|photo credit: Michele K. Short/ FX Networks, American Horror Story Coven, New Orleans, 2014|
Michele K. Short worked on the two American Horror Story segments that were filmed in New Orleans, Freak Show and Coven, as well as True Detective and countless other TV shows and films in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Although Michele started her career in San Diego as an assistant costume designer in theatre, her ambition was always to work in film. It was on her first film set in 2004 that she discovered the position of “Unit Still Photographer”, and immediately realized it was a way to marry her twin passions of photography and film production and began to work toward this new career.
Like most other positions on a film set, a Unit Still Photographer must be a union member to pursue a professional career in the competitive field. The union that represents Still Photographers is the International Cinematographers Guild, known as IATSE local 600, which also represents other members of the camera department such as Camera Operators and also Unit Publicists. IATSE Local 600 has stringent requirements for membership, requiring an individual to work a certain number of documented days as a still photographer, and to take safety classes before submitting an application. Michele met her qualifying hours working on a variety of feature films, television, and short films.
Her trajectory to New Orleans was not a straight shot, Michele moved from
San Diego to New York City where she lived for 5 years, she then lived for 6 years in Los Angeles before moving to New Orleans in 2011. In fact she wasn’t altogether sure she was meant to live in New Orleans but she knew she needed to be in the south. In 2009 while working in Mississippi, Michele became inspired by the energy, climate and sumptuousness of the southern experience. Back in California and living in Los Angeles, she felt that she lacked the passion she had felt in the south and was determined to return to live. Michele was attracted to New Orleans for the same verdant climate that she loved in Mississippi as well as the cultural energy, food, architecture, and of course, the film industry.
Michele K. Short on location holding Jacobsen sound blimp camera rig, “The Hot Flashes”, New Orleans, 2011
In New Orleans, Michele works free-lance without an agent. She is a “work for hire” photographer and as such doesn’t own the rights to her images, with permission, she can show them in her portfolio but she can never sell them. She does however receive “photo credit” for her work, which is nice.
I made Michele explain the intricacies of her craft to me so that I could get a feel for how it all works. She shoots hand-held in a variety of lighting situations, which can often be very low light. She shoots digital on manual settings; and because she is often required to be silent on set (during takes for instance) she uses a “Jacobsen Sound Blimp”, which is a sound muffling box that the camera fits inside to keep it absolutely silent. She primarily uses her own equipment but occasionally rents specialty equipment as needs arise, ie. under water or tilt/shift lenses. She is careful to download all of her images to multiple hard drives after each shoot day and manages an extensive archive of her work.
I was struck with the thoughtfulness that Michele brings to her work; she approaches each job having read and broken down the script so that she knows exactly when the key moments occur; “story is everything,” she says. She keeps track of the who/what/when/where/why; and is always in search of capturing key moments in one “telling” photo. She is cognizant of the mood and tone of the show and uses her photography to emphasize that too.
The work itself is varied, it can be on set, behind the scenes, or created pieces such as “props” used in set decoration; sometimes it can even be “key art” which becomes the actual poster for the show. The needs differ from show-to-show and it is up to the unit still photographer to anticipate present ones, and advantageous to anticipate future ones.
Michele enjoys her work and says it can be a good living if you work a lot, though the film industry has inherent ups and downs and one must be prepared for that. She likes adventure and particularly the opportunity to travel with the shows on location. It was fulfilling for Michele to work with the American Horror Story(s) and with the incredible people, including the smallest woman in the world who was cast in “Freak Show”. American Horror Story Freak Show has received 19 Emmy Nominations and Michele is excited and proud to have been a part of it.
When not on set, Michele shoots her own work in a kind of “everyman photograph” style and is inspired by abstract concepts in literature and the accidental connections between ideas and found imagery.
To see more of Michele’s work:
About Renee E. Allie
Renee Allie grew up in Storrs, Connecticut—a small town, home of the large University of Connecticut (UCONN). She studied Art/Photography and Italian at SUNY New Paltz and then in Florence, Italy and at UCONN where she received her degree in 1983. After living in London and bumming in Italy she moved to New Orleans in 1984 to be with her sister and to visit the World’s Fair; she never left. In New Orleans Renee has alternately worked in non-profits and been self-employed in various retail ventures. She was part owner of Icons Gallery in 1991-93 and managed the Green Project from 1998-2003. For the past two and a half years she has owned a vintage/antiques store, Rabbit Ears at 8225 Oak Street.