Stranger 05/100 – Gem

I photographed my fifth stranger in downtown Chicago.

I was in the city for a weekend photography conference and had just left my hotel to walk to the day’s first lecture. Coffee in hand and time to spare, I decided to take a detour through Millennium Park and was thrilled I did when I saw Gem sitting on a bench next to Crown Fountain, relaxing in the morning sun.

Before approaching her, I scanned around for a background to use and realized there were two staring me right in the face: the twin fifty-foot towers that define this iconic fountain. Made from glass brick, the towers face each other from across a black granite reflecting pool and display rotating video images of Chicago faces, water periodically cascading down their sides.

Gem agreed without hesitation to let me make her portrait, asking only how long it would take. A few minutes, no more, I said.

I knew the light would be a challenge. The sun was already harsh, even at 8:30 a.m., so I asked a photographer taking pictures nearby if he would hold the diffusion disc from my reflector to soften the light. It certainly helped, but another light source from the west — probably the glass façade of a building across the street — still managed to cast somewhat hard shadows. After a few frames, I realized I wanted to create a catchlight in Gem’s eyes, so I asked her to stretch the skin of the reflector between her hands while I pulled the other end toward me with my free hand.

It may not be textbook portrait lighting, but I’m happy with the result nonetheless. Honestly, Gem would have made it hard to take a bad picture, what with her sense of poise, her sense of fashion, and those arresting eyes.

From England, Gem said she was in the city for an international design conference. She herself is a design professional, focused on architecture and interior spaces, and works as a lecturer at Brighton University, as well as a curator and writer. It was her first visit to Chicago and she said she loved the city and had spent hours wandering on foot, checking out the architecture and making surprising discoveries (Chicago has a beach?!). Given her background, I was happy the setting for our portrait session was Millennium Park, a space known for its design and surrounded by the city’s soaring architecture.