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Archive for the ‘Rambling’ 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….

The Green Glow on the Strip

Feb 22

In Rambling at 9:37am

Was just at the WPPI convention in Vegas. I had no official duties or anything, I was just there basically stalking Annie:-) Been on the road a lot with this Geographic job (in Colorado now) so I just went to the show to hang out, see some friends and drop by the Adorama booth and stare at her occasionally. The fortuitous placement of the Ado counters facing directly into the Nikon stage makes it easy to see the whole gang, so it was a fun couple of days.

I had never stayed at MGM before, and sleeping there is kind of wild, with this green glow seeping in around the curtains. I’ve done a lot of chopper work in Vegas, it made me recall this shot I made a couple years ago. That emerald color is really the brightest thing on the Strip, which as we all know is a monument to understated taste and elegance. Reason for the flight was that I was doing a story on the electrical grid of the US, and I had to come up with a pic that addressed the issue of consumption. Vegas here we come! Nat Geo didn’t use it, going with a frame I made of the NY skyline.

But I do remember working this building, kind of an illuminated, architectural version of the Hulk, sitting there on the strip. Shot with a D3, lens at 19mm, ISO 1000, 1/80th at 2.8, Aperture Priority, minus one EV.

More tk…

And Furthermore….

Dec 20

In Rambling at 8:08am

Geez. Some interesting commentary yesterday, ranging from feminine physiques to Photoshop to posing to pixels. In the interests of advancing information here’s a production snap from the lagoon, taken by our buds Rob and Jen Lace. There’s another version of the shot below.

Hopefully these snaps confirm a few things. A) Sara does have a left arm. B) She is on an island of sorts. C) The c-stand used in this picture is still sort of rusted out and has a hint of a sulfur smell. D) We are on location and I didn’t shoot this on a green screen. E) It’s only the combination of the lens and the angle of the above production picture that makes me look like Shamu wearing a cap:-)

Here’s another pose of her on the rock, sans, jacket. I didn’t like the pic nearly as well. In fact, for all the debate about her positioning, I have to say, I loved it. When she curled up, somewhat impossibly, on that rock, she balanced the frame and became a counterpoint to the lighthouse, graphically. It’s one of my favorite pics in the new book. This one below, not so much. But folks might like this. Or not. It’s okay. That’s the eternal beauty and damnation of photography. There’s no real right or wrong.

But there is passion, that’s for sure. Lots of people had interesting takes, and some advice, some of it even sort of medical. (Talk of extended or flexible hip joints and the like.) The fact is, I have often asked people to curl up, contort, or curve for a picture, for all sorts of reasons. There was Mary Ellen Clark, the famous diver. I shot her nude for LIFE, and this pose, a simulated tuck, was a good way of making sure, as she put it, nothing was hanging out.

Then of course, there was Pilobolus. But, this sort of contortion is cheating really, ’cause this is what they do.

I asked Jada Pinkett Smith, somewhat improbably, to hug a wall.

And Michelle Yeoh to crawl across the desert floor.

And the basketball giant Greg Oden to bend way over to fit into a frame. And then I gave him a tiny basketball to make him seem even more outsized than he is.

Also, the whole idea of  incongruity is one I’ve been in love with since momma dropped my on my head. I like taking disparate physical elements and placing them together, in unlikely context to each other, in hopes of creating something serenely surreal and beautiful. Or just plain odd. (Why is she on a rock in a lagoon? I don’t know.) The idea is to arrest the eye of the viewer. I took, for instance, this homespun clad, magnificently voiced trio from the New York City Opera into a Japanese pachinko parlor during the opera’s historic tour of Japan. They were styled for “Little Women,” a quintessentially American opera. So, I took them someplace quintessentially Japanese. The fun thing? These folks are in full throttle, singing beautifully in the parlor. Not a single person even looked up from their game.Wonderful.

This whole thing is about having a restless eye, one that is never patient, or self-satisfied. One that keeps pushing, and is happier thinking about what it will see next than it is dwelling on that which it has already seen. Win, lose or draw, the eye has to be an ever hungry hunter.

There was lots of talk, as there always is, about the pixels and the PSD and various digital whatnot. That’s okay, too. It’s important to discuss and assimilate the mechanics of all this. But it’s important to remember that the how exists only to serve the why. The how addresses the infernal machine, and the bells, whistles and dials. But the why is the real deal. Why pick up a camera at all? Why do we let ourselves in for all this frustration in the first place? Why go to the lagoon in the freezing cold? (That coffee house was much more comfortable.) There’s a ton of “how to” in Sketching Light,” but the larger, more important discussions dwell on the why of all of this.

It’s important to dive into the mechanics, to be sure. But not too far. When we pick up every pixel, and hold it up to a magnifying glass, looking at it every which way, like a precious bauble we just found during a walk on the beach,  it is self defeating, not to mention boring as shit. There’s an old phrase that describes that type of discussion and examination. I can’t remember it exactly, but it has something to do with the forest and the trees.

More tk….

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…

Things to be Thankful For…

Nov 23

In Rambling at 8:48am

I’m thankful that when I take a picture, I can still hear the shutter:-)

I’m thankful for all the fancy new gear we have available to us as photogs, even though that time honored maxim of nothing working right when you really need it to still applies.

I’m thankful I still need to shoot about as much as I need to breathe.

