Archive for the ‘In The Field’ Category
Just like the opener, you never know exactly where it’s going to come from.
Argo did well at the Academy Awards this past week. Good movie. It transported me to another place in time, which is what good movies are supposed to do.
Back to 1980, when Iran held the hostages, and the attention of virtually everyone in this county. 444 days! It was endless for us, unimaginable for the hostages. I was there at West Point when they came back on buses from Stewart AFB, but those chromes have been lost over time. Managed to hang onto a chrome from lower Broadway and the ticker tape welcome home parade. I shinnied up a light pole with my cameras and perched, quite uncomfortably, on a traffic sign for several hours as the parade made its way. Thankfully, it was quite cold, and my ass just froze, so I was able to ignore the fact that I was basically giving myself a street sign wedgie. My positioning, and the inclusion of Liberty St. was, of course, not an accident.
As a location shooter on assignment, you are continuously desperate on many levels, and one of the principal sources of your ongoing anxiety is the search for the lead photo. It is a picture that does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. It’s the opening spread, bears the weight of type and text, announces the intent of the coverage, and, most importantly, grabs the eyeballs of the beleaguered, over-saturated, out of time reader. It sometimes has nano-seconds to do this. Sometimes you know you have it, instantly, when you shoot it. (As one of the old timers at the New York Daily News told me, somewhat indelicately, when I was just a pup apprentice in the studio, “You know you got somethin’ good, kid, ’cause you can feel your asshole goin’ like dis!” He then made kind of circular grouping of his fingers, and roughly imitated the uh, well, feeling.)
Having just come out of the Masters program in photojournalism at Syracuse University, and thus having been steeped in the elegant, erudite legends of Steichen and Stieglitz, I was amused, and mildly appalled at this rough around the edges piece of advice. However, that street-wise NY shooter knew what he was talking about. When you do get that picture, the one you come for, and you know you got it, something happens. Your head pings, your heart skips, your lungs catch abruptly. Or something happens elsewhere, as he indicated. I guess that’s just a matter of one’s personal physiology as it relates to the welcome emotional relief that knowing a good picture has been made bequeaths to you. It’s like the sound of the shutter nailing that frame constitutes a momentary overload, and your circuit breakers trip inside of you, somewhere.
Sometimes this just happens, almost effortlessly, in the course of a coverage. Sometimes, it’s a pulled tooth. I did a telescope coverage for Nat Geo not too long ago. (I’ve shot telescopes for Geographic twice now, and these types of coverages are like being an extra in the opening scene of Les Miserables. It’s heavy lifting.) I got sent to the world’s largest binocular telescope up on Mt. Graham, in Arizona. It was bad weather, and the scope could not be opened, but we had a deadline, so I went, met an assistant there, and we proceeded to light the interior of the chamber.
I knew this telescope was important to the story, but I also knew this would most likely not fly as a lead. Too confined, too busy. A lot of work for a picture to never see the light of day, and the work is not particularly joyous at that point, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know, at least occasionally. as I’m shooting it, that the picture, as my dear friend and editor at NGS Bill Douthitt tends to say, “is going to Toledo.” His phraseology for a pic that is on a train out of town, and ain’t coming back.
So I went back. Chalked off the first go round to an exhausting scout. I pushed the notion that the pic was outside, looking in, not the reverse. My ever patient studio manager and production guru, Lynn, drilled through the reams of paperwork required to get a 175′ boom crane truck up Mt. Graham, which is a National Park and an endangered species area, and we blocked it into the side of the hill, went up and shot what turned out to be the lead.
Occasionally, your work in the field is such a blur, that you make the lead pic and you don’t know it. Sports Illustrated sent me to Japan for a month to shoot Japanese golf, and I was met in gracious and ceremonial fashion by our Japanese hosts, who promptly whisked myself and Gabe, my assistant at the time, off to a huge welcome dinner. Jet lag of those proportions does not mix well with high end, exotic Japanese style cooking, and Gabe and I gamely, honorably, muddled our way through a Daisy wheeled panoply of fish with the eyes and heads, spicy brains, eel and the like, and then…..we were brought to a a famed, multi-tier driving range in downtown Tokyo to do a shoot!
I don’t recall shooting this, actually, as my head was just as much of a blur as the foreground golfer, which I shot with a flash mix, which of course endeared me to everyone at the range. They got their revenge for my flash affronts when Gabe and I were given what we dubbed “the bat shield,” and allowed to walk out in front of all the golfers to shoot back at the grandstand. One of them almost took my ear off as I poked camera and lens around the screen to make pictures. I didn’t know it, and I of course continued to shoot for a month, but I had the lead photo within hours of stepping off the plane.
