Lighting Techniques

Delivering on Challenging Assignments: Johnny Tergo’s Multi-State Drug Rehab Exposé for The New York Times

September 18, 2018

By David Walker

Photographer Johnny Tergo shoots portraits with cinematic drama, using lights and modifiers to emphasize contours, contrast and layered space, and suggest some after-hours mystery. A fan of his work is OZY Media’s director of visuals, Leslie dela Vega, who gave Tergo one of his biggest assignments to date last year when she was a photo editor at The New York Times. The assignment was for a multi-part expose called “Addiction Inc.,” about rampant profiteering in the burgeoning drug testing and rehab industries. The Times published the 16-page story in February.

Dela Vega had hired Tergo for small assignments in the past. She gave him the “Addiction Inc.” assignment not only because he’s talented, but because “he’s incredibly kind with subjects, he’s thoughtful, and he’s not rushed, and he has humility,” she explains.

“Leslie knows I can go a bit far” with lighting, Tergo says. “She said to me, ‘I love [your style], but it’s hard to sell it to newspaper [editors] because they’re not used to it, so please tone it down. But keep your esthetic’…I gotta say that’s the hardest thing: keeping true to my style, but not taking it as far as I would normally take it.”

He had 14 days to make portraits of 12 people in various states, including California, Georgia, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania. Working without an assistant, he had to figure out how to make environmental portraits on the fly and “retain a [visual] consistency” but not so much that viewers felt like “the same portrait was being taken over and over.”

© Johnny Tergo

Rocky Hill, another rehab industry critic. Because Johnny Tergo’s lighting kit was small, he worked with ambient light and modified his strobes with colored gels to add visual interest. © Johnny Tergo

Having worked for more than a decade as a regular assistant to Art Streiber, Tergo has mastered lighting. “If you have a deep-rooted understanding of the technical, it frees up your mind to do the creative [work].” He’s also learned from Streiber how to manage pre-production. The most important part of that, Tergo explains, “is your communication with the subject beforehand, and relaying to that person that you’re going to need time to scout the location, time to set up lights and then make the portrait.” Tergo asks for at least 90 minutes with each subject.

He didn’t always arrive at an ideal time of day for ambient light, and the locations—often a subject’s workplace or residence—were visually unpredictable. Tergo had to make do with whatever he found. He typically looks for portrait settings “that have some depth—foreground, middle ground, background—not a flat plane.” If he can’t find those layered planes, he says, “I look for elements to break up the [flat] plane.”

For the Times assignment, he looked for location details that might tie different images together. For instance, he photographed two drug rehab industry insiders—one in California, the other in Florida. Both are critics of the rehab industry. One of the subjects, Rocky Hill, projected the aura of a cowboy. Tergo photographed him sitting on a worn leather sofa, with two stuffed game birds mounted on a wall behind him.

The other subject, Andrew Burki, was more formal—and formally dressed. To tie the portrait of Burki to that of Hill, Tergo took advantage of western-themed art in a waiting room, including three stylized Native American arrows mounted on a wall. He positioned Burki at the center of the frame, with the arrows slightly above his head.

Tergo is accustomed to working with cases of lights on location. But because he was shooting The Times assignment without an assistant, his lighting kit included only four lights: three Profoto B1 heads and one Profoto B2. That felt limiting, Tergo says. “So the best way to get creative was with color [shifts].” His method is to consider the predominant ambient light source—often a window—and then consider his options for modifying it. Because newspapers have strict rules against modifying images in post, Tergo says, all the color shifts in the “Addiction Inc.” portraits “came from playing with lighting sources, [using] lighting gels and shifting color temperatures.”

He says each location “lent itself to certain colors.” Once he decided what those colors were, “then I asked: Does it work for the rest of the story?” He also wanted to keep the colors believable to viewers. “I didn’t want it be so far gone with contrast in the lighting, and I didn’t want it to be over-stylized.”

Once Tergo dialed in the lighting, the remaining challenge was getting his subjects looking comfortable in front of the camera. During set-up, he engages in small talk with his subjects. “That’s very important with someone not used to being photographed,” he says. “They see a big camera with a lot of accessories and all these lights. It’s intimidating.”

Tergo gives subjects a lot of “small little directions” to guide their position, posture, and eyes. “That takes their mind off being photographed, because they have to think about every little direction you’re giving them,” Tergo explains. His last-resort strategy for making really self-conscious subjects look comfortable is to tell them bluntly: “You look worse when [you’re] uptight. You can’t change the way you look, so own it. Be confident with it.” And that usually works, Tergo says.

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