Published DateBy Tom Eastman
CONWAY — Light and composition.
Part of the challenge of being an exceptional photographer is to have a certain style, which celebrates those first two key fundamentals to create lasting images.
Local photographer and climber Jay Philbrick and his wife Vicki Philbrick have developed a unique approach with their portrait photography, especially with their bridal and dancer subjects on the steep sheer face of Cathedral Ledge and other precipices in the White Mountains.
Striking, yes. But, one might ask, why?
“I like taking photographs of subjects in beautiful environments, not necessarily in the studio, which tends to be more of the 'same old thing.’ My photos, especially my dancers series, are taken on cliff tops at sunrise,” said the North Conway resident last week, fresh after a recent successful shooting session on Cathedral Ledge with local model Claire Martindale, 17, a junior at Kennett High May 7. As with all their climbing shoots, he and Vicki were assisted by friend and local climbing guide Marc Chauvin of Chavin Guides International. “It creates a wonderful contrast, of the subjects set against the stark nature of the cliff.”
A former U.S. Air Force pilot instructor, past climbing guide and longtime professional portrait photographer, the Philbricks' first foray into cliff photography was on a daring bridal shoot in 2008.
“I had always been into this sort of thing, the climbing and adventure,” said Philbrick, who was a climbing guide and photographer for 10 years before turning his attention full time to portrait photography 10 years ago. “I had always wanted to put a couple on that ledge there on Cathedral from the time of my guiding days. It never gets climbed, because most free climbers can't get there. In 2008, I was shooting the wedding of a couple, Joe and Stephanie Brackett, who mentioned they were both climbers. We talked, and they said they were up for it.”
He said he and Vicki — who has a degree in Fine Arts for photography — always try and learn from their subjects what their interests are. That, combined with the Philbricks' lighting and photography skills, leads to some unusual and striking portraiture.
“Whatever it is, brides and grooms, senior school portraits, or dancer portraits, we try and find a unique shot. That way it is not so much an image they can get elsewhere — plus it's an experience they will never forget,” said Philbrick.
The photos from that first 2008 couple cliff shot got published in several magazines and on the Internet.
It led to other photo sessions, not only on Cathedral, but near Mount Washington.
After the first cliff shot, other couples asked for similar shoots, even though unlike the first couple, none of the others have been climbers — which is where Chauvin comes in.
“It's always exciting, and always challenging,” said Philbrick.
All models and couples are typically at first nervous, but only once has a subject backed out. That was a groom, who found the drop intimidating. In that case, they settled on a shot on top of the ledge, not on the side of it.
For their shoots, in addition to climbing guide Chauvin, the Philbricks have teamed with local photographer Justin Macomber, who often assists with lighting.
For the Cathedral shots, they drive to the top, and then lower the subjects down.
“It doesn't always go well, as one can imagine,” said Phlbrick. “There is a high degree of anxiety potentially, especially when you get there and see what you're up against. We start at pre-dawn, lowering down in the dark, to get the sunrise lighting.”
The models are required to go over the edge.
“Marc [Chauvin] lowers them down, and anchors them in place. He brings down the wardrobe changes, and also hauls the subjects back up,” said Philbrick.
Because they shoot in challenging lighting situations, the Philbricks bring along supplemental battery-powered lighting fired by radio remote controls.
Often asked what role Adobe Photoshop plays in their imagery, Philbrook says it is used to “enhance photos,” but that, make no mistake: The subjects are very definitely there on the challenging locations, and not Photoshopped in on a computer screen.
“Typically,” he explained, “we try and arrange the subjects so the ropes they are attached to do not show. But, some times, the ropes do stick out, so that's when we use Photoshop [to remove the ropes from the images]. We always get some behind-the-scenes shots, so you can see and believe it!”
The shots are for the Philbricks' online portfolio, and for the subjects/clients.
“An editor has suggested to me to do a book on my dancers and cliff shots. So, we'll see,” said Philbrick.
For the May 7 shoot, Chauvin would go down the rock face with clothing changes. Claire, meanwhile, was attired in a base layer of leotards, which she wore underneath the different outfits brought down each time by Chauvin.
Chauvin and Philbrick were there on the face of the cliff at 3:30 a.m. Chauvin rigged the ropes and anchors for where the dancer would be; while Philbrick rigged the climbing aids for he and Chauvin. “For me, it was to allow me to hang and shoot; for Marc, it was for him to do the lighting.”
He and Vicki also work with local stylists on their portrait models.
Their work has appeared in several publications, including New Hampshire Magazine's Bride.
At home outdoors
Both active outdoors people, the Philbricks love calling the valley home, given the array of activities waiting for them right outside their Birch Hill home on the edge of the national forest.
Together, they continue to break the mold when it comes to wedding and portrait photography.
As their website notes, “Working together to create artistic impressions of some of the most important moments in a couple's life is the most fulfilling and rewarding endeavor we could ever hope for. We simply can't get enough of it! Our philosophy regarding photography is to embrace every possibility in the process of creating a more meaningful image.”
For the May 7 shoot, Claire and her mother Nora Martindale agreed to the concept because of their past experiences with the Philbricks and Chauvin.
“Claire and her friend Jamie McDonough had done a photo shoot on top of Cathedral Ledge two years ago, and that was a very positive experience,” said Nora Martindale this week. “I know that Marc is a world-renowned, international climber and guide, so I had the utmost confidence in him, and Jay is also very experienced, so I was very reassured. I was there at the top for the whole time.”
Claire, who someday hopes to be a doctor, has been a dancer since the age of 2 and a half. She said she is not scared of heights, and was not nervous doing the photo shoot, except for being lowered over the edge to the shelf on the face of the cliff.
“That was the scariest part, going over the edge,” said Claire this week, in a car-ride phone interview with her mother on their way home to Madison just after she had had four wisdom teeth removed. Despite that, she was able to talk, and wanted to convey how much fun the shoot had been.
"I was up there on the ledge for maybe two hours. There weren't any bugs, no. And the end results were just fantastic — Jay is such an amazing photographer! I just absolutely love all of the photographs,” said Claire.
Told that she already had some fine photos in the bag for her senior portrait for next year, Claire laughed and said, “That's for sure!”
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For more information, visit www.philbrickphoto.com or call 356-9822.