A date with Marilyn

During a recent trip back to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Ruth’s hometown, Ruth and I did a senior portrait session with her niece, Alaina. The plan was to shoot some images in downtown Wilkes-Barre in the evening, then go to a park on Sunday morning and try to re-create some of the iconic Marilyn Monroe portraits.

Alaina bears a strong resemblance to Marilyn and is very photogenic. She’s got a great personality, as well, and it comes through in her sparkling eyes and great smile.

The session would give me an opportunity to apply my Fuji X-system camera and lenses to portraits rather than the photojournalism project for my next book, “Pleasure Grounds.” I used the Fuji XH-1 with the 35mm f/1.4, 56mm f/1.2 and 90mm f/2, along with a 16-56mm f/2.8 on a second XH-1. My four-month old Nikon D750 had bit the dust and required a major repair, so Fuji was the only option for this shoot. And it performed flawlessly.

I have always loved Fuji’s skin tones, and aside from taming the contrast and toning down the reds in some shots, very little processing was done to the color images in this series (I took more than 600 images over the course of the two days, tossed out 200 of them and delivered the rest). One standard W126 battery was sufficient for both sessions.

We started along the Susquehanna River about 30  minutes before sunset. The day had been overcast and the soft light continued into evening. I’d spotted a lovely chandelier hanging from the ceiling of a building with marble columns, and we started our session there. The 90mm threw some foreground foliage out of focus and helped soften the lights in the background, as well.

We moved to the front of the building, which faces the riverfront commons. The lamps on the wall provided soft lighting for a series of portraits. Fuji’s auto white balance did a superb job of maintaining the warmth of the incandescent lights without creating an unnatural skin tone.

Across the street, some teen boys tried to impress Alaina with their bicycle and skateboard tricks. When one of them fell off the bicycle, it sent Alaina into a fit of laughter.

I was using the Across film simulation setting at the time. I overexposed about a stop to create a natural skin tone.

We moved across the street to the park. When Ruth and I were scouting a location earlier in the evening, we noticed the metal sculpture and wondered if Alaina would be game for curling up in it. She took it a few poses beyond that.

The Wilkes-Barre Market Street Bridge is a stunning stone structure and would easily steal the show if included in a portrait. Using the 35 f/1.4 wide open, I was able to minimize its presence without destroying the beauty of the setting and model.

The symmetry of the street lamps that line the concrete paths on the riverfront drew my attention away from the bridge. The wind was picking up and her hair took flight.

The in-camera image stabilization of the XH-1 is incredible. I found myself comfortably shooting at 1/15th of second throughout the evening and getting sharp results.

We wrapped up at the park as the light levels had reached a level that even the IBIS couldn’t compensate for. Our destination was two blocks away, downtown Wilkes-Barre. We opted to carry the gear rather than drive and try to find a parking spot. On the way, we stopped in a vacant lot and waited for the traffic to back up at the bridge. A few frames were all I was able to get before the traffic and  its colorful lights cleared from the background. Although it repeated the previous pose, I had Alaina hold out her hair to catch the background color.

I had planned to use the Godox wireless flash system for this part of the shoot, but it failed out of the bag back at the bridge, and I went with plan B: a long softbox on a Buff Einstein 640 monolight. Ruth volunteered to carry the monstrous flash head, light stand and softbox (I think she was counting on it for a weapon just in case). Alaina’s mother carried the power pack, and I carried the cameras and lenses. We marched down the dark streets in search of golden light.

Our first stop  was the front of business that had circular neon lights in the window. Alaina sat on the iron grate under a tree (in her brand new outfit, at that) and I waited for the headlamps of a car to paint her face with light. Once again, Fuji’s white balance nailed the scene accurately without creating a nasty skin tone. The 56mm was made for this scene and light.

The marque of a theater across the street provided a warm background glow for a series of portraits lit with the softbox/monolight combination.

We moved across the street and under the marque lights for a series of moody images.

We headed back to the car, but the perspective of street lamps down a lonely street caught my eye. Ruth set up the monolight, the traffic light at the end of the street turned green and 10 cars raced toward our shoot. We scurried out of the street and waited until the same lonely scene that had caught our attention a few minutes earlier returned.

All of the monolight/soft box exposures were manually balanced with the background lighting, based upon my experience of working with the equipment at weddings. I wasn’t prepared for just how well Fuji handled the range of colors in the scene without compromising the skin tones. These are definitely people cameras.

The next morning was our Marilyn session at a park. The woods were infested with mosquitoes and one nailed Ruth on the forehead. With blood trickling down her face (OK, it was more like a little smear), we decided to move to another location, the front yard of a bank on Mountaintop, Pa., where we could use the fence and shady yard for the Marilyn Monroe reenactments. A lily from the park served as a prop.

The colorful side of a Chinese restaurant caught my eye as we were getting out of the car, and we took a detour.


Next came the scene on the lawn, except Ruth protested when I suggested a strap of her dress fall off the shoulder.

Next came a few shots at the fence.

I backed off a bit with the 56mm and had Alaina wrap up the session with some playful expressions. Ruth suggested the strap off the shoulder in a few. We both wondered where she got that look from.

