Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category
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.
Sitting in Atlanta Airport, a very familiar place, and trying to get home. This all started because of a capricious, nasty girl named Sandy, an evil child of Mother Nature. I started my trek in Copenhagen, where, looking back at home, and knowing trouble was closing in, I started making changes. I moved my flight up, as best I could. Re-routed, changed the itin, threw a dart at the wall, and Delta got me to Atlanta. Grabbed a hotel, and made my way back to the airport this morning about 5am. They said, incredibly, a flight to Westchester County Airport was gonna go. Pinch me, I’m dreamin’!
And, of course, I was. So I sit a bit, and have now placed my bets on Hartford and a flight that goes (???) in a couple hours. If it goes, I go. If not, I’ll continue to conjure a path home. My bag? Well, that puppy’s in for its own version of “The Incredible Journey,” one of my favorite books as a kid. I have confidence I will see it again, in a few days, or, perhaps more.
Here’s the thing. I’m pretty calm about this stuff. Resigned, perhaps, but also, it’s just another turn of the page. Whenever travel goes smoothly, I’m surprised. As I look out the window here in Hartsfield Airport, there are so many moving parts out there on the tarmac, all churning and chugging at once, I’m amazed anything works, at all, ever. And there are worse things than cooling your heels at an airport like this, which is basically a super sized mall. Sandy has done her worst to the folks on the ground who took the brunt of it. It’s heartbreaking to see the floods, the fires, and lost homes.
Part of the zen I have about travel is that I’ve done a lot of it, to be sure. My current account at Delta puts my history with them at about 1.6 million miles. They have their moments, to be sure, but they are basically a good airline. I’ve flown on airlines that are not good, and on flying machines that have definitely spoken to the virtues of a long walk.
I got on one such plane in Mogadishu, Somalia. I was working there, and the calendar was veering close to Christmas. I had gotten in on a Red Cross plane, but getting out on one of those was doubtful. The holidays were approaching, and the Red Cross personnel naturally, rightly, had priority on the limited seating over the lowly journalist. My guys, the Somalis who were translating and protecting me, told me they could get me out on a drug plane. They were strong with the Aidid clan, and that particular warlord controlled a dirt airstrip south of Mog where gutted Cessna prop planes would fly into Somalia with bales of khat, which the Somalis chew voraciously. It’s a plant which, when masticated, gives you an all day buzz. Which is an advisable thing, if you live in a place as strife torn and bereft of hope as Mog.
The “airport” itself was a cluster of dust, noise and third world chaos of Spielbergian dimensions. People were swarming up to these planes, trying to stuff goods, mail, and notes onto them, to try to get word to relatives in Kenya, which is where the planes would head back to. I struck a deal with a pilot, fought my way through the crowd, and threw my stuff in the back of the plane, which was stripped of seats to make room for what was basically enormous bags of weed.
People wouldn’t disengage from the plane. The pilot stepped forward on the small gangway, and struck the nearest person to him with two roundhouse blows that sent him reeling backwards into the crowd. He simultaneously shouted orders to his co-pilot to start the props, which he did, right in the middle of this swirling mass of people. The plane became like the center of an explosion, with engines roaring to life and people radiating rapidly away from it in a 360 degree pattern, like so much fast moving shrapnel. He slammed the door shut, slipped into his seat, and pushed the plane down the runway. A few seconds later, we were airborne.
I had been a month in Africa. I slumped, exhausted, on the floor of the Cessna, relieved to be going home two days before Christmas. The co-pilot twisted in his seat to look back at me. I looked back and raised my hand, and said, into the din of the props resounding through the empty shell of the plane, “Excuse me, I ordered the special meal?”
He tilted his head, and I think he was possibly thinking of shooting me. But then he smiled and turned back to the controls. I hit Nairobi Airport, walked to a counter, and found a flight home. More tk….
Ever wonder how a reindeer achieves aerodynamic lift? Or how many elves Santa actually employs? Who designed the sleigh? How many world leaders are actually informed about Santa’s flight path? (Closely guarded secret, mind you.) Why the North Pole, anyway? Do reindeer retire?
If these and other questions about Santa’s mythology circle through your head at this time of year, you might want to check out the 15th Anniversary Edition of the Flight of the Reindeer Did I say mythology? Hmmm…..might be time to reconsider that label.
