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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A Cover Story

Apr 17

In history, Rambling at 6:15am

A couple months ago I had the cover of Newsweek. It was a stock shot of the Navy Seals, running the beach at Coronado, their West Coast training base. I’ve worked with the Seals a bunch, and many of those frames are in the stock library at Getty Images, who made the contact and the sale. It was cool to see the image used in this way, and it gave me a quick snapshot of the biz as it stands. Getty billed Newsweek about $1700 for the usage, which then was split with me. (I have no input or influence over what Getty chooses to charge for the use of an image.) I was, honestly, happy to hear that figure, given the dire and prevalent news of covers being sold for $50 bucks and the like.

While rates haven’t advanced, in this instance, neither have they retreated drastically. I’ve shot a bunch of assigned covers for Newsweek over the years, and it was always heady to corral that coveted piece of real estate. When I was shooting a lot for Newsweek, editorial rates were hovering around $350 per day, and if you could pull in a cover for a couple grand or more, shazam, you just copped the price of a couple more weeks of day rates. (The formula we all worked for at that time was day rate against space. In other words, if you worked 10 days and they ran nothing, you got those ten day rates, plus the expenses. If you worked one day, and the force was with you and you produced a cover and three double trucks, you got all that space payment, even though you worked only a few hours.) Those days were the stuff of the fevered imaginations of every mag shooter out there.

TIME of course paid more. They always had more budget than Newsweek. As my friend Jimmy Colton, then an editor at NW and now at SI, was fond of saying, “TIME is a hospital. Newsweek’s a MASH unit.” Below is the first cover I shot for TIME, and if I recall, they paid about 3 grand. Other shooters, the real premier cover guys, got more dough, for sure. I was definitely not in that group. If I got a cover, it was either an accident or a last ditch phone call by a desperate editor.

But TIME was the big boy on the block. As a shooter or an agent you could always expect more days, or bigger stock checks from TIME. The two mags were neighbors actually, with Newsweek being on the east side of St. Pat’s, facing Madison Ave., and TIME of course sitting astride 6th Ave. on the west end of Rock Center, just a couple blocks away off 50th St. Picture agents, attempting to sell their plastic sheeted, pre-digital wares, would often be at both mags on a Friday as they closed, trying to push their agency’s stories. They used to call this newsweekly Friday night tour the “50th St. shuffle.” There were certain agents who operated in totally blase fashion, selling packages of pictures labeled “Exclusif! Mondial!” (Worldwide exclusive!) simultaneously to as many editors as possible.

Selling pictures had a certain charm to it back then. You could liken it to loading up a buckboard with a bunch of pictorial clutter, harnessing Old Blue and clip clopping through the neighborhood, intoning “Rags, clothes, pictures, bottles, shiny objects….” Digital delivery is vastly preferable in terms of economy and speed, though the personal touch is a bit lacking. As a shooter, I could lumber up to Newsweek on closing night, hover at the light table, beer in hand (supplied by the picture editor, Jim Kenney) and look and listen in amazement as experienced chrome editors flew through stacks of slides, clapping a Schneider loupe to each successive transparency with the insistence and speed of a well handled set of castanets.

I shot a lot more for Newsweek, the poorer cousin of the newsweeklies, and got used to doing more with less. When I got sent to Poland for the first visit of Pope John Paul II to his native land, we had 7-8 shooters, and predictably, TIME had about 12. But, we had an ace up the sleeve, in that Kenney had wisely gathered in the services of  Sygma, the Parisian based agency, to shoot for him. They were a wonderfully eccentric, experienced group of international news photogs, led by the incomparable JP Laffont. Shrewdly, they showed up in Warsaw in a Winnebago, driven in from France. In the initial days of the papal visit, while we were all in Warsaw, that meant that JP and company would routinely show up at your hotel door, and in gentlemanly fashion inquire, “May I please have a shower?” All of us fancy pants shooters with hotel rooms would make good-natured sport of our mobile home compatriots, down there in the parking lot with none of the amenities of the Warsaw Intercontinental.

