Portraits of Presence

by Larry Brownstein

Joseph Llanes

March 01, 2011 — Joseph Llanes attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where he studied with some masters of photography—Ken Merfeld, Paul Jasmin and Jeff Sedlik, among others. And you can indeed see the influences of each of these instructors in Llanes’ work. From Jeff Sedlik’s lyrical and emotional style of portraiture; to the moody, poetic quality found in Merfeld’s wet-plate collodion portraits, still life’s and fashion images; and Paul Jasmin’s keen eye for the human condition exhibited in works like his recent book Lost Angeles.

Llanes’ experience shooting weddings, coupled with his education, experience with high-profile clients in entertainment and music, and his drive, have all made him a photographer with an edgy, distinctive take on portraiture.
He credits his beginnings as a wedding photographer for starting his career.

“I’ve learned all of my on-set skills from my days as a wedding photographer,” Llanes says, alluding to some of the wedding photographer’s most underrated skills: working under pressure, making the most out of what is available, and, most of all, working with clients in a high-stress situation.
Subsequently, Art Center prepared him well for the work he now focuses on.

Mostly commercial portraiture for clients in the entertainment and music industry including Island Def Jam and Virgin Records. He is grateful to have left Art Center with a portfolio that is ready to be shown. He attributes this to the many classes where he had talented models, make-up artists and stylists available for his shoots.

Big-budget commercial jobs are the heart of Llanes’ business. He thrives on the collaborative nature of these shoots, and he likes having the large budget that allows him to fulfill the joint vision that he shares with his clients.

However, he also happily accepts editorial assignments like Pasadena Magazine. His expenses: assistants, lights, etc., eat into the smaller budget for such editorial assignments, but Llanes is happy to have the opportunity to get more portfolio pieces and make more industry contacts.

He acknowledges that his chosen profession requires a great deal of patience. For every paying job he gets, he probably does about 10 self-assigned shoots. “For me, it’s my driving force,” he emphasizes.

One of the personal projects he’s working on now is called Small Prophets. It stems from his conservative Christian background (he even went to a religious college and thought about being a youth minister). In this religious environment, he found himself in an atmosphere with many “ultra-spiritual” people, some who claimed to hear the voice of God, some who claimed to have been ordained as a prophet by God and some who claimed to be God.

Llanes says that as one who has never been so fortunate to hear God speak, he found himself fascinated by such people. He was curious about what God was saying to them. He was interested in whom it was God chose to speak with, or alternatively, who would make such a claim. His approach is neutral—he has no desire to prove or disprove anything. The project includes interviews as well as 4 x 5-inch black-and-white portraits. He has already completed 20 of these sessions and hopes that the project will turn into a book.

As it is the nature of the business, when he is not doing an assignment or pursuing personal work, a good part of his week is spent contacting art directors or photo editors he finds via AdBase or by looking at magazines on the newsstands. As an example, he may find a magazine story he particularly likes and e-mail the Art Director, and at the same time send his promotional information. He says most art directors appreciate such contact.

Llanes ran me through a recent shoot with Billy Howerdel from the rock band Ashes Divide. Llanes did some research and found out that Billy had also been a member of the band, A Perfect Circle, and that this was his first solo project. Llanes knew that one strong theme in the music was alienation. So he prepared related concepts for his initial meeting with the artist and brought photo books so that they could explore visual ideas—color palettes, tonality, locations, and clothes—together.

Preproduction took a week. A location scout helped to find the historic Pasadena Victorian house (a dedicated filming location) where the shoot took place. The wardrobe was chosen, and assistants and stylists were selected. There were about 20 people on set: assistants, stylists, make-up artists, producer, producer assistants, the talent, and the talent’s wife and friends. The shoot took about 10 hours. “We shot seven to eight different wardrobe changes and location studies,” Llanes says. “At the end of the day we walked away with about 35 or 40 usable images for marketing and promotion.”

I asked Llanes about working with such a large staff, and several client representatives. “When I show up for a shoot I have a plethora of examples of lighting, feeling, or palette, anything from Picasso, to Renoir to Crewdson. It is never to rip off or to steal ideas but it is more as a point of reference,” he responds. He finds that the art directors really like having such references as a start-off point. He says that typically, as the client sees how well the shoot is going, he begins to fade into the background. And, as for the large staff, Llanes points out that ultimately he is responsible for the shoot and so, if there are any differences in opinion, he has the last word.

Though the Billy Howerdel shoot was a fairly large production, Llanes sometimes gets to work in a more low-key and spontaneous way. He is friends with musician Greg Laswell whose recent album, Through Toledo, is also one of his favorite albums. The shoot began in Laswell’s Hollywood home but the four-light setup they began with blew a fuse. So, they changed the whole concept and he and his small team headed out to Hollywood Boulevard with a Qflash, a diffuser and a reflector. One of his favorite shots was a simple setup in which he posed the musician against a mural painted on a security window shutter. An assistant pointed a Qflash through a diffusion panel to broaden the light source and that was that.

Llanes says he sometimes finds himself using a dozen or so lights on set, but he prefers to keep it simple. “For me it is all about the communication with the individual and getting them to a place where they trust you.” Once he has established rapport, his goal is to assist the subject to project what he calls presence in the photograph. It’s about coaching the subject. Often he’ll notice a tight jaw or a furrowed brow and he may ask the subject to do a few facial exercises. He thinks eye contact with the camera is often not quite interesting enough, and he may coach the subject to look at the wall behind him to introduce a subtle variation. While it is hard to define exactly what presence is, it is easy to recognize it when he sees it and he feels like it is his rapport with and direction of the subject that allows him to evoke it.


Larry Brownstein is the photographer of the books Los Angeles, Where Anything is Possible and The Midnight Mission. He is represented by Getty Images, Alamy and other agencies. He has a growing wedding and portrait photography business. He also offers stock photography consulting and career coaching for emerging photographers. See his work at www.larrybrown
stein.com or contact him at (310) 815-1402.

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