June 30, 2016

I've Photographed My Husband's Headshots - 3 Times in 9 Years

My husband and I met through Chicago comedy. First we were stand-up open mic buddies (along with two friends of his, fellow members of the production company Blewt!, which he's been associated with since its beginnings), then, as I slowly started moving behind the camera, producing live shows like Chicago Underground Comedy - aka "ChUC" - for 8 years and creating original short comedy films which were screened at places like Second City, The Lincoln Lodge, and the Just For Laughs Festival), I happily became sort of a "silent partner" in his comedy adventures, usually with my camera in hand. (Our current comedy status: Bryan is in his eighth - I think? - year of teaching at The Second City, and I'm on "indefinite maternity leave" from ChUC, currently making my first comedy short film in four years, shooting about every two weeks because I have a, you know, baby.) 
I took photos at several of Blewt's show "Don't Spit the Water," a live comedy game show that ran for ten years, and was pitched by the Blewt! gang to the bigwigs at Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon. Blewt! is a broadly talented group of real creators, several of whom started doing improv in college together - including Bryan - so there's 15 years of comedy bonding between these crisply quipping judges of the acts comedy performers have only a week to put together.
I sat in the front row and took photos of almost every season (8, so far) of Blewt's "Impress These Apes," a ridiculous and brilliant 8 week talent show in which Bryan played one of the Ape judges, Bushmeat, the hyperintelligent redneck ape from the future. (Combining those two descriptors was a feat of its own, if you ask me.) The concept of the show is that a scientist created superintelligent apes which turned on humanity, and traveled back in time to judge an 8-person comedy show, the results of which would determine the fate of humanity. (I know..."what??") I followed the show from the Playground Theater to the Lakeshore Theater to ComedySportz, where it's been for the last few seasons. Here's a cool Tribune review of the show, featuring one of my credited photos!
To add to the ridiculousness of the show's premise, there's the fact that Blewt's senior producer Steve Gadlin took his silly idea "I Want To Draw A Cat For You" on NBC's "Shark Tank," and convinced Mark Cuban to invest $25,000 in the concept as a business. That's Bryan in the middle in the photo of the three apes. Paul Luikart (Captain Apehab) is to his right and Erica Reid (April Mae) is to his left.
But the funny thing is, only 3 times since we've known each other has he let me take headshot portraits of him, and only when he REALLY needed them (for publicity for a show, for the "teacher's wall" at Second City, etc.). And even then, about 75% of his photos were him making such ridiculous faces that the photos would be utterly useless as headshots or promo photos. Kind of like our three year old.
I am a compulsive photographer who has the camera out and is focusing on something every single day. But none of the people in my family give a crud about stopping what they're doing to "pose" for me. Husband, kid, and cat. Which is cool. I would feel the same way. When I'm doing something I enjoy, I don't want someone bugging me. It's usually when I unobtrusively record a natural, pure moment with a click of my camera, that I'm really, really excited about a photo.
And although I have lots of cute closeups of my husband and son together, I've always had a fondness for the photos that focus fuzzily on them from afar. It makes the photos feel more universal. It could be any father and son. It could be you and your dad when you were three, or you and your now-grown son when he was but a wobbly toddler.

Check out more of my photos at my website.

June 28, 2016

The Opera "Quantum Mechanic," Directed By Andrew Snyder

My brother Andrew Snyder, a creative director, has been working as a director of John Bilotta's opera "Quantum Mechanic," as staged by Chicago's Floating Opera Company. (You can also find the Floating Opera folks on Facebook.)

I had the pleasure of being there to photograph both a pre-show costume fitting, a rehearsal, and also a performance, which was in the Peterson Garden Project's Community Cooking School at the Broadway Armory.

The show is described as a "an interactive culinary experience and opera performance. The event begins with mixology, food demos, and tasting with Chef Alvin Yu of Fyusion Dining."

My brother found a fabulous costume designer, Kate Setzer Kamphausen, who put together beautiful, colorful dresses for the ladies (the men weren't quite as colorful).

