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Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

Goodbye, Bird….

Apr 20

In Friends, history, Stories at 1:26am

In the summer of l976, a youthful goofball named Mark Fidrych blew fastballs past just about everybody with a bat in their hands on the way to a 19-9 record, a 2.34 ERA, and the Rookie of the Year award. America’s pastime grew more and more fun with each start, as the Detroit youngster with a ball cap stuffed onto the hay bale of hair on his head threw strikes, talked to the ball and skipped about the mound like a three year old in an FAO Schwartz.

He was having fun, and so were we. Then he blew out his arm. Tried a comeback or two, but the zip was gone, and hitters he once had in a trance were jumping on his stuff. As fast as he hit the national radar screen, he was gone, a rueful footnote. Dang, Mark. That sucked. It woulda been so much fun watching you pitch for a few more years. (I woulda loved to shoot him pitching, but SI never gave me that duty, knowing full well I can’t shoot anything moving faster than tree sap in the wintertime.)

One of SI’s big sellers every year is the “Where Are They Now?” issue. Where do all these big time athletes go? What is their life after the diamond, the field, the court, the rink?

Some years had passed, so Bird qualified for a “where are they now” treatment. The Bird was back on the radar. SI was wondering where he had flown. The editors conferred. “Hmmmm. Who do we send to take pictures of this zany, eccentric chatterbox of a former athlete who still seems to live in a fantasy world?”

The first time I met up with Mark, he was making a go of it as gentleman pig farmer just outside of Boston. He approached me and the story carefully, as one would who had the experience of the world’s media pounding on his door and screaming for his time and then blowing away like yesterday’s newspaper. He had learned the hard lessons of fame, and exactly how ephemeral all that bullshit really is. So we took it a step at a time.

But he warmed up. Didn’t take long. Mark was such a bubbling life force that he couldn’t hold himself back from engaging. Remember, he used to talk to the frikkin’ baseball on national TV. Reserved is not the adjective for Mark, at least for long.

We talked, we laughed. I got on my knees into a bunch of pig shit to shoot him. A neighbor’s youngster watching the whole deal called him a buckethead. I agreed. Then he called me that, too. Again, I agreed. A pair of bucketheads, out there in the mud.

More years passed. Once again, SI wanted to know about the Bird, and wanted to know big time, like, you know, cover story. “Lessee, Fidrych is still a nut job, right? McNally available?”

This time I went back out there at the behest of my dear friend Mo Grise, now Mo Cavanaugh. Jesus, I miss Mo at the other end of the line. As an editor, she was that wonderful blend of empathy, enthusiasm, love of photography and the engagement of people that making good pictures requires. She’s a mother of two now, with a third on the way, and I daresay, she left the picture game at SI just about the right time. We went up to Massachusetts together, to meet the Bird, along with another feathered creature, Sesame Street’s Big Bird.

Days like that are the reason I have been a shooter for 30 years. Dreams of more days like this are the reason I remain a shooter. Met Mark again, and we just smiled. One more time around the block. Pair of goofballs, out there now with a yellow, nine foot, talking bird.

I also rented some baby chicks, which Mo had a helluva time wrangling, cute as they were. Little suckers are apt to go anywhere. I put the tiny darlings all over Bird, and he got down in grass and played with ‘em just like, you know, a kid.

Lost the cover. Lost it to a grouping of the very first iteration of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. (I was shooting for SI, you may remember.) I’ve lost so many covers in my career, I don’t even think about ‘em. But this one stung, mostly cause, once again, Bird had ventured. He played the game, opened his door, and his heart, and didn’t get the cover. I felt bad in the way a field person does, that way that a NY managing editor with a regular table at Elaine’s can never know about. You make a bridge, right? You connect. You push a little, prod a touch, and do your job. You come back with pictures, and, on those best of days, something that remains in your heart. A good feeling. Maybe, even, a friend. You never, never promise anything, cause you know how it goes once you drop those pictures into the giant maw of a powerful weekly magazine.

But the promise is there, nonetheless, hanging in the air, the elephant in the corner everybody tries to ignore while they continue pleasant conversation. The cover. Hope I get it. Not for me. Really wanted it for him.

It went away. The story ran, and it was a good story, and by NY publishing calculus, everything was cool. “Hey, he got ink! Who’s he to complain? Story ran, he should feel lucky.”

Yeah, I guess.

It was a good story. One paragraph….

