Anatomy of: Middletown

Throughout the month of September I’m 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 the month.

Middletown (written by Will Eno) is a play about the universe of a small town to which its newest resident has moved to have her first baby. Her hopes of forming tight bonds with the town's people fizzle when she finds that moments of connection are shallow, and strangers remain just that. A central moment comes during a town walking tour when stopped at a simple stone memorial, existential questions of humankind are awoken and wrestled with by tour-goers and the tour guide alike.

Final image

This shot was one of the more ambitious productions in the series as it took place in three U.S. states, on location and in studio, and over a period of weeks. The art direction had the moment take place beneath an exploding starry sky, dwarfing the tour guide played by Alana Arenas.

I live in Chicago which is no small town. Finding quaint, open space within an hour of the city is a tough call. Instead of shooting close to home I chose to find the locations in New England while visiting my family. It was a great solution because New England is rife with open town commons, commemorative memorials and adorable centuries old homes.

While motoring through southern Maine with my fiance, I slammed on the breaks to shoot what would become the town memorial. A cemetery entrance built from ancient granite was the perfect, unadorned and average memorial I needed.

Monument shot in York, Maine shortly after sunset.

A week later, I drove to Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts (with my teenage niece as an assistant) to shoot landscapes and architecture which would later make up the image's location. Maintaining a flexible vision for what I was making, I shot a library of structures and grassy public spaces. Night exposures are long, and tested my 14yr old assistant's patience.

This house appears in the left background of the final image.

With the landscape now shot, I retouched together different versions of a town commons landscape. The details were carefully chosen so to direct the cues to a small town common.

Two composited landscapes we considered for where the hero was to be placed.

Another week later and back in my Chicago studio, the last element I shot was our hero. We chose the landscape with the more dramatic, directional back-lighting and set up a similar lighting scheme.
It was important that her lighting match that of the landscape I'd already created. The floor was blacked so not to reflect, and directional edge lighting, key light fall-off and long shadows would anchor her to the landscape.

Alana shot as a separate plate in my studio

Each shot of Alana changed the tonality of the story so there was much discussion about which expression and body language best served the narrative. I chose this one because her look of wonder was mixed with an ounce of loneliness. She looks not only up towards the night sky but out to the town that surrounds her. Once all the elements were selected, I sent the parts to the retoucher to begin assembly and finishing treatments.

My retouching notes and a hero images switch.

After a last minute image switch, a new name plate was illustrated inspired by historic plaques and an old Jamaican coin.

An image I sourced on Internet used as guide for plaque.

Middletown opens June 16th at Steppenwolf's downstairs theater.

Equipment: Multiple Profoto 7A packs, Hasselblad H4D, Hasselblad 35-90 zoom, Canon 1DS Mark III,
Crew: Jabari Zubari, Annika Howe, Mark Doddato, Sage Reed
Retoucher: Brian York
Ogilvy Mather: Allie Armstrong AD, Gabe Usadel CD
We ate: Italian sandwiches and iced coffee.