My good friend Jon Brazier has introduced me to many interesting and educational things. He knows that I like a challenge with photography so when he suggested that I might want to go with him and wife Barbara to the crew races at Vancouver Lake north of Portland I agreed almost instantly. Jon’s great niece, Katy Gillingham rows for Holy Names Academy in the Seattle area and her team was going to compete. Since I knew nothing about the sport Jon and I talked and realized that, well, neither of us knew much except that there were slight boats with a varied number of people on board and that the boats go fast. To do that takes work… a lot of work. I had no idea. I did a bit of poking around on the web and found that there are a variety of ways to photograph a crew race… from the bank, from a boat or from the air. The best shots showing the racers’ faces, intensity and musculature were taken from a boat. I had no access to a boat that was permitted on course during the races. I saw some great shots taken from a drone or a bridge or plane. There are no bridges at Vacouver Lake and I don’t have a drone (probably not a good idea anyway). So, the shooting would be from the bank.
We visited the lake the day before the races and made a tentative plan to shoot from the beach at the finish area if we were allowed to be there. We were. We also began to understand that we needed to know which lane and heat Katy and crew would be in. Close lanes were a distinct photographic bonus. I figured with my luck Katy’s shell would be in the farthest lane and would be blocked from view by others. Time would tell.
We headed to the races the next day and found the school’s camp site and boats. There were hundreds of high school kids milling around and cheering on teams involved in the on-going races. We sorted out our options and got information from Anne, Katy’s mother, about the race time and lane. Like swim racing, a “heat sheet” is vital to anyone who wants to see a particular team or person race. Without that info you might as well go home.
We also learned that the racers go into a zone prior to a race. They get their game faces on and tend to the boat. Oar locks are adjusted. Seats are tested and adjusted as necessary. I’m making this stuff up based on what I observed from a distance. Let’s just say that the details for each racer are fine tuned into the shell and oars. Each rower is physically different and requires a different setup. You don’t interact with the racers at this point. Kind of like you wouldn’t ask Venus Williams about her new clothing line before a match. Leave ’em alone… stay safely out of the way.
I’d heard about Katy’s best friend, Marlee Blue, from both Jon and Anne. I got to see Marlee from a distance but never talked to her that day. Onsite she is all business. Don’t mess with a strong woman preparing for a major race. I’m glad I didn’t actually need someone to tell me that.
As the team moved their shell to the water for the race I got the first chance to shoot some photos. I learned that the coxswain runs the team. The smallest person on the team carries clout. Every member listens and obeys. Lift… yup. Move… yup. I began to understand that this was a team of high school ladies who worked together toward a goal after hours of training leading to the race. Every member of the team contributes their all but they are totally dependent on the others in the boat. At its finest moment, a crew will perform as one being, responding to the coxswain’s orders and translating their incredible strength into motion. Oars move in unison. Arms pull. Legs extend and retract. Backs bend and the boat slices through the water.
We watched the race, shot some photos and cheered as the Holy Names Academy team registered a time that meant they got to go the National Championship and to race at the Head of the Charles regatta… a very big deal. They went on to win the Head of the Charles race… no trivial feat and a very proud time for the ladies. I began to understand that the team, led by Marlee and Katy, was the real deal. These are national caliber athletes perfoming in a demanding sport at the highest level. I began to hatch a plot to try to gain access to them for some photos where I could control the action. After the Head of the Charles race I broached the idea to Anne about a team shoot to document the team’s accomplishments. The calendar won and the team was off doing other things… no shoot. I went on record that I would like to shoot Katy in the future… Marlee too if she’d consent and was available.
We went back to Vancouver Lake in 2104 and watched the Holy Names team place high enough for a trip to the National Championships again. This time the Nationals were being held on the west coast for the first time. Jon, Barbara, Dianne and I traveled to the Sacramento, California area to cheer them on. It is always a treat to be part of these races. The Gillingham family is a lot of fun to be around and we enjoy being part of “inner group” supporting Katy, Marlee and Holy Names. Katy’s team took second place at the Nationals. Not a bad outcome but disappointing to not win. The Holy Names team did return to the Head of the Charles regatta as the reigning champions and… hold on… they won again. These ladies are the real deal.
One more bit of history and I’ll get to the main point of this extended blog. Katy and Marlee were both on the USA Youth National team that competed in Hamburg, Germany in August 2014. Marlee then continued on to China to race as part of the USA Youth Olympic team in a two person boat. I should know these results but don’t. My bad. Regardless of the results, both ladies gained tremendous experience and exposure. Both Jon and I realized that we knew National Team caliber athletes. That’s not something I ever thought I’d enjoy.
As the summer of 2014 moved along I kept hinting to Anne that I’d like to photograph Katy (and Marlee). I sent a photo of a high school wrestler that Dianne and I did a couple of years ago to illustrate the idea. It’s dramatic lighting in the studio and composited into a setting after the shoot. I’m certainly not the first to do this but I found the work of Joel Grimes to be particularly inspiring. I’ve had good fortune to shoot a remarkable young lady swimmer and a number of advanced ballerinas this way and the experience has encouraged me. Anne presented the idea to Katy who, being Katy, agreed. I didn’t mention that Katy is just a wonderful, energetic, bubbly and smart young lady. Her smile and her backward ballcap are iconic. The photo above is one of the few in which she is not wearing a ballcap turned backward. Maybe it blew off. We were not certain about Marlee but had our fingers crossed. I kept renewing the idea that it would be great if she would be able to participate even if it was just to be there to encourage and support Katy during the shoot.
We won the lottery and got to travel to Seattle, stay at the wonderful Gillingham home with the whole family and got to photograph both Katy and Marlee at our pace. They both made themselves available to us Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. We set up our little studio in the Gillingham living room between the Christmas tree and the hall. Jim and Anne Gillingham took off storm windows so a 13 foot oar could fit into the house. They blocked out sun from our set. We got everything we wanted… remarkable. We had a great dinner and watched a movie with the group before bed. Nothing like moving into a family’s home and enjoying all the comforts available. Gillinghams rock.
During the shoot we cranked on some music and took turns photographing the two ladies. Our goal was to create a set of images that contrasted their beauty with their stength. Jewelery, an American flag and an oar were the main props. The ladies began to relax and get into the moment as we moved along. What a treat to have two beautiful and exceptionally fit young ladies in front of the camera. Their interactions, laughs and jokes made the session.
I’ve released two images to the ladies so far and post them here for the first time. First, Katy Gillingham looking confident and proud. At home in the boat house and one with the oar.
Rowing is a sport of strength and technique. It is also a very cerebral. Each person on the boat is focused on the task. Pain is part of the experience. It takes concentration and dedication to row competitively. It did not surprise us to hear that both ladies enjoy yoga. This pose with Marlee just seemed like the thing to do. I hope the contrast of her strength and the sense of calm are evident to you. Each lady went through the same poses so the final composites will be balanced but I wanted to present one for each lady here. I can’t wait to work on the others.
Thank you Katy Gillingham and Marlee Blue. Thank you Anne, Jim and Jack Gillingham for hosting this photo session and for allowing my wish to come to pass. It was a remarkable time and I’m humbled.