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Joe’s Version of “Children of the Corn”

Aug 14

In In The Field at 9:33am

The creepy hand in the cornfield! OMG! It’s getting closer to her!  Get off the beam! Harvest the corn! Plant soybeans!


This has been rattling around on photoshopdisasters.com for quite a while. Had a blog teed up last year about it, and never finished it, and then a reader sent me a link last week that jogged my memory. I am a disaster. I admit it. I guess the nuns were right.


But what’s way cool about this flub is that it opens an interesting window into being a magazine shooter, real time, circa now.

Let’s start at the beginning. SI called and wanted me to go to Iowa and shoot the state’s favorite youngster, Shawn Johnson. (As well she should be. What a lovely, accomplished kid.) Idea was to put her on a balance beam out there in the corn, something Iowa is famous for. Makes sense. (This type of thing has precedent. If you can, check out Neil Leifer’s 84 Olympic portfolio for TIME, which has athletes from all over the world in front of their national symbols. Best frames are of two gymnasts, one from China on the Great Wall and the other in Japan, on the rings, dangling from a crane in front of Mt. Fuji. Good ideas, good shooting.)

First words out of every editor’s mouth at every magazine out there nowadays is, “Do it cheap.” SI is no exception. So first things first. Find a free balance beam and a free corn field. In Iowa, not hard to do. Folks are willing to pitch in. Try that in NY or LA.

Balance beams are about 16′ long, 4′ high, 4″ wide—and somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds. Suffice it to say, we mashed down a lot of corn getting this beam into the field. The injured stalks were put upright and A-clamped to light stands. (We are in seat of the pants, on location, do what we gotta do mode.)

The beam is in the field, and the wind and weather are picking up in ominous fashion. Also, the corn is about 9′ high. So the beam’s gotta go up. We accomplish this with about 20 or so apple boxes, which gets it to the right height for a picture, but it’s nowhere near stable. Enter, maybe, 400 to 500 pounds of sandbags, which stabilizes the beam…a little. Time for the assistant sandbag!

Both of my assistants go under the beam and essentially hang on small ropes, letting their full weight apply to the beam. Better, but still not great. Shawn gets up there, brave soul, and starts to pose just a bit, in gingerly fashion. Can’t blame her. We are in a cornfield, not a gym. And I’ve got the top gymnast in the world on a shaky beam, that’s nine foot high, no safety mats, with storm winds swirling. The farmer helping us, and I believe, her dad, go under the beam, basically to play catch. It’ one of these multiple folks’ hands you see in the corn. Don’t remember who, exactly. What I do remember is desperately not wanting to this photo session to make the next day’s newspaper. “America’s Leading Gymnast Injured on Sports Illustrated Photo Shoot!” If anything had happened to Shawn, I never woulda gotten out of Iowa alive.

Lighting is right outta the KISS playbook. One big Octa, with two Ranger heads in it, to pick up some power. It’s a good distance from her, camera left. Height of the light is an issue, as you can see from the select that ran as a double truck in the magazine’s year end issue.

Not, by my lights, the best pick, but, hey it’s not my magazine, they can do what they want.The corn near the light is hot, cause, obviously the light is right there. Tough getting the big Octa clear of the shrubbery. It is high but not high enough. Got it sandbagged to be sure, and also have ropes to two tether points on the soft box that run back to the front bumper of the rental van, but it is still bouncing in the wind like an amusement park ride.


I woulda gone with the frame below, which is one of my favorites over the last couple years. In this look, got the light pitched a touch higher and feathered it off the corn, then burned down the lower left corn in PS a touch. Like the composition of this one, with the rows of corn lining up. And those dark clouds! Fantastic. Until they did what clouds do. It poured, turning our 500 pounds of sandbags into, say, 1000 pounds of sandbags. The farmer who loaned us the field was amazing. Probably in his 60′s, forearms like Popeye. If it weren’t for his help, that balance beam would still be out there, and they’d just be plowing around it. But I like the frame, particularly the farmhouse/barn in the distance. Gives it that “Little Beam on the Prairie” feel.



