With the Olympics upon us, I wanted to take a moment and talk about one of the most unique athletes I have ever photographed, the American Bladerunner, Blake Leeper. He will be competing in Rio for Team USA and is an inspiring young man.
It was about a year ago that I received a phone call from a very soft-spoken, kind kid telling me that he has wanted to be photographed by me for a long time. He went on to tell me that he was born without legs and was a bladerunner in the para Olympics, hoping to qualify for Rio. His humility and his story were captivating, and when he told me he spent a lot of his time helping men and women wounded in war to learn to walk again, I knew he was someone that deserved a photoshoot.
He was training in California with the same trainer as Jackie Joyner-Kersey when she won her three gold medals. I told him that if he stopped by Arizona on his way, I would be glad to do a photoshoot for him as a thank you for all the time he has given to helping others. We agreed on a date and I started to plan the lighting and approach to the photoshoot that would make for dynamic portraits of strength.
I felt that this was a shoot that the subject should be elevated from the viewer and so we brought in a platform to serve as a ground baseline (a necessity when you cannot crawl into the floor). We installed rubber mats on top of the platform as the blades he will use in the Olympics have spikes that would make movement on set a bit dangerous. Lighting plans for the images were less symmetrical than usual as there were many diagonal planes that existed within the frame. With multiple reflective surfaces the biggest concern was keeping the lights off axis.
When it came to cameras, I went to my trusty Nikon D3x for this one and, as you would expect, the Nikkor 24-70 G. I wanted to be able to move around the environment and see how much distortion I could play with before the shot moved away from being a portrait and into the idea of “at the race.” I worried that using primes on this set would pull me away from the fluidity that needs to exist to create a body of work rather than just a single image.
With all the planning and preparation done before going into the studio, we were able to relax and have a great time while doing the actual shoot. Unfortunately for the viewing audience, the music and environment led to me dancing. For those that don’t know me, I can’t dance… actually no…. I shouldn’t dance, is more like it. But with this said, it would be irresponsible of me not to show you a clip of when Blake tried to teach me some moves…. my apologies world.