As famed Polar explorer Will Steger relates in this tome, “Above us, gliding, were a hundred reindeer? Two hundred, five hundred! They coated the sky.” Please note, he said reindeer, not stars. Even staid Sir Edmund Hillary finally admits in Flight that he actually observed his companion Tenzing Norgay “placing some cookies and some chocolates…in the snow.” Figures, really. Highest point on the planet would be a good cookie break stop for the big guy in the red suit.
Seems that the author of this journalistic account of the actual how-to, behind the scenes look at Santa’s big night, Bob Sullivan, through exhaustive research via reliable sources found an entirely new species of reindeer, called Rangifer Tarandus Pearyi. It is from their ranks that the select few who fly the sled are chosen.
At the last printing of the book, Bill Clinton was President, and in fact, as also reported by The Boston Globe on December 25, 1996: “President Clinton signed an official proclamation this week ordering American airliners to be on ‘heightened alert’ last night as Santa Claus made his appointed Christmas Eve rounds. The President’s proclamation called on Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to ‘restrict all flight paths on all United States registered aircraft and all aircraft in or around the area of the North Pole on December 24th and 25th.’ The presidential action came in response to [information] that former President George Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that signing the Santa Clause executive order was among his finest moments in the White House . . . In Clinton’s proclamation, the President instructed all pilots flying near the North Pole ‘to be on heightened alert for red sleighs traveling at an expected speed of 650 miles per second at a cruising altitude of approximately 30,000 feet.’
The book has beautiful illustrations, maps and photos. Which of course got me to thinking. They need photos? I called Sully, the author, and Glenn Wolff, the illustrator ( I figured they must have connections, like, an email, or a cell number) and said, hey, please let them know up North I’m ready. I’ve worked a lot in Siberia, I’ve been backseat in tons of tactical aircraft, I’ve climbed stuff so I don’t fear heights, and I can work a camera pretty well. So, you know, after 35 years, I’m, you know, ready. They sent my request for media coverage to the North Pole, and I anxiously await. This is more nerve wracking than waiting for an Olympics credential to come through!
I sent my D3S cameras to Melville for clean, check and winterizing. Thankfully, shooting digital, ’cause when I used to try to load Kodachrome in the Arctic, the film leaders would just crack like crazy in my gloved fingers. Now–I got 32 gig Lexars. Figure a few of them will get me through. Put through a couple requests to position remotes as well. Whaddaya think lens-wise? Figuring two bodies, 24mm f1.4 for low light stuff. 14-24 for in close on the sleigh. 70-200′s gotta come. Fast 85? Probably smart. I know the big guy’s concerned about additional weight. (Kinda the pot callin’ the kettle, right? I’m just sayin’….) SB900 with an SD 9 bat pack. One flash. Lumiquest softbox. Couple warming gels, in case I get to do a blend with tree lights. Not going for remote flash stuff up there. Hot shoe stuff all the way. Throw in an SC-29 to get the light off the camera, but then what I am gonna hang on with, my toes? Might have to go straight flash, ride and shoot, ride and shoot. Gotta have at least one flash, though, ’cause all those chimneys are gonna be a bitch. Figure I’ll sling the whole mess in a Thinktank belt harness. Wave tool? Always handy, and Santa don’t do TSA.
This new printing is an anniversary edition, as I mentioned. Glad they brought it back, as it was a favorite for my kids back in their day. TIME for kids noted about the original: “Little kids love stories about Santa’s flying reindeer, but maybe you’re ready for something more scientific. Now you can read the not quite down-to-earth facts in Flight of the Reindeer by Robert Sullivan, illustrated by Glenn Wolff. Sullivan interviewed reindeer experts, historians, flight specialists and other ‘Santa’s helpers’ around the world. Their eyewitness accounts of reindeer streaking across starlit northern skies are, well, unbelievable. Wolff’s beautiful, detailed drawings show how the aerodynamics of reindeer flight are like airplane flight. . . .Secret details of reindeer flight are revealed. Did you know that all U.S. Presidents sign a ‘Santa Claus clause’ directing planes to clear North Pole airspace on Christmas Eve? That Dasher was hyperactive as a fawn? That the team has been together for 2,000 years? (Except for rookie Rudolph-just 1,500 years.) There’s incredible, detailed history here. Sullivan seems to be full of it!”
They’ve got a Facebook page going for the book, and I think they’ll be posting fitness reports on this year’s reindeer crew. I’ll let you know on the credential. More tk…..
In the midst of all this stuff about flash, digital, and color, harking back to available light…
Got a call not too long ago from Carly Simon’s folks. We worked together once, long time ago. I was still a pup, basically, shooting for People Magazine, and just starting my journeys for LIFE. The idea of working for Geographic was still just a glimmer, unobtainable, in the distance, a photographic mirage.