Historically, magazines would hire a photog because they thought that photog’s vision and energy would apply well to the job at hand. To that end, they rarely expected to see the whole take. They expected, and accepted, the photographer’s edit of the events in the field. (Unless of course, there was a disaster, then the whole take was called in.) On a job for SI, for instance, I would routinely shoot 10, 20, 30 rolls of film, and send in 10-30 selects. The mag would pick from that edit. If I really, really liked a take, I would edit even tighter, doing my best to script the story as I had seen and experienced it. This was not prima donna behavior, it was routine, expected. It was a practice virtually every magazine photog engaged in.

But over the last few years, there has been a sea change in the way photo departments relate to the rest of the mag. The SI department, run by the formidable Steve Fine and Jimmy Colton, does an amazing job year after year, even though they are in the position so many of us are, which is (to borrow my bud Kevin Dobler’s phrase) needing to do “less with less.” They still produce great work, but are under constant budgetary assault. They also try to alternately please, educate, and understand the managing editor, who, in the grand tradition of Time Warner managing editors, has no sympathy for the picture gathering process and less understanding of it. Most ME’s come from the word side, and kinda do a quizzical head tilt when looking at photo budgets. “Why does just shooting some pictures cost so much money?” They ponder this and other cosmic questions at their table at Elaine’s.

Hence the notion of a photog controlling their edit is to a degree, a thing of the past. (Every photog always has their own relationship, protocol and work flow with every client they have. For instance, at Nat Geo, from the very first story I shot in the 80′s to the one I am currently shooting, I have sent every frame to the editor. Every frame, good, bad, indifferent. But with many other magazines, I would edit, sometimes extremely tightly. On a LIFE portfolio at one point, I had 8 subjects and I sent in 16 selects. Two per portrait scenario. Done deal.) With a future feature like the one under discussion, one would think you could dawdle a bit and tinker with an edit. Not so. The pressure on the photo editors at a shop like SI is so high, they generally want the take in the house like, now. I can understand. When voices get raised at the picture showings, along the lines of  “Jesus Christ, why doesn’t he have the sun on the right and the ball on the left!” the photo editor doesn’t want to have to call the shooter to see if such a frame exists. They wanna go back to their machine, spin the dial and see right then and there if his guy’s got the sun on the right and the ball on the left. So when I shoot, I am dumping the whole take onto an FTP site that night. Truth be told, I often don’t even look at them that closely, especially if American Chopper’s on:-) Not completely true, but at the end of the day, they’re getting every frame. I will see their thinking when I buy the mag on the newsstand. Or call. Which I never do on deadline, in the heat of things. I wait.

Sometimes, working for a excellent editor and gentleman like Porter Binks (former SI editor), I wouldn’t have to wait. He would always call with an appropriate Tennessee-ism, such as, “Joe, ya did great. They liked it. You be in tall cotton, and that’s better’n bein’ a lost ball in the weeds.” In other situations, no call would come. I’d walk around for a couple weeks even, with kind of a low grade headache rummaging through my moods and thoughts. “They hate it, that’s why they’re not calling. They hate it so bad they reassigned it. It’s over. You’re toast.” That whispering voice of despair, anxiety and insecurity all shooters have in their head. Our own personal Gollum.

Finally, I call. And sometimes, really, I’d have to jog the memory of the beleaguered picture editor, who, understandably, two weeks downstream from assigning the job, having edited about 10,000 frames for other breaking stories, would have to reboot the memory stick for a second. “Oh, oh, yeah. The beam in the cornfield thing (or any job). It was fine, uh, they liked it.” “They” of course are the group, indeterminate in number, who constitute the gateway through which the pictures must pass. “They” are not in the photo world. But “they” judge your pictures. I’ve been blessed with managing editors like Dick Stolley and Dan Okrent, who had a beautiful touch for photos, and knew a good picture when they saw one. With some editors over the years, I woulda had better luck showing my stuff to Stevie Wonder. No matter the extremes, when I would get the word “they” liked it, and my emotional desperation would dial backwards from 105 on the reactor to its customary levels of ambient angst.

