Spotlight on Todd Spoth
Nov 25, 2012
Please tell us about the image's context, background, the assignment, etc.
I met local Houston rap legend, Trae Tha Truth, on June 17th, 2011 while working on a cover shoot for 29-95, a special section for The Houston Chronicle that focuses on arts and entertainment. I had planned on doing the shoot at my home office. I called Trae around 9pm the same evening I got the assignment and tried to arrange the shoot for the next day. It turns out that he was a night owl like I am, so he showed up at my place with several friends later that night around 3am.
Trae and I instantly hit it off. We had a great time shooting. It was rather unorthodox that I was shooting in my home space, but given the time constraints I didn't have time to book another studio. Trae and I continued to talk, and a month later I volunteered my time to photograph his annual Trae Day event, which is an official day in Houston where Trae holds an event and gives back to the community. A month after that, in August, Trae commissioned me to photograph the cover of his crew (ABN)'s upcoming album. We used my home office shooting space again, spending about two days photographing Trae and the other 4 members of ABN. I shot individual images of each member, as well as a group photo on white that was eventually used for the album cover.
Can you describe what was going on in your mind as the image took shape, and then also what you were thinking when you made the image?
One of the first members I photographed was Pyrexx. I had virtually no information about the rest of the crew until each showed up, so my usual practice of doing my research was out of the question. I was able to find out that Pyrexx was white, had a lot of tattoos, and spent time in jail. I originally photographed Pyrexx individually against a small 6' grey seamless using a focused grid off to the right side of the frame to create some dimension/drama and used a little kick of ring to fill in some of the harsh shadows.
Pyrexx walked in with a jet black tall tee with fresh creases - as if it was straight it out of the packaging - and a pair of black jeans starched down in perfect Houston form. After I made some frames of him in the all black outfit, I made the choice to photograph him in his white undershirt instead of the black outfit: the tee covered up a lot of his tattoos and with his fair complexion, the black shirt created more of a headache to light and expose properly.
During the shoot I really just let him do his thing. Rappers, whether huge moguls or upcoming stars, know they have to work for the camera. It's just something they do well - I have yet to come across a rapper who is uncomfortable in front of the camera. And if they are a bit awkward, that awkwardness usually ends up translating into something rad in the final result.
The image of Pyrexx putting his glasses on was instantly my standout select from his images. Ironically it wasn't a shot where I instructed him to pose like that, but rather a frame that I captured as he was in the act of putting his glasses on.
Now more than a year later, I know Trae and all of his normal crew well enough to not feel intimidated or scared to suggest or try something new. I've photographed, met and helped on shoots with enough big names to not get starstruck or awkward around talent, but Trae and his people can be a bit intimating when you first meet them. In the past several years I have photographed tons of hip-hop and entertainment artists - confidence plays a huge part. I have be able to establish myself enough so that artists feel comfortable with me photographing them, AND I utilize that confidence myself when I shoot. With posing a subject, some are better than others. I usually let them show me what they come up with before then I show them the images. I allow the subjects to see what I'm looking at and adjust.
I don't usually make a habit of showing images during a shoot, but for rappers it usually works out, especially if they are unfamiliar with my work beforehand. I'll show them a frame or two from the shoot and they'll be super into it.
Unless I am doing something conceptual with a preconceived idea in mind ahead of time, the artist needs to feel comfortable. I have found it best to take their natural poses and tweak them a bit to translate better for the portrait instead of completely contorting them into something they are uncomfortable with, because that will be very apparent in the image.
What were some problems or challenges you encountered during the coverage of this event, and how did you handle them?
I didn't have a lot of time to plan and didn't really have the budget for anything too conceptual or outlandish. At this point Trae was familiar with my work and just wanted some portraits for promotional usage as well as a group photo on white for the album cover. I would have loved to have the time and budget for something a little more complex, but given the situation I was happy with the final collection of images.
One thing I did learn: although subjects can put a lot of thought into their outfits and overall image, I do need to at least let them know that all black and all white are NOT ideal for studio shoots. These first couple of shoots with Trae and ABN really opened the door into the rap/hip-hop world and in the almost 2-years since I have photographed several rappers and hip-hop artists for not only editorial endeavors but for their own album covers and promotions as well.
Trae was a veritable legend in Houston before I met him, but since our initial shoot, he has done a lot of really awesome things and taken off on a national scale. His friendship and co-sign to my work has helped me gain credibility with other artists, local and national. Unfortunately, Pyrexx parted ways with Trae and ABN shortly after this shoot and before their album was finally released. I don't necessarily understand the details of the dissolution, but my images of Pyrexx were never formally used outside of my own promotion.
What are some aspects that helped you in this shoot?
I think being (or at least looking) younger, having tattoos and being knowledgable (and passionate) about music and Houston rap allowed them to feel comfortable enough with me during these initial photo shoots to listen and follow my direction while shooting.
I definitely consider myself to be a music snob and I have been a musician and performed in bands for over a decade. I like to try and have some sort of music in the background to make my portrait subjects a bit more comfortable. The music usually serves as a nice icebreaker as well. Before my first shoots with Trae, I began to second-guess my choices for background music. I didn't know if he liked certain old school rappers or not. If I played something newer, would he like that better? Does he have a beef with them?! Ha. Kind of humorous but something I over thought in the beginning.
Was there anything that you learned or put to use in later assignments that come about from this experience?
I definitely knew ahead of time what lighting and what kind of image I was going for. I had a set with a large white seamless already ready to go, so since I had a bit of extra time before they showed up I ended up setting up a gray 6 ' seamless and a few lights to knock out some individual portraits of each member. There was no reason not to set up something more dramatic.
One thing I do beforehand is try and listen to the artist's music, check out their videos (rappers have tons of music and videos so that makes that part easy) and see their previous photos. This way I have a pretty strong basis for who they are as an artist before I get them in front of the camera.
As far as habits and behaviors, I'm not too high energy. I mean I'm not the stereotypical NYC photographer that is bouncing off the walls with a beret and tiger print leather pants yelling "FABULOUS!", but I'm not a boring old man either. I'm just a fun dude that is kind of crazy and likes to have fun. I do always want to push the limits during a shoot. I wish I always had the budget to push the production really far, but a lot of times that doesn't happen. Even so, that doesn't mean you can't push the creative envelope.
I usually just do my research ahead of time and go into the shoot with as much info as I can. I always try and hang out with the subjects a bit or at least talk to find a common ground. The more the subject of the image can relate and connect with the photographer, the more willing they will be to give 110% effort and listen to your ideas - even if they are off the wall.
Everyone is different though. Photographers - especially ones that come from the photojournalism background like myself - have a knack for being able to read people and situations. We can walk into a room and without saying a word to anyone know if the mood is tense, if the artist is in a hurry, has their mind some place else, or is excited about this or that.
The easy part is rappers and artists in general LOVE Twitter. Spending 5 minutes before a shoot to browse an artists Twitter feed will give you tons of info about what they have been up to, what they are working on and sometimes a window into how they are feeling that day.
Take advantage of all the resources!
Headshot by Dan Winters