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Archive for the ‘Friends’ Category

The A Team

Mar 15

In Friends, Rambling at 2:04am

Ever really get to know those guys and gals behind the counter at photo stores? I think every photographer out there has either been saved by, exasperated by, befuddled by, informed by, counseled by….those folks behind the counter. Part priest (or minister, or rabbi), part bartender, part technician, those fellas (mostly) wait for us behind glass bins that contain vast troves of pornographically delightful gadgets, all gleaming brighter than the right side of the histogram.  We swoon as we approach the altar of gear.

Efraim Nussbaum

We are impulse buyers, often times, near keening in our desire to possess the latest newfangled widget which will catapult our photography to the next level. Just one more light modifier, the one that bends photons into the darkest, truest corners of our subject’s souls,  or one more ultra-smooth, chromium coated, bi-pixelated, extra dispersionary piece of glass that is faster than light itself–that’s all that’s needed. Once in possession of these treasures, the road will be smooth, and the assignments will be plentiful. The next phone call indeed will not be from someone we owe money to, but rather it will be from the National Geographic Society, sending us packing to places of unspeakable wonder. We of course are snapped out of this delightfully implausible reverie by the voice behind the counter reminding us that there’s a special on if we buy the camera with the lens.

Given our tendency towards rapture when we enter a camera store, we could easily be led astray.  That’s why, when you find good people behind those gleaming counters (or on the other end of the phone), you stick with ‘em.

Daniel Norton

My first major camera purchase was in 1974 at Willoughby’s on 5th Avenue, and it was enabled by enduring physical harm and mayhem. (Hmmm. Has anything changed?) During my first job in journalism, as a newspaper boy, I was bitten by a dog. Badly. Put me in a wheelchair for 5 weeks, and it took two operations to put my left calf back together. Turns out the family was beating the dog with the newspaper, so I’m sure to the pooch, this was a very logical move. It resulted in a payout of ten grand, available to me at the wise age of 21. Did I invest it? No, of course not. I turned it into a car and a couple cameras. Made the deposit, and went to Willoughby’s. Back then, the store would actually make a phone call to the bank to check your account. (How quaint!) The check hadn’t cleared. The camera salesman turned to me with a knowing look, and said, “You’re a little short in the bank, kid.” (How was I to know he was also a prophet, and this would remain a perpetual state of affairs?)

If you told me back then I would have a relationship with one of these shops, I would have looked at you like you were off your nut. But, turns out, after purchasing many photographic talismans from many, many places, I’ve come to be part of the family at Adorama. The folks who run the place decided to partner with me to support the Faces of Ground Zero giant Polaroid collection a number of years ago. (I had gone it alone preserving and storing 24,000 pounds of photography in museum quality storage for a number years, and it damn near broke me. Then, Harry Drummer, he who makes all things happen at Adorama, shook my hand and said, “We’ll help you.”) I’ve done all my business with the store ever since.

Isaiah Wong

And hence have gotten to know the guys in the Adorama Pro shop pretty well. They are equal parts characters, soothsayers, geniuses and camera-wise counselors. After a few years in the business, it’s pretty easy to get dismissive about the “camera salesman,” right? “I know what I want, here’s my money, and how long is this going to take?” can be the dialogue in your head when you’re at the counter purchasing, and that’s understandable. But, over time, I’ve come to regard these guys not only as friends, but as resources. Because, in short, they know more than me.

Let’s start with Daniel Norton who describes himself as “a Springsteen tune sung by Tom Waits. And he knows stuff about light bulbs.” A fine photog in his own right, he knows more about lighting than, well, just about anybody I’ve encountered. His expertise crosses a vast array of systems, and he can tell you what works with what and why more easily than a kindergarten teacher reciting Dr. Seuss. Which, given his clientele, he might often feel like. He’s able to quickly suss out the essence of what a photog really needs to get a job done, and it comes from the depth of his experience shooting on location in places like NY and Miami. He’s also always got a perpetual, slightly bemused, knowing twinkle in his eyes as yet another photog recites a fevered litany of what they will try to accomplish with this newly purchased magic box. Think of a cop at the driver’s window while someone nervously babbles what they perceive to be a perfectly defensible rationale for doing 75 in a school zone. Daniel knows his stuff, and I have personally witnessed him saving a photographer from himself. Which is actually very cool, considering there are some guys behind the counter out there that are the camera store equivalents of Hannibal Lecter…”Closer, Clarice, closer…..”