“To feed the hungry furnace of his mortgage, for instance, he now works as an independent subcontractor, laying sewer pipe and doing road repair with the aid of a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he bought in 1986 for $88,000. “The truck has kept the fahm goin’ and kept my life goin,” he says.  The other day, though, on a road repair job at afternoon drive time, he accidentally dug into a water main that had been mismarked on the macadam.  Which is how Fidrych–perhaps the most famous man in America during its bicentennial summer–found himself standing, forlornly, in the slapstick spray of God’s seltzer bottle. “I don’t know if you evah seen a broken watah main,” he says. “but 100 pounds of pressure through an eight-inch opening, that ain’t no small thing.” No, Indeed, and thus there appeared a geysah ovah Woostah.”

Now he’s gone, killed underneath that damn dump truck. I won’t go to see the Bird again, for another of our ten year reunions.

We had a prop jersey for the shoot. He signed it for me, and I have it framed. He simply said, “To Joe….what it is… Bird.”

Mark was what he was, at every moment. He threw a fast ball right into our hearts, and we loved him for it. Like Peter Pan, he always seemed suspended by wires, floating through a daydream of a life. I’m sure there were dark times, moments and memories. That was never shared with me. The Bird I knew, just a little, was a big kid with a big heart, a cartoon character with a Boston accent, and a slightly, wonderfully cockeyed view of life around him.

The last picture I made of him that day was the Bird walking with the Big Bird, over the hill, and through the grass. Laughing and chattering, as birds do.

Farewell, Mark. Godspeed. What a flight it was…….more tk…..

Still Bouncing Light….

Nov 17

In Equipment, Lighting, Seminars & Workshops, Stories at 7:24am

Out here still trying to get caught up to my life. Running behind everything, per usual. Hit Penn State on Friday, and did a small lighting workshop in the afternoon, and a lecture Friday night. The program at PSU  is driven by John Beale, veteran photojournalist from the Pitt Post Gazette, and Curt Chandler, who has forged alot of new ground in multi-media, both at the Post Gazette and at the Penn State program. Great school, great students, all of whom benefit enormously from the real world stuff that John and Curt bring to the party. Visit was orchestrated by my wife, Annie Cahill, from Nikon. It’s great to go with her to places where she is so obviously revered and see the fruits of the 80 hours a week she logs, the emails she returns, and her steadfast, disciplined, relentless professionalism. She brings it, 24/7. By comparison, I’m a non-stop goofball.

Nikon supports the Penn State phojo program, so it was fun couple of hours mixing it up with students and small flash. Sarah, a photo/theater arts major was volunteered to be a subject and turned out to one of those smile machines for whom it is impossible to look bad in a photo. Per usual, she was cringing at all her pix, and my standard response to someone as effortlessly wonderful in front of the camera as she is to remark, “Oh, so if you think you take a bad picture what are the rest of us supposed to do? Put a bullet in our brains??!!”

Used white light flash with incandescent balance to push the look into the cool realm, given the blue seats. Used overhead 3×3 Lastolite and fill bounce off the gold reflector sheet that comes in the Lastolite kit. Zapped a backlight snooted courtesy of Honl. Simple. Fun. About a ten minute portrait or so, with all our yakkin’. Michelle Bixby, another student lens lugger (who was just published in USNWR) volunteered as a subject, which was great cause she gave the folding theater seat a run for its money the way she kind of did a transformer type thing to get all her legs and arms into the frame.

The big upside for us of course, was that John swung a couple of shooting credentials for the Penn State-Indiana football game on Saturday, which, given the blue and white football fever of State College, Pa., is kind of like dialing up a couple of front row seats for Obama’s inauguaral. It was way cool. I hadn’t shot a football game in about 20 plus years, so the rust was pretty thick, plus the fact that even when I was doing it as part of my living I wasn’t very good at it.

Last time I shot, of course, it was all manual focus stuff, and the dividing line between the men and they boys (and trust me, I was one of the boys) was the ability to follow focus. I was a contract shooter with SI at the time, and I saw up close magicians like John Biever, Walter Iooss, Heinz Klutmeier, Johnny I, and Manny Milan just knock it back game after game. You could hang these guys upside down with one eye closed and a bug in the other and they would still be able to fine tune the focus on a 400 or so. Biever especially, had radar. (I think he might have had a contract on the side with Lockheed, when they were developing stealth systems.)