Ah, but they were smarter than we were! When Il Papa got out there in the hinterlands of then severely Communist Poland, the press corps was relegated to cold water dorm flats and rickety, swayback cots set into ancient bed frames. Memories of the comparative luxury of the Intercontinental faded fast. The restaurants would routinely have a giant “X” through the entree list. They would often have only a bit of ham and some bread. And no booze! Everywhere the Pope went was dry. It was trying, I tell ya.

One night, having spent the day being harassed by the Polish militia, and fighting through thousands of people stacked against each other to hear the Pontiff say mass,  I was stumbling back to my prison cell of a room. I believe I had just dined on water and stale bread, and was tragically without the anesthesia of several beers. My desperate nose went up in the air. The smell of truly wonderful French cooking was wafting about! Fragrant and beautiful, the scent led me right to–you guessed it–the Sygma Winnebago. I stood at the door of this four star restaurant on wheels, and I must have looked for all the world like a refugee child at the screen. So much so that JP had mercy, opened the door and handed me a glass (not plastic) of wine. “Drink, McNally. Enjoy. It’s good French Bordeaux!”

At that moment, and it wasn’t just because we were on a papal trip, it was like receiving communion.

Lessons learned along the way….more tk….

Milestones

Apr 10

In history, Rambling at 8:15am

You know you’ve been in the picture making business for a while when certain milestones rise up and pass you by like a sign on the highway. Trust me, as you get older, those signs loom faster and whisk by quicker. Your pictures then, become a marker, an “I was there” notation, surely as the “Cracker Barrel, One Mile, Exit 14A” billboards on the interstate. That’s the inherent beauty of being a photog. You had to be there to make that picture. I have used this logic with pup reporters on stories at various times when they have lamented to me on the homeward bound airplane, “Well, you’re sure lucky, your job’s over, my work is just starting!”

“That might be true, but here’s something I bet you haven’t thought of, dingbat. I better have it in the can right now, ’cause I can’t make a picture over the phone.”

I’m sure digital technology will evolve to the point where we can make an interesting picture while on the phone. (Not with a phone, on a phone, of someplace or of someone we’re calling to.) I’m sure that day is in our future. I hope I’m dead.

The tenth anniversary of the death of Ken Kesey passed not too long ago, without too much fanfare. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The quintessential Merry Prankster, author, and provocateur, who, along with some mates,  boarded a bus called Furthur and set off on a cross country, drug fueled jaunt.  The group became the stuff of legend, largely due to the mythologizing capacities of Tom Wolfe, who penned a chronicle of the bus trip called The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. (Both of the above are required reading, by the way.)

I visited Kesey at his place in Oregon quite a number of years ago, courtesy of the London Observer, which was a terrific magazine to shoot for. (For them, I also shot Angie Bowie, the subject of Mick Jagger’s “Angie” and, as she put it, graduate of the real first class of rock and roll. Shooting Angie undraped will be the subject of another blog, sometime or other.)

But Kesey was not an easy mark. Smart and media savvy, he put up a bit of a tussle, which I’ve written about. That was okay. Most folks worth photographing often put up something of a fight, or at the very least, are not the most predictable of sorts. (You would not expect predictability from the mind that spawned Randle McMurphy.) I spent two days at his place, on and off, picking off a picture or two, as he made time. It was okay by me, as being around Kesey, even briefly, was like buying a ticket to the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair. You came out a little unsteady, and your compass no longer spun right to true north. Seeing as I’ve always enjoyed being off by a few degrees, it was an enjoyable visit. Plus, it was cool to shoot the bus.

It’s also, roughly, the 50th anniversary of when Tony Bennett first sang his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Tony is still belting them out, thankfully, and those little cable cars are still climbing to the stars. I’ve worked with Tony a number of times, and can report that there is no classier person in all of show biz. Decent, and gentlemanly come to mind, immediately. When I was with him in out at the city by the bay, he graciously agreed to go out to the worldwide symbol of SF, the Golden Gate Bridge. There, up on the headlands, I made a quiet picture of him sketching the bridge.

That night, onstage, he stopped his show, which normally was as scripted as a Swiss watch, looking down at his ordinarily immaculate shoes. He shook his head and chuckled a bit. “I was out at the Golden Gate Bridge earlier today with the photographer from LIFE magazine, you know, taking some pictures,” he told the audience. “And I just noticed, I’m up onstage here, and I got mud on my shoes!”

