Over the past two years, I’ve been pouring everything I had emotionally, physically, and financially into a staged photography series I call “Buffalo Soldier”. My project is hitting a huge milestone soon with its first public exhibition happening this September in New York City. It’s been a phenomenal journey. I’ve picked up a few awards, made a ton of friends, and I’m here to tell you a little about how it happened and what I learned on the way.
In my series, I use actors, sets, props, costumes, and lighting to tell the stories of Black American soldiers. My style has been compared to the likes of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. While I personally wouldn’t venture to compare my work to those legends, I think it’s fair to say we all have a flair for the cinematic.
My path to photography took a long detour through the world of filmmaking. I started film school in 2010 with a generation that fell in the heart of the film vs. digital debate. We saw Fuji discontinue its motion picture film production, Kodak went into bankruptcy, and my school started transitioning away from an analog based education in cinematography.
I had this inspiring technical and creative know-how in photographing a movie in the traditional way, without a single soul around who had any interest in hiring me to do that. Producing a short film on celluloid would cost thousands of dollars between film stock, processing, and scanning. Being fresh out of college with an obsolete skill set that was getting rustier by the minute I was terrified. To calm my nerves, I went out and bought a film camera. It was the next best thing and to be honest, it indulged my romantic nostalgia for old cinema.
Now that I had the right equipment, I was lacking in something to shoot. I spent a few years occasionally carrying around my 35mm Canon Elan 7 or my Pentax 6×7 and learned the ins and outs of film photography. While the Pentax served remarkably as a conversation starter, I didn’t feel like I was creating anything. My happy place is on a set, realizing an image that I’ve spent weeks or months crafting. Eventually, I was several years removed from the structure of school, and in dire need of a project that brought me back to that place.
If I had to name another interest of mine outside of the visual arts, it would be history with an emphasis on military affairs. I had a hard time reckoning with the fact that this was my only real hobby until I caught myself devouring a book on naval warfare tactics of the 17th century. I had to embrace it. I started writing a movie set in the American Civil War, but it was so impractical I had to switch gears. I wanted something that I could make immediately, with limited resources, but also at a high-quality level. That’s when I decided to marry my casual photography with my experience in filmmaking. Every dollar I put into a film could go much further if I distilled the concept down to a single image. I was going to turn a movie into a photograph.
Meanwhile, I had been consuming so much content on the Civil War, that I was yearning to make something on the topic. I watched Ken Burns’s 11-hour documentary series twice, I drove from my home in New York City to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to walk through old battlefields and visit museums, I was reading memoirs from Generals, and I even memorized a poem or two from Walt Whitman about the horrors of the war.
The Civil War is one of the most written about topics in American history, so I wanted to find my niche within its story. A picture about Gettysburg, for example, was out of the question. It wasn’t lost on me that as a Black American, history buff, photographer with a filmmaking background, I came to the Civil War with a different perspective than the mainstream. It wasn’t long before I had a story that I was uniquely suited to tell. I drew up the first sketch of the image that would later be called “Sacred Land”. It was an exploration of what the Confederate flag means for the legacy of the Black soldiers who took up arms against it.
This series was born in that moment, but I didn’t realize at the time what it would become. Once Sacred Land was in the can, the project I was working on could’ve gone in any direction. It wasn’t until I started solidifying the concept for the next instalment that I understood what the throughline would be for the series as a whole. I was going to center it around the history of Black American soldiers, and examine the events that shaped their lives right up until the present.
So far I’ve made four instalments in this series, each addressing a different time period and each one teaching me something new about my craft. I often found that my needs were very different from other photographers. It’s hard not to second guess myself when everyone is praising shallow depth of field while I’m trying to figure out how to stop down as much as possible. My photographs are usually arranged to take advantage of the depth of the set. I wanted as much in focus as possible, so I had to learn to be confident in my choices. Going against the grain wasn’t spitting in the face of proven techniques; it was me finding my own voice.
