Archive for the ‘Jobs’ Category
Another in a continuing set of blogs, parsing out a current National Geographic story on UAVs published in the March issue.
The way it was shot….
The way it ran…
When I tell some folks, who might be just starting to shoot jobs for money, that a client like Nat Geo sees every frame I shoot, they tend to blanche a bit. Every frame? Like, even the ones you don’t retouch?
Yep, good bad or indifferent, every frame goes to the magazine. Was like that in film days, and remains true now. (I say this as being a general rule of engagement with the yellow border gang, without knowing if some isolated photogs out there have a special arrangement with them. That could be possible.) But, for the workaday shooter in the employ of the magazine, you shoot it and ship it.
Which means of course the raw file. No PhotoShop, no retouching. The pix drop out of the camera onto a hard drive and thence into a FedEx package and onto 17th and M in DC. Most of your images are in fact like a stone you drop down a well. There’s a long period of silence, then a distant splash as they vanish from sight forever. Sometimes though, quite wonderfully, they don’t just drop unceremoniously out of the camera. Some actually strut outta your picture machine like a Vegas showgirl in full plumage, resplendent in seductive stilettos and fishnets, and all so sparkly and spangly they utterly bedazzle the bespectacled editors at the Geographic, who, I suspect, are a group who don’t get out much. They win their audition in stylish fashion, and thus gain entry, in all their colorful glory, onto the pages of the magazine. That happens to a rare few, actually.
But honestly, “dropping out of the camera” is a good description for most of your efforts. Thud! Mine in particular often bear a rough similarity to a bunch of rapid fire rabbit turds. There’s a bunch of them, they smell bad, and they get left behind.
They get left behind for good reasons, of course. The astute picture editors at Geographic are a pretty visually jaded bunch, having had many wonderfully stirring images pass their eyeballs. I can only imagine what goes through their heads as they plow through a take. (“Christ, another beautiful sunset. What was this asshole thinking?”) They seek only those images which impart difference and information in a truly distinctive way. If it’s just plain pretty, it generally closes out of town.
I thought I might have had one of those rare, meritorious, worthy of ink images with the frame atop the blog. It features one of the ” 50 best inventions of the year,” the Nano hummingbird, which flies and hovers just like a hummingbird and bears a video camera onboard. It is in the class of mini UAVs that are currently being experimented with and developed. The inventor, Matt Keenan, of AeroVironment, is a pretty brilliant guy, so, I thought, let’s get him with the machine. That was harder than you might expect.
Here’s the basics. It’s a programmed double exposure on a D3X. In brief, it’s got two small flash exposures, operating on different channels, during each exposure, a pair of LED lights attached to the bird (my suggestion), and a focus shift in between those exposures. First exposure was at a fast shutter speed. Second exposure was on bulb.
First exposure: A channel one deal, with a 24″ softbox on the Matt’s face, and then various hard flash splashed around the warehouse room to establish some sort of depth and context. These have various gels, and there is an ungelled flash rimming him. Shutter speed, 1/250 of a second. Didn’t want any cracks or slivers of light in the big room to bleed into the photograph. For the subject, he simply has to stand there, and look at the camera, UAV controller in hand.
Second exposure: On the same piece of, uh, film. Change channels on the commander to two. Two speed lights rigged to light the little birdie off to camera right. A main and a backlight. The hummingbird, LEDs alight, takes off from the inventor’s feet, and flies in its herky jerky way over to semi-hover in front of the camera lens. Focus has been shifted from the human to the bird. Click. Camera processes double exposure. Check LCD. Re-do. Digital definitely facilitated this. If I had to shoot this on film, I’d still be there. Each flight was between 5 to 10 seconds, and the LEDs carve a pattern in the blackness.
Here’s Cali and Drew in position for lighting purposes, with Drew doing his best hummingbird imitation.
Of course, the hummingbird we worked with was a singular prototype, so we were lucky to get a picture at all, and the thing didn’t break. And, being a prototype, its flight path, as you can see above, was on the unpredictable side. (It has evidently made great strides since this time in terms of endurance and precision of flight.) And of course, yours truly just flat out missed it a couple of times, as it buzzed its way past my ear.
