Giving Back: Pro Bono Portraiture at the Cinema Arts Centre

Giving Back: Pro Bono Portraiture at the Cinema Arts Centre

Supporting a Socially Conscious Long Island Nonprofit


Portrait photographer Christopher Appoldt, of Huntington, New York, grew up loving the nearby Cinema Arts Centre’s film selections and program offerings. Visionaries Victor Skolnick and Charlotte Sky founded the Cinema in 1973 as a “film window on the world” for Long Islanders and anyone who comes to visit.

The progressive, socially conscious nonprofit—now codirected by Charlotte Sky and son Dylan Skolnick—is a premier showcase for independent films, documentaries, international works, major studio films, fundraisers that heighten awareness about the environment, health and human rights, and concerts of classical music, jazz, dance, et al.

In 2002, while attending an event, Appoldt told the marketing coordinator he’d be interested in volunteering to cover their events. As a portrait photographer, he would love creating portraits of their Hollywood celebrity guests. Their discussion eventually led to a “wall of fame” portrait display within the entry area. This evolved into what it is today: a galleria with framed large-format portraits—most captured by Appoldt.

Christopher Plummer was a special guest at the Cinema for “An Evening with Christopher Plummer” and a book signing for his memoir, In Spite of Myself, in 2009.

Explains Jud Newborn, curator of Special Programs at the Cinema Arts Centre, “My job is to attract celebrated figures from the film world and beyond, like Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer; TV producer Norman Lear, who broke open barriers with All in the Family; Peter Yarrow of the social activist folk singing group Peter, Paul and Mary; and Jesse Ventura, an intriguing independent political figure and former pro wrestler.

“Such renowned figures enhance our prestige and public profile. This enables us to charge higher ticket prices, which helps keep us afloat,” adds Newborn. “We are fortunate to have a photographer of the stature of Chris Appoldt to document their appearances.

“A working photographer, he takes time away from his business to painstakingly set up portrait sessions where there is no studio. Yet when a celebrity comes in, he’s able to take just the right shots in a few minutes. Chris helps us make a very good impression with the celebrities, our members (11,000 strong) and nearly 200,000 annual visitors. And this helps the Cinema bring in more celebrated artists.”

This portrait of Norman Lear was almost an outtake, but Appoldt loved the image of his quiet side, captured as he adjusted strobes.

Distinctive Portraits: Planning & Winging It

To ensure that his portraits are distinctive, prior to the shoot Appoldt will check online to see existing images of the subject. “Sometimes this leads to unusual and unconventional lighting schemes, which require planning and tests,” says Appoldt. “Sometimes I get less than I hoped for out of the idea, sometimes more.

“When it’s less, I try to figure out how to avoid a similar problem next time. Clothing and subject preparation are up to the celebrity. So my options are limited when I have five minutes to get the shot.

“Nothing sends a lighting setup sideways like eyeglasses that don’t have non-reflective lenses, a white hat on the subject’s head or a hot day that dishevels a subject just before sitting down with me. White, gray and black are the best backgrounds because we can make them work with whatever the celebrities are wearing.”

Once he determines how he will light the night’s subject, Appoldt packs a full complement of modifiers, stands and related gear. With only minutes to spend with each subject, extras of everything are a must.


“If a camera falls to the floor, there’s a backup. If a strobe won’t fire, there are two more to replace it,” he says. “If the PocketWizards get jammed by the NSA, we have sync cords. Stools are great to get a hair light up, and gaff tape. Always have gaff. It’s an arduous load-in when stairs are involved with lots of gear.” All images in this article were captured with Nikon DSLRs, primarily the D800, and Nikkor 50mm, 85mm and 70–200mm lenses.

Rita Moreno—a Kennedy Center honoree, winner of the Presidential Medal of Honor and the first Latina to win an Academy Award—was at the Cinema in 2013 to promote her memoirs.

Rewarding Portrait Projects

For Chris Appoldt, these pro bono projects are for a most worthy cause. “The Cinema is among the last independent theaters on Long Island, still run by the same great family and staff from years past. Being offered a small part in their efforts was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore.

“They have been very proactive in reaching out to me when a special guest is scheduled, giving me as much time as possible to plan and prepare. Usually the guests are there for an evening event, which includes a film and Q&A with the audience. Fortunately, evenings works best in my schedule.

“When it all comes together—the hours of planning, packing, setup and minimal time for execution—you feel like you’ve solved a Rubik’s Cube,” he says. “Professionally, it’s very satisfying.

“Also, it’s always interesting to meet artists of their caliber. Most are remarkably chatty. I’ve been lucky to enjoy good rapport during my very limited time with them. David Lynch, for example, was so gracious. I was confident we’d nailed his shot within 15 clicks, yet he was determined to stay so I could be sure. This led to a conversation about lighting, the Nikon DSLR I was using, and his filmmaking. Christopher Plummer was also great. He entertained us for 10 minutes talking about working on ’80s television. Loved it.”

Jane Alexander appeared at the Cinema to mark the 40th anniversary of The Great White Hope in 2010, for which she won both a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination.

Based on his experience with this pro bono project, Appoldt has a few tips for photographers considering pro bono work:

“Know your client. Business or nonprofit, clients have a reputation and an image you’ll become associated with. Bring professionalism to the job, and be at your best—better than your best. Don’t show up in jeans and a T-shirt unless you’re certain the people you’re representing will be similarly dressed.

“If you offer to do volunteer work, understand that terms and conditions may apply. And that your available time occasionally might be stretched or strained. The organization will want things to be as simple and straightforward as possible. So don’t bring demands and drama to the table. These points will help make expectations and experiences pleasant for everyone!”

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