COVID-19 Sent Photographer Michel Leroy Down AC/DC’s Highway to Hell

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Michel Leroy is an entertainment and advertising photographer based out of New York. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, New York is one of the cities hardest hit by the novel coronavirus outbreak. As a result, much of the photography industry in New York is in a holding pattern at the moment. To say that we’re living in interesting times right now would be quite an understatement. Creativity is what drives us as photographers. But how do you create when we’re all confined within our homes? When the whole world is essentially on pause? Looking to social media for inspiration, Michel stumbled upon his friend Phil Adams’ recreation of Blondie’s Parallel Lines album cover using found objects from around the house. This project led Michel to do a similar project with his family. For his take on the concept, Michel decided on AC/DC’s classic Highway to Hell cover. With celebrity chefs and Olympic athletes amongst his subjects, Michel’s produced style lends an authentic connection to these personalities. His images reveal a level of comfort and vitality shared amongst friends, and you can clearly see this on display here.

The Concept

This whole thing started because a photographer friend of mine in London, Phil Adams, took a picture with his kids and posted it on Instagram. He did Parallel Lines by Blondie using a collapsable backdrop and rolls of toilet paper. It was an inspiration, I just LOVED it. It was awesome that he and his kids had done it locked up in their apartment like the rest of the world. They clearly had fun and were being a bit cheeky with the toilet paper rolls on the floor and leaving the backdrop edges showing in the frame.

I have a relationship with LastoLite in England so I sent them a link to Phil’s photo because I knew they would get a kick out of it. They had the idea to make it into a social media game and asked what I thought. I thought it was brilliant because it was exactly the sort of fun creative challenge I needed. If I was feeling lost as a result of this global pandemic, then I knew a lot of other people were too. Normally I am shooting 3-5 days a week on full production jobs so when every single job I had on the books for months disappeared almost overnight it was totally discouraging. I went from being at the top of my game as a photographer to a 2nd grade homeschool teacher the next day and honestly I was really struggling with it.

Additionally, I didn’t realize how much I missed the very act of shooting. I hadn’t shot a single photo for more than a month and it was killing me. In a way the loss of the creative process had amplified my sense of loss and despair. I needed some way to channel my creative impulses and this idea was perfect. 

The moment I pulled out the small lighting kit I have at home and setup the lights I felt whole again. It was like night and day. The bonus of shooting with my family added to the fun. We started rummaging through closets, crafting together, and laughing as we did. The photos are a means of bringing our family together, not just physically because after two months in a 900sq ft NYC apartment we are plenty close enough, but mentally. It has become a game we play together. I figured if made us happy to create these covers it might make others happy too. So when I started posting them online for the #LastoliteChallenge I made it into a guessing game.

As part of the game I asked people to make suggestions. The suggestions have been great and a few of the album covers we have done were by request. The response has been overwhelming and heartwarming. More than the “likes.” it’s the comments and DMs. People tell me about where they first heard that album and what it meant to them. A lot of people also talk about how they have gone back and listened to the albums because of the great memories. I think music can influence our actions and feelings in a way that we are not always fully aware of. I know music has that effect on me.

Music is one of the most powerful means I know to to bring people together. Hopefully these photos can help bring us together and maybe give a little chuckle along the way.

I am sensitive to the copyright of other photographs so I didn’t post the actual albums. Everyone pretty much knows the covers, I’m picking iconic images.  I picked Highway to Hell because as a kid growing up in Livingston, MT, this was the first album I ever owned. This project is a celebration of the legendary artists that have created some of the most iconic images of our time and shared on social media when we could all use some comic relief.

