Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category
In Friends, News, Thoughts, Upcoming Events at 8:41am
Lessee….bunch of stuff….this just in, from David Hobby….many thanks to him from one half of JoeBob….me and Bob Krist did have a punch up on the new 900 video, and we’re thinking of doing a tag team guest appearance now on WWE;-) I loved Joe Bob’s reviews. Just loved ‘em. My kind of movies always scored well, in other words, those kind of movies where stuff blows up, the women are as fast and sleek as the cars, and there is a subtle exploration of the nuances, depths and shadings of the human condition…you know the kind of movie I’m talking about….sort of a “Harold and Maude Meet the Killer Bugs from Ice Planet X” type of thing.
David’s onto something with that chainsaw. I think I’ll put it in my cargo bags, and it’ll be the first thing I bring out on location when I get to someone’s house. Kind of an ice breaker, ya know? More on that tk…
Many thanks to Scott Kelby for the mention of the Geographic cover story this month. I’ve shot for the yellow magazine for over 20 years now, which is wild to think about. For me, it’s just humbling to share ink with folks who have gone before, like Jim Stanfield, Bill Allard, Sam Abell, Jim Richardson….list goes on. More on adventures with Wilma, our striking cover subject, in blogs tk.
Ahh, location work. Shooting the spread above, we slid into a Spanish national park at sunrise, because it offered the only glimpse of the type of rocky terrain Wilma and her cohorts most likely experienced in their day. The cave where they found the new Neanderthal DNA, about 30 klicks away, is now surrounded by deciduous forest. I was a tad nervous, as we unloaded things, cause we did not have a permit to shoot in the park.
I’ve snuck into more places and shot pictures from more spots that I ain’ supposed to be than I can remember. Nothing unusual about that. Most photogs wouldn’t have a portfolio to show if they actually listened to the word “no.” And there are lots of folks out there with the word “no” already teed up on the tips of their tongues. I call ‘em the walkie talkie assholes. Give somebody a 3 week course, a flashlight and a walkie talkie, and they can ruin your day. But I digress.
I was more worried about the light. Sunrise was not looking good. Pulled out an Elinchrom Ranger pack, which is my field light of choice. Gelled it warm and slapped a tight grid spot on it. Made some decent pix, but there was no rationale for this warm golden light hitting Wilma’s face, while the rest of the world was obviously gray.
But I should remember this morning the next time the light don’t work out, but, being a photog, I probably won’t. A slice of sunrise came through a break in the Eastern clouds, and hit the rock face behind Wilma. It was all I needed. I got about 10 frames and we were done.
Then we decided to move Wilma and give it another go, as it were. She is, well, not a delicate flower. She is 200 pounds of silicone wrapped around a steel frame. The best way to lift her is to circle round back, crouch a little bit, throw your arms around her ample pelvis, and basically give her a good, hard shag. Up she goes off her pedestal, and then you can trundle her, rather ingloriously, wherever you want.
We were in the process of doing this when around the corner came a patrol car with two Spanish National Park rangers in it. “Hola!” “Yes, she is naked!. But she’s not real! No, its not what you think. See? She’s not inflatable!” The whole thing had to have looked hinky and kinky at the same time.
Luckily, one of our party spoke fluent and evidently persuasive Spanish, and engaged the officers while I told Brad to take the shot cards and put ‘em someplace the sun don’t shine. We were allowed to leave, along with Wilma. I miss her, actually. When she was wrapped back up in bubbles for her drive back to the Netherlands, it was quite emotional. I told her it would be alright. Even if we never see each other again, we’ll always have Spain.
Photo East is coming up, and the toy warehouse will be spilling all over the Javits Center in NY, with widgets, gadgets, biddybops, thingamawhooziewhatzis, fast glass, smart cameras, whopper hard drives, and a lot of yakkin ’bout pictures. I’ll be doing some of it myself, teaching small flash on Thursday morning, doing a couple stints in the Nikon Booth, and signing some posters for Epson.