But we got the deal done, and shipped it, un-retouched to the mag. It ran, as I hoped it would, but only as, really, the second exposure. In the published version, the focus is on the bird, not the inventor. Which is okay by me. Once you surrender a picture to a magazine, it is under their purview, not yours.
So….here’s your chance to art direct a bit. Cropped version? Uncropped version? Which do you prefer? Which tells the story better?
Just like the opener, you never know exactly where it’s going to come from.
The latest issue of the National Geographic is out now, migrating through the mail and on the newsstand, and in it is my long suffering story on UAVs, or, unmanned flight. I say long suffering in that it kicked around the publishing schedule a bit, as sometimes happens, finally finding a resting spot in the month of March.
It was an interesting and difficult story to shoot, as they all are in their own way, but this one had the extra fillip of balky technology and temperamental flying machines. We shot a range of these contraptions, from winged drones the military flings into the sky by hand (think of a quarterback slinging a sixty yard Hail Mary as the game clock winds down) to tiny, bug-like flyers with wings based on the anatomy of a bee. It was also the first story I think I ever shot where I couldn’t, because of technical difficulties, shoot the central premise of the coverage, which was the notion of a UAV photographing another UAV in flight. More on that later.
I had been a pretty decent photographer for a long time, churning out coverages for mags like SI, Nat Geo and LIFE, and just generally living a life through the lens in fairly typical, routine fashion. Phone rings, get on a plane, bring back some pictures. I mean, I got noticed every once in a while, mostly when I messed up. Being a general assignment, problem solver type magazine photog can be a little like being an offensive lineman on a football team. Do your job, nobody notices. Screw things up, and you’re in the highlight reel. I mean, some people cared, every once in a while. For instance, my mom occasionally would ask, “Joseph, what is it again that you do?”
But then, I asked some folks to take their clothes off for some pictures. And not just anybody. I asked some of the world’s most famous athletes to doff their duds. It was 1996, and man, that just flat rattled some folks, and they started asking, “Who is this guy?” So here’s a kernel of advice. If you ever want to get noticed as a photographer, undress the famous.
I ended up on the Today Show, GMA, CNN, getting all sorts of both press and air time, with everybody asking about how it was done, with some winking and nodding to exactly how scandalous, forbidden and naughty it all was.
How fast and far we’ve come in such a short time. Now, it’s almost a rite of passage for the supremely athletic to bare all of their magnificence for the camera. The ESPN Body issue rivals the SI Swimsuit issue in terms of notoriety and anticipation, and, wonder of wonders, it actually photographs athletes, with all sorts of sinew, attitude and body ink. It hews much closer to the zeitgeist than the beach cuties can ever hope to, no matter how much body paint you throw on them, or how floss-like the attire. The ESPN crowd is all raw flesh and power, shot with an edge. Looking at that issue, you’d never know ESPN was owned by Disney.
But in ’96, in anticipation of the Atlanta games, when I went to Dan Okrent, my managing editor, and told him I wanted to shoot these folks nude, I did so with a nervous gulp. Luckily, Okrent was smart, knew the value of a picture, and was a pretty ballsy ME, which was not the case with lots of Time Inc. editors. He looked at me and asked, “You can get these people to take their clothes off?” I said yes. “And you can shoot it in a way I can run it?” Again, yes. “Okay,” he said. And I had one of the biggest assignments of my life. It was an act of faith and daring on his part to be sure. Time Inc. is a pretty conservative, publicly held company, and of course, LIFE was freakin’ Disney in print. We were going to get complaints. We were going to lose subscribers. He still said, “Do it.”
So I went in search of the best of the best. Below is famed long sprinter Michael Johnson, still the only male to win both the 200 and 400 meter races in one Olympiad.
