"Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur
What do you do when your commercial photography assignment is to cover an event that lasts a mere 28 minutes, but that takes place over several square miles and took over a year to plan?
And that event happens...in the dark?
You prepare. You research, plan, strategize, and gather a team. This was the process required to cover the 2014 Rhythm and Booms Fireworks Celebration in Madison, WI.
Rhythm and Booms, founded in 1993, experienced a rebirth in 2014 by moving from its previous location in Warner Park on the city's north side to the heart of downtown. Though the change in locale was not without controversy, it was deemed necessary by the city to accommodate growth. Taking advantage of the natural landscape of Madison's isthmus, v2.0 of Rhythm and Booms was designed as theatre-in-the-round: fireworks shot from a barge on Lake Monona, reflecting off the water, with spectators gathered on shorelines.
Focal Flame Photography was hired by the Rhythm and Booms organizers Madison Festivals Inc. to document the afternoon's festival and the fireworks display. Creating a media library of images that depicted the festival and fireworks with both sense of place and sense of purpose was essential. "It started weeks in advance, scouting locations, looking at angles, determining the story and assessing the requirements," said Focal Flame Photography founder Clint Thayer.
"For example, we knew we had to tell the story of Rhythm and Booms being relocated to the shore of Lake Monona, so key photographs needed to depict crowds, the Wisconsin Capitol building, and - obviously - spectacular fireworks," said Thayer. "And while it only takes a few seconds to describe those images, it takes significant time to articulate that assignment to other photographers and communicate the clients' needs, so that as a team we could be successful in our image-making."
Thayer took on the role of both art director and photographer. "We elected to position four photographers in key locations to help tell a unique visual story of Rhythm and Booms," said Thayer. Those photographers - Thayer himself, Focal Flame associate photographers Katie Richard and Josh Zytkiewicz, and freelance photographer Matt Apps - were assigned to four different vantage points around Lake Monona. Thayer had a specific shot list for each position. "I’m very impressed and proud to work with our team...they executed beautifully," said Thayer.
In describing the role of art director, Thayer said, "A common technique for photographers is to pick up pencil and paper, then sketch out and pre-visualize the kinds of shots that they’d like to get," said Thayer. "You have to prepare the mind so that when it’s go time, there’s no questions. There’s no drama. You’re just executing the process that you’ve already visualized." He then talked with each photographer about details.
The focus on preparedness was critical for Zytkiewicz. Despite scouting out his location beforehand, he realized as soon as the fireworks began that he needed to make adjustments. "I had everything set up at my first location, hoping to get the Capitol with the fireworks right behind it," said Zytkiewicz. But when the pyrotechnics started, his heart sank - the angle wasn't right.
When the situation isn't conducive, change the situation. "I put my camera under the seat of the moped, camera bag on my back, and had the tripod resting between my feet and up on my shoulder, still extended." Parking his moped and running up Wisconsin Avenue, he found a suitable alternative location and immediately set up again. The result was an intimate view of the Capitol, ablaze with light.
Positioned near the fireworks barge, Matt Apps was pleased at being able to readily find a good position. "I scoped out the barge and made sure it was visible at my vantage point, framing it between a few trees with also a view of the capitol....Figuring most of the fireworks would go straight up, my 16-35mm lens allowed me to frame the capitol and a good deal of area for the fireworks." But he soon found himself doing a balancing act - with hues. "The lights on John Nolen were pretty bright, and created a while balance issue as they were very yellow," said Apps. He was able to compensate, though, and made a photo that depicted both the forceful beauty of the fireworks and the sense of peacefulness evoked by a gathered community.
Thayer anticipated the possibility of challenges. "Trees, light posts, people, boats - they can all obstruct the image you're trying to make," said Thayer. "It takes thinking on your feet, adjusting, and adapting to your circumstances. And not settling for mediocre."
Because the Focal Flame team had already completed an assignment for an early-morning triathlon event that same day, they were also working a late night after a 4 AM wake-up call. Dedication in the face of fatigue adds its own challenge. "You have to keep pushing yourself as a photographer and continuing to ask yourself, 'Could this be better? If I move a foot to the left or right, will that be a better shot?'" said Thayer. "It goes back to knowing your equipment, knowing your conditions, understanding light so that you’re not having to think about those things consciously anymore. You're only thinking about the final composition of the shot."
Despite the heat and crowds, Thayer found the afternoon festival easy to access. "I found it extremely easy to get to the heart of the festival, and found parking close by," he said. "The crowds were easy to work with, and people were smiling. They were clearly having an enjoyable time at the festival. I was impressed with how easygoing the Madison police officers were to the event goers, and to me as a media team member. They didn’t make a fuss; they were very accommodating."
Composition, deep understanding of light, technique - it all comes together when photographing fireworks. The great irony is that photography is painting with light, and yet fireworks photography spans the extremes of far too little light (due to nighttime) and far too much (due to explosions) - combined with split-second timing.
In the end, the most lasting impression of Rhythm and Booms for Thayer had nothing to do with photography - and everything to do with being a Madisonian. "It’s bigger than a venue change," said Thayer. "It’s bigger than logistics about vendors and food and pricing of food and beverages and all that. It’s about people like Madison Festivals Inc., and their event production partner Race Day Events LLC, and the pyrotechnic experts at J&M Displays, and nearly 2,000 volunteers all working extremely hard to provide a city an opportunity to celebrate and come together as a community."
Thayer paused to let the reflection sink in, then continued. "A community of all different races, socioeconomic strata, all different demographics. It is literally a meeting in the middle of a city that is often divided. I walked away from that night feeling like the location is central now; it serves everybody. Everyone has to come together. In that, I think one can extrapolate more meaning."
All ages, all walks of life, together as one. For as he documented the festival in the afternoon, he saw thousands of people from Madison and beyond gather in the sweet, heavy, humid summer air to laugh, linger, and celebrate both togetherness....and independence.
- by Robyn M. Perrin
Prints of fireworks photographs from the 2014 Rhythm & Booms event are available for purchase. Half of the proceeds will benefit the Madison Festivals Inc. fireworks funds to ensure that this community event will be sustained for the future. Thank you for your support!