As New Fangled Opera describes the show (which clocks in at a tidy 15 minutes), "Quantum Mechanic is a quirky comedic short opera. Mrs. Schroedinger is preparing a dish in her kitchen when suddenly, her quantum QRX-3000 Refrigerator malfunctions, ripping a hole in time and space. As beings start to materialize from other dimensions, she calls for the help of the Quantum Mechanic. The mechanic soon realizes that he cannot fix the problem without destroying the alternate universe, but he must do what he has to do before all universes are lost. After the harrowing ordeal, Mrs. Schroedinger’s dish is perfectly prepared and order is restored."

I always love the energy backstage before a show, and the feeling of having a "pass" to run around in the green room, sneak photos of the set before the show begins, and generally soak up all the performers' excitement, while knowing my function is entirely behind the scenes, therefore avoiding anything even close to performance anxiety. (I did this for 8 glorious years as the producer of Chicago Underground Comedy, armed in that case with a videocamera rather than taking photographs, but the feeling is the same. Supporting other artists and showing them at their very best is an instinct that serves this creative introvert very well!)

Chicago is a huge theater town, and though my inclinations have always been more toward the comedic, I wouldn't mind being in and around more theater/musicals in a photographic context. So everyone be sure to let my brother know he needs to direct more operas. ::wink::

And be sure to check out more of my film and photography work at my website.

May 6, 2016

Photographing Toddlers in Their Natural Environment

When I started out doing photography, it was usually in a comedy context. I was either in the audience at my now-husband's shows taking photos, or getting my feet wet with headshot/portrait photos for comedians and an actor or two. 

After my son was born, friends' predictions that he would become "the most overphotographed child in history" came true pretty quickly. And before long, I started bringing my camera along on playdates, and taking photos of my kiddo's tiny pals as well. Obviously now I do lots of children and family photography, and I absolutely love it. Kids' birthday parties? I'm in! Your little boy's special portrait for his great-grandmother? I love it! The whole fam damily? I can do that, too. 

One thing I learned quickly while working with small children is that you cannot pose them. They do not care in the least that Mommy and Daddy booked a photographer and want a cute photo for their Christmas card. And why should they? Their main job is to play, explore their world, and learn social skills, both at home, and while playing with other kids. 
The best thing to do when photographing small children is to get them involved in an activity they love - playing in the park with a friend, painting on their easel, eating a special treat at a local cafe. I focus on creating a relaxed comfortable environment where the photography seems secondary. I speak to them the way I speak to my toddler - with a sweet tone, lots of affection, lots of silliness. They need to have fun! And I do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Often the kids even forget I'm there, and for help I occasionally ask for their mother or father to stand right over my shoulder to get their attention, so I can get some nice shots of them looking at (or close to!) the camera. 

The photos featured in this blog post are of my son's little pal S, who sadly has since moved away. My son still asks about her from time to time and he's a little bummed she's gone because they lived on our block and we enjoyed a lot of time together.

She and her mother met me and my son and husband at the nearby beachside playground and we ended up with a lovely, precious set of images of her playing and happy and enjoying herself. (Kudos to my husband for watching our child so I can photograph the other one! I can't do both things at the same time.)

Oh, and my other tip about photographing little ones: get on their level. Wear appropriate clothing such that you can work on the ground - crouching, kneeling, sometimes even lying flat - whatever it takes to get the right shot! Seeing them on their level and showing the world from their perspective can really freeze a moment in time that you'll cherish for the rest of your life. 

April 10, 2016

Long Time No Blog: Old Dogs and New Tricks

Clearly, it's been awhile since I've blogged. My last entry was 2014? Really? Wow. I've been very busy, but I do intend to make a more regular habit of it again, ideally with at least a little blog post about each photoshoot I do.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Photoshop! It's as powerful a tool as my camera itself, and when I have free time I want to spend on professional development, I often teach myself how to make the best of this incredible resource. Lately I've been doing a fun thing where I take older portraits I did before I knew anything about editing, and give them the full sparkly Photoshop treatment.

One thing I've learned to do it erase the original background (which is often the black or white 4 foot by 8 foot v-flats I had made) AND add in new colored backgrounds, gradients, or sometimes just silly stuff for fun.

For example, check out this fun pic of my friend Jenni Prokopy, the Chronic Babe herself! (Check out her website and you'll see many more photos taken by yours truly, not to mention a ton of brilliant resources helping women "living kickass lives in spite of chronic illness.") Jenni truly is a ray of sunshine and an inspiration to many.