I got all kinds of criticisms about my lighting, but I held true to what felt right to me. My backlights were too bright, my key lights were too theatrical, too colorful, or too loud. I had no problem putting a main character two stops underexposured if I felt it served the story. Even my choice to use continuous lights rather than strobes was disputed. After completing a couple of instalments in the series I realized that it’s my vision that ties these works together stylistically and thematically. If I bent to every suggestion from every photographer, my work would become more generic, more derivative, and less me.
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You may notice that there is way more going on in this floorplan than there is in the two images above. That’s because each instalment has a grander, wide-angle shot that tells the full story. You can see the camera position in the bottom right of the floorplan. For “Presidential Suite”. I did a panorama by stitching together a shot of the main room with a shot looking down the hallway to catch the whole scene. Unfortunately, you won’t see the featured images from my work here as they are really intended to be seen as much larger prints. However, everything will be on exhibition on September 6th in Queens, NY!
My most recent instalment is called “Distant Relatives” and it makes for a great case study. The concept was born out of the research I did into World War One. There were so many angles to choose from, but I decided to focus my picture on the relationship that developed between Black Americans and Black Africans when their paths crossed in the French trenches. I was drawn to this story because it featured a diversity of Black perspectives and didn’t center on the white oppression that is so often at the forefront of the conversation about our history.
Distant Relatives proved to me how creatively liberating it is to have way more knowledge on the subject matter than seems necessary. I’ve seen several documentaries about World War One, but I had never seen an image that depicted the collision of cultures that I wanted to show. To me, that made it powerful. I was creating the iconic image that people of the African Diaspora never had and I was able to draw on all of my research to flesh it out. The prevalence of barbed wire, the constant fear of gas attacks, and the frequent shaving regiments, were all critical parts of the story beyond its significance in Black history. Having all that knowledge upfront vastly simplified the process of deciding the actions and props within the story.
Since there are so many pictures and films from the war, I wanted my photograph to feel like something you could never see in a documentary. The first choice toward that goal was to place the camera where an actual 1918 photographer would never go—No Man’s Land. After that, shooting color film in the most highly resolved format I could was a no-brainer.
The whole series was shot on Kodak Portra 400 for day scenes and Cinestill 800T for night. No film stock I’ve used is as reliable and forgiving as Portra 400, and simply being the only high-speed Tungsten film on the market was justification enough for me to use 800T. That being said, I did a side by side test before my first night shoot, and saw that when rated at 500 EI, I got a beautifully sharp image on the Cinestill stock that rivalled Portra without color balance issues.
Over the course of the project, I did some more tests and determined that the fine detail and large print sizes I wanted, required an upgrade from my Pentax 6×7 to a 4×5 large format camera. I ordered a Toyo 45G off eBay and fired off a few test shots. It was quite a trial by fire because I only had 15 large format exposures under my belt by the time I was placing the success or failure of the Distant Relatives shoot on my abilities with a view camera.
That rush of jumping headfirst into the unknown is perhaps one of the strongest motivating factors in pushing forward with this project. Every time I’ve stepped onto a set of one of my photoshoots there was some element that was new to me. I made my first panoramic image, I lit and shot a set from a crane, I learned how to make a panorama, and I had to wet down a set all in connection with Buffalo Soldier.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m doing this all on my own. Usually there are over 20 cast and crew members who show up on the day and contribute to making each instalment. They’re my creative collaborators and sounding board. They’re also the lighting crew, camera assistants, set designers, make-up artists, and wardrobe stylists. It goes without saying that this project would hardly have evolved beyond that first sketch without the support and commitment of my team. I can’t say how grateful I am to have them and how excited I am to continue this project with their help.
On that note, Buffalo Soldier is still very much ongoing. Having mostly self-funded the first four instalments, I’m now looking to get more support to continue on this project in the future. I still want to tell stories about our Black American warriors from the Vietnam War, the American West, the Revolution, colonial times and a lot more. You can head over to my website to find out all the details about the exhibition and learn how you can support the future of this project.
Thanks for reading,
~ Sheldon J.
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