Of course, I complicated matters even further by initially insisting I shoot the thing in 8×10 B&W. Blessedly, my first subject was an amazing athlete who since has become a good friend, a three time Olympic fencer, Sharon Monplaisir. She was so wonderful, and beautiful, she made my job easy, as I struggled on the first outing to find the style of the job, and wrestled with a behemoth camera. She was truly a magnificent subject, and thankfully I’ve worked with her a couple times since that first encounter.
A few years later, I shot her in the studio, and again, she was an amazing physical presence. She joked with me. “Joe, are you ever going to shoot me with clothes on?” We’ve always had a laugh when we have worked, and she remains one of my favorite people. When trying to launch a project like this, your first encounter is critical to the mood and feel of the whole deal, and as I said, she made things easy. Working this job convinced me very quickly that in many instances, I would have to work faster than the 8×10 would allow me, so the rest of the assignment was mostly done with medium format.
They weren’t all easy, to be sure. Jackie Joyner Kersee, a truly historic American athlete, was very dubious. But I had worked with her before, and I simply tried to maintain a calm on the set. I wanted to shoot her from the back, and she eventually agreed. Given her significance, the picture below is now in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
When Linda Somers crossed the finish line first during the Olympic time trials for the women’s marathon, I whisked her away to an impromptu photo studio I had created in the parking lot, asked her to take her shoes and socks off, and quickly shot a picture of the bottoms of her feet just after running 26.2 miles, all the while chattering away in reassuring fashion about how I wasn’t just some guy from New York with a foot fetish.
This was where I was going with this job. I wanted to see the Olympic body, unadorned with clothing to be sure, but mostly to show how the physique responds to the stresses of achieving athletic excellence, to see what price going farther, faster and higher than anyone extracts from the human body. So, while the above picture is “naked,” it’s certainly not racy, and it is informative. Your feet are in tough shape after running all that way. It takes dedication, and a pretty high threshold of pain.
Below, I shot American fencer Cliff Bayer again in 8×10. (What was I thinking?) Take a look at his right, or fencing arm, and see how much bigger it is than his left.
But then, there are athletes you just want to see, because they are truly, the epitome of human form and excellence. Carl Lewis, seen below, could easily have laid claim to being America’s best athlete, ever.
He showed up at the shoot with his mom, and all of his gold medals, save the one he buried with his father. Carl is an Olympian who became a bit of a lightning rod for some controversy, and took a lot of hits in the press, but I worked with him numerous times and always found him to be a gentleman.
Gail Devers, at that time the world’s fastest woman, had a big personality. Sprinters can be much like their explosive sport. They come at you, hard and fast. Gail was very generous in giving me this picture. She just flexed, and I framed. Shot in ten minutes, available light with a fill board. First place in portraits at the World Press Awards that year. Weird. It was an honor to photograph Gail, by the way. She bounced back from Graves disease, and the possibility that her feet might even have to be amputated, to become the fastest female in the world. Her long nails were her signature.
I shot the arm of Jeff Rouse, Olympic gold medalist in the backstroke, because I was fascinated by the powerful sweep of his arm as it pulled him faster than anyone else in the pool.
And Gwen Torrance, a lovely and amazing sprinter, was so dedicated to her workout routine that she refuse to leave the Emory track stadium at midday. I had to construct an impromptu set of walls with black material so she would have a bit of privacy amidst the lunch crowd at the stadium as she posed for what became one of the covers.
And then of course there was the water polo team. Athletic power to be sure, but also a bit of humor.
I shot super heavyweight lifter Mark Henry, all 435 pounds of him, by putting my strobes behind him and letting a bunch of reflected light wash around his massive frame. Then, I came in close to see a hand that could help lift hundreds of pounds into the air.
And diver Mary Ellen Clark, clenched into a tuck, was trying to make the team as she was struggling to overcome an onslaught of vertigo. She went onto win the bronze medal in 10 meter platform diving.
Amazing bodies, to be sure. But so amazing in other ways as well. The drive to be excellent. The mental toughness. The refusal to quit. That, I think, is why we celebrate these folks every four years. Hats off to all the Olympians as the Games close.
And then of course, there’s the body issue. More tk….
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.