Among everything else it’s done this past year, COVID has thrown a wrench into even the most basic of plans. Want to head out on a Tuesday night to go catch up with some friends? Make sure you take a mask, try to go somewhere with outdoor seating, and make a reservation. Everything requires a little more thinking and a little more planning than it did pre-COVID.
That was certainly the case for Cleveland Magazine, which usually honors its annual batch of the city’s 30 Most Interesting People by throwing a party for them downtown. Angelo Merendino, who has now shot four of these MIP covers for the publication, would attend the party, setting up shop in a corner of the room and inviting the special guests over for a few minutes of chatting and photographing. We can’t exactly party these days, so this time around Angelo brought only a single Art Director and one MIP at a time to his downtown studio.
This is the fourth MIP issue I have photographed and this year we made all of the photographs at my studio instead of having a party, as is the tradition. I think we made 19 portraits in total, spread out over three days and with only myself, Art Director Jessa Moser, and the person being photographed at each session.
This was as skeletal as skeleton crews get. Angelo did not have an assistant, there was no hair or makeup artist present, and only one client representative was on hand. In spite of this, Cleveland Magazine kept its cover options open, ultimately deciding on a grid as opposed to a composite.
For the cover, we tried two approaches. One was for a composite since we didn’t want to have all four people on set at the same time. The other was a grid of squares, which we ultimately chose.
I didn’t have an assistant in order to keep the crew small, and people were told to show up camera ready so we didn’t have to bring a makeup artist into the mix.
Additionally, Jessa and I each wore a face shield and gloves and we disinfected after each MIP left. The face shield was awkward but I got used to it.
One intriguing benefit to this brave new setup was that Angelo could spend more time with each MIP, as opposed to only getting a few minutes with them in a public setting. Every honoree was with Angelo for one hour (instead of, say, 10 minutes), giving the personable photographer more of an opportunity to make a real connection before snapping his camera. Still, we live in an era where it feels weird to spend too much time around those outside of our biodome, something Angelo felt as the shoot went on.
Each session was an hour long and it was great to have a little time to talk before I started making portraits. This created a different energy from other MIP issues but I think it was in line with the current state of the world. That said, I was definitely aware of the time I was spending with strangers. Everyone wore a mask and kept at a safe distance, but I did get the feeling that some of the people were a little less cautious about COVID than I am.
There were quite a few people who inspired me this year. As I mentioned earlier, having time to talk with the MIPs this year vs. the few minutes the party offered in the past gave me some time to learn more about each person.
Annette Blackwell is the first female and first African American mayor of Maple Heights, Ohio, and it was great to sit down and learn more about her. Nathaniel Honvou is 11 years old and full of the joy of being a kid. It was so much fun to listen to how excited he is about something he loves doing.
And Marla Perez-Davis is the director of NASA Glenn Research Center — she is ridiculously smart! It was humbling to listen to her talk about how she has gotten to this point in her life.
You can always count on Angelo to get video and stills of his workspace, which is even more vital when a traditional shoot setup needs to be redone during COVID. As with any pandemic-era assignment, preparation sets the tone for the shoot.
In one section of my studio we had things set up for the composite cover. Everything was marked off with tape and locked down. Across from that we had a set up for the interior portraits as well as a backup plan, a square grid, in case the composite didn’t turn out like we hoped it would. We had a lot of ground to cover so I did quite a bit of testing and prepping before anyone arrived. I have a Manfrotto backdrop system on my wall that allows for three backdrops to be hung at a time and this made it easy to keep the light consistent. I also think Jessa did a great job with the layout and it’s one of my favorite covers I’ve ever been part of.
After they photographed a couple of MIPs, Angelo and Jessa — who gets a tip of the cap from the photographer for her ability to coordinate so many subjects in such little time — got into a groove and ended up having a lot of fun with this unorthodox shoot. Credit goes to both creatives, whose preparative and logistical acumen made what could’ve been a hassle of a shoot into something everyone involved can take pride in.
I did a lot of testing and prep prior to making these portraits. Since I wasn’t going to have an assistant on any of the sessions the pre-production was really important. I knew it was going to be hectic so I wanted to cover as many bases as possible while knowing there would be odds and ends that popped up along the way. I felt confident walking into the studio each day and I’m really proud of this work.
Art Director: Jessa Moser
See more of Angelo’s work at angelomerendino.com.
Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!