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Folklore Photography, The Grim Reaper Concept
Out of Ideas, Recreate A Myth
The Story Behind The Image: I’m a bit behind after conducting, back-to-back photography workshops in Las Vegas, Seattle, Nashville and San Antonio, plus preparing for my upcoming lectures at the University of Calgary, but I wanted to share with you a photo I created the other day. Though I said “I,” it was truly a team effort and Jessi, the model, had this concept in her mind for over four years—I was fortunate she shared it with me and entrusted me to capture her vision.
This is a mirrored image of the original photo focusing on the Grim Reaper concept.
Photographers are notorious for “running out of ideas” from time to time, but by simply exploring myths, legends, and folklore, often with controversy of its origins, like that of the Grim Reaper, photographers can reenergize their creativity. Sometimes these ideas come to life by simply talking with friends, models and other artists, or even by reading a folklore novel or watching a mythical movie. In short, inspiration comes not only from within, but from absorbing what you see and hear from around you. I was fortunate to have someone like Jessi share her artistic ideas with me, something she had done once before with her “feather concept” photo ideas, a project we’re still working on together.
As an example, in creating the Grim Reaper photograph, Jessi did her homework before I had arrived in Canada. She knew a wolf breeder and wanted real wolves in her photos. Wolves have a unique photogenic quality that would add an “element” of realism to the image, something Jessi insisted upon maintaining throughout the entire shoot. She wanted a real, not fake, scythe, or the harvesting tool normally associated with the Grim Reaper, and she found one. She made sure we’d have as many real elements as possible for the photo shoot.
She also searched for and found a hooded cloak, the main article of clothing worn by the Grim Reaper and even though the wolf breeder had done the location scouting Jessi had asked him for, I settled for the wheat field next to his wolf pens. I loved the idea that wheat is associated with “the harvest” as the Grim Reaper is known as the “harvester of souls.” The chains were a requirement to maintain control of the powerful wolves, but also added a contrasting element, a masculine metal chain held in the hands of a feminine subject. Though the Grim Reaper, through myth, is usually depicted as a male, Jessi’s original idea was the Angel of Death and angels are predominately considered by Christians as asexual, so this added an element of controversy into the depiction of the final photo.
This is the original photo of the interpretation of the myth, the Grim Reaper, also known as the "Angel of Death."
The Technical And The Challenges: Pre-visualizing Jessi’s idea is easy as one only needs to do research of preexisting Grim Reaper visual interpretations, there are many as this is an old myth that dates back for many centuries. But we wanted something different that not only depicted the Grim Reaper as told in folklore, but that truly told the story in one whack. Almost every photo or illustration we found online was of a man or skeletal man with scythe in hand, wearing a black hooded cape. Nothing we found told the story, almost everything seemed to only depict the deathly look. We basically found “portraits,” not “environmental portraits.”
My photography roots are photojournalism, telling the story (editorial) through a photo, not it’s caption. This gave me an edge because as a photojournalist, I know the difference between a portrait illustrating a person and an environmental portrait illustrating a person in their working environment. So to better understand how this photograph was created, let’s break down the main elements we considered to make this image work as an environmental portrait.
1. The dark hooded cape and the scythe, state the obvious, the Grim Reaper. The cape and hood add mystery. The scythe is the “weapon of the harvester.”
2. The wolves create the element of “the hunt” and wolves themselves are often associated with folklore between man and the wild—the photo would not have the same effect with a domesticated canine breed—besides, wolves normally hunt together in packs, thus creating the bond between the Grim Reaper and the wolves hunting together.
Jessi was extremely careful when working "Luna," our first purebred timber wolf.
3. The wheat field added the element of harvesting—the Grim Reaper is often looked as not only the keeper of the dead, but also as the harvester of the souls. I also chose this location because of the plowed lines. Lines are powerful in photography and these man made lines play a big role in the “mirroring” of the photo. Rarely do photos work mirrored. I didn’t just tell Jessi to walk out in an open field, I strategically placed Jessi in a path I saw as a major leading line to her and the wolves. The Grim Reaper is not depicted as one who judges people, but only guides them down the path of their final destination—judgment comes from higher powers according to legend.
4. The metal chains bring masculinity into the photo and since Jessi was after the “Angel of Death,” another set of terms associated with the Grim Reaper, she brought the femininity aspect to the photo—Jessi and the chains, feminine vs. masculine, bring the asexual to the sexing of an angel.
When it came to the lighting of this photo, the sun was an important element, even though my assistant Jack Werner carried a Hensel Porty Premium 1200-watt second power pack fitted with a Hensel ring-flash covered with a Rosco ¾ CTO gel. I took photos with flash and without as the wind and the wolves determined the final lighting. Since the ring-flash was hand held by Jack and not mounted to my camera, I had told everyone I would shoot regardless if the power pack was ready to go or not, for I wanted both choices, a fully-lit photo and a silhouette style photo.
