In the summer of 2017, through the recommendation of a colleague, we got a call to do a rather special portrait shoot at a hotel in Tampa. There were some non-disclosure agreements signed, and then I was told that the subject would be a childhood hero of mine: Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt Uhura on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise on the TV series “Star Trek,” from 1966-1969. (I’m not breaking the NDA in telling you this, by the way, as the photos are now published, and I’m free to talk about it.)
The reason for the portraits was that a movie was being made about her life and legacy, called “Woman In Motion,” and the director/producer Todd Thompson wanted photos of her for the publicity poster and other digital assets. This documentary had been in the works for some time at that point, and as we now know, had nearly two more years of editing still to go. It premieres at this weekend’s Florida Film Festival (Friday, April 12, 2019).
The shoot was to take place in the evening, and Ms Nichols would be arriving in Tampa on a flight that night. She’d have about an hour to stop by and get some portraits made, and then she had to head off to a speaking engagement.
As is often the way with portraits of celebrities or politicians other important people, there were delays, and her arrival time kept getting pushed back, but her departure time stayed the same. Meaning our window kept getting smaller.
So while we waited and watched the clock tick away, we prepped several shots (lighting and backgrounds) so that when she arrived, we’d be really efficient with her time, and just move from one already-prepared “set” to the next.
There were two key shots that the team wanted us to capture: 1) the production crew with the star, and 2) a hero shot of Ms Nichols, possibly in profile, for the movie poster. I had been given some direction on how this was to look, but the team gave me some creative license on the final lighting and background. I had brought both a full-length white sweep, and a black fabric pop-up background for some quick high-contrast shots.
She and her team finally arrived about 9 minutes before she had to leave for her next appointment. NO PROBLEM. We are professionals, and we always get the shot.
It took about 5 of our 9 precious minutes to get the crew shots with Nichelle, and then we changed the setup to do portraits for the movie poster. 4 minutes is more than enough time, right?
We moved the pop-up black background into place and put a light off to the left side. The plan was to create a shot that might be composited into a space helmet, with Nichelle looking off toward the stars. Todd had brought a realistic headcovering that astronauts wear under their helmet, and despite the fact that she was off to a speaking engagement immediately after the shoot, she was completely game to make the shot happen. So we popped it on her and shot a few more before she had to leave.
Rarely have I had the chance to photograph someone so famous, so globally known and loved, and so kind and genuine. Nichelle was all of these and more. She is an absolutely lovely person, and I’ll treasure the memory of our short time together.
Be sure to see the film if you get the chance: womaninmotionmovie.com