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Behind the lens: Bethany Mollenkof photographs J. Cole

Behind the lens: Bethany Mollenkof photographs J. Cole

By Bethany Mollenkof, Los Angeles Times

As a photojournalist, I love to let the unpredictable unfold in front of my lens. That’s when I’m most comfortable.

For me, shooting set-up portraits is often more of a challenge than simply blending into a situation and quietly documenting. Over the last few months though, I’ve pushed myself to shoot more portraits as practice in how to handle the pressure of a set-up shoot.

Usually when I get a portrait assignment, I research the person to familiarize myself with his or her face. When I got assigned to photograph Grammy-nominated rapper J. Cole, however, I didn’t need to do any research. I often listen to his music when I run, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make an image that was different from any other images I’d seen of him.

On his newest album, “Born Sinner,” he wrestles with the pressures and temptations that come with high-profile rap success. I wanted my image to speak to his story, so I decided to photograph him using mirrors. I wanted the mirrors not just to reflect him, but also to create an abstraction of his image. Using a one-mirror reflection felt like a cliche, so I went to Home Depot and bought three mirrors, to create a prism. I took the mirrors and a whole lot of duct tape and began constructing. The end product turned out to be pretty heavy,  and because of its awkward shape,  I couldn’t hold it myself and shoot. After scouting the location with the reporter and shooting some tests, I decided I would have to ask J. Cole to hold the mirrors and hope he would be game. photo_1

When he arrived, he was unassuming, taller than I had imagined and without the usual rapper posse in tow. I explained my idea for the shoot, and he kindly obliged, which was a relief. I had a couple of different set-ups, but the final image combined the abstract qualities I wanted from the mirrors and a clean background.

Set-up portraits are already outside of my comfort zone, and throwing a new element into my shoot was a risk. But I am happy with the images and ultimately satisfied with what I created.

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