“I’ve never done this before onstage,” he continued. And, stopping everything, he reached down to both his shoes and did a little quick maintenance. Looking up and smiling, he went back on script. I was shooting him from the back of the house, and I had to return the smile in the darkness. Photography, once again, proved to be the break in the day, the unexpected turn in the road, and the mud on someone’s shoes.

Tony’s wonderful to spend time with, being easygoing, gregarious, and of course, supremely talented. Everyone knows about his legendary pipes, but what is sometimes overlooked is his skill as an artist. I made these pix in his NY apartment as he sketched his view.

I didn’t have the nerve to ask him for the sketch. It would have been inappropriate, even though he made it, quite quickly, so I could shoot him while he drew. It was beautiful, and done in a matter of minutes. Another great thing about being a shooter? You get, occasionally, to meet people who are supremely talented at what they do. It’s enriching, and humbling.

Tony being a kid from Queens, I shot him with another bridge, by the way.

And, news came this week that Italian soccer star Giorgio Chinaglia passed away. Flamboyant, outspoken and stylish, both on the field and off, Giorgio was in the vanguard of international soccer stars that propelled the early days of the North American Soccer League. He played for the NY based Cosmos, alongside the legendary Pele, and German star Franz Beckenbauer. This trio ensured that the Meadowlands, home of the NY Giants, rocked and rumbled to capacity crowds cheering a different sort of football.

I covered Soccer Bowl ’78, and it was a wild time. I ended up in the shower with Pele. Hmmmm….life as a shooter has always been weird, and wonderful.

More tk….

Lynn’s Blog

Mar 19

In Friends, history, Jobs at 6:59am

This blog has been a long time coming, as Lynn tends generally prefers to stay in the background of things. All of us at the studio had a hand in prodding her just a touch to write this. Which is a wonderful turn of events. Lynn and I have worked together for nearly 20 years. She is one of the treasures of my life, and the dearest of friends. She has been a confidante, fortune teller, business manager, representative, finance magician (occasionally conjuring something out of nothing), producer (which is her tale below), rights and rates adviser, font of wisdom, voice of reason, and organizer of all things. And, as I mentioned, the most unflappable, unshakable, and understanding of friends. Without Lynn’s guidance, we would have run aground long ago. Like a compass with a heart and a voice, she continues to steer our tiny studio through thick and thin, through rough and calm seas.

She’s also an amazing cook. Every year at her house, we have Abbundanza! Which is Italian, for roughly, too much food. All the friends of the studio gather at her house for a feast. And the two of us stand and toast each other from the deepest part of our hearts. Another year. We made it another year.

Hi all, Lynn DelMastro here, Joe’s long time studio manager / producer. Ah, yes, a voice from behind the scenes of a Joe McNally shoot. What really goes on? How does all that stuff actually get dialed into the scene? Well, I’m here to tell you, in part, about some of the “magic” (even though most of the magic actually doesn’t happen, as we know, until Joe gets behind the camera.)

:-) .
(Joe here. And let me be the first one to step forward here and be completely candid about the fact the sometimes the magic happen, and sometimes it don’t. But that’s on me. The beauty of a Lynn production is that when I step up to the camera, all I have to worry about is what I see through the lens, and connecting with it. All the other stuff has been taken care of, done deal, lock solid.)

