Eli Warren Shoots the Cast of “Miss Saigon” in B&W

Jun 25, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

What makes black and white photographs so captivating? Color photography has been around since the nineteenth century, but it’s never truly put black and white imagery out of commission.

Cast member Jackie Nguyen gets put on film

I think black and white photos carry this timelessness. They concentrate the image down to just shadow and light and, to me, that can be more impactful. Certain colors can elicit certain emotions and certain color palettes can evoke certain eras and styles. Taking all that away can really force the viewer to see just what's there.

Greenville, South Carolina-based photographer Eli Warren has been shooting professionally since 2007. During the past year, Eli has worked with film and in large format, a clear departure from digital photography.

Lead actor Anthony Festa poses for the camera

I started shooting large format because I was getting disillusioned with digital. I'd shoot thousands of images and have to sort through them, and it was getting to me. I thought going back to film might force me to slow down and think out each image.

Lead actress Emily Bautista strikes a pose

Ironically, Eli doesn’t see himself as a patient person. That’s why he doesn’t just shoot the film, he develops it as well.  

I can't imagine waiting weeks for film to come back from a lab. Most shoots, I'm staying after to develop right away. I also really love having my hands in every step of the process. There's just a magic to going through all the steps to develop, then opening the tank for the first time and seeing what's on the film.

Lead actress Stacie Bono

Recently, Eli worked with the cast of "Miss Saigon," a musical about an ill-fated romance between an American serviceman and a Vietnamese bargirl towards the end of the Vietnam War. Jackie Nguyen, one of the cast members, found Eli’s work on Instagram a few weeks before the troop arrived in Greenville.  

[Jackie] found my feed and really loved the black and white work. She sent me an email to see about shooting with me and bringing the female cast in as well. I honestly thought the email was fake at first.

The ladies of the cast of Miss Saigon

Eli quickly befriended the entire cast and watched them perform a few days after the shoot. He caught the show again in Charlotte two months later and got a chance to shoot the male members of the ensemble while there.  

J. Daughtry poses for the camera

Actor Red Concepcion on film

The Charlotte shoot proved to be a bit hectic. Since there was a different show going on that same week, Eli couldn’t photograph the male cast at the theatre. Instead, he constructed a makeshift studio in a tiny hotel room.

Shot of the makeshift studio setup in Charlotte

Part of shooting people on film is that they tend to be curious about the way everything works. Using film is very different from employing digital photography, and it’s usually a new experience for whomever is getting their picture taken.  

I think a lot of people feel like the shoot is more meaningful because they’ve never done this kind of thing. People get really into the process and want to be collaborative and learn about it.

Eli shoots a cast member on film

One of the things Eli likes about working with film is that he can “let some mistakes happen,” a far cry from the days when the Carolinian’s main focus was digital photography.

I was getting really perfectionist in digital for a while. I was over-retouching, so I think [working with film] is also about me trying to fight against that.

Garrick Macatangay poses for the camera

If you look at the images, you’ll see that I leave my clip mark in. There are usually some scratches along the edges that I leave, and a lot of my images will have bubble marks. I feel like if I cleaned it up and took it out, I might as well shoot digital. It just wouldn’t have the same feel.

Rae Leigh Case headshot

Part of what makes working with film so exhilarating is that you only get so many chances to get the right shot. With digital, you can essentially take as many pictures as you want. With film, it’s not that simple.

When I do a 4x5 shoot I shoot, at most, ten frames. Like, 10 pictures for the whole shoot. So you really feel that pressure to think about it. And I was worried about that because I was worried that with ten, I wouldn’t find one I liked. But honestly, I’ll shoot like 100 digital and ten frames of film and most of the time I’ll have more film that I like.

Eli working with his film tent

To make matters more stressful, Eli only exposed two to three negatives per actor. Fortunately, these people are used to having their picture taken, which was a boon for Eli considering one little movement on the subject’s part can mess up a shot.

With that camera, the person can’t move once they pose. Like, if they lean forward a quarter-inch they’ll be out of focus. But they were really great about holding poses. Sometimes people have a hard time with that.

Joven Calloway flexing

The guys all had to flex and then look like relaxed in the face, which is a really hard thing to do. They were all pretty good about that.

It’s no secret that touring actors have busy schedules and few days off. To wit: the cast of Miss Saigon performs nine shows a week. The one day they’re not doing a show, they’re traveling. Eli credits Jackie with bringing everything together in spite of the long hours.

Jackie Nguyen backstage

Jackie was just amazing. She set up all the scheduling, and then she stayed on every shoot. So she was doing an 8-9 hour shoot every day with me, and then she did the show. Then she’d get up the next morning and do everything again. I don’t know how she kept up with that. I was having a hard time just doing the shoot. When we got to the end of the day, I could barely pick my camera up.

Eli takes a quick nap in between shoots

Perhaps the most memorable part of this project for Eli was the relationships he built with the cast members. Their welcoming nature helped make what could’ve been pressure-filled shoots feel like a reunion.

Every member of the cast was so open with me and so kind, it was like shooting with old friends. On my birthday, Jackie sent me a video of the female cast all wishing me. Just a wonderful, wonderful group of people.


Liaison: Jackie Nguyen

Check out more of Eli Warren at eliwarren.com!

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