Pushing the Limits for New Orleans

by Michelle Perkins

Wes Kroninger

March 01, 2011 — When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August of 2005, hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed. Three years afterward, more than 35 percent of the city’s pre-Katrina population remained displaced. Committed groups from around the country and from all walks of life were, however, working hard to ensure the historic city’s future would be as bright as its past.

In 2007, Baton Rouge photographer Wes Kroninger was invited by one such group to get involved with their efforts. Kroninger does a lot of traveling and shooting for hair stylists and salons, so he was a natural choice when Paris Parker Salons (www.parispark
er.com) decided to produce a calendar, titled “Coming Home,” to benefit Hairdressers Unlocking Hope. This group, an offshoot of Behind the Chair (www.behindthechair.com), was founded in 2007 by hair industry icon Vidal Sassoon, and is working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity to build 18 homes in St. Tammany Parish. Sassoon says in a press release for the project, “As hairdressers, we make people feel beautiful every day. Now we want to make New Orleans and the people of New Orleans feel beautiful again.”

For the two-day calendar shoot, a company-owned apartment in the French Quarter became home base for Kroninger, creative director Michael Baker, the local models and the Paris Parker Creative Team, who did all the makeup and styling. Through the generosity of a number of local boutiques, the all-volunteer group was also able to borrow all of the clothing needed for the shoot.

After securing the proper permits from the city, the team conducted what Kroninger describes as guerilla-style shoots around the quarter. “A train of us literally walked around until we found someplace we thought was visually interesting, and then we would do a series there,” Kroninger says. “We must have looked kind of funny, but that’s what’s interesting about the quarter. So much stuff gets done there—television and movies—that people are just kind of used to seeing it. It doesn’t stand out as much as you’d think it would to be walking down the street—photographer, hair stylist, models, etc.”

Although the team was lucky enough to have overcast lighting (or at least partial clouds) for most of the shoot, using portable lighting equipment was a key to the success of the images. “I love going outside and balancing my strobes with the daylight,” Kroninger says. “With the exception of the image that has two models, all of the shots were done with one light. On the first day, I had a Broncolor Verso pack and a head with a softbox. The second day, I didn’t use the softbox and just hit the model with raw light. By then, we had started to find our direction and I knew exactly what the art director was looking for, so I was able to drive that in. He loved the gritty, moody style, so it worked really well.”

One of the challenges of shooting this calendar was to create a dozen images that each told a unique story, but also had enough visual continuity to work together. Shooting with different models, clothes, styling and in a dozen different locations over the course of two days made this tricky. In the end, postprocessing provided the best solution. “It was the effect that we put on the images that brought them all together,” Kroninger says.

The feeling the team wanted to portray was that New Orleans, although it’s getting better, is still a mess. Something is still wrong and people are not where they are supposed to be. “There are still people who wish they could go home, but there’s nothing to go home to,” Kroninger says. “And even when you do go home, when you do go there for the first time, it’s surreal. That’s why we pushed the effect on these images—to make them not look right.

Something’s wrong. That’s the feeling we wanted to portray. Something’s uneasy about it, and that’s kind of the feeling you get from the city. It’s there, business is coming back, but there’s still an anxiousness that you can feel.”
Going into the shoot, the team had an idea of what kind of visual style they wanted to add to unify the images, but not a specific plan of action. “We had a feeling for what we wanted to do, and it just grew from there,” Kroninger says. “As we would shoot and get back for breaks, we’d pull up the images and mess with them 
in Lightroom.”

In the final images, the initial effect came from that processing in Lightroom, where Kroninger underexposed the image, then cranked up the midtones by boosting the fill light. “That just looks bizarre,” he says. “It creates light in places where there wasn’t really light and it brings out detail that wasn’t really there before. Especially outdoors, you can’t create light everywhere in a scene—so where there’s an overhang or shadows that are just that in-between, when you crank those midtones up it looks weird, because you know you can’t do that.” The second step was to adjust Lightroom’s clarity setting (the equivalent of using Photoshop’s unsharp mask at a low amount and high radius for local contrast enhancement).

When these steps (fill light and clarity boosting) are taken to the extreme, Kroninger cautions that the skin tones can start to look very unappealing, so he was sure not to take it too far before processing the images and moving into Photoshop.

Once in Photoshop, Kroninger applied high-pass sharpening in layers—working with at least 20 layers per file. With each layer, he worked at low opacities (like 5%) and experimented with different blending modes to incrementally enhance the effect. Again, he notes, “People just start to look like monsters with this,” he laughs, “so at that point, I would go back and take it off the model—so the model doesn’t look weird, but the background looks 
really strange.”

Kroninger also makes it a point to note the halos that appear, especially in high-contrast areas, when using this technique. “You can watch out for that and mask it out. In this case, we just let it ride,” he says. “It just kind of adds to the strangeness of the photo.”

“Hopefully, with houses being built and people coming together to help, the city will come back and be stronger than it ever was,” Kroninger says. “It’s going to take people being able to come home, and hopefully this calendar will help.”

To learn more about Wes Kroninger, visit www.weskroninger.com or check out his blog at www.weskroningerblog.com.

Michelle Perkins is a professional writer, designer and image retoucher. She has written for PC Photo and is the author of Beginner’s Guide to Adobe Photoshop, The Practical Guide to Digital Imaging, Color Correction and Enhancement with Adobe Photoshop, and her latest book, Professional Portrait Lighting: Techniques and Images from Master Photographers (all from Amherst Media).

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