Sometimes photographers have asked, “does everything Joe shoots require a producer?” No, certainly not. For some less complex shoots, Joe puts together everything himself. It’s all very circumstantial, when a shoot is either extremely complex, or when Joe’s schedule simply won’t allow for him to oversee every step himself, the production falls on my desk. Over the years, I’ve produced everything from the McNally Workshops in Dobbs Ferry, to Joe’s Language of Light DVD, to small magazine shoots, to full blown commercial assignments for him. Some of the more memorable ones have been for Nikon. The most recent production for them was for the launch of the D4.
When we were first awarded the project, our studio team sat down for a pre-production meeting. Joe proceeded to explain what his wishes and desires were for the visuals (aka his imagination on steroids). My mouth dropped, my heart raced, my body overheated, and my head throbbed. So, for about 30 long seconds, I think I actually blacked out, without really losing consciousness. You know what I mean? Like when you hear news that makes your whole being go into a virtual freeze frame mode? Hmm, why did I have this reaction? Well, he used words like… circus, animals, swamp, Delta blues artist, multi-city locations, studios, body painters, models, performers, helicopters, and the list went on and on. Oh sure, just sounds like a long “to do” list, right? Yeah, well you go out and try to find a custom-made circus, a swamp that won’t swallow up the crew, and an authentic Delta blues artist, etc… all the while keeping within the confines of a budget and a looming deadline. He may as well have told me that he wanted to shoot a full- blown production on the moon with Gisele and Bono. No worries.

So, once I stopped hyperventilating, I dipped into my brain’s, “who do I know” file, to kick start the action. Assuming that the circus scenario would be the most challenging to orchestrate, I contacted my good friend, Chiara Adorno, a very talented filmmaker in Hollywood.  Never know who she might know, etc. I explained what I was looking for, “Joe wants to shoot an old- school looking circus, a family type deal”. However, the kicker was that we needed it not for a day or two, but for a week, and it had to be all for ourselves. We needed a closed set, no public allowed (hey, we had to keep the D4 a TOP secret, after all!). I also mentioned that Joe had been visually inspired when he saw the film Water for Elephants, with Reese Witherspoon. Chiara gave me the contact info for a friend of hers, who is in the circus business, explaining that he would be a fantastic starting point. So I contacted VW Scheich, and well the rest of the conversation was simply music to my aching ears. He replied, “my cousin was the animal trainer for Reese in the movie”, “let me put you in touch with her, I’m sure she can help”. Oh.My.God. I then contacted his cousin, Darlene Williams, and so it began. I can’t even explain how incredibly wonderful this woman was. She put me in touch with her mother, Eva Williams.

Eva is a circus agent, and literally became my one-stop-shopping circus guru. Darlene, who could have bowed out at that point, stayed with it, periodically emailing and calling me, just because she cared. Wow, like mother, like daughter, these women were amazing. Okay, so with the circus planning underway, I turned my attention to the swamp production. Holy mackerel, or rather, holy gator… seriously? Again, Joe had a vision in his head (shocking), of how he wanted the swamp to look. So many things to consider… plus we needed a willing hair-M/U artist, wardrobe stylist, and model, all able to deal with the most unappealing environment ever (think major humidity, mosquitoes, gators, poisonous snakes, and other unknown creatures), a location vehicle, a medic, and a park ranger. There were major permissions to deal with, as well as scheduling issues. Okay, so I’ve been doing this long enough to know that, although I pride myself in my ability to multi-task and tackle large productions, sometimes I just have to hand off a piece of the pie. So I called my colleague and friend, Lyn Wik, a very experienced producer, to see if she’d be willing to pitch in and help. Lyn, being the incredible person she is, replied, “for you and Joe? Just say the word and I shall be yours!”. So I put her in touch with a former assistant of ours, photographer Scott Holstein.

Scott is a swamp LOVER, who lives in Florida. Scott was so psyched about the notion of working with Joe in a swamp that he offered to assist and help out in any way he could. At that point, with Lyn and Scott being on board, I KNEW that I had nothing to worry about. Naturally Lyn and I still talked and emailed 24/7, for about 3 weeks.


Okay, so amidst the tons of emails and phone calls with Lyn on the swamp, I was simultaneously dealing with the other shoots. Communication with Eva, for the circus shoot, was constant. We had to review options for tents, locations, talent, elephants, permits, dogs, horses, contracts, and the list went on and on. Then there was the selection of the model, which took days, just to find the right girl. I also had to find a wardrobe stylist, and due to budget, needed to find someone in the vicinity close to the shoot. I totally scored with the stylist, Deana Anais, represented by a wonderful agent, Sarah Hamilton-Bailey. Deana had an incredible sense of style and was totally intuitive about the look and feel of what we wanted. I also contacted Deborah Engelsman, an extremely talented hair-M/U artist, whom I’ve worked with many times over the years. Together, this team caused a fashion sensation at the shoot…