Then there’s Efraim Nussbaum. I don’t know too many geniuses, but he is well and truly one of a kind. He speaks a half dozen languages, and knows, by heart, virtually every SKU in the Adorama system, which, as you might guess, has more than just a few products. He has, literally, a photographic memory. He scans a page of figures, and then, simply, knows them. He is a wonder to watch, ball capped, scanning his computer, drawing on more than 20 years of camera store experience, spewing SKUs and manufacturer’s descriptions like he’s reciting poetry. Seriously. He can make a recitation of the tech specs on a lens sound like Yeats. I think this occurs because he does truly love his job, and this world of information bubbles out of a very decent, helpful place in his soul. I asked him once about an obscure connecting cord. He not only knew the cord, and the SKU, but he knew it was impossible to get and suggested another historical predecessor to that cord that works just as well if you hooked it to XYZ coupler, and there are two of those in the system! He did this without the aid of his computer.

And then (drum roll, please) there’s retail store manager Isaiah Wong. He went to Cardinal Spellman HS in the Bronx, and I went to Iona, and they used to regularly kick our ass on the basketball court, but I don’t hold this against him. A self starter nonpareil, he’s the young father of three and brings the obvious patience of parenthood to maintaining order and equanimity on the floor of a hectic NY camera shop, which at least occasionally rivals the tumult of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. To me, he is part of the vibrant soul of New York. Chinese and Puerto Rican, he put himself through Baruch College, and then climbed the managerial ranks through the clothing, wireless communications, consumer electronics and now photographic industries. Looking at his bio, it makes sense that he once worked at Prada and The Gap, as he still manages to pull off stylish, despite wearing the standard issue Adorama duds.

And then, of course, there’s the big guy, Jeff Snyder. I shot this picture of him down in North Carolina, and it’s pretty good, so he uses it as his Twitter pic. I haven’t had the heart to tell him that I only shot it because I was bored with the lighthouse I was looking at that morning. Now he knows:-)

Seriously, Jeff and I have been buds a long time, and my business followed him from Penn Camera to Adorama. Remember I said when you find good guys, you stick with them? He’s a fine shooter who’s out there in the trenches with us, so his camera advice is sound and grounded in reality. And his jokes aren’t bad, either.

Good jokes, good guys, and good camera advice. What’s not to like?  More tk….

Buds

Jan 17

In Friends at 11:21am

One of the cool things about shooting for Nikon a bit of late has been hanging with my Italian and Jewish brothers, Mike Corrado and Lindsay Silverman. Among the three of us, we must have about eighty years of camera experience. (They would immediately assure you right now that they each have ten of those and the remaining sixty belong to me.) We collectively survived the acetate era, and arrived intact in the age of digital. Intact physically, anyway. Mentally, the three of us are a few pixels short of a full frame chip, if you know what I mean.

I love going on location with Corrado. His presence insures that virtually every activity will be in some measure inappropriate, yet somehow productive. He’s also a good stand in for, uh, the talent, while you’re testing, what with all of his roguish good looks and magnetic personality.

Lindsay, as I always say, has forgotten more about flash than I’ll ever know. He’s the conduit for information back to the engineer dudes about what is happening out in the field, and what we need to happen with future flash technology. My emails to him always start with, “Dear Obi-Wan…” And I report back as a not-so-young Jedi about my misadventures and lunatic impulses regarding light. He is a wise and knowing counselor, which is why I did his portrait thusly.

The above is cropped to a square, because Lindsay showed up at the studio wearing a perfectly ridiculous pair of shorts. I recall asking him if he always showed up to have his picture taken while still wearing his pajamas. I wanted to put a backlight into the above frame, but we were laughing too hard to continue to work. Plus, if I used a backlight for Lindsay it might once and for all prove that he’s actually a computer generated hologram, and indeed, not of this earth.

The two of them together are trouble. I was teaching once, and standing in front of a class (that happened to include the former managing editor of the National Geographic) when Lindsay, who was helping out with the instruction, got a call from Corrado, who promised to pay him $20 to immediately go up behind me and grab my ass. Which he did. While I was lecturing. The class was somewhat nonplussed, but, as I recall, I gamely just continued to teach as if nothing ever happened. I think they just wrote it off as a some sort of welcoming gesture culturally unique to the photographic industry. Sure enough, by the end of the workshop, all the participants were greeting each other in this fashion.

I do know this, however. I have learned much from both of them, both as a shooter and a person. They are enormously talented, and dedicated to helping photographers climb the ever steepening mountain we face every day. (The both are terrific shooters in their own right.) They push themselves at the office and in the field, and work crazy hours to make sure numnuts shooters like myself can figure out which way to point the pixels.

And, they’re family. We’re like three crazy siblings mom just gave up watching a long time ago. It’s a good thing all of us found photography to funnel our antic energy into, or all three of us would have ended up as wards of the state. What can I say? When my photo instructor told me in 1973 to buy a Nikkormat camera with a fifty mil lens (“a poor man’s F2,” is how he described it) little did I know that shooting these cameras would lead me to find a couple of brothers I never had.