This is a silly fun photo we took during a video shoot awhile back, and I thought it was just begging for some fancy-ing up. Not only did I remove the plain white background, I drew fun colorful circles behind her for extra fun!

Truly, this is a great time to be an autodidact - there's nothing I want to learn about Photoshop and its companion software Lightroom that I can't find multiple tutorials for online. Look for more examples from my "Photoshop remixes" series coming up soon!

November 10, 2014

Family Photoshoot Fun

Recently, I spent a crisp November Chicago morning photographing a family photo shoot for my friend Katherine. Her sister, brother-in-law, and their kids came to her house to celebrate their mother's birthday, along with Katherine's husband and toddler son.

Family photography is a new thing for me, and there's always something new to learn when moving into a new area of photography, but I picked up a few key things right away.

"Forget I'm here," I told them. "Just hang out and enjoy each other's company and I'll shoot around you. Can we have some games and toys out for the kids to play with? Do you have favorite funny family stories you can tell?" And we were off and running.

We moved from room to room in their beautiful, airy, sunny house, and while I did break them up into small groupings here and there, and take a few more formal shots of the whole family, some of the best shots are just of them goofing and playing.

Sure, the "everyone up against the dining room wall" photo is okay, but to me it seems a waste of an opportunity to create a beautiful lasting memory through photography to only stick to the wooden, strained smiles of overly posed photos. That's why I want my clients to get silly, have fun, play around. This helps them relax and interact more naturally.

Another thing I also did at my first wedding shoot (and will do from now on!) was ask people to embrace and smooch. No one has ever balked at being asked to kiss their sweetie, and this playfulness can lead to some really warm and lovely portraits.

Know someone who wants some beautiful new family portraits? Have them get in touch with me, Elizabeth McQuern.

November 3, 2014

Must Be a Blue Moon

What? Wow! It's been over two years since my last blog entry! Allow me to explain my absence: I got married and had a baby! Check out that little redhaired dynamite! That's my son, Champ (named for his grandfather), and my husband, Bryan.

Things have been busy, and crazy, and wonderful. And having my son has prompted me to get more serious about photography and filmmaking than I've ever been. 

To that end, I've redesigned my professional website, and now I'm doing a little tinkering on this ol' blog, with the intentions of writing about my photo and film work here and there.

Consider this blog post a bookmark. Everything before this post was the pre-baby blog (Bella Rossa: Adventures in Comedy), and it used to sport this header at the top:

And everything after is Elizabeth McQuern: Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker. And this is my new header (destined to change at any moment, as I can never stop tinkering):

Wow, I look back at that old header and it seems like a million years ago. In reality, it's only five or six years, but wow, how things have changed.

Anyway, hi! I'm back. So besides the husband and the baby, what else have I been doing? Well, lots of stuff. 

Family portraits and weddings:


...and lots, lots more. Catch you up soon.

November 1, 2012

Seth Williams headshots, Seth and Andy Metz sketch portraits

Last week I did another sketch portrait, this time of my friends Seth Williams and Andy Metz, based on a photo I took while shooting a music video with them:



This is the music video I made with them, which was the first music video I ever shot and directed. I still love the song and I think the video is pretty cute:

Then last week I did some headshots with Seth, which also turned out pretty great:

Seth Williams by Elizabeth McQuern

Seth Williams by Elizabeth McQuern

Seth Williams by Elizabeth McQuern

Seth Williams by Elizabeth McQuern

October 20, 2012

Sketch Portraits By Elizabeth McQuern

I'm wrapping up a small project wherein I used my own photography to learn how to do sketch portraits with Photoshop. The first few I did were quite terrible, to be honest, but I just kept at it, and I'm actually really pleased with some of them. Here are a few, in order of their completion.

Jill Howe
Jill Howe sketches by Elizabeth McQuern

Erica Reid
Erica Reid sketch portrait

Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby sketch portrait by Elizabeth McQuern

Sarah Gallagher
Sarah Gallagher sketch portrait by Elizabeth McQuern

Bryan Bowden
Bryan Bowden as Timekeeper Willis sketch portrait

Elizabeth McQuern
Elizabeth McQuern sketch portrait

October 6, 2012

Thumbs Up For Thumbs!

