Vision In Focus » Brand Photography and Business Portraits from Cynthia August Images

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  • Cynthia August is a Portrait Photographer in Boston.

 

Fixing wings on my kitchen floor

Before I was a commercial photographer, I was a professional costume designer, mostly for stage and film.

I’m still not entirely sure how I fell into the field, but I’ve most often said it was the result of a bad love affair, which is partially true and partially a glib answer designed to abruptly end the line of questioning. It was a great career, with the bad consistently outweighing the good, and I hold my time in entertainment as close to my soul.

During those crazy non-photography years, my life was creative, chaotic, stressful, and totally exhilarating. I loved my work, save the one season where my soul was consistently tested -Halloween- or as I called it, “The Day When Everyone Has My Job”.

One of two things would happen every October, starting around the middle of the first week. First, I would get a bunch of calls or emails from non-theatre friends asking me “what my opinion was” on their personal costume idea (You can see where this is going). If they were lucky enough to get me to answer them, the next step in the process was a sure bet. In the same conversation, or maybe later as a message on my answering machine, there would be the ask. “Do you have a _______ I can borrow? (fill in expensive, impossible item here.) Could you hem this tulle gown? Lend me a powdered wig? Find me white Go-Go boots? Get me magenta fishnets? Cut bigger holes in the back of this bear suit so I can go to the bathroom?” (In the woods, I’m guessing.) On and on. If I wasn’t careful, I could spend the entire month just doing the favors that came in daily. It was exhausting, thankless, and while I loved my friends, I hated it.

Until I became a photographer.

Because guess what? Now (almost) EVERYONE has my job (almost) every day. Since our cameras started coming with us everywhere we go, photography has become a preferred method of moment-to-moment communication, and we are all sizing up scenes to capture them in a way that expresses what we want to say. That change in accessibility all the way down the line, from taking photographs to sharing them, has given us all “The Halloween Moment” on a permanent basis. We are ALL photographers. 7 days a week.

And I’m still over here tryna get paid, which might make you think I’d be even more cranky than I was back in the costuming days. Nope. And here’s why.

When everyone is capable of doing something, the act of doing it becomes a common language. Let’s go back to Halloween for a sec. Remember the year you had the best costume ever? The one you were so proud of, felt like a champ in, wore after school for an entire week before the big event to ‘practice in it’, and then went to bed wearing after the big candy haul? I bet you remember what your friends wore that year, or at least who you were with, and how the rest of the evening played out. Wearing costumes brought you together that night – you got a look into other kid’s fantasy worlds, and they saw into yours. I think of today’s digital photography in a similar way. The images we choose to take and share are a way of engaging the world that transcends language and gets to the heart of who we are quickly –  understandable in the blink of an eye. I love that everyone and anyone who can get their hands on a camera can speak that way. I want to see what you have to say.

And how do I manage to not feel like a costume designer on Halloween about it all?

 

For the times when you might need a translator, I’m here. Ready and willing.

 

Peace. C

I create inspiring brand photographs for my business client’s websites and advertising collateral. From CEO portraits, to team headshots, from branding lifestyle to styled product photographs, every picture tells a story that hopefully will engage their target market and create new, enthusiastic conversions. I often get asked how I can get so excited about business pictures. I answer, how can I not? I think the short essay below, which I wrote for an interview in 2017, gives a little perspective on why I chose to become a commercial portrait photographer.

Mark Emond, founder of Demand Spring, a company you should know. Photographed at Gathr

We are the rockstar heroes of our life’s journey.

You know that awesome picture of yourself that you held in your heart as a kid? I talk about it all the time. Take a second and try to remember the way it made you feel. Remember the story you wove around it, how you made yourself the hero and the way you saved the entire world right before you got called into dinner?

I LOVE that story. I love it in my subjects, and I love it in me. I’ve spent my entire life exploring it, from childhood when I would construct entire environments (and costumes) for my friends to play in, then in my years analyzing scripts as a professional costume and set designer, and in my current life as a commercial, editorial, and fine art portrait photographer. I’m obsessed. Here’s why –

I think our personal, powerful story jump starts our passions, sticks with us as we move into adulthood, and drives the genuine, authentic heart of what we ultimately choose to do with our lives.