A word about Epson and Dano Steinhardt. I ain’t exactly Moose Peterson, JP Caponigro, Jay Maisel or any of these kind of master printer/shooter guys, but Dano continues to be an enormous source of faith and support for my studio, year after year. He is one of those guys who stays in the background, facilitating photographers, showing them the latest and greatest Epson stuff that in turn makes their stuff look great, and all the while, one of the best kept secrets in the industry is that Dano is one helluva shooter. He makes incredibly beautiful imagery out of things most of us walk right by. I think the key here is seeing photographs. He sees. And then he distills all the jumble and cacophony that attends just about any walkabout of modern life into clean lines and stunning symmetry that makes sense, not to mention beautiful pictures.
Same thing can be said about Kriss Brungrabber and Mark Astman of the Bogen Corporation. Their commitment is unflagging in support of photogs, and photographic education. If we decide to do something together, we do it on handshake, and its a done deal. Good people, and Mark in particular, who has been out on a bunch of my workshops, is a striking presence as a photo subject. Sort of a William Holden who knows everything about Elinchrom flashes:-) I’ll be hanging in the Bogen booth a bunch, with my buds Bill Frakes, Drew Gardner, and of course, Moose.
Strikes me a whole bunch of the yakkin’ about to occur on the West Side of NY is gonna be about light, and lighting, which means flash. Hmmmm…..interesting thing, this flash stuff. Lots of folks playing with it, yanking it around, trying different stuff, myself included. It’s all good, some of it is even really good. But it gets me to thinkin’, always a dangerous thing.
I really feel alot of the conversations about flash and light we’re having nowadays wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for Greg. When I say “Greg” I mean Heisler. To me, he’s always been one of the one name photogs, up there with Annie and Avedon.
Greg changed the way we all see. He burst onto the magazine photo scene in NY, oh, about 1980 or so, trotting out Norman 200B’s, gels, camera work and color that popped our eyes, stopped our hearts, and made for legions of imitators, myself included. He started working for Geo, LIFE and doing annuals for outfits like RCA (Remember that name? Remember the dog and the victrola?) and doing special projects like Day in the Life Australia.
His take outta the land of Oz just flat out flattened folks. He brought to the pages of that book color and drama that had legions of experienced shooters looking around and going “Wassup???” And of course the next question was, “How do I do dat?”
In the years since, Greg has shot about a bazillion TIME covers, and done it all, from the movie lots to the halls of state. No one has done it better, or with more panache and versatility. He single-handedly changed magazine photography by introducing a “look” (I might call it style) that all of sudden re-directed the missions of magazines and editors everywhere.
Olympic athletes have been one of his fortes. I’ve been involved with Olympians to a degree as well. You know, every four years, you get a call and start working with these amazing athletes. Its been fun to do. And every four years, like clockwork, I have had my ass kicked. I would shoot somebody, think it worked real well, and then Greg bombs into town for a day, no less, and leaves with this ass kicking TIME cover. Frustrating. Maddening. Inspiring. Head shaking. In a word….Greg. A look see at his website is a must.
I joshed a bit the other day about our precarious place in the tachycardiac economic universe, prompted by yet another edition of the ongoing black humor fest Bill D. and I have been engaged in now for, oh, about 20 years. Things are admittedly a bit terrifying of late, which in its own way is reassuring.
Hear me out. Engaging in anything creative pushes the meter anywhere from uncomfortable to risky to flat out screaming bejeesus anxiety attack status. Just does. Couple that with the uncertain (now there’s one way to put it) nature of being a shooter and trying to make a living at this, especially now, and you can see your way to terrifying real easy. But, when has this not been terrifying? So there you go. At least that hasn’t changed a whit, and immediately we’re back to reassuring. Stable, even.
Whew! Nothing like a big, fat juicy rationalization or 30 or 40 to get you through the day!
As the bhagwan says, the only constant is change, and that dude is definitely onto something.