Gear List

  • Sony A7R IV
  • Sony 85mm f1.8
  • Tether Tools TetherPro USB Type-C cables
  • Phase One Capture One Pro v12
  • 2x Paul C Buff Einstein 640 heads
  • Manfrotto Aluminum Quick Stack Compact Stand
  • Photoflex 45″ Convertible Umbrella
  • Manfrotto 055 CX Pro 4-section Carbon Tripod (I prefer this model because it packs down smaller)
  • Manfrotto XPRO Ball Head
  • Lastolite Collapsible Reversible Background
  • Lastolite Magnetic Background Support

The Shoot

As an advertising photographer I am accustomed to working from a comp or illustration so I do exactly what I would do for a client. The complications are we live in a two-bedroom apartment and I have a really limited set of gear at home. Luckily my professional life has been all about solving those sorts of creative problems. 

I also teach at FIT in NYC and one of the things I try and communicate to students is the importance of lighting. The tools make good lighting easy but you have to understand the type of light you want before you decide what gear to setup. A big part of the creative challenge, and fun for me as a photographer, has been to use what I have on hand and do my best to recreate the feeling of the lighting in the album covers.

Obviously the lighting and styling have to be recognizable so people will know what album we are trying to create but it doesn’t need to be a copy or just Photoshopping our heads onto the original artwork. That wouldn’t be any fun. The creative challenge is making it work in-camera. Normally I shoot Profoto but the only lighting gear I had in my apartment when the NY on Pause order went into effect was a Paul C Buff Einstein headshot kit I have for corporate work because it’s small and lightweight.

We really tried and make this a fun family activity so my daughter and wife are the wardrobe, hair & makeup, and props departments. I took care of lighting and cameras.

The setup and lighting on this cover were really challenging to figure out at first because I was limited by the location: my apartment. If I was in a studio I would have setup a boom arm with a beauty dish or Elinchrom Rotalux Octabox with a cloth grid but I didn’t have any of those things available so I created a really soft top-light by bouncing a head with a 7” reflector into the 9ft ceilings of the living room about three feet in front of the subject. Then I had a second head bouncing into an umbrella for a soft fill. The ratio was 3:1. Main at f5.6 3/4 and fill around f4. Combined they equal f8 at ISO 200.

What seemed like a challenging lighting setup when I stared turned out to be a really simple two-head setup. See the attached behind the scenes shots below in the Before and After. All images were shot at ISO 200, f8, and 1/125 second.

Post Production

The post-production workflow was all done through Phase One Capture One Pro v12 and Adobe Photoshop CC with a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet. I shoot Sony RAW and the A7RIV files are silly big. It makes compositing super easy. The Select and Mask tool in CC is wicked good, especially if you use the Brush Tool to Refine the Edge.

One of the things I couldn’t create in-camera with the kit I had was the negative fill. Normally I would have used V-Flats or black fabric on the sides to define the shadows but I had to do most of that in post. The top light and fill were right but they needed more shape so I created a dodge/burn layer to brush in some contours and contrast then put on a circular vignette to draw your attention to the center which is what it would look like if I had the right lighting modifies to begin with.

The final piece of the puzzle was to create the amazing soft velvet feel of 1970’s film. This took some experimentation. I ended up adding orange and yellow Photo Filter layers then a final Curves layer to crunch the blacks and dim the overall exposure.

Before and After

I have included some screenshots to show the images out of the camera, with some shots of the in-process layers and the final processed image to show how I took some pretty simple individual shots and turned them into this classic rock cover.

Credits

The crew on this production was just our little family, my wife Michelle (@michellesholtis) and 8-year-old daughter in our NYC apartment.

A special shout out to my friend Phil Adams in London (@philadams.me) for thinking of this fun idea in the first place and to Mark Langley and Luke Atkinson at Lastolite by Manfrotto UK (@lastolitebymanfrotto) for taking a good idea and making it a social activity that brought all sorts of creatives together when we were desperate for a creative challenge.

We’d like to thank Michel for sharing what went into creating his take on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell album cover. All images by Michel Leroy, used with permission. You can learn more about Michel’s work on his Instagram (@michelleroyphoto), Facebook page, or website.