Anatomy of: The Hot L Baltimore

Over the next three weeks I’ll be blogging about the making of a black and white project I recently shot with Ogilvy Mather, Chicago. This print campaign was for Steppenwolf Theater Company's 35th season entitled Public/Private Self. Updates will be posted each Tuesday afternoon in September.

The Hot L Baltimore (1973) is a dark comedy about the occupants of a condemned grand hotel who face eviction. The play’s title is taken from the hotel's neon sign with a burned-out letter "E”. The central character of a night clerk who's life is orbited by and ensemble of prostitutes, pimps and runaways, is played by K. Todd Freeman.

Two challenges of this particular shoot were to represent the neglected hotel in which the story happens and create a metaphor for the chaos of the occupants vs the stability of the night clerk. The image was to be use across a wide array of print media.

Final image

I began location scouting on the Internet searching for swanky turn-of-the-century hotels and social clubs, then calling to get cooperation from their PR departments. Hotel Intercontinental was my first choice and the one who graciously hosted our shoot. Once entering this particular room, I fell in love with the verticality of the space but was most taken by the iconic hotel carpeting. It was a room that would translate perfectly in black & white because of it’s high contrast tones throughout. Also its burled walnut wood paneling would take on an old sooty quality in high speed black and white digital capture. We borrowed mismatching furniture from adjacent rooms and carefully “broke” a curtain to give the room sparse, run down feeling.

Empty room plate

After establishing our camera angle (8' high looking out and down) I brought K.Todd to his position. We chatted a while about where he wanted to take his character in the play, and what I had in mind for the photograph. I always find this conversation with professional actors fascinating because until then, I can only guess how they might translate the written script. What's most fun is that I get to become part of developing his persona too. He felt the night clerk was intense, patient and observant. Kind of a dry and serious man.

Subject was shot mostly alone so to focus on his direction.

Our main subject now shot, I focused my attention solely on our three extras to populate the background. Once dressed in 70’s period costumes by my stylist, I set them wandering in big loops across the room. This part of the shoot was something of a dance where the talent weaved and flirted with each other making grand gestures that would look cool when stopped in action. I wanted a lot of motion so the exposures were long to capture the ambient blur. At this point I had very little certainty about where each person might be placed in the final composition nor could I plan on the randomness of their actions, so I shot hundreds of variations.

Motion blur came from 2 carefully placed lights and a longer exposure

When it became time to assemble the image for the retoucher, I sat down with Photoshop, a Wacom tablet and a glass of Scotch.This patient part of the image assembly is where the story's details are told and something I can only do myself. I look at each of the frames and choose the ones that when placed together make the varied moments feel like one.
I was so taken by how these ghostly figures became a suggestion of the past, that I couldn't resist using each character twice. This added to a sense of the passage of time which is in fact integral to the story.

My final mark up notes to the retoucher

The Hot L Baltimore opens March 24th at Steppenwolf's downstairs theater.

Equipment: Multiple Profoto 7A packs, Hasselblad H4D, Hasselblad 35-90 zoom, Phocus 2.5
Crew: Jabari Zubari, Annika Howe, Karen Brody, Nate Smith, Damien Thompson, Heather Brooks
Retoucher: Brian York
Ogilvy Mather: Allie Armstrong AD, Gabe Usadel CD
We ate: Panera bread sandwiches, iced tea