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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Travels with Chernush

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

"I generally try to travel as light as possible," photographer Kay Chernush is telling me between assignments a few weeks ago as we chat in her tastefully decorated living room in Arlington, Va.

I've known Kay for years and have admired her as a globe-girdling photojournalist and nationally known commercial shooter. I've loved her work in Smithsonian magazine, Gourmet and other prime publications, and have delighted in her down-to-earth-approach to making pictures and in working with people.

In short, Kay is a terrifically talented photographer who knows her business cold.

But as for traveling light...Kay, gimme a break!

Though she says she would happily spend her time photographing quaint inns and resorts in Tuscany or the south of France, Chernush's assignments have tended to run more toward documenting "the bad, the hideous and the invisible." And that, in turn can require a short ton of camera and lighting gear on the road.

"I've traveled overland by truck from England to Baghdad, photographed gem mining in Sri Lanka and ship-breaking in Pakistan," she notes, not to mention "chip-making at Intel and cheese-making in France." [For the uninitiated, ship-breaking is the backbreaking work of taking apart, with precious few power tools, old merchant and other ships so that the parts can be sold for salvage or recycled into new steel at rolling mills. Kay's dramatic color photos of this work, on Pakistan's Gadani Beach near Karachi, call to mind that of Sebastiao Selgado, who has documented similar kinds of hard manual labor in black and white.]

Then, of course, there was the job photographing a cement plant on the shores of Lake Ontario, in which Kay and her assistant [not to mention her equipment] wound up covered head to toe in micro-fine cement particles. "The stuff settled in between my teeth, my eyelashes, in my ears and, to my horror, in the barrel of my 24mm lens."

The lens subsequently showed its appreciation by making "a terrible grinding noise every time I tried to focus."

After one exhausting sixteen-hour day of this, if looking like a dust-covered vagrant weren't enough, Kay had the added thrill of waiting for an elevator at her posh in-city hotel amid the puzzled stares of the more normally clad guests. She was fantasizing about a hot shower and a good night's sleep when the elevator arrived at the lobby – with a dozen Miss Canada contestants.

There they were, Kay recalled, "all with their trim 18-year-old bodies, perfectly coiffed hair, decked out in silk, satin and lace, perfumed and made up to within an inch of their gorgeous young lives." So much for the glamorous life of a photographer.

Still, in the business of making pictures for a living, comfort, much less appearances, are secondary.

Because most, if not all, of her assignments are photographed on someone else's dime and deadline, Kay cannot afford to come back empty-handed. "There are lots of good amateur shooters," she notes, "but I have to go out on a day when the light is lousy, or the subject is hideous or boring, and come back with exceptional pictures."

"There are no excuses. You have to come back with something great."

And that, really, is the difference between the amateur and the pro. Even a professional stock shooter has it easier since he or she usually doesn't have a specific agenda when documenting a picturesque place. Conditions not great at the presidential palace? No sweat, let's see what's shaking at the beach or the trendy new restaurant.

Because of this pressure to come back with good pictures under a specific looming deadline, Kay travels prepared. Although she is the first to note that she works "intuitively – basically I'm a non-technical person," she concedes that many times one has to schlep more stuff than one would like.

"Every time I've taken something out of my [camera] bag, it's something I've needed on the shoot." In addition, Kay, who has been shooting editorial, corporate and advertising work for more than two decades, notes that clients have become much more demanding in what they expect a location shooter to produce.

"Even magazine work requires quite a bit of lighting," she observes. "It's very hard to do an editorial shoot nowadays just with available light."

Listening to Kay describe how "light" she travels is a little like listening to the children's fairy tale about Stone Soup – she's always adding something to the mix.