And, I’m thankful there still remains a direct connection between my shutter finger and my heart and lungs. The very slight activity of that finger when it assists in recording what I might perceive to be a good photograph can completely arrest, for a split second, the activity of the other two. I’m thinking of donating my cadaver for forensic research so someone can write a learned paper about this physical oddity.

I’m thankful for Lynn in my studio, who in addition to producing jobs, paying the bills, keeping us afloat, and answering the phone creates a wonderful atmosphere of friendship, fairness and frivolity at our tiny shop.

She in turn is thankful that I don’t answer the phone, because when somebody calls and offers us zero for the rights to use our work, I’m prone to use the f word a lot, and we’d rapidly not have to answer the phone anymore, ’cause no one would call us ever again.

I think I’m thankful that the reprint rights to all photos recorded and yet to be recorded by any medium heretofore, forthwith and yet to be devised that will be reproduced at some point on the moons of Uranus via holographic transmission in future millennia are so desirable. That means us camera clickers must be doing something right, because, seemingly, everything we produce is truly excellent, valuable and will withstand the test of time.

Pursuant to all that, I’m thankful and still amazed that the phone does ring and people offer to pay for that which I would gladly do for free, most of the time.

I’m thankful my dad had a Beauty Lite III rangefinder camera which I borrowed in 1973.

I’m thankful, actually, for all the crazy jobs, long hours, heavy gear, busted assignments, heartache, insecurity, overfull credit cards, flight delays, outright despair, and the general personal and professional mayhem that swirls about the act of being a photographer like a personal mini-twister. All that bad stuff is like the debris on the sides of the road of one of those post-apocalyptic movies. Stay the course, stay on the path, and it leads somewhere, like to the reward of a very occasional good picture. I’m thankful for that road,  and the many lifetimes spent on it, even though I walk it now not so much in purposeful, smooth strides, but more of a broke down shuffle, kind of like Wily Coyote after an unfortunate encounter with an oncoming train. It seems a small price to pay.

I’m thankful for the gang down at Tampa, the Kelby tribe. They define fairness and decency.

I’m thankful for all the pixels, even though I don’t need anymore than I already have. If I end up getting some more, I don’t know where I’ll put them. I came into the studio the other day and a whole bunch of them were hiding under my chair.

I’m thankful Ernst Haas made a book called The Creation. At the end of a tough day in the field, just looking at it is like taking a shower.

I’m thankful for Sid and Michelle Monroe, whose wonderful Santa Fe gallery remains a place I go to remind myself of why I continue to do this.

I’m thankful to the bunch of folks who read this blog, or come to a workshop, and engage in a passionate pursuit of be being a better photographer. That pursuit is life long, and worth it.

I’m thankful that Drew, Cali and Lynda in my studio put up with me. They are terrific colleagues, and wonderfully talented.

I’m thankful Derek Jeter continues to play baseball, excellently. And I think I’m thankful, at least on one level, that the NBA season is in the dumper. That means a disappointing showing by the Knicks will potentially be avoided, at least for a time.

I’m thankful for my kids. Claire likes school. Caitlin might yet find what is very beautiful and worthwhile inside of her.

I’m thankful Jay Maisel didn’t become a painter. I’m also glad he throws the f-bomb freely. Some folks might be offended. I think it’s just creative use of language.

I think I’m thankful for Vincent Laforet’s blog, even though I can’t even pronounce most of the stuff he talks about.

I think I’m thankful for Google Plus, though I don’t know how to work it yet. I know it’s important ’cause Dave Moser at NAPP kidded that he was going to punch me if I didn’t add him to a circle. I don’t know. I might hold off just to test if he’s serious or not. On the other hand, that might be unwise, ’cause of the many wonderful things Dave is, “kidder” might not be one of them.

I’m thankful for my ten year friendship with Donald Blake in Santa Fe. His wise and mischievous face is the cover of my new book. We are now bound together, via a picture, forever.

I’m thankful I’m still able to travel into the land beyond the yellow border. The folks at Geographic continue to tolerate me. I’m also thankful that NGS photogs are largely not included in most of the conference calls, and story pitches, and all those magazine machinations that need to occur. We’re field people. We don’t do well in an office, or in meetings, for lots of reasons, including the possibility that we might actually say what we’re thinking out loud. Best to just shut up and shoot.

I’m thankful I’ve been around long enough to have known Eisie, Gordon, Carl, and Mr. Mili. And to still know John Loengard, Ralph Morse, Jim Stanfield, David Douglas Duncan, Neil Leifer, Walter, Johnny I, and so many, many legends who have taken up a camera over time. Their work is the bedrock on which we all stand.

I’m thankful airplanes generally go interesting places, ’cause I’m on them a lot.

And this year, I’m thankful for ground transportation, in the form of a cartoon decorated bus that logged 14,500 miles across this country. For all the folks who saw fit to come out to Flashbus, many, many thanks. For DH, Jeff, Grippi, Lenz, Cali, Drew and Phil–all praise.

The above mentioned crew riding on an enclosed, wheel borne metal can for six weeks also makes me thankful for air freshener.

And yes, I’m thankful for manual.

And I’m thankful for camera manuals. And for the fact I’ve really never read them.

Once, a video producer, exasperated by my antics and non-sequitur behavior during the shoot, looked at my ever patient wife, Annie, and asked, “Is there an off switch?” Her response: “I’ve never looked for it.” For her kindness, decency, patience and love, I am forever thankful.