There still remained the [not so small] matter of finding a Delta blues artist. Once again, I tapped into my personal resources… a wonderful and special friend, Jody Wenig, of Wenig–LaMonica, a source for amazing talent. I knew that Jody could point me in the right direction, and man did he ever! Two emails later, and I was in direct contact with Wacko Wade, the manager of Delta blues artist, Little Freddie King.  Wacko and I created an instant bond (with a name like that, how could we not?), and he helped me to iron out all the details of how and when to work with LFK. Joe requested a run down, patina ladened, character driven house that evoked the flavor and style of old New Orleans.

Location scout, Michael Dittmar to the rescue! Michael did an amazing job and sent us lightboxes of properties to consider, all over the city. Joe settled on the one that suited his purposes the best, which turned out to be absolutely beyond perfect for the shoot and the video that we shot of LFK. Our local assistant, photographer Donald Page, brought us to the dual bridge location, where Joe shot an incredibly cool image of LFK.


For a separate photo situation in New Orleans, Joe had his heart set on shooting at Preservation Hall, a musical landmark institution there. As with any landmark, it’s subject to policies, procedures, and long wait lists. My motto, “be pleasantly persistent”, was what had to be put in place. Five emails and three voice messages later, I finally heard back from them. I just needed that voice contact to make a new friend of the business manager there and we were in. Good to go. Right down to the wire.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s not forget about, “Snake Beauty”. Although not as many moving parts as the circus, the swamp, or even the New Orleans shoots, the snake shoot presented its own set of complexities. After an extensive search, I found the brilliantly talented, NYC based body-painting and make-up artist, Anastasia Durasova. Understanding that not every model is willing to sit perfectly still for eight hours to be painted, but also not every model is willing to wear an 8 ft python, as an accessory. Anastasia highly recommended Marina, the model, and she was an absolute dream to work with. Sexy, beautiful, pleasant, and had zero qualms about “wearing” the snake. Along with the supremely talented hair stylist, Sasha Nesterchuk, “Snake Beauty” came to fruition and was shot at NEO Studios on an extremely memorable day.


Also, as with any production, I had to work out all the travel arrangements – hotels, flights, ground transfers, truck rentals, catering options, etc. In the end, it was 10 jam- packed weeks of pre-production, for 18 days of travel, scout, pre-light and shoot. Phew. Of course, the key to any successful production is to surround yourself with an awesome crew. In each location, I was blessed to have the best, most experienced helping hands. Back at our Ridgefield studio, supremely organized Lynda Peckham, thankfully held the fort down in my absence. My primary boys (Drew, Grippi, and Cali), provided unstoppable comic relief (with the help of Nikon’s own inimitable Mike Corrado), and the joy of working with two of the nicest, most talented, and incredibly wonderful clients, made it all so rewarding.

And then there’s Joe. He’s in a genre all by himself. Aside from being one of the most decent human beings on the planet, his beautiful mind (although a tad twisted) is captivating and his sense of humor is infectious. As long as I have a brown paper bag nearby, I’ll hyperventilate for him anytime .

All pix of Lynn shot by Lynda Peckham.

More tk….

Happy 50th Anniversary, Senator

Feb 27

In history, In The Field at 5:09am

On February 20th, 1962, Friendship 7 blasted into space powered by an Atlas rocket, destined to orbit the earth three times before it splashed back into the Atlantic. I was ten years old, and my particular, very small world revolved around another type of orb called a basketball. But even I knew, at that innocent age, that something momentous was going on. The hopes, and fears, of a nation rode the on the smoke trail of that rocket, shot skyward out of the Florida haze, from a place then called Cape Canaveral.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about the Cold War, except during the drills at school when we got under our desks or marched in semi-orderly fashion to the basement gym so we could survive a Russian nuke attack. But it was a real deal, regularly dished up on the front pages of newspapers everywhere.  We were locked in a duel with the Soviets that extended from the Olympic playing fields to the numbers of nukes each of us had pointed at each other to the race to space. Which we were determined to win. As then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson is said to have drawled, “I do not want to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon.”