I grew up shooting for mom and dad’s magazines. You know, National Geographic, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek. Change has hit those books hard and they have come in for some rough sledding. LIFE of course, after giving Lazarus a run for his money, finally gave it up for good. When I was a staffer there, I would always note that it was appropriately titled, seeing as it would reincarnate endlessly. And, of course, “Death” didn’t test well.
Nat Geo is still kicking, and bless ‘em, they’ve kept me a bit busy this year. I tell ya, though, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in the field and somebody said, “Oh yeah, my mom and dad used to get that. The attic was full of old issues.” That usually produces from me a strained smile that is more akin to a grimace than an expression of shared joy and reminiscence. Much more likely now, though, you get, “National Geographic, dude, cool! When’s this gonna be on?”
No, no, young person. This is for the printed page. It has no buttons or blinking lights. You don’t turn it on. I hear that from a teenager and my D3 feels like some parchment and a quill pen.
All this uncertainty is okay, though. I’ve been fired from almost every job I’ve ever had, so by now, I guess I’m comfortable with not knowing where the next assignment or check might be coming from. I was fired from my very first job in journalism in NY, at the NY Daily News. It was fun while it lasted. I’m still friends with some of the gang there, though the real classic old characters have long since shot their last holder.
My bud Johnny Roca, a terrific street smart shooter and all around NY original is still there, 35 years in. Quintessential ladies’ man who had a phone booth of an apartment in Tudor City with nothing in it but a circular bed and an entertainment system. The whole staff would live vicariously through John and his tales of leggy women in the windswept dunes of the Hamptons, where he would regularly seclude himself for much of the summer.
One year he had copped himself a good chunk of freelance work and bought a convertible Mercedes. He called me up. “Joe, Joe, you can’t believe it. I got women diving in the car with me, they’re diving in the car. It puts out a male scent, I swear to God.” He would tell tales of his exploits and a bunch of the photo guys’ eyes would glaze over in rapture. Of course it wasn’t that tough a crowd to impress, as many had, you know, a house in Massapequa, a battle axe for a wife and their groins had stopped working sometime during the Truman administration. Their idea of really cutting loose on a weekend was to pop open a brewski and fire up the weed wacker.
I don’t have 35 years in anywhere, having been fired from the News during the Pleistocene Era, and, from that point taken, well, a different road. Not so much a road, really, more of a cow path. But back then, I was bent on being a newspaper guy. Johnny and I would ban together as apprentices in the studio, waiting for a spot on the street to break open. We would pass the time by complaining to Al Pucci, the lab manager, about our schedule. Al was a lovely, decent man with one helluva stutter. (Think K-k-k-Ken in A Fish Called Wanda. “Otto tried to k-k-k-k-kiss me….”) It was one of those painfully wonderful moments in life that would occur when Bill Umstead, managing editor, crashing the night owl at 5:30 would scream over the newsroom intercom about where the hell was his page one, and poor Al, also on the blower, under pressure, on deadline, would attempt an answer.
The silver lining in this of course was that, if page one was not ready at that moment, Al’s crafting of a response would give the printers a bit of extra time to slosh the print through the fixer and slap it on the drum dryer.
The printers were a cool bunch. Union to the core, and utterly unflappable, seeing as one of the chemicals in regular employ back there in the dark, right next to the dektol and the hypo, was Johnny Walker Black. (Does wonders for a flat neg.) They had unique skills. Soon after the night owl went to bed, the presses would start to roll, and literally, the entire building would start shaking. At that point, getting a sharp print meant that the enlarger had to be oscillating at the same frequency as the print easel, and boy these guys had that down pat.
