Photography During Covid: Is This the Future of Portraiture?

What my first shoot this spring looked like

Charli D'Amelio, photographed by Jesse Dittmar

In the short term, the future of photography is smaller productions with photographers who have diverse and broad skill sets and do not need to rely on substantial assistance. But will this new way of working stick for the long run, too?

As a professional portrait artist for the past five years, I have gotten into a nice rhythm. I know how much equipment, how many assistants, how much time, how much space, and which key crew members are necessary to make my work. I also know what to anticipate from the subject and their team. And I've gotten accustomed to client demands and expectations.

Insert Covid, and this rhythm is no longer relevant. I knew it instinctually in mid-March, but I was finally faced with the reality of it this past month when the Washington Post called to offer me my first assignment of the Covid era. The subject was TikTok superstar Charli D'Amelio, and it was the first sign that work would move forward.

The session came with strict instructions. No crew. A distance of 10 feet from the subject must be maintained. The shoot would be outside. There would be no access to facilities, no scout, no professional hair, makeup or styling on set. A mask had to be worn at all times.

My mind immediately raced back to the very early days of my career, when I could not afford professional assistance. I needed to make hard choices on how much equipment to bring. I would need to be even more focused on elements like clothing, styling, hair, and makeup. 

My plan set in. I needed extra sand and longer lenses. I pushed for more setup time and needed to test the light on myself. Natural light was preferred. I hopped into a decontaminated rental car, sped over to a contactless rental pickup at Adorama rentals in Brooklyn, headed down to my office, where I double-parked while loading about 300 pounds of equipment into my SUV. A liberating 1.5-hour drive with some fresh air up to suburbia of Connecticut ensued. I was used to the place because I grew up nearby.

Charli's family was lovely and accommodating. They had a vast grass-filled back yard with just enough shade for me to do my work. They were flexible with timing so we could use the best light, and we even rain checked our poorly forecast initial day.

Charli came out, and we made some adjustments to her hair styling. Midway through the shoot, we decided on an outfit change that had a distinctly different mood. Charli's PR team scheduled the shoot for 20 minutes, but we ended up using an hour, getting many different scenarios, a clothing change and a moving portrait at the end.

The shoot was about instincts. There was no client to corral, no notes from creative directors, no adjustments from critical assistants, no real-time feedback. I caught myself from breaking social distance a few times when I wanted hair or clothing adjusted. It wasn't easy not to let the old way of working subconsciously affect my movements. Even seeing through a longer lens was a change that I could consciously feel. 

It was a success. There was an added amount of mental weight and loaded emotions on the process. It was still photography, still portraiture, and it was always about making the viewer of my art feel like they were standing in front of my subject along with me. The essence of what I do hasn't changed; how I do it might have changed forever.

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