Given the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the twitching and posturing, thankfully, was just so much nationalistic johnson measuring. Nobody pushed the big red button, and, now, all these years later, the former Soviet Union goes by the name of Russia, and, while our two countries still have bones of contention, no one (apparently, anyway) has an actively itchy trigger finger.  And our two space programs collaborate, share rockets, space stations and technology. If we had gotten into the swing together all those years ago and combined efforts, Lord knows we might even have those lunar colonies Newt Gingrich dreams about. (And I’m sure we’d all have our own private list of folks we’d like to send to them, too:-)

But, hey, it was 1962, and tensions were high. We were, quite honestly, getting our ass kicked in the whole space deal. It was, as Sean Connery famously gargled in The Hunt for Red October, “the heady days of Yuri Gargarin, when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets.” The Sovs had scored a number of firsts, and our Mercury program was a determined, all-out effort to regain the lead, and our national pride.

Enter a quiet Ohioan named John Glenn, a Marine pilot who did not cuss and married his high school sweetheart. By all accounts, he was cool under fire, having earned the moniker “magnet ass” for drawing so much enemy flak on combat missions in Korea. He was chosen as the first American to orbit the earth.

Thirty six years later, he once again donned astronaut’s garb, and went flying, this time aboard STS-95. I had the good fortune to be inserted in the loop as the official STS-95 photographer of record for NASA, courtesy of the National Geographic. I spent quite a number of weeks with Senator Glenn and the crew, feeling my way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy known as NASA. I entered a world of regulations and acronyms, not to mention a time lined world of dedicated, hard working folks whose lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontier of space.

I also, quite wonderfully, got to know John Glenn, and his wife Annie, who was with him every step of the way. He took the sting out of the natural tendency we all have as shooters to feel like an intruder, or worse, a stalker. He actively wanted to be photographed, as he felt documenting the mission was an important piece of the puzzle. I always teased him that he had been trained well, having gone to “The Ralph Morse School of Being a Photo Subject.” Ralph, of course, was the original prime recorder of the Merc Seven bunch, back in the heyday of LIFE. (Another one of the joys of the assignment was to watch Ralph work, all those years later, to recreate the Glenn cover of LIFE he had shot back in ’62.)

To be in John’s company was to be in the company of a quintessentially decent man. The worst word I ever heard him say was “Shoot!” when we encountered a locked set of doors that impeded our fast paced walk around the Senate.

On one particular day, he had promised me he would do his exercise program after a day in chambers. (His physical fitness was part of the story of his role as the oldest person to go into space.) He didn’t want to do it. He was tired, and things had been hectic, and once again, I was confronted with that eternal question of how much to push the ticket. Can I get this another time, or do I have to once again be the pesky photog, the speed bump in someone’s day?

MJ Veno, his legendary chief of staff, saw my hesitancy and slumped shoulders, wavering outside his office. She looked at me and said, “He promised you didn’t he?” I nodded. Then she said, “Well you just go in there and remind him!”

I walked in. He looked at me and sighed. “I did promise you.”

“Yes sir, you did.”

He donned shorts, and went to exercise. It worked out even better than I could have hoped, as he bumped into a bunch of staffers playing softball, and was soon roped in, which, truth be told, he thoroughly enjoyed.

The gift of time is a rare one to receive as a journalist, but, courtesy of the lengthy history Nat Geo enjoys with NASA, that’s what I had on this story. I got to know the Senator, the crew, and many of the people who surrounded and supported the mission. It allowed me to take things a step at a time, to let things develop in their own way, and not force the moment. It also let me work the bureaucracy to gain permissions, such as mounting cameras inside a T-38.

It also let me get the last picture of the Senator as before he went to space. I was friendly with the crew, and the technicians who made sure their LES (launch-entry suits) were rigged up properly. I gave Scott Parazynski, one of the flyers with Glenn, one of my F5 cameras, loaded with color neg. He was the astronaut walking across the gangway to the shuttle vehicle just ahead of the Senator. I told him, just turn, point and shoot. (Being a civilian, I was allowed nowhere near the fully loaded rocket. On assignment for a mag, the picture’s important, not who shoots it. If you can’t be there yourself, find a way to give a camera to someone who will be. I learned this from Heinz Klutmeier at Sports Illustrated.)

