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Shoots and Ladders

Derrick Zellmann uses the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 VC lens to capture portraits of Boston's heroic firefighters.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Derrick Zellmann

Derrick Zellmann took a few photography classes in high school, but it wasn't until he took a darkroom class in college when his passion for photography was prodded. "One of my mentors, Mercedes Nuñez, revealed the impact of a photograph, how a portrait could really hold over the years," he says.

That's why, after working as a designer in Boston for a few years, Derrick had what he considered his "quarter-life crisis," quit his job, and went back to school at the Hallmark Institute of Photography in his hometown of Turners Falls, Massachusetts. After he graduated in 2011, he started running his own portrait business and freelancing, and he's done a little bit of almost every photographic genre since—from sports photography and weddings to food photography and magazine work for publications in Boston and New England.

But it was his admiration for the Boston Fire Department that led him to create what he now calls the "Facing the Fire" series, an ongoing collection of portraits of the city's finest firefighters. "I grew up in a firehouse," he explains. "My dad was a career firefighter in our hometown of Turners Falls, and some of my favorite memories were spent down at the firehouse, hanging out with my dad and his fellow firefighters, listening to their awesome stories, and playing in the trucks. It was a little boy's dream."

When Derrick was 18, he joined the Turners Falls Fire Department as a call firefighter and spent 12 years in that role. "This experience made me realize that someday, when my career was established, I wanted to embark on a portrait series about firefighters," he says. "Not just about their careers and their valor, but also their individual personalities and character. It was just a matter of figuring out how I wanted to do it stylistically."

Derrick's eventual inspiration for the "Facing the Fire" series: Greek and Roman warriors, as exemplified by sculptures. "Via the sculptures, these tough heroes were always represented in a clean, timeless aesthetic," he says. "I was influenced by that, and so chose to photograph my subjects against clean white backgrounds, using strong lines. Meanwhile, the deep shadows I use show their tough side."

That aesthetic led Derrick to decide to keep the series in black and white. "I wanted to keep it looking classic so I could concentrate on their features," he says. "I asked myself: What are these images going to look like in 10 years, 50 years, 100 years? Will they hold up and be timeless? Shooting in black and white removes a lot of things that could be time specific and just focuses on the raw character of these heroes that hopefully will be remembered for generations."

Derrick used the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 VC lens for this collection. "As a portrait photographer, I've always gravitated toward the 85mm to 135mm focal length, so when I had the chance to use the 85mm, I was excited," he says. "I had another lens with me the first time I used the 85, but I noticed after about an hour shooting with the 85mm on my camera that I hadn't taken it off—I was incredibly impressed with its capabilities as a portrait lens."

The 85mm lens offered Derrick the intimate, in-your-face feel he desired for the series. "I wanted to give people a chance to get up close and personal with these firefighters through my images," he explains. "Most people usually just see firefighters on a truck or running toward a burning building. We live in a world where people are often afraid to go up and talk to another human being; everything is online now. I'm hoping through this series, people will feel that closeness to other humans."

The 85mm lens allows viewers to feel like they're right there with the firefighters in front of his camera. "I can get close enough to my subject, but also have the compression that comes with that lens," Derrick explains. "I'm able to capture subtle details and textures in the skin and faces of the firefighters—I was literally counting eyelashes when I got back to my computer to check out the images. I also appreciate the smooth falloff I'm able to achieve, even when shooting at F/2."

© Derrick Zellmann

People are often surprised to hear that Derrick's lighting setup is a simple one—meaning he doesn't use anything other than available light. "That's one thing that catches a lot of people off guard when they see my photos," he says. "Basically, every firehouse has a big garage door, which allows beautiful, soft light to sneak in. I use that huge bank of light coming in through the door like a massive softbox, then shape it with large black cards, which are typically pieces of black matte board. I carefully position those cards depending on how much shadow I want for each subject, which then creates a little tunnel through which the light can sneak through to light my subject. It's soft but still direct."

Being a former firefighter himself helps Derrick to relax his subjects in front of the camera. "I ask them questions and get them talking about what they do," he says. "Chatting about their job and the things they love to do takes a little bit of the intimidation factor of the camera away."

To evoke the expressions seen in the series, Derrick will put the firefighters through various scenarios. "I'll ask them to pretend they're just pulling up to a fire and are looking off to think about how they'd approach that blaze," he says. "Or I'll ask them for more specifics, like maybe to think about their first fire, or their family, or what it's like to be a part of the Boston fire family."

If Derrick establishes a solid rapport or otherwise strong connection with the firefighter, he'll see if he can push it a bit for even more introspection. "I'll ask them to think about some of the tough moments they've experienced, even sometimes letting it go silent," he explains. "One firefighter I photographed had just been promoted to deputy chief, so I asked him about some of the harder times and what it took to get where he is. Then I kept things quiet for about five minutes. I just kept shooting, and it was intense and a little intimidating—my heart was pounding the whole time. After about five minutes of shooting, I broke the silence to let him know how excited I was with the photos I was capturing. He said, 'Thank you for that. I haven't really taken the time to think about what it's meant to be a firefighter.' It was an emotional experience for both of us, and one of the images I captured of him turned out to be one of my favorite portraits of the whole series."

© Derrick Zellmann

In terms of posing, Derrick first starts out by finding a pose that will work with the angle and lighting he's trying to use. Then he's able to gauge how stiff his subject may be and work from there. "These are blue-collar heroes, not professional models," he says. "They're not used to taking guidance on how to stand or where to put their chin or point their eyes."

© Derrick Zellmann

This is when Derrick reaches back to a piece of advice he took away from one of his Hallmark mentors. "Gregory Heisler is an incredible, world-renowned portrait photographer," Derrick notes. "Whenever we'd have environmental portraiture classes with him, he'd say, 'If you're ever in a pinch and can tell someone's uncomfortable in front of the camera, give them something familiar to hold onto, like an instrument or other tool of their trade, and just watch them gravitate back into their element.'"

© Derrick Zellmann

Which is why when Derrick offers his firefighting subjects an ax, pick, or hose, a sudden transformation takes place. "You'll see their shoulders immediately drop, like they're being handed a security blanket," he says. "The familiarity they have with this gear lets them take a deep breath and relax. It can turn a shoot from it not working out to me being able to capture some truly powerful images."

© Derrick Zellmann

Although he fell in love with the 85mm lens for this series, Derrick also wanted to show where he was shooting, so he turned to another Tamron lens he had on hand. "We weren't in a studio, but right at the source: in the firehouse," he says. "So I used the Tamron SP 35mm F/1.8 VC lens to capture a behind-the-scenes image, which turned out to be a really dynamic photo. I was impressed with the wide-angle capabilities of that lens. It's sometimes hard to explain how there are no lights involved in my shoots—some people don't believe me! This photo allowed me to show a little bit of my photographic process."

© Derrick Zellmann

To see more of Derrick Zellmann's work, go to www.derrickzellmann.com.