When a block of pictures hits the buzzsaw of a weekly magazine on deadline, stuff happens. Quickly. Especially on the web side. I have no idea of the specifics of the work flow when the the mag is going to bed, but I do know it’s hectic, and the SI website, desperately competing for presence out in that crowded cyberspace, is getting put together faster than shit through a goose.

And with the wind blowing, and the corn moving, and the rain coming, and the beam shaking, and all the files from a boatload of prolific shooters on different stories peppering the home server like it’s Jimmy Caan in The Godfather, well, it’s always amazing to me that all the pages come out right side up. This gives rise to the hand in the corn. It was clean in the mag, but not on the web. I kind of like it. The howling wind….the stormy sky….the rustle of the stalks….the hand in the corn. Reminds me of a story I made up to tell my girls when they were small that was an amalgam of scary stories I had heard when I was a kid. I called it “The Dusty Lane.” It would scare the bejeesus out of both them but they would routinely beg me to tell it, as opposed to reading a story from a book. Caity always liked it when I made up stories and didn’t read them verbatim. She would sit on the edge of the bed and say, “Daddy, tell me a story from your mouth.”

So, I’m a  Photoshop disaster. Way cool. That’s not to say I don’t use Photoshop, and play around with it, albeit badly. And truth be told….I have manipulated pictures……a tawdry tale of a photog gone bad….stay tuned…the truth is….tk…..

78 Responses to “Joe’s Version of “Children of the Corn””

Gilbert Wong says:

on August 14, 2009 at 9:45 am

Been a fan of ur work!
Just heard your talk in Authors @ Google. U did mention bout this picture~ Your journey in photography has intrigue me so much!

Its inspiring after listening to it.

Hope to see more of your work!

vu says:

on August 14, 2009 at 9:58 am

Great post, really appreciate your background story, setup, and shot info. Amazing pictures. Totally agree with you, prefer the second photo, it really tells a great story and has a great mood.

Garry says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

Thanks Joe,
It’s great to hear the ‘real’ side of things in the business rather than the wonder-boy stuff that Hollywood shows, where every shot is pin-sharp and perfect and always chosen for the centre spread.
You give the rest of us hope.

Ron Mandsager says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:10 am

Great story… And growing up in Iowa, I understand corn… :)

Julián says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:14 am

You’re an inspiration Joe, even in acknowledging mistakes. Thanks from someone who grew up with your photos and then could not figure out why he was so attracted to photography.

Stefan says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:16 am

I like the Stevie Wonder part of your story ;)
But yes, great story of the picture. Like it!

Rich Hinton says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:21 am

Great post Joe. An interesting insight into what goes into a shoot and the pressures which are put on you. I really like the hand too, adds a little mystery to the shot (Is is supposed to be there? Is there something more sinister about the shot?)

I also didn’t realise that you’d been a Sports Illustrated wet t-shirt model. ;)

Justin Van Leeuwen says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:22 am

Joe, your eloquence in your photography is matched equally by your writing style – you are a storyteller as great as anyone who lived before you.

I’d read a book written by you… two even.

Ken says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:31 am

Aw Joe, the nuns are wonderful at serving guilt to the their “chosen” ones.

Love the candor and honesty. Great post.

Most guilt is religious guilt, not real guilt, which my pastor tells me I got plenty of….I tried to photograph my guild but could not find it.

Blessing to you and you Nikon gear

Ken in KY

Fred Klee says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:42 am

What a shame !
It would have been better if could have answered quickly in photoshopdisaster as Scott did some month earlier.

So now we now… in details

Thanks !

Scott says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:53 am

yes, your photos are great but you got a flare for the pen and constantly entertain me. Love the books and stories, keep it going Joe!

R. E. Lee says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:04 am

Joe, speaking of story telling you are a great story teller. I have spent a lot of time in cornfields and you describe it so well. Your telling of how it all comes down makes one think that we were right there along with you. Good job as usual! Keep up the good work. Buddy…..

Kayla says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:27 am

Thanks for sharing the real story. PS – my dad’s name is Dusty Lane – no kidding. :)

Jacob Maentz says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:29 am

Thanks for sharing your side of the story Joe. I always learn something with every post of yours. Interesting insight into the editors side of magazine production.

I too like the second image with the dark clouds.