He shot some frames, then dished the camera to one of the suit techs I knew pretty well, and when they finished their duties, they drove back to a prearranged spot along the cyclone fence that marked off the launch area, and pitched the camera over the fence to me. Inside were the last pictures of Senator Glenn before he blasted off.

The magazine elected not to publish those images, but they did run a worthwhile select of the Senator’s return to space.

The lasting thing for me was not so much the pictures, but the respect I accumulated for a decent, easygoing man who, many years ago, shouldered the hopes of an entire nation in an unassuming, matter a fact way, and blasted into the heavens with them. And then was willing to do it again.

More tk….

Beautiful Music, High ISO

Jan 11

In Equipment, history, Thoughts at 9:04am

The recent D4 project was a terrific project for the studio, made more so by the company I shared shooting it. Bill Frakes did his usual wonderful sports stills, but also filmed a beautifully evocative video of Istanbul. Take a look at his site, Straw Hat Visuals. Corey Rich once again defies gravity in his adventure sports video work, seen hereMatthias Hangst shot amazing action, and Vincent Munier once again took on difficult and daunting landscapes. Humbled and honored to be in their company. Bill Frakes and I, especially, go back a long ways. He is one of the truly significant standard bearers in the history of sports photojournalism.

Charlie Gabriel, Preservation Hall Band. Nikon D4, 200mm, f2, 1/160th, ISO 12,800, Tungsten AWB.

Technology marches on. We now have cameras that perform well in the realm of ISO numbers previously only associated with highly complicated math problems. I took the prototype D4 into Preservation Hall, and made some portraits during the day, then lingered for the evening show, and shot available light. Below is Charlie that afternoon, under flash conditions. D4, ISO 200, 1/80th, f5.6, cloudy WB, lens at 26mm.

The Hall is tough to work. Wonderful ambiance, and almost zero usable light. I found this out years ago when I shot there for Sports Illustrated prior to a Super Bowl. I squeezed a few pictures because that night because they gave me a pass to put up a flash–a Norman 200B–in the ceiling. It amped up the light just enough for Kodachrome 200. But the stuff I tried with existing light was pretty much DOA.

So shooting the picture up top at 12,800 ISO was definitely a revelation. The quality of the light in that venerable music hall is still super warm and soupy, but…I could work. That’s the bottom line with new gear. Does it help? Does it make the job easier? Does it open the door to a picture?

Technology and me have always had a love/hate thing. I love that fact that it can help create pictures I want to make. I hate the fact that even relatively simple items come with a manual the size of War and Peace.  I’m still pretty much a Neanderthal on the computer, and of the fancy gadgets I own, like an Iphone, I probably use about 20% of its capacity. (I’m definitely not one of those folks who pitch a tent outside an Apple Store for days and days when a new gizmo is announced.) The younger guys at my studio either chuckle or turn away when I attempt post production, or the loading of new software on my computer. And certainly, my blog is not where you would come for a highly evolved technical discussion of the shape of the pixels. There will certainly be sites out there which will, eventually, take this camera apart, like a car in a body shop, and look at every gear, bell and whistle. Not here. I work at the technology stuff a bit, but, you know, life is short, and I’d rather shoot. Or dream up a picture I want to shoot. Or write. Or, best of all, be at home with Annie.

But I have to admit, despite my stumbling gait, my path as a shooter has fortuitously crossed over with new camera tech at some crucial times. When I made climbs up the mast on the Empire State Building, I was fretting as to what single lens to bring up with me. Didn’t want to do the fisheye. I was working for Geographic, and many editors there are not wildly enthusiastic about distortion. The available older versions of super wide rectilinear glass were problematic. I was chagrined. But–presto! Right about then the 14mm f2.8 rectilinear came out. Fast, sharp, and not flare prone like its predecessors. I immediately went in to rent it for my last climb. The guys at the counter, who knew me pretty well, casually asked me what I was shooting, and, excitedly, I told them I was climbing the antenna on ESB. They took the lens off the counter and said, “You know, dude, you really should just buy it.” Which is what I did. Later that week, on my fourth climb up there, I got lucky with the light, and the lens.

