Article hosted on VM's Photo Pages

Portrait of the World's Leaders

By Gretje Ferguson

Group Photo
United Nations photo by Paul Skipworth for Eastman Kodak Company ©1995

A top-notch photo team recruited by Eastman Kodak Company has made the ultimate group photograph: A first-ever formal portrait of 189 world leaders. The photo, commissioned by the United Nations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, has appeared in major magazines, including Time and People, and newspapers throughout the world.

At Kodak's request, Dallas photographer Paul Skipworth coordinated and made the portrait with the help of photographer Greg Lorfing, members of the U.N. staff and a lighting crew from Photogenic Machine Company (based in Youngstown, Ohio).

"We knew the shoot would be in good hands with a professional such as Paul Skipworth in charge," says Terry J. Deglau, manager of trade relations at Kodak's Professional and Printing Imaging. "His stature as a portrait photographer and his experience photographing the annual meetings of Professional Photographers of America made him a perfect choice for this assignment."

Skipworth's Dallas studio, Gittings/Skipworth, Inc., also operates studios in Houston and Fort Worth, and has licensee studios in Atlanta, Memphis and Little Rock. He is well known for his photography of the Washington scene, including several inaugural balls and portraits of prominent political families, including the Clintons and the Quayles. In addition to his studio work, Skipworth regularly photographs large family groups, as well as CEOs and corporate boards of directors.

When he received the U.N. assignment, Skipworth set out for the United Nations headquarters in New York for a trial shoot several weeks before the actual event. The designated room, one of the U.N.'s main assembly rooms, offered ample space but created a set of problems: the ceiling was black, and the built-in seats were three-and-a-half feet apart, giving a depth of 23 feet from front to back.

"We asked the U.N. to give us an estimate to remove the seats so we could reduce that distance down to about 14 feet," says Skipworth. "But they estimated it would cost $400,000 to take them out and later replace them, because they were wired with translation equipment. So, obviously, we had to work with the chairs in place."

Then came the issue of whether the subjects should be standing or sitting. Protocol, not height, dictated where the dignitaries would stand. If they sat, the height problem would be reduced. However, said Skipworth, "in the trial run, which we staged with 180 stand-ins, they looked like they were in school waiting for a lecture. I thought they would look much more dignified if they were standing." He won his point, and the leaders were photographed standing.

Photographer Paul Skipworth with U.N.
Secretary-General Boutros Boutrous-Ghali

Another problem was a long beige railing, set in concrete, that ran horizontally in front of the photo area.

"At first we tried to drape the railing in black, but it looked awful," says Skipworth. "Instead we painted it black, which worked because almost everyone was wearing a dark suit."

Skipworth decided to do the shoot with a Sinar 4x5 camera. He says it was an easy call, since the front of the camera could be tilted to get an even focus of the large group from front to back. The camera was hauled to the top of a 35-foot scaffolding built by the U.N., which, when combined with the camera tilt, successfully compensated for a shallow depth of field and the variations in subject height. Since a wide-angle lens would make the people in the front row appear larger than those in back, he chose a slightly longer-than-normal lens (150mm) to compress the image and to allow him to pull the camera back about 100 feet.

Working closely with the Photogenic group, headed by John Shirilla, Skipworth determined he would need between 6,000 and 9,000 watt seconds of light to get the needed depth of field and a sufficient light spread.

"The main issue for us was to light evenly," says Shirilla. "We did a lot of testing to have every area in the photograph read at f/22. That took a lot of light."

For the main exposure, Shirilla set up four main lights, consisting of 16-inch parabolas, on the high platform. Since the main source was 100 feet back and was therefore producing a harsh light, he added six more lights, three on each side, for fill. These lights were mounted on six custom-made 23-foot light stands topped with Photogenic Eclipse umbrellas that have a flat center for efficient light spread.

The Photogenic group, headed by John Shirilla,
set up the lighting for the shoot

"We found that even 23 feet wasn't high enough, so we added eight-foot platforms for a total of 31 feet," says Shirilla. "That completely took care of the cross shadows. We actually found that the distance between the chairs worked in our favor, since the shadows would fall down behind each subject."

To complete the setup, two hair light kickers, or "garlic lights," were placed at the back of the group to provide definition of heads and shoulders.

"We know that a little garlic goes a long way," laughs Shirilla, "so we had those lights set at just f/5.6."

"That lighting especially worked for Castro," he adds. "He has a nice highlight on the side of his face."

At first Skipworth and Shirilla planned to use radio slaves to trigger the lights, but were told that the Secret Service could randomly shut off the frequency for security reasons.

"We couldn't risk that happening during the shoot," says Shirilla, "so we went with regular photo slaves. The problem was that we couldn't let the press use flash because our strobes would overheat."

A lone flash, in fact, caused the cool and calm Skipworth to experience his only moment of panic during the shoot.

"I was showing people where to stand as they filed in," he says. "I was in the third or fourth row, and was confident that everything was going along as planned. The lighting was thoroughly tested, we had the right camera, the right lenses, and the best people working together.

"Then the front row filed in, which included Clinton, Yeltsin, the U.N. Secretary-General and President, and all the members of the U.N. Security Council. Suddenly a flash went off, which, of course, set off all our strobes.

"I panicked. My biggest fear was that the group would think the picture had been taken and would all leave. That would have been a disaster. We would never have gotten them all back in again. I ran down the stairs to the front to try to control the situation. Fortunately, everyone stayed in place, and we were able to proceed."

Skipworth continued arranging the distinguished group. At one point he asked the entire front row to step back from the railing, which caused amiable snickering among prime ministers and presidents unaccustomed to taking orders.

When everyone was in place, the agile Skipworth ran back and mounted the 35-foot scaffolding to make the shot. "I made sure I wore rubber-soled shoes," he says. "I kept thinking, 'Don't fall, don't fall."

Once atop the platform, Skipworth delighted the assembled dignitaries by opening a giant happy face that he had created in his hotel room the night before. The ploy worked, and 10 exposures of 189 smiling world leaders were made without a hitch. The entire shoot took almost exactly 30 minutes, from the time the group began to file in to the moment of the last shutter release.

The film was developed in the U.N. lab, and later that day Skipworth poured over 8 x 10 prints with a loupe to pick the best frame. "Some were obvious rejects," he says. "In one, someone was wiping his forehead, and in another, a person was straightening his tie. But we had two exposures that were perfect."

By the next day, 200 16 x 20-inch prints were produced by Allied Color Lab, Inc., in Brooklyn, framed with 20 x 24-inch mattes, and given to each dignitary to take home.

"I heard that Clinton told everyone what a wonderful time he had during the shoot," says Skipworth. "We tried to create a memorable event as well as a historic photograph. I think we did that."

High-Res Images:

President Clinton   Group Photo

See also: World leaders obey orders for group photo | UN photo coverage of the Meeting

If you still want to photograph with 35mm equipment, you can download hi-res scans of my group shots and see what kind of resolution is available on 35mm format.

Copyright ©1995 Gretje Ferguson
You may Add a comment | Add a link