The Studio

It started for me, as it did for so many other photographers, with Irving Penn's natural light studio portraits. In 1945 Penn rented a photographer's studio in Cuzco Peru. Such studios were based on the painter's atelier. They usually had a roof and a north facing wall made of glass. Designed to maximize available light, in Haussmann's Paris this requirement dovetailed nicely with the least expensive rooftop garrets. Later Penn would use just such a Parisian studio to photograph some of his "small trades."

Penn devised a portable version of his studio, using nylon, aluminum poles and canvas. It could be set up by two men and was most famously used to photograph the Assaro Mudmen of New Guinea in 1970. The project was attractive to me for many reasons: the beauty of the light, the incongruity of a studio set-up in a remote area, but mostly for the formalized and intimate interaction with the subjects. Like all studio work the overt and premeditated nature of the work required the subjects and photographer to become more equal partners in the production of an image.


In the yard of our house is a carport. Built from driftwood and small timber it was originally covered in a blue tarp. I changed it to white and instantly had a garage-sized soft box. A small table for the camera and lenses, nine-foot seamless white, and some remote flashes with shoot-through umbrellas completed the set-up. 

Modified slightly with additional side tarps and a clamp that allowed me to hang a shoot-through umbrella from above, the studio can be used throughout the summer - but suffers from very low light during the overcast winters of the pacific northwest. Not to mention the potential for a cold, damp, uncomfortable subject.

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It is far away from Vancouver, and therefore difficult for many subjects. I've tried to recreate the soft light of this studio indoors, but it requires a large number of speedlights bounced off white walls or ceilings. Could it be made portable? More on that later ...

Tim McLaughlin

Photographer and writer based in Vancouver, Canada