The above version is not the select Geographic ran. It’s later in the morning, as the sun got stronger. Here’s what I was worried about up there. It wasn’t falling. It was repeatedly loading new film cassettes into the camera. I was levered backwards at about a 45 degree angle, pushing off the mast with my feet, hanging onto the aerial with my left hand, and shooting with my right. Because even back then I couldn’t see anything up close, I also had a pair of granny reading glasses taped and tethered to my neck. Juggling a bunch of stuff, in a word. My panic time was those moments I reloaded. A dropped film canister from that height, if it finds the street, could kill someone. I would have loved a 32 gig card, but those were many moons in the future.

When digital dawned, I had no idea. I stuck with film as long as I felt I could, and then made a jump for survival to this fancy camera known as a D1X. First thing I shot with it was a Kentucky Derby, and my brothers Mike Corrado and Skip Dickstein had to show me what do with my cards after the race. I was hopeless, but I didn’t care. The digital camera felt like a film camera. There was a shutter, and a lens. I frankly didn’t care what was happening inside of it. Plunging on, and resolutely placing faith in the old adage that the Lord looks after a fool, I ended up shooting the first all digital coverage in history of National Geographic some months after this first outing.

Fast forward to a camera I was just tickled with, the D3. Thought, as I have mentioned, I would go to my grave with that camera. It simply suited all the needs I had in the field. Then, the D3S came out. I thought, nah, don’t need it. I’m cool with what I have. But then, Geographic assigned me to a story on the electrical grid of the United States, and I realized I was about to spend a ton of time in helicopters at night, observing the illuminated grids of various cities. The D3S promised better chip performance, and improved results at high ISO. So, I re-upped. Sold my D3 cameras and bought D3S models.

It was good that I did, I think, as the lead to the story was a night view from a chopper, with long glass. The technology I employed, at this point unthinkingly and reflexively–excellent high ISO, VR in the lens, bright viewfinder, accurate AF–the myriad of camera advances I often now just take for granted, helped me come back with pictures that night from that very expensive chopper ride.


D3S, 200-400mm lens, ISO1600, f4, 1/125th. Lucky shot. Goldman Sachs building, lower Manhattan, with virtually every room lit up.

D3S, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/60th. Lucky with the sunset.

So I guess that’s one big question that drives all this. Our eternal responsibility as photographers is to deliver the best possible quality image we can manage back to the client. And that’s become a part of the digital equation every shooter has to work out as a personal and professional decision. What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission? Shooting night sports for the wires back in the day, when everybody on the sideline was pushing the hell out of tri-x, it didn’t really matter too much if you were still shooting an F2, and the guy next to you was shooting an F3. But now, shooting ones and zeroes, the machinery used to shoot that same game has an impact on the quality of the pictures produced, for sure.

That night in Preservation Hall, I got to test high ISO response at 12,800, which is an ISO territory that is completely alien to me. And the results, relative to that speed, were terrific. Now, if you’re always shooting in that realm, you’re probably working a tough gig, photographically. Being at that ISO a lot might mean you’ve got a badge and a gun, and you’re up very late at night. And you might be sitting in a non-descript car that’s filled with candy wrappers and crumpled fast food bags, sipping bad coffee, and trying to sight a lens through a rain pocked windshield as Tommy Two Toes passes yesterday’s New York Post with an envelope in it to Mikey Gaga on a street corner somewhere in the Bronx. I mean, maybe.

Or you could be shooting sports at night under bad light. Or you might be a music shooter, or perhaps theater and dance is a specialty. Or, you’re a news shooter whose job it is to observe and record, despite the adversity of the conditions. The mission at hand is, at least partially, the driver for the choice of gear.

For me, I’m looking down the pipe of a six week job, starting pretty soon, and, given the parameters of that job, this tech evolution known as D4, is, I feel, another one of those fortuitous bends on this long road, and it arrives just in time for a task at hand. High ISO capability is yet another one of gifts placed on our doorstep as shooters. I honestly hope to not have to use it too much, but it sure is nice to know it’s there.

More tk….