Jim Stiver

Jim Stiver: How long does it take to create one of your portraits?

I told Jim Stiver I wanted to create a portrait for him and asked him for ideas. He said he’d love a picture showing him having lunch with two of his favorite curmudgeons, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken.

Step 1 was to find large-sized, copyright-free photographs of the two writers in similar poses. After some searching, I found digitalized old photos on the Library of Congress website.

Step 2 was to use Photoshop to separate the men from the backgrounds in the photograph.

Step 3 was to photograph Jim in clothing from the Twain-Mencken time period with appropriate props and location. From the Theater Department at the University of South Carolina, I borrowed a late 19th-Century overcoat, as well as a white cardboard collar commonly worn at the time, and an old manual typewriter, which in the end we didn’t use. Jim and his wife Marta collect Victorian furnishings, so I photographed Jim in their condo unit.

In the process of researching the project, I discovered an interesting fact about Twain. He was born on November 30, 1835, two weeks after Halley’s Comet was at its closest to the Earth. Remarking on this, Twain said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet . . . It is coming again . . . and I expect to go out with it . . . ” Sure enough, Twain died on April 21, 1910, just as the comet made its next pass within sight of Earth. It occurred to me that putting a night sky with a streaking comet in the portrait would be a nice touch, and one that would resonate with Twain aficionados.

Step 4 involved replacing the apartment’s modern ceiling with a night sky and comet.

Step 5 was to blend the multiple images by ensuring they had similar exposures, contrasts, colors, and degrees of sharpness. Then I adjusted the sizes of the three men. In order to create a sense of 3-dimensional space, I needed some objects to be in front of (obscure) background objects, so I added smoke from Twain’s and Mencken’s cigars.

I spent more than 20 hours creating this portrait, and Jim was blown away with the finished product. When I asked him to put his reaction in a short comment, he replied, “From inception through conceptualization to execution, Keith Kenney’s rich imagination, artistic creativity, superb skills, and sheer persistence resulted in a spectacular portrait that only he could have produced.”