Okay, let’s just get this part out of the way: in this piece, I touch on Honey Boo Boo. The person, the show, the whole fam damily. We’ve all had at least a peek of this familial circus, and apparently America is in the throes of a sweaty love/hate relationship with the entire family. We indulge in a bit of classism as their perceived backwardness makes us feel better about our own inadequacies/we pat ourselves on the back for being above criticizing them/we note that their acceptance - of themselves and others - is something we could all learn from. The eternal waves loop and lap at the cosmic shore again and again. Whatever.

Recently, snarky pop culture writers have been referring to the matriarch of the Honey Boo Boo family, June Shannon, as a “human thumb,” which is most certainly meant to refer to her somewhat stalactite-like cascading series of chins, and most certainly meant to be an insult.

At the height of country music juggernaut Garth Brooks’ fame, critic Ken Tucker said Brooks “has a face like a thumb with a hat on it.” This was perhaps a criticism of the aggressively bland nature of Brooks' brand of entertainment as much as his looks, but still. A thumb insult.

(And let’s not even talk about the internet’s first famous human thumb, this poor guy at a party who earned digital infamy for this unfortunate party shot.)

But before we bulletpoint ourselves too far away from my thesis: why has calling someone a thumb become the go-to insult? Is "thumb" the new "fat?"
What’s so terrible about thumbs? Not a thing! You owe everything you love about life to thumbs, and I’m here to make their case.

Thumbs, as it happens, are quite marvelous and advantageous, biomechanically. Opposable thumbs enable precision grip, therefore sophisticated tool use. Thumbs are how Homo erectus struck flint against steel and sparked fire.
Thumbs are the reason we can eat corn on the cob with dignity, using the smooth spinning motions of our deft, be-thumbed meat grabbers. Ever seen a New World monkey try to eat corn on the cob? Nothing but flying splats of melting butter, and yowling, hungry despair. Take my word for it, marmosets and lemurs are no threat to a pudding can or a gym lock.

Opposable thumbs are what led our primal ancestors to go from wildly swinging branches at each other to more accurately assaulting each other with refined clubs. Anthropologists speculate that when our distant forebears moved from quadrapedal to bipedal locomotion, and our hands were suddenly free to carry things, we developed the psychological need for devices that would eventually be cornerstones of modern material culture,
like car keys, 
cell phones, and Zima bottles. To use the broadest possible and least plausible metaphor, civilization was built on thumbs.

Without thumbs there would be no hitchhiking, no neatly-applied eyeliner, no decent handjobs, no calligraphy, no Siskel and Ebert, no snapping-while-awkward-white-girl-dancing, no wordlessly letting your waiter know that your dinner is a-okay while you churn a hot bite of panini in the evolved gill opening that is your mouth, no Joaquin Phoenix deciding the fate of Russell Crowe with one impetuous turn of his imperial Roman thumb. I don't know about you, but that sounds like a barren, cold, joyless existence to me.

In fact, thumbs are so awesome, it’s a good thing humans are the only species possessing both opposable thumbs and self-awareness. Old World monkeys and great apes have thumbs (though they're considerably less useful than the human model) and if granted self-awareness, they would soon dominate the planet with primate culture and ape-shaped civilizations. How much banana skin couture do you want to see sashaying down the runways every Fashion Week? 
How many poo-flinging splatter painting retrospectives do you want to buy tickets for at the Apenheim Museum of Modern Art? Let’s count our blessings.

Calling someone a "thumb" is calling someone awesome. Thumbs are the reason we can text while driving, ineffectively adjust the spray from the garden hose, and order hotel porn with one hand via television remote control. 

Thumbs are a sign of superior evolution, and keep us in the upper echelon of the taxonomy of life on Earth, which brings up a point: Honey Boo Boo’s mother, June “The Human Thumb” Shannon, recently became the grandmother of Kaitlyn Elizabeth, a baby who has two thumbs on her left hand. Make of that what you will.

-Elizabeth McQuern

1. Montaigne, Michel de. “Of thumbs.
2. Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs: 'Oh, Shit,' Says Humanity (The Onion.)
3. Random “facts” I pulled out of my ass.