Her basic camera kit consists of two Nikon N90s bodies. She likes these cameras because they are less bulky for her small hands than a behemoth F5 and motordive. In addition, her basic lens kit includes the 24 mm f.2.8, as well as two top-of-the-line Nikkor zooms: a 35-70mm f.2.8 and the journalist's workhorse 80-200 f.2.8. [Note: even though these zooms are bigger and bulkier than Nikon's less expensive variable maximum aperture zoom lenses, their extra light-gathering power makes them easily worth the extra weight.]

While this lens array would be fine for most of us, Kay also has traveled on occasion with an ultra-wide angle 18mm f.4, not to mention a 16mm f.3.5 fisheye that can come in handy to make dramatic shots of "a really, really boring subject."

By contrast, at other times Chernush has augmented her basic lens kit with Nikon's pricey but gorgeous 300mm f.2.8 autofocus tele, as well as a manual-focus 600mm f.4.

Location lighting is a very personal affair, each photographer having his or her favorite lighting kit, determined not only by what it can do but also by how much the photographer (or in most cases an assistant) can muscle from one location to the next. Kay's standard kit is large, but by no means huge: nine Dynalite strobe heads, powered by five power packs (four 1,000 watt-second units; one 2,000 ws). Different jobs can require different variations on this basic theme – including hot lights from Lowell, reflectors, pencil strobes that can be taped to a wall for broad non-specific light – even an occasional little Nikon SB-26, or a flashlight.

Chernush came to photography while working as a writer for the Peace Corps and then the Agency for International Development. But she always had wanderlust.

"My 'cushy' job at AID was only cushy because it was 9-5 and I had a weekly paycheck and health benefits," she notes. During that time "I did travel about once or twice a year – to Africa, the Middle East and the Azores – but I already had been bitten by the travel bug, having hitchhiked through Europe one summer while I was in college, living for a year in India after college...living in a Spanish fishing village for two years and then working in Paris for two years at the New York Times bureau..."

"Alas, this was all before I picked up a camera!"

When she did pick up a camera it was at first to illustrate stories written by her former husband, who shared her love of travel. "My first really significant editorial shoot was for Smithsonian Magazine. Lucky me! It was a story about gem mining in Sri Lanka, which my then-husband and I proposed since we were going to be in India, and traveling to Sri Lanka wouldn't be too expensive."

Kay warns that today this route to publication in a mag like Smithsonian is chancey. "It's very hard to get in this way now. In fact, over the 22 years I've been shooting for them, they've only accepted three other story ideas from me." All other stories for Smithsonian have been assigned.

As of this writing, Kay shoots all of her work on film and likely will keep on doing so for her location work where "gritty, inaccessible or very restrictive" working conditions "might make digital too cumbersome (or more cumbersome) than film." But it should be noted that she is a whiz at enhancing her work in PhotoShop, especially for her commercial clients, and is likely to one day make the plunge into digital for her "high-end advertising and corporate work – where an art director is present and wants to see an immediate result. This will be a very powerful tool."

But as for the kind of end-of the-world location work she often does for magazines, that's better suited to film, and doesn't require a laptop, extra battery packs or scores of expensive compact flash cards. Instead of a hundred flash cards, Kay says, she'd rather carry a hundred rolls of film.

But what film?

Count Kay Chernush as another refugee from Kodak. She stopped using Big Yellow in the 1990s when, after shooting two dozen rolls of Kodachrome 64 (during a rollout of the M1 tank under live ammunition – not the kind of job you can easily re-shoot) she found to her horror that when she inspected her film "seventeen rolls were completely cyan and all the rolls had big magenta splotches."

Unhappy when told by Kodak that this kind of foul-up occurred "oh, two or three times a week," she switched to Fuji and now shoots mostly Provia 100F and Velvia.

[To see more of Kay's work go to: www.KayChernush.com]

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 fvanriper@aol.com.

© Kay Chernush
Shipbreakers, Gadani Beach, Pakistan.

© Kay Chernush
Seagirt, Port of Baltimore

© Kay Chernush
Jerusalem (Old City, Jewish quarter)

© Kay Chernush
The Seeing Eye


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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