And then of course, you can be utterly clueless. (Numnuts strikes again!) That’s when you need an editor. For the pic up top, it was our first day in the field with multiple UAVs. We had three, which was a good thing, ’cause two of them didn’t work. It was a shakedown day, opening day, sort of, and I wasn’t overly concerned at the non-performance of our flying machines. It was cold, and getting dark, so Drew and I set up a small flash on a paint pole, and started just making some sort of picture, somehow, out of this day in the field that was an absolute bust. Ziggy, our intrepid UAV pilot, hovered his Micro-kopter out in the middle of a lonely agricultural road, and I shot a few frames, and we called it a night. The lead photo was in the camera, but I didn’t know it.
My editor Bill, at Geographic, and I share an unfortunate fascination with all manner of bad movies, science fiction, comic book characters. As our wives remind us, if we could just download the committed to memory dialogue of movies from Dirty Harry to Predator to Monty Python, our upstairs decks might actually clear enough to do something productive. But, his dark fascinations do play a role. In this pic he saw something–I don’t know–UAVs meet Twin Peaks, or here’s the UAV scouting for the imminent zombie attack. Anyway, he brought it forward, and the magazine gave it a stamp of approval, and it became the lead. I had zip to do with that process. The only stupidly smart thing I did was put my camera to my eye and keep shooting on a day when all was basically lost.
Tech specs….Flash on paint pole, w/ dome diffuser, camera left. 14-24mm lens at 15mm. D3S camera. 1/80th at f5.6, ISO 800. Below is a shot as it lands, so you can see why I had to look up at it. If I referenced the ground, the shadow from the flash becomes too prominent.
I have a great deal of empathy for pet photogs, those fonts of perpetual patience. I’ve only had one experience doing it, and it came to me via LIFE magazine, who had a notion of doing a four page double gatefold of all 148 (at that time) breeds of dog present at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison Square Garden in NY. This year’s show just concluded, with an affable Affenpinscher named, oddly enough, Banana Joe, as the winner.
The things you do as a photog. I set up a 617 Fujica Panorama camera, on a super heavy tripod, and gaffered it to the floor. We then massed sandbags around the legs, so many that the thing looked like a machine gun placement out of a World War II movie. The camera could not move for three straight days. It was looking at a stage we built, with draping and brightly painted blocks for the smaller pooches to climb up on. Behind the drape, concealed, stood the owners. (Trust me, show dog owners are a highly specialized breed, themselves.) I then would try my best to get the little darlings attention, via all manner of undignified noises and gestures at the camera. It got so embarrassing, so quickly, that my assistants taped a scrawled message to the back of the camera: “You Said Yes,” referring to the assignment.
I did say yes, and when you open your mouth as a photog, and that word comes out of it, the editor then shifts the responsibility for whatever happens to your long suffering shoulders. I had great support from the LIFE staff on this job, gathering pooches, keeping the breeds straight, making sure that no animosities surfaced on the set amongst our star subjects. (I don’t want to be next to the Ibizan Hound!) The whole thing was the brainchild of Melissa Stanton, one of the senior editors, and a dog lover.
I also had to listen to the owners, one of whom, whose charge was a Labrador Retriever, warned me, “Whatever you do, don’t use a squeaky toy to get his attention. He will come get it, and I probably can’t hold him.” My bad. I didn’t convey that to the crew, one of whom was behind me with a squeaky toy, and gave it a good honk. That lab bounded off the stage, dragging his owner through the draping and plowed through my lights and stands to, well, retrieve. Mayhem ensued. Throughout it all the pooch’s expression of the sheer joy of the chase never changed.
The gatefold itself was put together back at the magazine in Rubik’s Cube fashion by the art directors. You can see the original 617 transparencies above, still in their sleeve, with grease pencil marks, adhesive tape codes and numbers, which I dodged out (badly) to simply show the physical nature of chromes and how they would be transported into print. It was a very popular spread in the book at the time. Lots of dog lovers out there.
Here’s a handy thing about blogging. I wrote about Bo Jackson last week, and mentioned a bunch of our original material from that long ago take seemed to have vanished. I likened chromes to being like socks that sometimes just don’t make it back into the drawer. I talked about getting into a batting cage with him and feeling like a decoy duck at a carnival shooting gallery, but we had no slide from that encounter.
Lo and behold, our intrepid studio manager Lynn, contacted SI, just to check, and somehow a bunch of these images had gotten stuck in one of their drawers, inadvertently. Years had passed. Never thought about it. Got ‘em back. Happy about that. More tk…