The lenses sucked, too, by comparison to what we have now. I had a 300mm f4.5 that was sharp when you shoved it to critical focus and all, it just took about a week or so to get it there. I put it to my eye once and watched a critter make its way across one of the interior lens elements. It looked like a little inchworm, swear to God. Called NPS and told ‘em there’s something alive inside my 300 and they said it wasn’t just possible, it was highly likely. I used that puppy in the rain constantly, and there was no aqua-techie, Kata raingear and stuff like that. I didn’t want to use it after that, cause with my imagination I kept seeing this eyeball sucking, multi-fanged squiggly thing like the ones in Aliens poppin’ outta my eyepiece, boring its way into my skull and chewin’ up all my inside wiring. Yecchhh!

Anyway, did all right as a first timer in a long whiles. Was shooting the 200-400 f4 which is a non-stop wonder of a lens. The D3 fears not the rain and the gloom cause ISO 1600 looks like frikkin’ Kodachrome. The shot above is a ISO 3200 frame, cropped in half. Crazy. Nice fillip on the D3 is you can program DX crop into your function button, so if the action is on the other side of the field you can add reach to the lens with one flick.

Me and my honey at the ball game. Annie manages to pull off radiant, beatific, even, in a downpour wearing a garbage bag. My face looks like they just used it for punting practice.

Photo courtesy of John Beale…


On the way home, over the sounds of the rain drumming and Faith Hill on the country station, we heard…. the sound of a tire rim on concrete? Oh, yeah, Annie’s Honda was skating all over Rt. 80 for a minute while we pulled over, to find that Honda made their jack a tad too short! Wonderful. Maxed out, I still needed another at least half inch to push on the spare. Hmmmm…..no wood block. If I was still shooting a Nikon F, I coulda used that, but wasn’t gonna get medieval with one of my D3′s, and then remembered I had a c-stand! Pulled out the turtle base, put the jack on it, and changed the damn tire.

One of the reasons the blog’s been up and down is I am crashing, late of course, the final writing on my new book, The Hot Shoe Diaries, Big Light From Small Flashes. It’s been kicking my ass. Almost done though, and should be out in about a month or so.

In it, we’ll cover…BRIDES IN THE WOODS! YIKES!


As Donald said that day, “Joe, where the hell is Israel?”





Stalking the Wild Leaf

Oct 8

In Seminars & Workshops, Stories at 11:02am

These new cameras are amazing, I tell ya. I fell down on a DLWS shoot and the camera went off and I got this. Cool. Outright cold, as a matter of fact. It was freezin’ out there, stumbling around in the pre-dawn. We were at Calvin Coolidge’s summer vacation estate, and were blessed with good light and frost everywhere. I shot this with the unbelievably sharp Nikkor 105 f2.8 micro and just let it rip on a buffer upgraded D3 writing to a Lexar 8 gigger UDMA card. That combo just smokes, which I was very happy about cause this landscape photography game is rough, man. It’s early morning, I’ve had no coffee, and I’ve just done a face plant on frosted grass, trying to concentrate, and focus, and compose, and remember to program minus EV into the camera, and think about the picture and all the while Mr. Winky’s turning into a popsicle. Sheesh. Time for consecutive high on the motor.

It’s been a rough week. I flew from San Fran to Kennedy last Thursday. Cheapie ticket, but I got up front because I fly Delta so much I usually end up in the running for one of the wide ass recliners. Guy next to me was a hard charger for sure. Sat down, and started reading the paper and immediately threw a section down on the armrest which spilled over into my seat by about 2 inches.

Aha! Armrest competition! Ze games are afoot! Nothing turns me into Hellboy faster.

I immediately put my elbow down on the paper. Now he has to ask me permission to read the rest of the news of the day. Screw with me, eh, pal?

Next I took a spare section of the Times and folded it and slapped it down on the arm rest, so at least 3 inches of it (with guys it always comes down to inches) spilled over on his side, plus making sure it was the folded bit, with a sharp edge, right there over his knee.

Heh heh heh! I positively revel in this immature playground bullshit. Too bad its not AeroMexico. I coulda been a real charmer and double ordered refried beans just blasted my way to JFK.

The paper thing hadda be uncomfortable, but he said nothing. I shoulda been more sympathetic, cause he was reading the Wall St. Journal, so he mighta been a number pusher and things are probably shaky at the office and maybe he just hadda sell one of his homes or some shore property cause he’s worried that little Johnny might not get the GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip for Christmas. Me, I ain’t got a job, so relatively worry free on that level. I’m not gonna make myself redundant, as the English say. I’m a photographer, and trust me, that’s redundant enough:-)

Now, to get real annoying, I pull out my D3 and turn on the vertical horizon thingy and put on my Bose noise reduction babies and start making like I’m flying the airplane complete with sound effects. Swear to God. He’s looking at me now like I’m nuts and he wants to push the attendant call button, but he’s too cool to do it.

