Illustrating advertising projects and hundreds of annual reports for major corporations and cutting-edge biotech, software and financial firms have shown off the technical prowess of award-winning photographer George Simian. But after almost three decades as a top commercial shooter in Boston, Simian decided it was time for a change. In 2004, he headed out west, in part, as he says, “to learn how to slack.” Settling in Los Angeles, Simian retooled his eye and refocused his efforts to concentrate on perhaps the most fascinating machine of all, the human body. Using the techniques he refined on commercial assignments, Simian is able to freeze action at the decisive moment yet show movement in a single frame.
DPP: How did your series on dancers and acrobats come about?
George Simian: I first shot dance at the start of the 1970s, when I lived with a dancer for seven years. This was before I became a professional photographer. I shot a few other dance things over the years, but it was only after I relocated to L.A. from the East Coast did I become involved with dance companies. I started with Invertigo, they do modern dance, then hip-hop with Versa-Style and Diavolo for theatrical modern. I also work with Troupe Vertigo, which is a circus company. It has slowly moved to the center of my photo work. I’m in awe of dancers and acrobats who make feats of extraordinary physical prowess look graceful and beautiful, so I look for ways of translating that physicality into images.
DPP: How are you able to both freeze the action and show movement at the same time?
Simian: The images are made with the well-known technique of dragging the shutter using a slow shutter speed, typically around a second, freezing the movement with a strobe while creating a blur “ghost” of the figure by lighting with continuous light, and moving the camera during the exposure. I first developed this style in the late 1970s in the punk-rock clubs, by flashing the subject but keeping the exposure long, to capture some of the low ambient light. The movement was accidental, but I liked it, so I developed it into a technique that was quite successful later on in my advertising photography work.
DPP: One usually associates what you’re doing with the second curtain, aka rear curtain sync technique. Why would this not work as well for what you do?
Simian: To borrow an idea from Cartier-Bresson, I want to capture the decisive moment—press the shutter a tenth of a second before it happens to account for your neural and muscular delays, as well as the camera’s mechanical delay. I want the strobe to freeze that decisive moment, hence, to fire at the start of the exposure. If I used second curtain flash, I’d miss the action by a full second, as well as have the dancer probably outside my frame by that point. Remember, I’m moving the camera. I want to be in control of when the flash fires, not allow the camera to do it.
DPP: When might someone use the second curtain sync?
Simian: The technique can work with cars that are driven specifically to be photographed. You need to repeat the shot several times, to see where the car winds up in the frame at the end of a long exposure, to be sure that it’s in the right place, before making the “hero” shot. I think that shot’s cliché. My technique involves moving the camera, to move the continuous lights and create the colorful trails. This would also work with a car but would make the background blurry as well, which might be a lot more exciting than having it be frozen. But I want to be sure that I’m capturing/freezing/lighting with the strobe at the decisive moment, so I need to use first-curtain flash.
DPP: What equipment are you working with?
Simian: The dancers and acrobats are lit with Profoto strobes at low power for the shortest possible flash duration. The strobes are inside softboxes with grids to limit the spread of light. The performers are backlit with continuous light. For warm color we use Lowel, and for cool color we use HMI for their daylight Kelvin color temperature. Gels are added to the lights to create a particular color scheme that’s appropriate to the situation. The camera moves during the exposure in a direction that moves the outline “ghost” in a trailing direction. In other words, I use the first curtain shutter to capture the movement at its peak, and the camera movement creates the direction of the “ghost,” not a second-curtain shutter.
Most of these were captured with a Nikon D800E, with an 85mm lens, ISO 100, at “ƒ/8 and be there!” That’s a great Zen quote attributed to Weegee, though he shot at ƒ/16 most of the time. For me, the camera doesn’t matter; it’s about the light and about pressing the shutter at the right time.
DPP: By lowering the power on your strobes, how fast are the durations you’re getting?
Simian: I try to get the flash duration as short as possible, balanced with the need for power. I use all the pack’s outlets, usually two or three packs, each with a bi-cable head, and reach flash durations of around 1/4000 of a second at T/0.1, not the 0.5 measure most often quoted, which is one-third as fast. I shoot at the dance studios of the companies involved. Some have great spaces, others have challenges that we have to work around. I have a lot of black velour to cover the background, if necessary. The companies let me use their studios in the off-times, to stage my tests and my workshops. Most of the work I do for the dance companies is documentary, using hot lights during rehearsals and stage lighting during performances. This requires a different approach and even different cameras such as the Sony a9 with Zeiss Batis lenses shot wide open, 1/1000th of a second at ISO 6400. The camera can handle the high ISOs.
DPP: Did you study dance/movement yourself?
Simian: I watched a lot of dance as a young man, and jumped up and down in the punk clubs for almost 10 years. I don’t really dance, though I love to move, but I’ve since watched a lot of live dance, as well as on film. I’m continuously impressed by the amount of work and diligence that go into making a dance. I attend a lot of rehearsals and learn what’s important by seeing how they focus and practice and improve and imbue emotion into every single gesture.
DPP: Education is a big part of what you do. How do you convey your knowledge to your workshop students? Much of it is highly technical.
Simian: In my workshops, I teach different approaches for capturing motion. At Samy’s Camera, for instance, I teach a series of workshops called Bodies-in-Motion. Sometimes we simply freeze motion with strobes only, and other times we practice this “dragging the shutter” technique. By breaking it down into manageable bits, explaining and demonstrating it, and having them practice it, I’ve enabled everyone who attends my workshops to make successful images of dancers and acrobats. In fact, we recently captured acrobats at Cirque School in action. I’m confident that everyone can appreciate the beauty of the human body in graceful motion and that, with a thorough explanation and practice, can master this technique. I’ve see quite a few of my former students take this style and run with it. I get huge personal satisfaction from seeing their success and from sharing their images with the dancers I’ve asked to perform for my workshops. I teach at a number of places, and my wife, Beata Bernina, who’s also a photographer, and I run the Ubud Bali Photo Workshops in her native country of Indonesia.
DPP: How did you learn the technical aspects of photography?
Simian: My father was an amateur photographer, and I caught the bug from him while we were still in Romania. In 1964, when I was 14, our family moved to New York. In my teens I joined the West Side YMCA Photo Club. I never studied photography formally—my degree from Cornell University is in psychology—but when I was there I assisted a graphic design professor, teaching a section of his course that focused on photography. That gave me access to a darkroom. After graduation, he got me hired as a photo instructor at Cornell for a couple of years, and I did a lot of documentary environmental portraits.
I then moved to Boston in 1976 and assisted another graphic designer, Michael Weymouth, for about three years. He was illustrating annual reports with his own photography. That set me on a path to do annual reports for the following 25 years. I did attend weeklong photo workshops, first in the mid-1970s with Garry Winogrand, Enrico Natali and Charles Harbutt, then a few more in the early 1990s with Greg Heisler and other advertising photographers. But I consider myself mostly self-taught at the school of hard knocks with lots of frustrating failures to learn from and lots of great experiences. I thank all those clients who paid me to learn!