They spoke their mind, too. Bobby Hayes, master printer and ex-jar head, was hammered a great deal of the time, and come one newsroom Christmas party time, had a brisk exchange with Mike O’Neill, the exec editor. The News would give out Christmas bonuses every year, based on length of service, but it was ridiculous. Guys with 30 years in would get, like, 300 bucks. O’Neill, a glad hander who spoke like his mouth was full of marbles, was working the crowd, and had the occasion to wish Bobby Christmas tidings. Bobby was appreciative. He thanked Mike for his bonus, but added something along the lines of, “Usually, when I get fucked, I like to be lying down in a dark room.” O’Neill mumbled something like, “Sorry to hear you feel that way, Bobby,” and meandered off in search of some egg nog.
Anyway, back in the lab, Johnny and I would appeal to Al’s better instincts to make our skeds more regular and desirable and Al would simply say, “Y-y-y-y-you boys want a regular schedule? Get a job in a b-b-b-b-b-bank.”
Never did that, either, cause I suck at math. It was the freelance photo life for me. Until I got a staffer job at LIFE, of course. I got fired from that one, too. In the waning days, they brought in some dipstick of an efficiency expert to go around and see if corners could be cut. He came into my office and I fruitlessly tried to explain that photography couldn’t be metered on an efficiency scale, couldn’t be plotted or graphed and wages and hours and time spent didn’t necessarily add up to usable “product,” to borrow his term.
None of it washed, or even dented his numerically driven psyche. He tried to prove his point by singling out one of my pictures, and telling me, while jabbing his finger at it, that he just didn’t understand that photo.
I told him that was vastly reassuring. I was fired soon thereafter. Actually not. In Time Warner parlance, I was “riffed.” (Reduction in force.)
SI is still going strong, though not according to upper management who would have you believe that their poor magazine is the equivalent of the guy on the street with a tin cup and an eye patch. (They would try to convince you of this from their regular table at Elaine’s.) Steve Fine and Jimmy Colton, the bosses in photo, routinely do more and more with less and less, witness SI’s stellar photography outta Beijing.
Colton and I go way back. As kids together we were over in Poland for the first papal trip JP2 made to his homeland. Talk about doing more with less. Newsweek was always a distant second to Time in money and resources. As Jimmy used to say, “Time is a hospital and Newsweek’s a mash unit.”
I was designated as the courier to get Newsweek’s last batch of deadline Ektachrome back to NY. Sheesh, was I nervous, sitting in the bare bones waiting room of the then Communist Warsaw airport, clutching a bag of about 200 rolls representing the efforts of some 7 or 8 fellow photogs. I was routed outta Poland to Zurich, where I picked up Swiss Air, first class. The home office knew the trip had been hell, and sprang for a seat up front.
Hot damn! First class on Swiss Air! The flight attendants were super nice, constantly filling my plate with fancy foods, even though I’m sure they were mildly bemused by having someone whose face more likely belonged on the side of a milk carton than in one of their first class recliners. That stuff, by the way, doesn’t happen anymore. Tough enough to get a day rate, much less a first class ticket.
Called Jimmy at the beginning of the Beijing Olympics, and told him my ruse worked. He was like, “What?” I told him I had circulated a rumor on the internet of a major sporting event happening in China, and SI took it, hook, line and sinker and sent their entire staff out of the country, creating a wonderful window for us lonely freelancers. We had a good laugh, but I didn’t get a job out of it. Last day I worked for them was last November, when I put Shawn Johnson on a balance beam in an Iowa cornfield. One day job, which produced the lead double truck for their Year In Pix female athlete portfolio last December.
Didn’t like what ran.
Would have preferred this.
What I really would have preferred is for the clouds to hold off for a bit longer, but no. Slogging a 300 or so pound balance beam outta the Iowa mud was one of the aspects of photography I don’t believe they dwell on at say, Brooks or RIT.
It ain’t the way it used to be, but what is? There’s never been any guarantees, or forgiveness, or for the last 10 or more years, fairness, in this industry. But here’s the thing.
We are out there, in the air, in the world. We don’t go to a cubicle farm everyday and stair at dismaying numbers on a screen. We make pictures. At the end of the day, we create something potentially significant that did not exist at the beginning of the day. We go forward, despite the uncertainty. Because this is an act of love and passion, which defies reason and prudence.