Tim Abramowitz says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:41 am

Joe, thanks for a great post. Ya know, ya coulda been a writer… well, ok, I guess you are a writer. Anyway, the best part of this story is that the image might have been screwed up on the web a lot worse than it was and none of us Iowans would have cared a bit. Why?, none of us would have noticed because we are, collectively, in love with Shawn. Thanks for taking good care of her out there, by the way. I agree with your preference of which shot is best, the “smile” is all Shawn, and shows she felt more relaxed out there than you let on. Of course most of us would have had corn stalks in our drawers five minutes into the thing from falling off the beam — on a calm day.

Thanks again.

Frank Burch says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:48 am

What a great read Joe! You’ve got a wicked fun way with the pen. Your stories always entertain and amuse.

Jonathan Martinez says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:49 am

Some wars are not easy to concur but looks like you did. Great job Joe!

I’m sorry you got so wet come by for a towel anytime bud. lol


Dušan says:

on August 14, 2009 at 11:54 am

A bit off topic, but to save some readers some time, here are some of the mentioned Neil Leifer’s photos:

Rock says:

on August 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Jesus Joe, that was long. None the less thanks for that portion of personal truth, “they” lurk around every corner, it’s those that are lucky enough to dodge “them” or by be liked by “them” that have a shot in this crazy photog dream.

RC says:

on August 14, 2009 at 1:25 pm


We live in a day where so much information is pushed and pulled on the internet – where everyone can become a pundit and a critic by just having access to domain space and blog software. Sometimes it’s just cool to sit back and listen to how things ACTUALLY come together rather than armchair the small percentage that someone believes it didn’t.

It makes you appreciate the process so much more. Thanks for that!


Jon M says:

on August 14, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Great post! I like the fact that you go beyond the how-to and talk about your personal insecurities and the challenges of working with editors. That fear of failure, and the corresponding drive to please our clients, is a reality that seems to be rarely discussed by creatives. Kudos…

Chris says:

on August 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Great read as usual Joe!

Kevin Glackmeyer says:

on August 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Wow, that last quote from your daughter,”tell me a story from your mouth”…pure gold. Like something my kids would have said, or are going to say…don’t get me wrong, the rest of the story is great, but it was just that one line that made my day. Thanks for all you do Joe…

Matt S. says:

on August 14, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Did I just read that right?

“customary levels of ambient angst”

What a great phrase. Incredibly clear imagery to a photog. That’s why I will buy every book you write.

I’ll be borrowing that phrase in the future—quoting you, of course.

John Leonard says:

on August 14, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Joe your cosmic sense of timing is in line with the photo Gods. Zack Arias posted this http://www.zarias.com/?p=388 yesterday…

Apparently it is time for all photographers to rise up and get motivated or at the least stop beating ourselves into the ground.

Carl Schaefer says:

on August 14, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Joe, I loved this article! It’s a great “behind the scenes” that most of us amateurs don’t experience. This will, of course, be a chapter in your new book, right? :-)

Jim Wisniewski says:

on August 14, 2009 at 2:31 pm

We like your stories too Joe. They’re twice as good from your keyboard. Thanks for everything!

Daniel says:

on August 14, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Hey Joe.

Great writing skills. On most blog sites its hard to catch a rhythm in their writing (skills). I have to say you tell a good story.
Nice way to say I had nothing to do with the hand being published.
Only those who need to give criticisms look for reasons to do so. Anyone with two farts for a brain would know you would edit your photos before publishing them.
And that’s what photoshop is for ~ finishing a photo.

Great pics and Great blog.

Marshal says:

on August 14, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Great behind the scenes story! You pulled it off again Joe, despite it all. That’s why you’re the “Go to” guy they keep calling for.

Polgara says:

on August 14, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Love the way you wrote the story!

Rick says:

on August 14, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Joe, Thanks for the post and thanks for sticking up for us photo editors. We tend to get stuck in the middle sometimes. Nonetheless, great story!

Ed Hall says:

on August 14, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Thanks for the behind the scenes Joe! It’s really inspiring to hear what went wrong as well as what went right.

Joe Spoto says:

on August 14, 2009 at 7:49 pm


I enjoyed the post. I was equally intrigued by the detective shot at the top of the post. Maybe sometime you could let us know how you set that one up.


