Though we all share common characteristics, it is our differences that make us individuals. No one understands this more deeply than portrait photographer Tom Casalini.
Casalini's images are as distinctive as fingerprints, each one revealing the spirit within the subject. For 32 years, this Indiana-based photographer has used his gift for listening and his ability to connect to others to create distinctive black-and-white portraits that seem to radiate the subject's inner beauty.
In the captivating image of singer John Mellencamp (left), Casalini chose a larger-than-life poster of a coal miner as the backdrop that mirrored the ups and downs of the singer's life to add depth to the portrait. In contrast, for the portrait of father and son (p. 19), Casalini used a very neutral background. He explains: "This is not a portrait of two people; it's a portrait of the emotional value between them. For this new father and son, clothing— and a backdrop—would have interfered with the expression of this relationship, which is somewhere between wonderment and pride."
Meeting of the Minds
The Casalini experience begins with a design consultation that more often than not takes place in his studio. Casalini uses this opportunity to learn about the person, watchiing, asking questions, and carefully listening to what they have to say.
"This is the most important element of the journey, as well as the most challenging," he explains.
Throughout this meeting of the minds, Casalini mentally visualizes what the portrait will look like; he selects backgrounds, arranges lighting, and composes the picture before the photographic session even takes place. Sometimes he sends his clients home with assignments to help them break down psychological barriers and prepare them for the shoot.
"One assignment I vividly remember involved four brothers who wanted to be photographed together. Their task was to tell each other something special about each of them. The outcome of their homework was that it helped them bond, which, in turn, added depth to their portrait."
His goal, he explains, is to know that when the client looks at the final image, he'll see not only what he was asking for visually, but also what he was seeking emotionally.
A Brand of His Own
Besides taking evocative portraits, Casalini offers his clients everything from custom framing to hanging the image in their home. He uses only archival material, including archival glass, and works with the client to display the photograph in a style that best suits the room in which it will be displayed. There are even times when he will visit the client's home before the shoot to get a sense of how—and where—the portrait will be hung.
Every portrait Casalini creates is 100 percent guaranteed and shot with a Hasselblad. "I love the design choices this format offers," says Casalini. Although he only uses film for his portraiture, he recently purchased a Nikon D2X for commercial clients, who require the immediacy of digital files.
Casalini, who was a master at developing prints in a wet lab, has transferred his skills to a digital darkroom. These days, he scans his own negatives and prints his images directly from Photoshop. He also edits his own work, choosing only four to six proofs for the client.
The small number of proofs is no surprise when you consider that Casalini limits his photographic sessions to a mere 12 frames. "I love the discipline of having only 12 frames to work with," he says. "It started out as a habit, and has remained part of my routine because it forces me to concentrate on bringing to life the portrait I visualize for each client."
Casalini breaks with tradition and creates black-and-white portraits from color film, namely Kodak Portra 400 NC and 160 NC. "Color film provides a wider latitude than if I were to use pure black-and-white film," he explains. By dodging and burning in color, and then desaturating—which removes the color from the photograph—Casalini gets arresting shades of gray. "It's just a matter of translating what that color value will be in gray, black, and white."
Casalini might never have become the portrait photographer he is today had it not been for a life-changing event that took place about six years ago. It began with a fortuitous call from an advertising agency asking him to produce a commemorative poster for a memorial recognizing the nation's Medal of Honor recipients. Casalini was so inspired that he and writer Timothy Wallis produced the book Ordinary Heroes, A Tribute to Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients: Reflections of Freedom, Faith, Duty and the Heroic Possibilities of the Everyday Human Spirit.