Kwaku Alston’s behind the scenes look at the Michelle Obama, First Lady portrait session


I believe one of the most essential things photographers, or any artist, should consider is the concept of challenge, that time when our accomplishments bring to our lives something that will test us to the fullest degree. This often leads to a major step in our careers, which can be either forward or backward.

When Essence magazine approached me to shoot First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House, I was of course thrilled. I first photographed the Obamas for Ebony magazine when the President was still a sitting senator, about to announce to the world his historic bid to run for our highest office. Even then, I knew I was in the presence of something life-changing.

Fast forward to the present day, and even after shooting the First Lady at the White House three times before, I knew the details involved in making a production work smoothly could not be taken for granted. I did my homework yet again, planning everything from the right equipment and a capable team to the logistics of dealing with one of the most important locations in the world. I was up the for the gig. Challenge is something I thrive on; it forces me to reach deep into my creative well and push myself to do something unique and also from my soul.

Time, of which there seems never to be enough of, was one of the key constraints. Ten to 15 minutes is usually all that is allowed to capture a dynamic image for the cover, an inside page, and (always) for my portfolio. That’s three full setups to consider. And for an assignment like this, when anything I shoot must be cover worthy, I had to make sure that all three setups are my best work.

For the first five of those 15 minutes, I’m basically shooting blanks, what I call “air frames,” just to get myself into a rhythm, as photography is very much about getting into a flow with the subject and yourself. As Avedon once said, “It’s a dance you and the subject make happen.”

The next five minutes were spent on a second cover try. My first assistant, Ram Gipson of 24/7 Photo Services, was checking the clock, keeping me on schedule. This was crucial, as I still needed to get something for my personal vision; I usually save that for the last two minutes.

We set up a small 40-inch gray seamless with a small Photek for a foreground light and a Lowell hot light for a background hair light. I knew I wanted to use the hot light to flare into the lens somehow, as I needed to see it actually there in real time with the First Lady before I made the final adjustments. Let’s just say the photo gods were with me in that moment, as the flare added a magic touch to what would have seemed like a basic studio portrait shot. The quality of that light gave her a glow, one that would have would looked even better on film, but hey, we are in a digital world.

Ultimately, it was a team effort, and I thank all of the people who were involved in making this shoot happen. I could never have pulled it off without you.

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