Bill Wadman Photographs People in a Corner: a DIY Project Turned Portrait Series

Bill Wadman Photographs People in a Corner: a DIY Project Turned Portrait Series

If you listen to the podcast On Taking Pictures, you know that co-host of the program Bill Wadman is a New York-based portrait photographer who's worked with the likes of Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Philip Glass, Ze Frank, and many, many others. Though his traditional portrait and conceptual work are tremendous in their own right, Bill has gotten quite a bit of attention over the years for his projects such as his critically acclaimed Dancers in Motion, cinematic Drabbles, and the 365 Portrait project that helped him to start it all. Now Bill is at it again, this time he's photographing people in a beautiful DIY corner set in his New York apartment, referencing the work of Irving Penn's corner series. Bill was kind enough to take the time to meet with me for a brief interview and to give us a look behind-the-scenes at the creation of his corner. 

Bill and I began by talking about the impetus behind the project. For him, projects provide a framework and motivation to experiment and hone his craft. Bill, like I, is a self-professed procrastinator, having a regular project spurs him to push himself to shoot regularly. "The simple answer is that mostly I just get bored and I’m also a chronic procrastinator. I’ve learned that I need to just start, to jump headlong into the water and see what I can do. So one day I decided ‘I’m going to build a wall over there and shoot portraits in it’. Part of it had to do with the fact that I wanted to see if I actually could do it. I had to actually, physically, build [the corner] from scratch with some two-by-fours."

Rather than just using a pre-existing corner or bare wall in his apartment, it was important to Bill to make the set from the ground up. He continues, saying he likes to consider his approach to taking portraits to be  completely designed and built on his own as shown in the image above. Taking a step back, Bill describes the process of building out the walls for the corner. "Maybe this is just my crazy thing, but I like to say ‘not only did I take that photo, I made that background, too. I did all that stuff’. It’s sort of a holistic approach, it’s sort of like building your own tools. A cousin of mine used to work at Sikorsky, the helicopter company. One of the first jobs for the guys who work there is in the tool factory, they actually build the tools they use to build the helicopters. I always liked that idea of starting from scratch, building the tools first. In my case this meant not only choosing the focal length, lighting, aperture, and post production, but also the environment the subject found himself in."

Bill describes the building process as a tedious effort, one which has since been through many revisions. After the framework for the walls and the sheetrock had been placed he was left with a bit of a quandary as to how he'd go about weathering the wall to make it look more natural. "I enlisted the help of a friend of mine who works as a professional set builder for big-budget Hollywood films. Have you seen the new Spider Man movie? There’s a scene in it where Peter goes down into this beautifully detailed abandoned subway. Regardless, that whole place was something she and her team worked on. She’s like this amazing union-setperson for movies.
"So I said ‘Hannah, you’ve got to come over and help me because I’m way in over my head’ so she came over and showed me all sorts of crazy tricks that helped me get the corner to where it is today.
"We turned normal plaster joint compound into this thick paint which I ended up using. You take the compound and mix it with latex paint and it colors the joint compound. Then you use the compound as the bottom layer of the wall with a putty knife. She showed me all these great techniques and over the course of an hour she had turned [her half of] the wall into this beautiful concrete-looking slab. When she left I quickly noticed the difference in our skill level, hers looked lovely and in comparison mine looked terrible and unconvincing. So in order to get it to match I ended up starting over. I believe right now it has my second full coat. I did the fat-paint with these layers of semi-transparent wash over the top to get the nuances. It's what’s called matte-medium. You get this transparent paint and painters use it to water down normal paint to give you a light, soupy, semi-transparent layer that gives it depth. The problem is that I’m really unhappy with it. The base color I was using was a little too green.
"While I think its interesting for a set of these I’m not sure it’s interesting enough for all of them. There’s this interesting sense that maybe it’d be fun if it was this constantly evolving thing. The structure stays there but the nuances change over time to the point where you can almost date the picture by which version the background is. I like that."
With the corner complete (at least completed enough to begin working), Bill was able to start portraits with the set. He describes the process of working within the confines of such a small space as freeing, making for a more natural, intimate setting for both he and the subject. "The idea was that it’s a very small space, literally it’s a 16-square-foot space (4 feet along one wall, 4 feet along the other). There’s a sense that it’s such a small space that it contains the subject in a way that putting someone up against seamless paper doesn’t. It makes people more comfortable being in the corner than in a big open studio."
He continues, remembering back to a shoot six or seven years ago where he intentionally limited the space he and the subject were in to make a more comfortable experience and natural portrait. "I remember my first editorial shoot that I ever did, I was shooting this author for some magazine in Boston. They’d rented a big fancy studio down here in New York and booked wardrobe and hair and there were all these people from the magazine — it was a whole thing. When I got there I quickly found out that the studio was huge, it was one of those giant 2,000 or 2,500 square feet deals. It was the first time I’d ever shot in a place like that and I remember thinking to myself, I don’t need this. I don’t need all of this room, in fact, I don’t even want all of it. I need to somehow contain this.
"What I ended up doing was sort of pulling all of my stuff over into one corner. All the magazine people could sit in the main space, but the subject and I were going back somewhere I could control both in terms of light and mentality. That’s really what I liked about this idea of the corner set in my apartment, it’s a space where a subject and I can sit down and if I’m shooting with a 35mm lens, slightly wide-angle, I’m only three or four feet away. There’s an intimacy to it that I like. That was the real thing. It’s just me and them, maybe one light, and my camera. It’s a challenge for both of us. We want to see what we can get out of this really simple situation."
Of course, it's impossible to see portraits shot in a corner and not immediately think by those done by Penn. Bill reflects on Penn's influence at length. "I love Penn’s corner series — he had a lot of interesting people in there. I wonder, though, if you just put a normal guy off the street in the corner if it’d actually be as cool as the musicians and actors and famous people he shot? I’m jealous that I didn’t have the idea first. Of course, the big thing about his corner was that it was really acute, it was tiny. That was the angle. See what I did there?  I don’t want to re-do what he did, so I didn’t make mine like that. Those pictures are very much about the corner and really how the person fits into the corner. I love the idea, frankly, it’s better than mine, but it’s been done. I was thinking of mine more as a background that gave me options and a place and an excuse to photograph someone. So while I’m inspired by Penn’s stuff I realize it’s not my place to steal it. There’s nothing new I’m doing in an artistic sense, the only thing that’s changing is me and the subject."