And we make that occasional good frame, the one that sings, the one that lifts our hearts and the hearts of everyone who sees it. That well and truly is as good as it gets. More tk.
Tom. July 11th, in his backyard in New Jersey. Father, fighter, lover of photography.
In his words:
In March of 2005, after a long battle with nine herniations in my spine, surgery to remove two of them had to be done. The surgery was a complete success and as soon as I awoke from the 10 hour operation, I began to look forward to my life with my son, Jared. Finally, I would not be stuck to a bed, couch or wheelchair. E ven when I could not walk or play with my son or make him breakfast, I never let a negative thought in my mind. I had nothing but a positive attitude and knew what I was up against. Thankfully, the odds seemed pretty darn good in my favor.
It was perhaps just two weeks later, after the intense yet very successful surgery, that some very strange things started to happen. Severe cramps, shocks throughout my body, stuttering and, well, a buffet of conditions that are simply too long to write about. We were concerned not only with blood clots forming, but it seemed that something had gone wrong during the surgery. These conditions went one for months. I endured dozens of painful tests and numerous cocktails of different medications to see what would curtail these symptoms, all to no avail. Finally an MRI of both brain and spinal cord revealed to all of us that the trauma of the surgery had awoken a dormant condition in my body that carried the label “MS”.
Now, after three years of being a warrior fighting MS, I was losing. This was impossible for me to accept, as I have a 12 year old son to raise and teach all the things that he needs to know about being a good man. I want to show him how to treat people fairly , how to have passion for what he chooses (no matter what it is) and most of all, how to have kindness in his heart. But the MS was getting the better of me and I was giving up hope. Quite frankly, I was becoming tired of fighting it. It was both embarrassing and painful to have to tell my son ” no” all the time. I began to think of ways to fight harder and could not come up with anything. Being somewhat of a serious hobby photographer, I tried to turn my vision of fighting into a picture and failed continually. My pictures kept reminding me that I had MS, not that I was fighting for a cause to be able to raise Jared. Then I had a thought of making a picture, my son and I in the foreground with all my dozens of MRI’s behind us . To me, somehow this would say “no matter what, I will win and raise this boy”. The problem was, I had no idea how to take this picture.
Every morning I would wake up with this photo in my mind. I never felt more strongly about anything that would help me continue to fight and give me renewed strength and cause to go on.
Like so many photographers, I had recently purchased Joe McNally’s book, “The Moment It Clicks”. The idea came to mind to just write to him, share my vision and see if he could guide me into making this picture. I explained all of this in an email to Joe. At that point, I figured I had nothing to lose by asking. Several days later, I received an email back from Joe that very simply stated , “let’s do this”. One week later, Joe and his first assistant, Brad Moore , arrived at my humble town-home and began to set up an actual studio in my backyard. I couldn’t stay outside in the heat too much to watch. However, when I walked out of my home, it was as if I walked into an indoor professional studio that was part of the house. It seemed that, after some discussion with Joe and his studio manager, Lynn, he realized my vision exactly and they worked together to come up with ideas to make this picture. In order to execute this picture, Joe and his entire staff asked me the right questions and listened to my thoughts . They helped me turn my vision into a picture.
What Joe and his staff did not know is, that while I have the willingness to fight, I was losing hope. Living in pain every moment takes it’s toll. I was beginning to live in a very dark place.
I knew that this picture might give me a chance to turn my hope around. It’s already begun.
I’m still pretty new to blogging, and truth be told, I enjoy it. I went to school thinking I’d be a sports writer, covering some basketball beat for a metro daily, trying to infuse the big biz of modern sports with a bit of old timey Frazier-to-DeBusschere-to-Bradley-to-Reed-SLAMDUNK-YES! feeling. You know, that kind of high school, chest thumping love of team that had your ear glued to a AM/FM transistor radio at night instead of your eyes glued to your physics workbook. (Thank goodness Clyde didn’t go away altogether. He’s in the broadcast booth, still boundin’ and astoundin’….)
