Seeing Life Firsthand; The Photography Of Peter DaSilva Page 2

Most of DaSilva's work falls into the category of environmental portraits, about 90 percent as a stringer for The New York Times. Scouting locations and figuring how he wants to photograph his subject leaves little time for elaborate setups. His focus is on lighting and it is there that he is a master at creating mood.

Shawn Fanning

March 03, 2000; San Mateo, California. Shawn Fanning, 19-year-old creator of Napster, the computer program everyone is using to download MP3s that has taken over college campuses, so much so, that it has been banned because it is using up as much as a third of the colleges' available bandwidth.

Often, if his subject is someone of stature, DaSilva will deal with the publicist or PR person and work up the look he wants, using someone to stand in for the setup. Then he spends a few minutes with his subject, fine-tuning the shot and loosening them up before making the picture.

Usually DaSilva will use light modifiers such as flags, a black fabric to block the light, or a silk if he is shooting outdoors. "I like to let the light come through a fine white fabric and the white silk works well," he says. "The layered black mesh lets the light pass through and I can control a fair amount of light coming into certain areas within the frame. The light modifiers eliminate the dodging and burning in the darkroom. For instance, if I need sunlight coming in but it is spilling onto something bright in the foreground, I will block the light hitting the foreground object.

"Basically where a window has light streaming in, the wall blocks the light from hitting things in the foreground. With a full-length window the light is hitting all the way up from the model's feet, so I put a piece of cardboard or fabric and darken the bottom part of the frame yet still get the nice light coming in at the upper level."

John Lasseter

March 31, 2000. John Lasseter, Director/Executive Vice President of Creative at Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond, California, has a little fun with his Toy Story buddies Buzz and Woody as he sits among some of his other friends in his Richmond office.

Many of DaSilva's portraits are shot in Silicon Valley, mostly high-tech people amid their surroundings. "It gets really old photographing guys sitting next to computers all the time," he says, "so I begin to think in terms of angles and lighting.

"Often, the backgrounds are horrible. A good example is the photo of Shawn Fanning of Napster. They were a start-up company, housed in a very '60s kind of bank building in the Bay area. His PR person was a guy in his 20s with tattooed `sleeves,' and their office looked like a college dorm for computer geeks. Torn apart computers were everywhere and a 61" long company logo hung on the wall. I came in at 5pm, leaving me a limited amount of time to make decisions and no time to bring up my regular lighting gear and set up. I improvised by using light streaking in through a window in an adjoining room.

"The sun was really low and I posed Fanning resting his forearm on the table. With the light behind him I found a FedEx box, propped it up in front of him and the main light from behind bounced off the white box and lit up his face. A convenient window shade prevented the light from hitting the back of his head and allowed me to cut down a stop or so. It looks like he's got a hairlight and a key light on him--all very natural.

Anti-War Protester

March 19, 2004. An unidentified anti-war protester stands his ground in front of the Bechtel Corporation during an anti-war protest in San Francisco's financial district. Photo by Peter DaSilva/for The New York Times.

"With my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II I ended up using only the on-camera flash. I also carry small, compact strobes, prop them up and just clamp them to something to put them off-camera."

One photograph DaSilva likes to use when he teaches is of a man who was documented at the time as the oldest living person in the world. "The man did not see or hear and his greatest joy was smoking cigars. It was his 115th birthday and I shot him in the nursing home where everyone had presented him with cigars from around the world. He sits there happily smoking a cigar.

"Children's book author Beverly Cleary sat in front of a window with sheer curtains that let in a beautiful light," DaSilva says. "It was a natural position in her own home and there was no other light.

"Often I will put lights on indoors. I like that nice tungsten glow from a lamp and will turn on the lights to balance the natural light from outdoors and the artificial light from indoors. It's not like bringing in artificial light."

Another favorite is the portrait of musician John Lee Hooker. "He lived in a sort of glorified flophouse for musicians in a very upscale neighborhood. With all the chaos inside I decided to photograph him outdoors in the natural light.

"I ask my students to look at these pictures and reverse-engineer them and figure out what kind of lighting was used. Natural? Artificial? Softbox? Grid? What made that particular photograph? My point is that what you see may or may not be what made that picture. A photographer often has to be able to move around natural light, using a reflector or a piece of cardboard--whatever is needed to improvise a scene.

"Lighting is only a part of taking the picture, just part of the process. I want them to know that getting people comfortable with you is major. Your personality is what will help make a good portrait. It is important to identify with them, to communicate with your subjects."

For DaSilva the exciting part of his job is the diversity. He says, "When photographing in Las Vegas I walked around with a camera in a casino. In the afternoon I recall being out in the desert in Las Vegas shooting beautiful scenery first, then, automatic weapons and then a portrait of Barry Manilow. It's like seeing life firsthand."

Peter DaSilva is represented by Polaris Images in New York. His major free-lance news clients include "The New York Times," "Business Week," and "Chicago Tribune." His website is

DaSilva is also the designer and manufacturer of mounting hardware equipment for remote camera setups, widely used by photographers at the White House and a number of Olympics sports shooters.