Aside from differences in lighting, set design, and color (as opposed to Penn's black and white work), Bill's portraits also differ in that he's shooting "average Joes", friends, neighbors, people he knows intimately but are largely unknown to the viewers. "All of these have been people I know. This kind of project is a numbers game in the sense that you’re getting people in, you’re taking portraits, but not all of them are going to be special or end up in your portfolio. I’ll probably shoot 20 or 25 people this month and probably only six or eight will end up begin something that I feel totally happy about. I’ve been doing this long enough and have shot, literally, thousands of people so I can typically get a good picture of someone but there are just some people who when they sit down know exactly what they’re doing and on the other hand some people will never really be comfortable in front of a camera."
He describes the process of working on a consistent, regularly occurring project in a way that really resonates with me. "Mostly this is just about getting a lot of people in here. I equate it to creative cardio, I’m running my mile every day, it’s creative exercise. That’s really what it’s about. It’s not about getting certain people in here, it’s about getting anyone in here."
"I was going to shoot daily, but you know how these things go. Everything gets busy at once.  Years ago when I did my Drabbles series which was much more involved, it wasn’t just people sitting for a portrait, it was planning a complex, cinematic story. I did the first 35 of them one-a-day. I’m fine with that sort of pressure, if anything, I’m better with that sort of crunch. Then there’s no time to sit and worry about making decisions, you just have to do it — there’s no time to wait. For me, I like not having time to worry; if something doesn’t work out I can get it on the next one. "
For now his corner portrait project continues to evolve in both technique and setting. It's his hope that this project will inspire you and other photographers to try new things, come up with ideas, build upon the work of others, and most importantly, 'get up off your lazy butt'. All of Bill's proceeding projects are a testament to the level of quality work you can consistently achieve when you buckle down and set your mind to it. 

In his own words:
[The corner] takes away the excuses for me not to create. Now whenever someone walks into my place I'll always have the ability to photograph them in a way that I'd be happy with. That's exactly what I should do, it's exactly what I need to do. It's that creative cardio; it may not be fun getting yourself to go to the gym for the first month but after a while it'll become something you're used to, something you crave every day. This corner, these portraits are going to become a creative habit, something I want to do daily.
To keep up with Bill Wadman, his work, and this corner portrait series, check out his website and blog.
If you haven't already, I can't encourage you enough to check out the weekly podcast he co-hosts with Jeffery SaddorisOn Taking Pictures, it's one of the highlights of my week and I'm positive you'll enjoy it too.

What personal projects are you currently working on? Let us know in the comments below!

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Great portraits from that set!

Terrence Chambers's picture

Bill's work is great & inspiring.

Yoram Attia's picture

I thinking about Dani Diamond when i see this corner portrait serie

Anonymous's picture

I always liked Irving Penn's corner portrait series from the late 40's. Simple, raw, playful.

Cedric Schanze's picture

thanks for sharing!

Love it - I did a similar thing at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, again based on Irving Penn's corner series:

Joshua Penrod's picture

I'm photographing the characters for a local community theater. I used your post as a guide for my corner backdrop. I love how it turned out. Thanks for sharing your knowledge :)

Looks great Joshua

frank nazario's picture

I read that illumiation was kept at its simplest form... Can you share what was used as the light setup?