The reason I say the wolves and wind made the final determination in lighting is because it was difficult for me to hear the “beep” often associated with the best portable power packs to indicate the flash capacitors are fully charged at my specified power settings. High-end battery packs don’t fire unless the charging capacitors are fully charged for ultimate accuracy in lighting. I had Jack hold the Hensel ring-flash about 12-feet from Jessi and the wolves in a side-directional angle, so he was to the camera right or left, as he constantly moved with the wolves. Combine that with the fact that I was using a Canon 85mm F/1.2L USM medium telephoto lens, for my own safety and to help enlarge and compress the background, I was even further from the battery pack than normal, making it even more difficult for me to hear the ready beep.
Since I rarely shoot in a continuous motor drive mode, as I’m not a fan of spraying and praying, I would key in on the wolves’ position through my viewfinder first and their constant movement added more difficulty to the shoot. From the wolves my eyes would shift to the top of the frame hoping Jessi was in place once the wolves seemed to hold for a split second and since the sun was behind Jessi at times, all I could see was her silhouette and that’s where I concentrated my focus. I wasn’t too worried about dead-on focus, though this is a must in my normal shooting style, since my aperture was roaming from F/14 to F/16, allowing for more depth of field.
There were many times when the wolves were perfect, but Jessi was not, as the strong winds would blow off her hood, even though it was pinned to her hair. It seemed like when she finally was ready, having fun holding a heavy and deadly scythe in one hand and cold metal chains in another, the wolves would pull her off her feet with a forward unexpected lunge.
Sometimes it was frustrating, though I kept my cool and somehow my frozen brain told what felt as frostbitten fingers to depress the camera shutter when I felt everyone was in the exact position. I’m sure I lost a lot of great photos as everything about me seemed to move like an icy pond. This also meant waiting for the wolf handlers to move out of frame each time we reset everyone’s placement. I’ll put it to you this way, in my five years of photographing NBA playoff games it was easier to photograph fast-moving professional athletes driving a basketball down court.
Though these wolves were accustomed to the cold, they were frisky to stay warm and ready to roam since they were outside their normal holding pens. Throw in the fact that sometimes I was practically laying on the frozen ground holding what felt like a frozen Canon 5D Mark II without gloves, I grabbed every frame I could which is not my norm as I’m a very picky shooter and rely on making every shot count—but I knew I had to shoot, flash ready or not and my camera settings were designed to do just that as I took two things into account, the Sunny 16 Rule and the ability that 1200-watt seconds gives you when trying to over-power the sun with flash.
Working in cold weather with wolves is no dance, but understanding what you’re trying to accomplish is a simple waltz if you apply photography principles and fundamentals. Besides composing and cropping the image in the viewfinder, we waited for the last hour plus of sunlight—which meant we gained the warmth of the Golden Hour, but we lost the physical warmth. Thus we physically, except the wolves, moved slower in the cold and sometimes I positioned Jessi so the sun was behind her, which meant I would roll around on the ground until her body blocked the sun so I could focus the lens then take the shot.
As the sun sank lower and the quality of the light became better, we turned Jessi and the wolves slightly for some side lighting. When the flash didn’t fire, my camera settings gave me the proper exposure for everyone but Jessi, as the light struck her black garments from the side, but not her face, which was turned away from the sun. If the flash fired, it wasn’t a problem as we had adjusted the power output slightly stronger than the background sky required aperture.
Basically, if the proper exposure for the sky was ISO 100, shutter speed at 1/200th at F/11, we set the flash exposure for the same values except the output to match the requirement of F/14. In this technique, the duration of the flash is the shutter speed for Jessi and the shutter speed of the camera doesn’t really impact the subject when exposure for ambient light is correct. Add to that, the sun is now at an oblique angle, not directly overhead, so the wheat and other areas not affected by the flash have a more dramatic side lighting effect too—creating beautiful shadows that help give a two-dimensional medium like photography, an illusion of the third dimension.
In the end, frozen bodies and brains, we survived capturing our shared ideas and quickly moved indoors to a warm house to thaw out and review the results. Though there was no wheat bread on the table, as we ordered pizza, no one died either, the Grim Reaper was put to rest when the sun went down and remains a myth. The hungry wolves were fed red meat and our guardian angles obviously looked over us that day as no one was injured by the wolves or the extreme cold weather, though we had a few close calls when Luna, the first timber wolf we used, as she was extremely jealous of the wolf breeder’s wife and Jessi, as wolves are very protective of their masters.
As you can tell, it was a cold and difficult shoot at times and I just wanted to share the story on creating this photo as often people look at a photo and think it’s just so easy to create. Not the case in this one, as it took a team effort and I must share the credit. I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, as now I have to finish preparing for my lectures at the University of Calgary tomorrow followed by back-to-back photography workshops in San Antonio, the Virgin Islands, Moab then the Virgin Islands. As always, please don’t forget the men and women that sacrifice many comforts in life, including staying warm, so that we may have our freedoms. God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.