More tk…

Gifts

Dec 30

In Friends, history at 9:16am

Round this time of year, I usually send a message to my buddy Bill down at the Geographic about the richly rewarding experience of the passing of time, the accumulation (hopefully) of yet another year of wisdom and experience, the wonder of change, the increasing depth and importance of friendship, not to mention the shooting of a few more good frames. (The latter of course, unlike the certitude of aging, is never a given. There have been years gone by when I’ve looked around and thought, wow, I really shot a bunch of crap this past twelve months.)

The language of my missives is often ornately descriptive, flowery, even. A rhapsody to the passing of time. Then of course I yank his chain and say something to the effect of “There goes another year down the drain.” He generally responds by advising me to do something that, when considered, is anatomically impossible.

Good picture, bad picture. Tick, tock. Keep breathing, sometimes, seemingly, right through the lens. A day with your eye to a camera can be like a breath of fresh, beautiful air. At other times, back there at the eyepiece, it can feel like a bad asthma attack. So it goes, as they say.

Still, despite frustration, pitfalls, bad jobs, errant pixels and the like, passing another year with a camera in hand is cause for celebration, which is good to be able to say. At this point in my life, the calculus of making pictures is an interesting one. Not too often does it come down to, “Hey, let’s go take some cool photos!” and off I skip into the sunset, with a DSLR, a fast zoom and a light heart. As time marches, I factor in the love of the click times the degree of difficulty/expense figured against the fee, minus the arthritis in my knees divided by the 3:30am wake-up multiplied by the length of the line at JFK over the missed connection plus the cranky subject doubled by the weight of my bags. The sum of that is…..I still go shoot.

I guess I’m feeling that Father Time thing especially this morning. I’m looking down the pipe of a huge and physically challenging job for a client starting soon, and I put on weight last year, writing the book. So now, back to the gym, and back to occasionally seeing Ederin, my boxing teacher. I’ve known him now for over eight years. Massively quick, and fit, he regularly makes me feel clumsy, stupid, slow footed and witted. (To make a photographic analogy, think about the first time you took the camera out of the box. That’s how I feel every time I get in a ring with him.) Recently, he was counseling me to keep him away. “Joe, think of me as a zombie, and if you let me get too close, I’ll bite you and infect you!” A few minutes later, backpedaling with spaghetti arms, he was closing in, up against me, chest the size of a movie screen, smiling maniacally, face close to mine, shouting, “I’m a happy zombie now Joe! I’m eating you!”

But then, every once in a great while, I connect. I move through a combination with authority, my legs and arms working in concert, and when I hit his target mitts there’s a flat, satisfying crack that bangs off the cinder block walls of the gym and reports back. On the rare occasions when I do that, Ederin spreads his arms out and nods. “That’s it,” he says. He thankfully leaves out the “dumb ass.” Christ, he could be a photo editor.

But, with the passing of time, there are gifts. One I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve stuck with this is the sense that, much more important than the ever crucial, actual photograph, is, at least at times, the connection that photo might make to someone who views it. And what might happen around that photo. I guess, it’s about the wonderfully important, positive effect of pictures on our lives. It isn’t about whether it’s your best photo, or how hard you struggled as the shooter to make it. It’s about the reaction to it, and how that might affect someone’s life in a hopefully good way. You become linked to that person, even if you don’t know them. Ever see those projected maps of the world used by the FAA, and air traffic controllers? In the early part of the day, as flights get in the air, there are lines tracing the flights, city to city, all over the place,  like the beginnings of a spider web. As the day progresses, so many planes are aloft, the earth might as well be a ball of string. Same thing happens when you throw a picture aloft. It takes flight, and makes connections. Destinations? Multiple, and unknown.

Thankfully, I’m connected, wonderfully, with my good friend RC Concepcion, and his lovely wife Jen, and daughter, Sabine. They are dear friends. And recently, they gave me a wonderful gift, a kind of a present that started with a picture. Win, lose or draw, good day or bad in the field, things like this are the reason to keep putting your eye into a lens.

A gift I gave myself this year was finishing Sketching Light. Again, many thanks for patience whilst I doodled and bumbled. My dear friend Syl Arena gave it a thumbs up on his blog. Seeing as Syl knows his way around a Canon speed light better, literally, than the Canon engineers, his positive review was very welcome. I always tease Syl about being like that Denzel Washington character, Eli, from the movie. He has the book of Canon in his head, and he travels the world dispensing its wisdom.

Ron Martinsen also was wonderfully gracious over on his blog, citing the book, and showing some of the spreads.