So when the call came, I was like, she remembers me??? Huh? Turns out, of course, I was not the memorable one, but one of my pictures, even after all this time, is among her favorites of her and her kids.
Sarah (Sally Maria) and Ben, her kids with James Taylor. Geez, talk about the deep end of the genetic pool. Good looking family, yes?
I was nervous as hell meeting her. Trying to be all things, funny, charming, light her well, figure it out, fill 6 pages, shoot a color cover and a B&W inside feature in about a day. Deep breath.
She made it simple by being so gracious and lovely. My personal favorite is below. By the window, with a book.
Easy going available light, Tri-x at 400. You could get a lot done, shooting this way.
And have some fun doing it.
Lovely lady with a big smile and an even bigger voice…..more tk….
Photographers. We’re strange, right? We can’t stop. We run when others walk. We work when others relax. We have no sense of weekends, holidays, time off, time on, or time in general, except as it relates to sunrise or set. When there’s a football game on TV, we aren’t looking always at the action on the field. We’re looking at the sidelines to see if any our buds are covering the game and how much of the long glass out there is black or white. We walk around like addled sumbitches, staring at strange stuff, hovering at the edge of human activity, aching to be accepted, dying for a moment, breathless in anticipation for that which mostly never happens. Curious behavior, at best. That’s putting it nicely. Most folks would just chalk it up to damn strange and tell their youngsters to stay away from us.
Maybe the word is hinky. We shake our heads, punch buttons on expensive cameras, eyeball perfect strangers, ask odd questions, and wait for light. What an odd thing to wait for. We also have restive, restless, roaming eyes. Eyes that don’t shut down. Eyes that often feel hemmed in or framed by a 35mm lens border, eyes that correspond to a 24-70, or a 200-400, depending on what they encounter. Eyes that curse the dumb conglomeration of plastic, brass and glass we place in front of them, asking that mix of pixels and wiring to be surrogate vision, supple as the real thing. Hah! We might as well ask a fucking toaster oven.
I walked out of a Starbucks the other day, in not a particularly good mood, but anticipating that the mix of 3 espressos with milk would marginally improve it. There were two men conversing at an outside table. One of them, just sitting there, was majestic, regal, even. His hands cupped a cigarette, joined loosely at his lap. I passed them. It took all of a half second.
But, when I got to the truck, I started feverishly ripping open my camera bags. Like a man in burning building fumbling for an oxygen mask, I tore open zippers, velcro, caps and covers, desperate to find a lens that might give me half a prayer of representing what I just saw. The hands. Those hands did something important. I knew it in a heartbeat. It was a pair of hands that I needed to photograph, and if I shut off the adrenaline pump, got lazy and slid into the comfort of the rental car and closed my eyes and surrendered to the latte, I would curse myself over and over again for being a feckless, useless photographer. (If you had encountered any of my early career wire service editors, you would be inclined to think it redundant to describe a photographer as useless. It was a descriptor often thrown my way, in between exasperated sighs and abundant profanity.)
So I grabbed a camera with a 70-200, and resolutely walked back to the men. They knew before I got within 10 feet of them I was going to ask. There was no tension, no fear, no clammy feeling in the gut that precedes so many photographic encounters. (Will they say no? Will they ridicule me? Beat me up? Demand money, my social security number and a financial statement?)
No. They accepted me before I opened my mouth. Those powerful hands caught footballs for a living. Still fit, the gentleman towered over me when he stood. He had a stint with the Cowboys, hence the pinkie ring. He knew Bob Hayes, the man who changed football forever. I photographed Hayes for Sports Illustrated, when they were doing a wrap up of legendary sprinters. He is the only man in history to win an Olympic gold medal, and a Super Bowl ring.
This remains one of my favorite portraits. Hayes had a tough go after football, and had legal and health problems. He died not too long after I shot this down at his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. At the Starbucks that day, the gentleman and I chatted about Bullet Bob. We laughed a bit. The connection was immediate, and sincere. We shook hands. My hand literally disappeared into his.
How wonderful is that? What a gift this camera I curse is! A flying carpet into people’s lives. A certitude that this time, I will be richer for putting my camera to my eye. There’s no money on the line here. Just human encounter. Here, now, the camera becomes an instant learning machine.
The camera’s not a camera, really. It’s an open door we need to walk through. It’s up to us to keep moving our feet. More tk…