Even if we don’t realize it is still at work, it is. It sees us clearly, cares that we are here, wants us to succeed and believes we can do it. Sometimes it sits right on the surface and shows up in everything we set our minds to. Sometimes it is a little more behind the scenes. But it is undeniably there, pulling for us, our own cheering section. Helping a subject get back in touch with that part of themselves and then asking them to share the result of it is an essential part of my portrait photography.

When I am looking to faithfully represent a likeness, it is not enough to get the lighting right, the setting, the clothing, the hair, the makeup. All of those things are helpful.

But the real necessity is seeing and celebrating a person’s deepest confidence in themselves, and the electricity that moves them through the world. That’s the interesting stuff.

We want to know the way the story has shaped you. I want to photograph it so that it’s unique beauty can be documented forever.

This idea might immediately make sense for an art portrait, or even an editorial one, but why is it important for a commercial business photograph? Well, I think of it this way. It is likely that my client is not the only business in the state (or in Boston, for that matter) in their chosen field of expertise. For most businesses, it is a buyer’s market, and we don’t convert sales the way we used to. At all. Our websites are our storefronts, and the main page is the shop window. The portraits we use are what our potential clients see when they come up to the virtual counter. We cannot help but be the face of our brand. But the good news is that our authentic selves are our strongest selling point. The one thing that a business has that sets it apart from competitors is the strength of the people that compose it, their individual views on their business and the world and most importantly, their common mission and purpose, which has a foundation in that first hero story.

When we go beyond the “good photograph” and create the fantastic photograph, the dynamic photograph, the storytelling photograph that radiates with a person’s positive intention and energy, it connects on a higher level.

The subject’s own unique character and strength invite a closer look. It doesn’t matter the profession by the way – I’ve photographed some terrifically charismatic dry cleaners. If you love what you do, it shows.

The stories that inspire us, light us from within.

And great photography is about capturing the light.

Continued from Part Four

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

The German advance marker then and now

On the 12th, Eben’s sad anniversary and another rainy day, we spent a few morning hours alone in the Yankee Division Memorial church. It is located just outside the cemetery gates next to a marker showing the furthest advance of the Germans and a few yards from the German cemetery. Ruined (by the Allies) in WWI, the church was rebuilt by the Yankee Division and rededicated in 1923, and is truly lovely in its simplicity and scale. It was odd to sit among this little piece of New England in the middle of Northern France. The state flags of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island line up above the  church’s center aisle. The city of Boston’s flag is front and center, reminding us that the 26th Division was formed there in 1917.  The stained glass windows bear American and British war heroes and state crests.

Yankee Division Church window

As strange as it was to see this piece of home, it was a fitting setting for the day. Preparing to visit Eben one last time, we couldn’t help but be reminded of the places at home the three of us have in common, and how we all love them so.

Reading Eben his letters

Later, sitting at his grave, not long after the noon bells died away in the tower, Bethany read him those letters he never received, and we all listened to Eben’s dad talk about car-rides and baseball scores and how late the garden was compared to the year before. Funny how a letter from home brings home with it, how sitting on that beautiful French grass and hearing about school and work and weather in Newburyport made the miles short and the heart near. That closing of distance makes you reluctant to open it again, and it was hard to go, to leave a son of our own soil so many miles away in a foreign land.

The cemetery in 1919. The graves were moved once after this image was taken, to the area where they now lie.