Sometimes it just all comes together. The light, the model, the equipment. Perhaps I enjoyed photographing Alaina so much because the backdrop options were so amazing and fresh. Or perhaps it was because Alaina’s beautiful eyes remind me of Ruth’s. Like Ruth, Alaina is super smart and wants to go in the medical field. She’d also make a great model, but we all know those careers are short-lived. I’m grateful for being the one who got to capture it if she sticks with medicine.

A covered bridge date

My third “date” with Ruth was a long one; four days back in October 2017.

We started planning it as soon as it was evident that we had a lot in common and needed some extended together. As it turned out, by the time we actually were able to make the trip, we were already engaged, although we had kept it a secret. Aiding in that effort was the fact that the ring I bought her was too big and had to go back to the artisan not once, but twice. And so we say we were engaged three times before we got married.

The McGee’s Mill Covered Bridge in Clearfield County, Pa., where I presented Ruth with “the ring.”

I proposed to Ruth, the first time, at a covered bridge near Clearfield, Pa., during our second date. Yikes! I know that sounds that like rushing things, but we’d talked two to three a hours a night, plus had sent something like 600 emails to each other by that point. We got to know ourselves and each other during those long conversations and emails, and it just felt so comfortable.

Still, actually being with another person for an entire day is a lot different from being able to say “goodbye,” put the cell phone back in the bag and get on with life alone. So we planned an all-day adventure in Columbia County, Pa., exploring the covered bridges of a county that boasts Pennsylvania’s third largest concentration of 20 legacy wooden bridges.

Ruth was well organized with a picnic that included our favorite meal, cheese and crackers, plus enough beverages and ice to sustain us for several days in the field. In fact, I got so involved in loading her car with the bags of food and plastic silverware, I forgot the tripod from my own vehicle.

And so I had to wing it and hold all the shots of the bridges we visited. For architectural and landscape subjects, I use my Nikon D800E and Zeiss optics. Both the 35 f/2 and 50mm/f2 Makro were all I needed.

We couldn’t visit all 20 covered bridge in one day, so I picked those of greatest interest and within the same vicinity. At the top of the list were the East and West Paden bridges (38-19-12 and 38-19-11, respectively), the only “twin” covered bridges remaining in the country. At one time, Ashtabula County had twin covered bridges at Farnham, south of Conneaut. One was over a mill race, the other over the creek. They were on a dangerous curve and by the mid 1920s had been eliminated. The old mill that stood there is, likewise, long one.

Back in the days, the 1920s, Conneaut, Ohio, had twin covered bridges at Farnham, the site of a mill.

Twin is a bit of a misnomer, for the bridges are of different design, despite being built by the same builder and in the same year. W.C. Pennington charged $720 for the two bridges, named for John Paden, who operated a sawmill nearby.

While the East bridge is original, the West structure is a “reconstruction,” the original bridge having been washed away by a flood in June 2006.

These are not working bridges; they were bypassed in 1963 and repurposed as the centerpiece of Twin Bridges County Park. Picnic tables benefit from their coverings. We crossed the bridges and strolled down the lane to the driveway of a beautiful farmhouse, a photo of which now hangs in our living room, a sliver of a memory from that date.

A stone wall along the driveway and lovely lighting drew me to this private residence near the East and West Paden covered bridges in Columbia County, Pa.

The bridges we visited were all painted red, which turned out to be the most colorful subject matter on this October journey. The fall of 2017 will be remembered by landscape photographers in the East as one of the dullest and most uneventful in recent memory. That said, we did come across some acceptable foliage change along Huntington Creek, Fishing Creek Township. The Josiah Hess bridge awaited us here.

This delightful Burr arch bridge is 110 feet long and was built in 1875. It has a very pronounced camber, or slight arch, to the deck. Ruth soaked up the scenery while I went to work photographing the bridge under less-than-idea light. At least it wasn’t raining.

By the time we reached the Patterson Bridge, the sun had busted through the clouds and the light had become too contrasty for my tastes. This little bridge spans Green Creek and was built in 1875. It has windows on one side, and slanting roofs extend from the bridge to prevent water from entering from the windows—after all, the whole purpose of covering the bridge trusses was to keep water and weather off them. I’d never seen this treatment before on a covered bridge.

Our travels also took us to the Fowlersville and Kramer covered bridges before we decided it was time to get ice cream. We found some at a huge crafts fair near Bloomsburg, then headed toward a spot Ruth recalled from her childhood, one that promised a vista of the Susquehanna River and sunset. It sounded perfect to me; the engagement ring was in my pocket, and I figured a sunset would be a great setting. But we never found the place and ended up watching the sun’s departure over a pasture as we searched maps and the GPS screen in the car for the wrong turn we’d taken.

So on the way back to my motel room, I asked her to pull off in a park and take a walk. Turns out the park was in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, not the most romantic spot in the world. We started walking toward the river, but the mosquitoes were bad, so I just stopped and gave her the ring, which was too big.

We laughed and hugged and promised we’d get engaged a third time. And we did, without benefit of covered bridges, in Clearfield, on the fourth date.

The gallery located on the home page exhibits a selection of images from our outing, one of what we hope will be many, many more in the back roads of the Eastern United States.