There's an elegantly meticulous quality to the environmental portrait work of Randy Duchaine, but don't assume a tremendous amount of planning goes on beforehand.
In fact, on many of Duchaine's corporate assignments, which take him to boardrooms, tequila factories, and wind farms around the world, he may have only five minutes to shoot.
"It's like spontaneous combustion," this Brooklyn-based photographer says from his home in the Windsor Terrace section of the borough. "Basically you jump in and just avail yourself to a higher authority. It's fun, thrilling, and scary, all at the same time."
This is not to say Duchaine is some kind of "seat-of-the-pants" photographer. In fact, he's extremely prepared and professional, with a client list that includes American Airlines, Anheuser-Busch, IBM, and Microsoft. It's just that when you're dealing with the CEOs of international corporations, their time is at a premium. As Duchaine puts it, you've got to be "fast, flexible, and nimble."
Take a recent assignment in Mexico to photograph the head of the Jose Cuervo tequila company for an annual report. Duchaine had originally planned to photograph him in Guadalajara, where they make the tequila. But like a lot of the best-laid plans of mice, men, and environmental portrait photographers, that idea had to be scrapped at the last minute.
"We ended up photographing him in front of a bar at the Jose Cuervo headquarters in Mexico City," Duchaine says. "It took us two and a half hours to set up, and we had five minutes to shoot, which is actually fairly typical."
Being fast on your feet has its advantages. For one, it means you're always on point to take a portrait, which came in handy when Duchaine ran into the CEO of JetBlue, Dave Neeleman, onboard a flight to Oakland, California.
"He came up to me and asked me what I did. When I told him, he asked me to shoot a picture of him and the crew. Since I had already been doing similar work for Southwest Airlines, it was no problem at all."
To stay adaptable, Duchaine keeps his operation as lean as possible, with no full-time employees aside from himself. When on assignment, he draws from a stable of trusted assistants he's worked with for years.
"I use the same people over and over because I trust their loyalty and their integrity. They make me look good, and they're part of who I am."
The equipment Duchaine travels with is also relatively spartan. He primarily shoots with a Canon EOS 5D with a trio of Canon lenses of varying focal lengths, a Canon 580EX Speedlite, and studio lighting, including Dyna-Lite power packs and heads, and Lowel Rifa-lites and Tota-lights.
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Influenced by the landmark portrait work of Duane Michals and Arnold Newman, Duchaine sees environmental portraiture as an attempt to create "a visual narrative" of a person. Because he never knows exactly what environment he's going to photograph his subjects in—which is the very core of environmental portraiture—Duchaine has to prepare in other ways.
"I do research, lots of research," he says. "I learn about their personal lives, their hobbies, even where they went to school. I talk to people we might have in common; I talk to their secretaries. I find out not just who they are, but how they might react to being photographed. Do they take direction well? When you work with people who are used to being in control all the time, sometimes if you throw a camera at them, they are terrified."
When he gets antsy subjects—which in the corporate world is relatively often—Duchaine does whatever he can to calm and soothe the executives, even if it involves turning the tables.