I think that the powers that brought Bethany to Eben’s story, and her to France, and me with her, took that moment to remind us that “Our Boy” was in good hands. As we rose to leave, Constant Lebastard entered the gravesites a few rows away from where we were packing up, armed with a tin, a sponge, an armful of flowers and a camera. We followed him to the grave he found expertly, and I realized that he must know every spot of the 2,288 like the back of his hand. He opened the tin to reveal moist sand from the beaches of Normandy, which he proceeded to wipe across the front of the white marble cross with his fingers, pushing gently so the fine red-orange grains filled the engraving of the soldier’s name, rank, division and home state.  The stark white of the cross and the deep color of the sand caused the words to stand out in high contrast, and after wiping off the excess with his sponge, M. Lebastard arranged the flowers, added an American and a French flag, and bent down a moment to consider the serviceman in his grave. “I noticed he shares a birthday with my sister,” he said softly, and then took a picture to send back to the United States, to the family that remembered their soldier 100 years later.

Constant Lebastard

Who remembers best? I asked myself as I packed up my gear on that last day. Is it those who still feel the loss, like the families of the dead? Those who are taught to remember, like the visiting school children, or like me, standing shakily on the edge of an artillery hole, wondering whose pain and suffering it holds? Is it the men who spend every day tending this place and others like it, walking among the marble headstones with infinite care? Or the historians like Bethany, who faithfully record what is known, seek to retrieve stories lost and share them with all who will listen? I don’t think there is an answer.

Mr. Williams

But I do think great power lies in the act of remembrance. Looking to the past – no matter how you manage to do it – has the potential to affect on a visceral, empathic level. In that place of deep emotion lies the keys to a fountain of strength, understanding, compassion, forgiveness and positive action. It is a life-giving force and the perspective it offers can help preserve the very thing the men who died at Belleau Wood fought to defend – the right to live freely, without oppression, and with peace.

Raking.

 

It is more than the keeping of grounds and the perpetual care of graves, the work that is done at Aisne-Marne and the other ABMC Cemeteries in the 16 countries around the world. It is a solemn acknowledgment of brutality of war and the beauty of sacrifice – and an ongoing act of respect for those who gave all. By compassionately welcoming those who come to grieve, keeping the graves of our soldiers beautiful and remembering their stories, the cemetery staff set an example that will live on to teach and guide those who are wise enough to understand.

 

 

Continued from Part Three

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

In the midst of death, and remembrance, life still must go on – it is the precious thing fought for and won by our servicemen and women. And even though the keeping of such a reverent place as a cemetery is, by nature, a solemn job, the outdoors, the natural beauty of the wood and farmland surrounding make it a pleasant job. The groundskeepers are kind and gentle-humored, and completely amused by our dreadful attempts to speak French via a written English-to-French app on my IPhone.

 

It is not in the nature of a Frenchman to share personal information, and so, of course, over-sharing doesn’t even translate, which makes getting any story out of them near to impossible, and so I abandon the idea of interviews on day one. I rely, instead, on observing them from afar as they go about their day. In all weather, rain or shine, with crowds milling about the chapel stairs or not, on foot or in one of the seemingly endless golf carts that they use to putt from one end of the place to the other, they are always there, always busy. Bethany and I laugh that it is like a safari, stalking the wild and wily gardener, who manages to finish up, pack his rake and zoom away in the time it takes me to remove my lens cap.

By day 4 I’m a bit bolder, stopping them as they whizz by with my well-practiced “Bonjour Monsieur!” followed by a dramatic reading of something I’ve labored for fifteen minutes to translate into a note on my phone. Most relent and allow me to photograph them, but I’m pretty sure they (still) have no idea what the heck I’ve taken their picture for, and I feel bad about that. Even though they hesitate to bare their soul, I would have at least liked them to understand my gratitude for the effort and care I see in their daily work.

 

I fare better at expressing this sentiment to the strongly bilingual Mr. Williams and Monsieur Lebastard, and so I do – enough times to cover every groundskeeper who might have missed the memo, and probably to an extent that drives both gents a bit crazy. But it is just so heartening to watch the way they welcome and attend to visitors of all ages.

Tours are in the woods and at the gravesites

A particularly rainy day found us at the Cemetery just as M. Lebastard was beginning a tour for a group of wiry French 12 year-olds and their teachers.