He takes the paper off the armrest and leaves me alone for the rest of the flight. More tk.

That Day, Again

Sep 15

In Stories at 12:01am

We’re seven years downriver from the day that everything changed. I spent the morning, as I have since then, at Ladder Nine/Engine 33 on Great Jones Street in NYC. These two companies lost 10 men on 9/11.

I’m not part of the house, obviously, so I just stand in the back, simply to pay respects. This year, for the first time in 7 years, I made a frame.

They were the first house I approached with the notion of coming to the giant Polaroid camera for the project that came to be known as Faces of Ground Zero. I went there cause they were literally around the corner from the Polaroid studio. All I had to show them was a 4’x9’ Polaroid of a ballerina in a tutu.

When I rolled it out on the firehouse floor, the reactions were predictable.

These were all I had to show as examples of work. For the one opportunity I had to work the camera prior to 9/11, I had invited Jennifer Ringer, an incredibly lovely dancer, and a principal with the NYC Ballet. She was gracious enough to help me out that day, and I gave her one of the giant Polaroids. She was amazing, staying on pointe in the dark while we spooled up the camera, nailing her position time and time again. (At f45, the camera has only a half inch of depth of field.)

Despite the firehouse banter, that print must have left an impression, cause later that evening came the rap of a halligan against the steel door of the giant Polaroid studio. I opened it, and the company had rolled the truck around to 2nd St. Firefighters poured into the studio.

I worked fast, cause being an active company, they could get called out at anytime. The very first guy to step in front of the lens was John Baldassarre, now the lieutenant at the house. John, a natural leader, broke the ice. The rest of the guys stepped up, and the project grew. Soon, on 2nd St., there would be firetrucks, ESU units, paramedic emergency vehicles, patrol cars, the bomb squad, and, eventually, Mayor Giuliani’s security detail. Along with a bunch of ordinary New Yorkers, all of whom became extraordinary during that desperate time.

I’ve become friends over time with numerous folks who came to the camera, among them Mike and Nuri Wernick. I’ve mentioned them in my blog before. Super people, super couple. Mike was a veteran firefighter at Ladder Nine, survivor of the 93 WTC bombing, and among the first responders on 9/11. He and Nuri run Rising Wolf Garage, one of the only motorcycle garages in all of NY.

It was a natural thing then, for young firefighter Gerard Baptiste to turn to Mike for advice on buying a motorcycle. Gerard had his eye on a real beat up old Honda CB750. A fixer-upper, to put it mildly, seeing as it cost $100, street sale price in the East Village. Along with some other guys in the house, Mike advised against buying the bike.

Gerard was determined, however, and eventually pushed this two wheeled rust bucket in through the firehouse doors, and leaned it against the back wall. It had “long term project” written all over it.

Then Gerard jumped on the truck on 9/11. He was one of the 10 who did not return.

The bike stayed at the back of the house, a reminder of a promise unfulfilled. Until Gerard’s brother firefighters at Ladder 9 and his previous company, Engine 220, got together with corporate support from Honda, and turned the bike into what is now called the FDNY Dream Bike. A small documentary film was made, which you can get a flavor of on youtube.

Fifteen months of restoration later, that old fire sale Honda became the FDNY Dream Bike. (Picture Credit: Kickstart Productions)

It is currently on view at FASNY, the Museum of Firefighting, in Hudson, NY, which houses the biggest and most inspirational collection of firefighting artifacts I have ever seen.

This bike, though, can’t really be described as an artifact, or a display, or a piece of memorabilia. It is the two wheeled dream of a young firefighter who never came back.

Many, Many Thanks

Jul 14

In Lighting, Stories, Thoughts at 11:12am

To everyone who read last week’s blog, and to those who have commented so graciously. As I mentioned, the greatest reward of doing that project has been meeting a very special group of people, and the lasting friendships that have resulted.

Lots of folks asked about contributions. I mentioned Ellen Price, who is the curator, and she can be reached at epriceinc@earthlink.net. She has worked incredibly hard at keeping the pictures on people’s minds, and putting it forward, especially to the folks making decisions down at the Memorial Museum. She also has obtained NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) status for the collection. If you email her, she can give you a link to the Foundation. Any funds accrued there would go to the care and feeding of the pictures. No money comes to my studio. For me, for now, thanks to the partnership at Adorama, the collection and the storage will remain stable for some time to come. Hoping of course, that they actually start building the memorial, which is an emotionally charged, tortuous process. Getting everybody on the same page in NY is a long haul, to be sure.


