it’s about being personable and smiling, letting them know I appreciate being able to photograph them and I’m working with them to make them look their best and interesting in some way. 

The other thing I do is I find some business for their hands. They often don’t know what to do with them, so I direct them. I find hands are very expressive and giving direction helps tremendously to get away from standard poses. I’ll even say “relax your fingers” or “turn your wrist” to get a look exactly like I want. In this photograph of Daniel Rodriguez, lead singer/songwriter for Elephant Revival, that’s completely directed. I wanted him to be seen the way he came into my studio, with his scarf and hat, looking very bohemian. He’s a rising star in the music world, so I wanted to get him with the studio lights reflected in his glasses. Shot on a Hasselblad 500CM, 80mm Planar, Ilford HP5 film. 

We asked: How did your work come to center around portraiture? What captivates you about this segment of the industry? 

Kenneth said: I’m a storyteller first. When I was a photojournalist for a daily newspaper in Trenton, New Jersey, I was often given the feature assignments as I liked to bring lights and spend time making a portrait that revealed the subject’s personality, that told their story. I remember photographing the screenwriter of The Negotiator, Kevin Fox, and the movie poster has the two leads, Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, on either side of the poster frame, so I photographed Fox in red light (to match the tone of the poster) and using Photoshop, placed him into the poster between the stars.   
Other photographers liked to work quickly on news assignments and didn’t want to spend the time like I would, carrying lighting and colored gels and finding ways to create dynamic photographs. I love to create portraits that reveal something about the subject, through environment, their expression, and through light—it’s really a combination of all of these that I work with. My goal is to create iconic portraits of the people I photograph, and I want their portrait to have an emotional impact on the viewer.  
I am seeking truth, essentially, as that’s the only thing that matters in creating all art. What is their truth, how can I show it? The more truthful it is, the more the viewer can get from it. It’s for that reason that I don’t use a lot of post-production toning that veers too far from natural. My goal isn’t to draw attention away from them with post-production techniques and effects that reflect current trends, but to present their portrait as genuinely as possible. 

We asked: How do you decide when to utilize a digital medium versus a film medium? 

Kenneth said: I love film so I’ll use it any chance I get, especially when I have more time with a client, and if I have a subject I know may not be easy to photograph. Because with the film camera, they expect it to take a bit more time and it gives me more opportunities to work the setup, meter the light and make some conversation while I do. I think they respect the medium and they end up being more patient. Movie actors talk about the difference when on set with a Panavision or Arriflex 35mm film camera versus a RED digital shoot, that there’s a respect that something important is being made because it’s being shot on film. 

Some of my subjects are in awe of the equipment–the cameras are works of art. And it’s a different way of working. If I’m shooting with a 4×5 camera, once the composition, exposure and focus are set and I put the film holder in place, there is no longer a box in between the subject and me. There’s no viewfinder. I have to stand in front of the camera with the subject, connecting. I have a cable release ready to shoot and I can talk and direct them where to look, what I’m looking for, and how I’m going to make their portrait on this large sheet of film in this cumbersome wood camera. 

I find I get the most relaxed portraits from people when I shoot with either a medium format 120 camera like the Hasselblad or the Rolleiflex at waist level, or the large format 4×5. I’ll usually shoot some digital images after I shoot film, both for backup, and also because by now the subject has relaxed some and it’s easy to add some extra frames to the shoot. 

We asked: What inspires you to continue producing stellar images day after day? 

Kenneth said: What? Huh? My work isn’t work! There isn’t a time when I don’t have a camera with me. When I’m not shooting for a client, I’m making photographs for personal projects, or documenting friends and family and gifting them with framed photographs. I like to say, besides my commercial work, I have my work displayed in home galleries around the country. I love what I do, so it’s not something I will ever retire from. Retirement, that’s the saddest word I can think of. Why would I ever want to stop creating photographs? 

My creativity is insatiable, there’s never a time I feel content with what I’ve made. It’s always about the next photograph that will get me crazy excited. The next opportunity that I don’t know about but is right around the corner. That’s my world, it’s like being on a roller coaster and I never want it to end. There’s magic in photography. We are documenting life, and creating time travel. Photographers create images that freeze time that in 50 years, people can go back and experience what it was like then and remember distant times and long-ago places. I find that to be an incredibly wonderful gift and a tremendous responsibility. I get to create art that matters, that tells stories that will live on beyond the publication date. I make portraits that show a person’s world to others. 

We asked: You started your career as a photojournalist. What is a skill that you learned while doing this work that you still use to this day? 

Kenneth said: My years as a photojournalist gave me the experience to work quickly when time was limited. And to be nimble with limited equipment. I can photograph an editorial assignment often with just one telephoto prime and a wide-angle zoom. I can shoot a portrait with three wireless strobes in softboxes in a studio or one handheld softbox tethered to the camera outdoors at night if needed. The most important thing is to bring back a shot. There’s never an excuse for not getting it, so I make sure I do. As we often would say in those newspaper days, “You only need one.”  

The other thing as a photojournalist I learned was to edit quickly, but it was important also to edit for a special moment, that one frame that has a little something above the others. It could be a head tilt or an expression, and the frames may look quite similar to the untrained eye, but there is one that stands out. A good photographer is a good editor. I believe photographers today shoot too much which makes it difficult to edit, and they show too much because they don’t edit tightly enough. I show my best. That’s key to making quality work and presenting well. There’s an old line I try to remember whenever I’m presenting work, “I’m sorry I wrote you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write you a short letter.”    

Thank you. Here’s to good light!

Find more of Kenneth’s work on his website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with a Pro and Questions with an Educator blog series.

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