I’m reading this book now and loving the hell out of it. It’s going to be my holiday vacation companion (even more so after I get my Kindle Fire on Christmas <g>), and I think you might enjoy doing the same. This version has more depth and details as well as a couple chapters to set your bearings before he dives in to the good stuff. Based on a 2 hour skim of the entire book, I see nothing that will keep this one off my highly recommended list, so I’m going to jump the gun and say this is a “great to have” book.

Many thanks for the kind words, guys. I’m quite sure the long suffering, ever patient Peachpit team–Ted Waitt, Lisa Brazieal, Charlene Will, Kim Scott, Scott Cowlin, and Sara Todd–appreciate them, too. They were about to transform themselves, I think, from being book editors into a SWAT team, and show up in my driveway with a bullhorn. “Just give us the book, Joe, and nobody gets hurt.”

More tk in 2012…..Happy, safe, and blessed New Year to all…..

At Home with Donald…

Dec 14

In Friends, Rambling at 9:12am

Laughter comes easy to Donald and I. We’ve know each other for ten years or so, and to me, it’s just one of the small but rich gifts of this nutty business that he ends up on the cover of this new book. He’s a decent soul who takes his honey out for several spins on the dance floor every Friday night, sips Cuervo like it’s medicine, and always has a bit of a twinkle in his eye. As he said to me once, “The day they put me down, all the music in the world’s gonna stop.” I think he’s right.

Home. Feels good after a tumultuous year. For the rest of the year on the blog, I’ll be focusing on some of the highs and lows of another year of survival as a shooter. I looked around my tiny apartment in NYC in 1979, and realized I was paying all of my meager bills with a camera, and knew right then that I was a professional photog. At that point in time, being called a pro was high praise indeed. It was a mark of distinction that acknowledged the fact that your pictures were not only being consumed by people and influencing them every day, but that your livelihood flowed through a lens. It was a stamp of approval that only a hardy few could merit and sustain. So, as we approach 2012, 33 years with a camera in my hands and counting. Sheesh. I get points for stubbornness, anyway.

But, lots of highs and lows, as always. The new book is one of the highs, and it’s a fun read. Lots of survival lessons in there, right next to the lighting diagrams and production shots. Having my friend Mr. Blake on the cover of Sketching Light is one those wonderfully odd pieces of serendipity that occasionally come a shooter’s way.  Donald looks a bit stern and forbidding on the cover for the gentle soul that he is, but I know he likes the picture.

Shot this during a workshop demo, when the sky and the wind just gave me a feeling I could find my way to a picture.

On the other hand, one of the more notable lows occurred this year aboard Flashbus, when a hard turn ended me up in bed with David Hobby. He reported on this incident thoroughly in his blog of yesterday:

Also, if anyone woulda told me five years ago that one day I would be traveling in a tour bus with Joe McNally, I woulda told them that they were nuts.

And if anyone woulda told me five years ago that one day, I would suddenly and unexpectedly find myself in my underwear, sharing a bed with McNally, I woulda punched ‘em in the mouf.

Suffice to say you never know what turns life has in store for you. Especially an unexpected hard left-hand turn by a bus, resulting in the above. After that, I slept in full clothing.

Lots of laughs, twists and turns out there on the road.

The picture up top was shot by Kent Skibstad who attended a workshop and who wrote to me that the workshop “really kickstarted my photographic career, thank you!” It was a wonderful note to get as a teacher.

More tk…

Many Thanks…

Nov 17

In Friends, Videos at 6:46am

Had a wonderful time yesterday at NAPP. Just great. The folks in Tampa are well and truly family. We started the day with The Grid, with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski throwing out questions to Trey Ratcliff and myself about popular “myths” or rules that get passed around in photo circles, like, “Never shoot somebody’s portrait with a wide lens,” and the like. There was some good discussion in the midst of general mayhem and laughs.

Then, last night, Scott led me through a fast paced Q&A in between clips of the most recent video I did with Kelby Training called, A Day with Joe McNally. Scott is so sure footed, both in the video and on the set, in terms of leading the conversation, and steering it in a positive, informative direction, that three hours passed quick as a blink. People sent in some wonderful questions, and the whole thing was pretty lively. The thing that always gets reinforced to me during these exchanges is how much passion there is out there for shooting pictures, which is, you know, pretty great.

My thanks go out to Scott, RC Concepcion (who shot the above pic), Brad Moore, Nancy Masse, and the whole Kelby Training operation. I’ve done videos with the Tampa gang since the start of their online training efforts, and watched it, in short order, become literally the best resource anywhere for photo and post-production education. As an instructor, you’re able to teach well, and have fun doing it.

The video of Scott and I in NYC is going live today, so check it out here.