The above pix from the bad old days in NY, when I started at the New York Daily News….

Dudley and a couple folks were inquiring on Flickr about recent settings I used in a Kelby Training Video, specifically using 1/60th @ f5.6 as a kind of middle of the road starting point. Speculation was that using a sixtieth could introduce camera shake, and why wouldn’t I go to a higher sync? I think that was kind of the basis of the thread.

There was some further thinking along the lines that I’m an old newspaper dog, and that’s what I grew up with, and…they’re right. Youse guys got it knocked! Sixtieth used to be top end for shutter sync when I first took a camera in my hands. Old habits die hard, what can I say? I’ve always felt comfortable there, hand holding a camera when using flash, especially when I am dominating the exposure with that flash. (Pretty much figure I could throw the camera in the air at a sixtieth with flash and come away with something sharp. Come to think of it, most of my better pictures were made that way:-)

There’s more of course, just a bit of personal history. The Daily News was a real union shop. You went from being a boy on the newsroom floor, a copy boy, specifically, to being a boy in the studio, as what they called a studio apprentice. You weren’t a man until you went on the street as a shooter. Apprentices would do jobs like maintain the Versamats (70′s style processors, sort of like throwing your film into a wood chipper), captioning, filing, all the boring studio stuff. I was running the machines one day and the “Inquiring Photographer” came in with his roll of 20 exposure Tri-x. He was the guy who would ask people questions on the street, like, nowadays it might be, “How do you feel about the Governor playing grab ass with high priced call girls while running the business of the state?” He would write down their comments, take their head shot, and that was that. He had been doing this for, oh, about 75 years.

So he gives me the roll, and I stuff it into the machine, and it comes out blank. (That wasn’t an uncommon result for some of the guys at the News.) I brought it to him and he naturally blamed me, and started ranting and raving. “What did you do to my film?!!” I told him there had to be a problem with his camera, or he had made a mistake. He looked at me and said he couldn’t have made a mistake, he had shot it at a sixtieth @ 5.6!

And then it dawned on me. This guy had been on the streets for a major metro daily for years, and he thought the entire world was set at 1/60th @ f5.6. Okey dokey! That’s what I thought, too!

As boys back in the studio, we never took any of this shit particularly seriously. We would just roll our eyes, and try to have some fun. Passing the time could include inserting old style flash bulbs into the sockets of the boss’ office desk lamp, or tormenting some of the more colorful members of the staff. DJ was still on the street back then, even though his eyes were fading. He was a true NY original, and a dirty old man. Vain to a fault, he also wore a wig. This presented possibilities.

John Roca, still a terrific shooter, still at the News, and I got a small picture out of a girly magazine and taped it to the work desk just below the air intake for the pneumatic tubes that would powerfully suck the plexi containers filled with deadline pictures out to the photo desk. It made a big hissing sound, and you would insert the container, and with a big Thwock! it shot out to editors in the massive newsroom.

The picture was small, as I say, and taped down. Yo, D! Hey take a look at this! He can’t see shit of course until he bends his head over about 6 inches from the image of this young lady, and thus right in the firing line of the tube. BOOM! Roca and I hit the switch. This hairpiece just lifted right off Danny’s head and started traveling to the news room when, Danny managed to slap the top of his head and catch a couple of strands. Those strands held, and he hung onto his rug. All for the best, really, cause out in the newsroom they were waiting on page one, and not a wig to come flying out of the tube.

Anyway, I sort of have this background emotional attachment to that f-stop/shutter combo. Silly, really. I do embrace the faster syncs we have now, for sure. One of the most powerful tools in our bags. Gives us enormous control over difficult lighting situations and moving subjects. Another thing that I should really let go of, is the fact that in the days of radio triggers not being anywhere near as sophisticated as they are now, there was always a danger of clipping the radio signal at higher shutters. For instance, at SI, historically, whenever we would light a court or an arena, we used to drop a hard wire out of the ceiling (they might still do it as backup, dunno) so we could hard sync via zip wire to the Speedos in the rafters. Using a radio to trigger at 250th would often fail, cause the signal would have to travel too far to the packs, and by the time they triggered, your shutter would be closed. Never a problem in the studio, cause the radio signal doesn’t have to go far, but that sort of history lingers in my head, so I’m cautious, I guess you would say.


Friday night in the meat district…..SB900 on the background, SB200 for the portrait. What is this man doing? More tk.