Talking about the Battle of Belleau Wood

The children behaved with a level of reserve that was admirable, but you couldn’t miss the barely contained exuberance as they headed out to the graves to listen to an interesting story about one of the soldiers buried there.

 I stood some distance away and photographed the little group standing in a huddle just outside the wide curve of marble crosses. It was strangely beautiful, this storytelling moment, and I choked up a bit, hoping that the words of Constant Lebastard would awaken their young minds not only to the cost of war but the paths to preventing it, and the value of enduring safety and peace.

To be continued…

Continued from Part Two

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

Raking.

It didn’t take long to discover who was keeping such perfect gardens, and why. Not five minutes after we parked and got out of our car, another rental Citroen pulled up next to us in the empty parking lot and two rock-solid, clean-cut young guys climbed out with purpose. One spoke to the other in an unmistakable accent.  Bethany and I exchanged glances. These were Boston kids for sure! It was too much of a coincidence to ignore, and so, of course, we spoke up. Soon we were tagging along with our new friends, a Marine from Swampscott, MA and his cousin, as they headed off to drink water from the Devil Dog fountain, which is located near the cemetery.

Drinking from the Devil Dog Fountain in Belleau

A special ritual for a Marine, the town is reputed to be where the Marines got their nickname and their mascot. Our friend was, understandably, a bit misty after getting the golden key to the fountain yard from the superintendent, Mr. Shane Williams.

Mr. Williams

Mr. Williams, another rock-solid, clean cut American guy, summed up the essence of the Marine’s visit – and the cemetery staff’s mission as we gathered in his office the next morning. Sitting at his table amidst burial records, letters and WWI reference books, the Superintendent read some of the letters Bethany had brought from home and spoke with us about his work greeting people who visit the cemetery daily.

Mr. Williams shows us the place in the wood where Eben fell

Mr. Williams finds Eben’s burial card in the cemetery catalogue

“We never know what it has taken for someone to get here as we watch them come up the drive to the visitor center.” he says, opening a drawer and pulling out a stack of burial cards from 1918. “For some, this is just a tourist stop en route to other places on their vacation. For others, it is a pilgrimage they’ve spent an entire lifetime planning for. And most will never get here again. Many have family here, or family of someone they know. When we receive a visit from family, we take the time to escort them to the grave. We show our support, care and respect for their loved ones, their final resting places, and their sacrifice.” Hearing the superintendent’s words, I think of the young Marine from the evening before, reverently approaching the ancient fountain with the giant bronze bulldog spout, in order to take the drink that will supposedly add ten years to his life. I suddenly see why every rose bush is perfect, and every marble headstone glows white against the deep green grass. It’s about respect, and gratitude, and perhaps most importantly, remembrance.

Simon Le Cloërec

The beautiful and well-kept gravesites and the chapel on the hillside are a marked contrast to the just as well-kept but considerably more wild woods that lie beyond them on the top of the hill. It is this place where I began my story, standing at the edge of the wood, looking out at the spot where Bethany and Mr. Williams determined Eben fell a final time, the victim of either a rifle or more likely fire from a machine gun nest dug into the trees and boulders behind me. My viewing angle is that of the Germans, not the Allies, but it makes no difference to me in this place carpeted with the traces of unbiased suffering and death. All who were killed here were men and mortal, and imperfect, and loved by someone.

In Belleau Wood

Hiking here in the sun dappled forest under trees that have only been growing for one hundred years – the battle of 1918 destroyed nearly every living thing in the wood – we stumble over the half filled in remains of artillery shell holes, machine gun nests, and zigzag trenches. Here too, I feel the care and upkeep of the men that watch this place, but there is a different type of effort – the monuments are cleaned and roads cleared, but the deep battle scars remain and are easy to find, as if removing them would represent some sort of whitewashing of the bitter truth – that thousands of men just like Eben met horrible, grisly deaths where we stand. I am moved by the worker’s careful care and struck by the profoundly deep emotional silence. There has been nothing on this land for a hundred years, and I can’t help but wonder if another hundred will be even remotely enough time to shed the weight of the blood in this soil.

To be continued…