Chris Crisman: Master Of The Person In Their Place

The goal of any environmental portrait is to place the person being photographed in the surroundings that reflect that individual’s personality. The very best photographers are able to inject just enough of their own personality—their impressions and evaluations of the subject—to enable the viewers to gain a further insight into the person being photographed. Whether he’s photographing billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson for Wired or a local Titusville gunsmith, Chris Crisman brings enough of himself into the photos to create images that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Like so many accomplished photographers that have come before him, Crisman didn’t wait around for assignments to build a creative body of work. Rather, it was a series of imaginative test shoots that brought attention to his unique eye.

DPP: What is it about environmental portraiture that interests you?

Chris Crisman: When I started in photography in the middle of college—I went to the University of Pennsylvania—I was really into the landscape. That had a lot to do with my upbringing. I’m an only child. We were in the countryside, 10 miles from Titusville, in a very wooded and hilly area in rural Pennsylvania. I did a lot of exploring and played a lot of make-believe. It was just me and my dogs. I was driving a tractor and a four-wheeler by the time I was 10. It’s like in The Return of the Jedi, when they’re on Endor flying through that awesome forest. That’s how I thought of it driving four-wheelers there. That was a pretty big influence to me. My parents managed the land, making sure nobody did any illegal dumping or illegal cutting of trees.

My father had been a steelworker and that gets into how I started with the environmental portraits. In the area I grew up, the steel mills boomed with the two World Wars, then tapered down, but were still very active into the 1980s. Then the steel industry left and the town has never really been the same. My dad was vice president of the steelworkers union at the time, so the process of getting laid off, then retiring and disability—his story is very impactful on my story.

DPP: How so? Did you document those transitions?

Crisman: The closing of the steel mill happened while I was in middle school. It emotionally had a major impact on me, though I wasn’t expressing it with a camera at that time. I was documenting it mentally. When I got into photography, the first couple of years, I was mostly interested in landscape work and really loved working back close to home. I wasn’t actually a fine-art student at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in environmental studies and have minors in cultural anthropology and biology. I took a lot of elective photography classes. For my senior project I documented what remained of the steel mill, as well as its environmental and social impact. The pictures are a metaphor for what I felt the whole town was going through and what it’s left with. Even then—2002, 2003—when I was still shooting with film, I was trying to do some things with manipulation to express what I wanted to say with my images. DPP: How did you transition out of school into being a successful photographer, with clients ranging from Infiniti and AOL to Red Bull and Cirque du Soleil? That’s not easy, given the economic woes of the past decade.

Crisman: After finishing school, I had about six weeks of flailing about and working at restaurants. Then I got a full-time assistant/studio manager/retoucher job with a photographer in Philadelphia. Some nights I also did retouching for a wedding photographer. Eventually, I built up enough of a personal body of work that I could go after my own assignments.

DPP: What’s the photographic scene like in Philadelphia? Why there as your base?

Crisman: I haven’t been convinced to move yet. I went to school here. When I graduated, I was super-broke and couldn’t move. We have a little more creative freedom here than I think we would have in New York. I’d probably do more editorial and celebrity-type stuff if I lived there, but mentally, I like a little more space. The work I get comes in from everywhere, and I’m 15 minutes from the airport. The biggest job this year came out of an agency in Austin.

DPP: Both your assignment and personal work often have an illustrative look to it. How do you achieve that?

Crisman: It depends on the project. When we’re talking about my environmental portraiture, it’s often about heroic characters and archetypes. To support that, I shoot a certain way— the hero in the foreground carrying strong weight against a background that’s still very important to the picture. I’m very precise in how I light people, how I like skin tones to look. When I get into the retouching side of things, it’s almost case-specific. I don’t think I’m an incredible documentary photographer, so I don’t feel the need to have freedom with the camera. I like to make a decision about the place that I’m shooting and the edges of the frame and shoot from a tripod. What this allows me to do is to interact with the subject.

For a portrait, we might do five different shots in a day. They’re going to be five different frames, but amongst those groups there’s not going to be a lot of variation. Using the tripod, I shoot the space without the subject, plating it essentially, making a full range of exposures. Then we bring in the subject, and during that process, we might make a minor move. If we do, I ask the subject to step out of frame for a moment and we quickly replate it.

DPP: Which image would serve as a good example of this approach?

The work can be challenging. When he photographed Sir Richard Branson for Wired magazine, Crisman had 10 minutes to shoot three subjects for the cover, including Branson. Once he got the shot Wired wanted, he took two minutes to take the shot he wanted, the image of Branson shown here.

