Since 1974, characters dressed in elaborate, surreal costumes have taken to the streets of Santa Barbara, California for the annual Summer Solstice Celebration. Recently, Austin, Texas-based commercial photographer Kevin Steele released his 2014 Solstice People book, which features unique portraits of the colorful paradegoers. Fifty percent of the proceeds from Kevin’s book benefit the solstice celebration — this year, the 90-page book was finished just two weeks after the parade and sold out within hours of the opening event.
For this project I wanted to create fun portraits that showcase the people and their costumes. I had photographed the annual solstice parade for years from the street. Five years ago I had an idea: to set up a studio right at the start of the parade — everyone will be fresh and full of energy, in character and ready to launch into the wacky parade.
The biggest challenge with this project was the sheer number of portraits that needed to made in a short amount of time. For the last five years, Kevin has photographed more than 100 people before each parade under a 2-3 hour time limit. Each year, he has just a few short minutes to capture the character of each individual, and has learned how to avoid an “assembly line for headshots.”
As they could be solo shots or a group of 30, the lighting has to be flexible and I have no time to make adjustments. In addition, I’m sometimes calling them forward into the daylight out of the studio combining the studio and ambient scene, so I have to balance that. The June mornings can be foggy and usually break to sunshine while we’re shooting. This year, I used a large overhead 12×12 diffusion to shade the front entry, and a total of six studio strobes — Profoto and Buff Einstein — ranging from large soft modifiers for key lights to gridded spots and beauty dishes.
While the shoots require lots of preparation, from obtaining a city permit to getting multiple assistants to help with the set-up, Kevin’s drive to keep his work fresh is what keeps him motivated:
I can’t not create personal work. If I wasn’t making a living as a photographer it’s all that I would do. Fortunately my client and commercial work is in line with what I love to shoot. Personal projects let me play, let me explore creatively and often let me support a cause or a community. Usually it’s about pushing the art and craft in new and different directions, and for that reason alone it’s all-important.