For many years now, my wife Judy and I have had an ongoing collaboration with our friend, artist Jim Shumate of Harper's Ferry, W.Va., to document the simply gorgeous, occasionally over-the-top, murals he creates for clients in their homes. We've photographed six-foot-high tropical fish, life-size bathing beauties on bathroom walls, scores of exotic birds, palm trees, wisteria, waterfalls, elegant scrollwork not to mention one mural that is all but invisible.
And through it all, we've used a number of different lighting setups, to deal with quarters as cramped as a hallway powder room or as grand as a resort-sized indoor swimming pool.
A Kentucky native, Jim, 56, began his professional career some 35 years ago in Minneapolis where he studied art creating murals for the venerable Dayton's department store. There, to create backgrounds for the store's huge bridal shows, he mastered the technique of projecting drawings onto walls to turn them into painted images. Eventually, he went out on his own, and at one point had murals adorning the exteriors of no fewer than five shops in downtown Minneapolis.
Such an impressive street-level "portfolio" almost inevitably led Jim to residential work. When someone inquired whether he would do a mural in her home, Jim, who recalls being "desperate for the next rent check," readily agreed.
That was in 1976. Now his Painted Images Studio handles a steady stream of residential mural commissions (often repeat jobs from delighted clients looking to have other rooms in their homes decorated), as well as a separate business creating painted designs for clothing.
When Jim calls on Judy and me to photograph a finished project our first concern is accessibility, and how far back we can get from the mural itself. Then we think about how to create a bright and detail-revealing lighting setup without making the whole thing look like a flatly-lit passport picture. Remember: the best interior photography you see, in big-ticket mags like the New York Times Sunday Magazine or Architectural Digest, are virtually always lit with powerful strobe lights, or tungsten floodlights, skillfully set to mimic daylight. This is not only because of the color temperature differences one would encounter mixing daylight with available incandescent and fluorescent light. There's also the all-but-inescapable fact that, lovely though available light might look to our eye, on film or digital capture the scene invariably will have one spot that's too bright, another that's too dim.
Different photographers rely on different lighting to achieve the same end: a drop-dead gorgeous image. Some, especially interior and architectural shooters, swear by a wide range of tungsten-balanced floodlights from huge spots to tiny penlights lighting a scene continuously so that the photographer can see exactly what he or she is getting through the viewfinder. These lights can get hot, but remember, there's no human subject to complain.
Over the years, though, Judy and I have come to rely on studio strobes in light boxes or shoot-through umbrellas for overall soft lighting. Occasionally, when I have to throw light into an opposite corner than the one I am lighting with the main light, I will set up a strobe head pointing into a ceiling, away from my subject (provided the wall is white or some other reasonably neutral color). If you think of a garden hose pointed at the ceiling, you'll get an idea of the effect. Rather than a harsh direct hit, the light/water ricochets gently onto the subject.
Still, our problems are nothing compared to those Jim has to solve in order to work. In fact, ask Jim his toughest problem when starting a mural and he will quickly answer "getting to the walls." Though he probably would demur, it's impossible not to think of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel when you see some of the elaborate scaffolding Jim has constructed on-site. One especially involved rigging was a floor-to-ceiling affair constructed on a flight of steps so Jim could create a massive mural of an ancient southwest cliff dwelling.
When Jim works with Judy and me on a mural shoot, we follow his shot list, but often create our own variations on a theme. If I do much of the scut-work, setting up lights and camera, Judy has a big say on whether the setup works. [A kind of collaboration within the collaboration.] Understandably, Jim is mostly interested in getting detailed photographs of his work, with as little "distraction" as possible from his clients' furniture or decorations. Oftentimes, though, Judy and I prefer to make an additional shot, to add context to the picture and show how well Jim's painting complements the room it "inhabits." That's really where our mutual collaboration comes into play. The palm tree photos from our most recent job are a case in point.
This was yet another repeat performance for Jim. His clients, in a huge home in Centerville, Va., asked him to create an exotic tableau for one of their guest bedrooms, following the big job he had completed months earlier, in their two-story living room. Jim came up with a tranquil desert theme that the clients loved, complete with palm trees and flying parrot.
Following Jim's wishes, we made a fairly straight "portrait" of the large palm tree that anchored the mural. But I was intrigued how the four-poster bed mimicked both the line of the palm tree's trunk as well as its billowing fronds. So I switched formats, from 35mm to square medium format, and set about doing the picture I liked. Tilting the camera gave me a more interesting angle and also showed the palm's fronds repeated in the mirror on the right. The initial shot in 35mm required only a shoot-through umbrella to light the tree, but for the medium format shot, I added a small but crucial portable flash unit to camera left to throw a little light onto the foreground bedpost, to separate it from the background.
In 35 years of mural painting, Jim has come up with a good set of practical "rules". Here are a few:
"Never do any harm to the house. It doesn't matter how beautiful the mural is if I spill paint on the living room carpet or put the scaffolding into the pool."
"Never have an argument with a client. If they insist, paint it. It's their house and money."
"Be as unobtrusive as possible. I listen to Books On Tape with headphones so the client doesn't think I'm listening to what goes on in the household. They're more comfortable with me around and I'm comfortable with them being comfortable with me. And [besides] listening to others' problems and conversations is boring."
When I asked about Jim's most unusual mural, he cited one very close to home.
Our home, in fact.
Though my own favorite may be the bathing beauties he painted for our guest bathroom (taken from the glass scoreboard of a vintage pinball machine) Jim's mural-that-isn't-there, takes the prize for unusual. Judy loved the light patterns from the street that moved across the far wall of our-then-newly renovated cathedral-ceiling bedroom at night and asked if Jim could capture that. It's so subtle that people looking at it often think we are joking when we say we are showing them a mural.
Then they look closer and are delighted by it.
For information on Jim Shumate's work: firstname.lastname@example.org
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at email@example.com.