Kurt Shoens says:

on August 14, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Photoshop Disasters criticized this photo unfairly. When I see a true disaster, a wave of nausea passes over me when I realize what’s been done to some poor model. In the current case, a little piece of ‘shopping was missed. Hardly the same.

There’s much current interest in Peter Belanger’s time-lapse video about shooting and preparing a Macworld cover where, of course, the screen images on the iPhone 3Gs twins are composited in. Combining that thought with the notion of a balance beam nine feet high over a corn field, well, the temptation to shoot Shawn Johnson and the balance beam in the cornfield separately and combine in post must have been overwhelming. (It’s hardly a violation of PJ ethics, unless she actually does practice over a cornfield.) Then there’d be a chance at a true PsD.

CW says:

on August 14, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Joe, you are a jewel. Thank you.


LouH says:

on August 15, 2009 at 4:42 am

Joe, at risk of repeating myself, no-one teaches me so much while making me laugh so hard.

moustache says:

on August 15, 2009 at 6:11 am

Great story. Love your pictures and your writing. One more item in my google reader.

Michael Reinhart says:

on August 15, 2009 at 9:44 am

… can’t wait to hear the rest of the story …

Cindy Farr-Weinfeld says:

on August 15, 2009 at 11:30 am

This is my favorite post YET, Joe! I didn’t realize that the “big guys,” the “YOUs” of the photographic world often have to send in EVERY frame they take, too. I always thought my creative director was asking too much, wanting what I considered outtakes from my shoots. . . I guess it’s just par for the course though.

I like your favorite photo from this shoot the best, too. Really interesting, great post, Joe. Thanks, Cindy

JohnS says:

on August 15, 2009 at 12:06 pm

I don’t care if there is an entire head in the photo, I still admire your work.

LESTHA1 says:

on August 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Thanks for sharing the real story, love your photos and your processes. :)

LESTHA1 says:

on August 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Thanks for sharing the real story, I love your photos and your processes. :)

Jim says:

on August 15, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Just a week ago, I was out in a wheat field doing a similar shoot. I didn’t have the height problem (wheat is shorter than corn), but the field I was going to use got combined (cut down). That is OK, I know of another field, got with the client, met them there, and damn combines were cutting that field. OK, I can use the field across the road. While setting up, the wind came up, dust bowl style, and we hunkered down in the RV (glad I brought it) I’m thinking, I have to make this shot in the next few hours, because the last remaining field will be gone, the combines were getting close. Got the shot, turned out great. Now reading your post, I know I’m not alone, with those thoughts, of corn (wheat) field gone bad.

Mark says:

on August 15, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Tell me a story out of your mouth…

That’s beautiful.

Love the backstories as much as the front-story images. Tremendous stuff…

Tom says:

on August 15, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I agree with everyone else… this is great! It’s really nice to go behind the scenes on shots like this

Ernie says:

on August 15, 2009 at 3:38 pm

I know that “how will my pictures be accepted?” feeling so well. Had sleepless night thinking “I should have geled the right flash blue” or “why didn’t I try the other angle”. Well, the truth is that the shot is done, but in my head I’m still there taking better pictures. Maybe photography turned me into a schizo, but heck, I’m darn brout to be one!

Tom Peterson says:

on August 15, 2009 at 4:02 pm

As usual, entertaining. It’s nice to know those of us in the trenches aren’t the only ones getting zapped by photo editors every once in a while.

jakob says:

on August 15, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Another great post Joe! Love the story behind, and yr thoughts! You are the coolest pro-photogr i know!


David Cooper says:

on August 16, 2009 at 12:43 am

What I love about this shot is that Joe and his crew dragged everything out to the location and pulled off a great shot. The disaster would be shooting the athlete in the gym against a white seamless and leaving it to a retoucher to composite it poorly. Any time I see work shot on location it always raises the bar compared to the “Photoshop can do anything shooters”
Love it, hand and all.

Joe McNally says:

on August 16, 2009 at 6:22 am

Thanks David…there’s nothing like location work, and trying for it in the camera, win, lose or draw….

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