Crisman: The picture of the gunsmith from the Titusville project. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the golden age of the town in that shot. For that image, I did some shots with some of the ambient lights on, then off—a lot of different ways to get to the final feel. I wanted the viewer to be able to see all the details. In post, multiple plates were put together. I wanted only the gun and the bullets to pop, so we used pieces of those things to pull it all together. Once I get to the point that I like a certain frame, I want to keep it flexible for the postproduction phase where I’m working with my digital artist Taisya Kuzmenko to pull everything together. I haven’t retouched my own work since 2009, due to the volume of what we do.

I think the reality of environmental portraiture, or any kind of portraiture, is you’ve got to dance with the subject a bit, especially someone who has never been in a formal portrait session before. There are a lot of "real" people in my work. With a lot of the celebrities I photograph on assignment, we often have only 10 minutes, so you need to create flexibility for the client on the back end. We might spend two weeks in post.

DPP: Tell us about the Richard Branson shots you did for Wired magazine. Was that one of those assignments with major
time constraints?

Crisman: We had him for 10 minutes and we did three pictures with him in that time frame. One of them was for a cover. We had to shoot two other people into the cover. We spent about five minutes on the cover, about three minutes on the secondary shot and about two minutes on the shot that I wanted to make, which is the portrait of him pulling his hair back.

DPP: Was he actually shot where the background is?

Crisman: Yeah. That’s actually as simple as it gets. We were at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Mojave Desert where they’re building the scaled composites of the Virgin Galactic, the spaceships.

DPP: How did you create the image of the young boy with the spaceship?

Crisman: The pieces were shot separately. The kid was shot in the studio. The rocket was actually an 18-inch- high model. That was personal work.

DPP: What camera and lighting equipment are you working with to create these photos?

In addition to his stunning still photography, Crisman has branched out into motion work. Inside many still photographers there’s a budding filmmaker. Crisman is using RED cameras in his motion projects.

What I Use

Cameras & Lenses
Hasselblad H2 camera with Phase One IQ160
digital back
Hasselblad 50-110mm
Hasselblad 35mm
Hasselblad 80mm
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L
Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L
Dynalite 2000 watt-second power packs
Custom-built Dynalite 2400 watt-second
power packs
Chimera softboxes
Photek octabanks
Lightrein octabanks and grids
Other Gear
PocketWizard Plus III and Plus X transmitters
Pelican and Tenba cases
Adobe Creative Suite V6
HDRsoft Photomatix Pro
Phase One Capture One Pro 7
Computers & Printers
Custom-modified MacBook Pro for shooting
Mac Pro with EIZO monitor for retouching
LaCie 75 TB storage array
Epson Stylus Pro 3800 printer
Epson Stylus Pro 7900 printer

Crisman: As for cameras, it depends on the project. The Canon cameras are easier to use and there’s a lot of flexibility with them, but the image quality from the IQ back is amazing. When I need to get faster shutter speeds to bring the background down outdoors, the Hasselblad is fantastic for that. When I use the Hasselblad, I like to shoot on a remote so I’m not bumping the tripod and also have the mirror up because that mirror slamming down can cause camera shake. It’s a nice sound, but it doesn’t help the pictures.

My strobes and battery packs are Dynalites. It’s what I learned on. We use a range of small to large Octabanks with them. Sometimes, I like using the extra-small Chimera softboxes. Sometimes, we use grids on them. So, they’re a direct light source, but soft. I don’t like hard shadows on a face, but I like shaping the face. The general idea is real people in real spaces. That’s what I’m trying to convey. I want to give a summation of that person’s experience. I almost always want something to be inspirational, even if something has a darker tone to it. I want people to connect to it and for the pictures to be thoughtful.

DPP: In your work, it’s obvious people skills are an important component.

Crisman: I try to get people to look at my work ahead of a shoot; they usually can find some people in some of the images who they can relate to. If it’s about just getting through the session in time, I try and show that that’s what I’m concerned about, too. If they’re worried about looking bad in front of the camera, I’ll discuss what their concerns are. There’s a lot of therapy involved with this. They’re putting themselves out there for the world to see, so there’s fear that comes with that. I think it’s a good idea to get yourself in front of the camera once in awhile to remind yourself of the experience.

DPP: In addition to your still photography, you’re working with motion on occasion, as well.

Crisman: It’s the reality of the times. The general idea that I like to shoot from a tripod and shoot remotely frees me up to direct. It’s a similar process. We’ve done some behind-the-scenes videos of my shoots and some pieces for AARP. Those were shot with the RED. I’m not the cinematographer. I’m the director.

DPP: You often use the word "we" instead of "I" when talking about your shoots. Your team seems to play a big role in your work.

Crisman: In the last few years, as the productions get bigger, the schedule gets tighter and the expectations become a lot higher, it has really become a lot more about trusting and collaborating with the people I work with. We’re trying as a team to do unique things—not be boring, not be simple—and produce special, meaningful work.

Go to to see more of Chris Crisman’s photography and motion work.

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