I switched it up in school and ended up a photog. (Mom was not pleased.) I’ve had my eye in a lens quite happily for, oh, 25 plus years now. But life is funny. I wrote a book, and now I’ve got a blog. And I find myself writing about what I shoot, as well as tossing in a few sidebar rants and raves.
I met Tom because of this blog. When he floated the notion of doing the picture, I said yes, for lots of reasons. It might be a photo that would do somebody some good, for one. Of course, another is, plain and simple, I like time behind the camera. I love shooting pictures. Even in the middle of a hot one in Jersey in July.
The other deal always in the back of my head is the challenge of it. Could we build this thing at high noon, shoot CLS with small strobes ( a mix of SB800 and 900), make it work, make the lights trigger and get it done in a way that might come close to Tom’s imagination? I thought we had a chance.
I took it in steps:
Fix the sun so Tom could stand in shade, and my lights would have a prayer. Tabletop a 12×12 solid on 4 stands. SOP. Check.
Backlight the MRIs. Best way to backlight stuff like this is to first wash your background lights off a reflective surface (white no-seam is good). Use a cross light technique. Right side lights aim to the left side of the drop, and left side lights aim for the right. They cross over the middle that way, and hopefully produce a surface that is even within a third of a stop. (If you pump the background lights into their respective near sides, the sides get heated up and the center goes dead. Not good.) Likewise it is tough to just aim your lights at the plexi without first bouncing it off something big and flat. If you use 4 lights, you’ll most likely get 4 hot spots. It’ll drive you nuts. Re-direction is key here. Bounce ‘em and you’ll save money on all that Advil for location driven headaches.
Okay, seamless is up, and lit. Just like in the doc’s office, MRIs read best off of white plexi. Lynn hunted for a 6′ square, but tough to get and pricey, so we made do with two odd sized pieces butted together horizontally and seamed with clear packing tape. Bogen super clamps did the rest of the job, along with A clamps. Those two pieces stand behind the subject, about 2′ in front of the (hopefully) glowing seamless paper drop.
Arranged the MRIs, lit them with 4 bounced SB800 units, went to the camera, made an exposure, and hoped for the best. We got backlight. And, in intense sun, from about 30 feet, we got sensor pickup. Okay, hurdle cleared.
Next deal, light Tom. Boomed a reflected umbrella, with the skin still on it to control spill. Okay light, but got a splashy high light on the reflective MRIs.
Moved in a Lastolite panel, up high and between the umbrella and the plexi, and draped it in black material. That cut out a lot of light flying towards the background.
Now Tom. Quality of light works, but just works. Gotta snap him with a bit more edge. I’m constrained cause the whole bloody back of the picture is reflective. Okay, small source. Do this a lot actually. Snoot an SB unit (used to use blackwrap, now I use Honl snoots). Move it into the subject’s face as close as the frame will allow. Power way down to just a flick of light. (There’s a setting called “flick” isn’t there?) Little pop of light, and your subject’s face snaps to. You can just about see this unit, an SB900 zoomed out to 200mm, on the right side of my frame, just below the umbrella.
That technique is killer, by the way. You don’t really alter the quality of overall light in your subject’s face, but you do ramp up the contrast, and sharpen the edge where highlight rotates into shadow. Think of it as moving the contrast slider in Photoshop, only much more fun!
Closing with this one. Suburban scene. Tom, Jared, a wagon, a gate, grass, bushes, trees, and then, jarringly, the MRIs. Medical dispatches from the interior, telling Tom things he never wanted to hear. They stand there, silent, yet at the same time screaming like a siren in the midst of the backyard bird chatter. Through sheer effort of will and a determination to see Jared through to stuff like his first car, his first college class, his first good job, and maybe, a couple of grandkids, Tom’s gonna fight this thing. Hopefully, we made a picture that day that will hang on his wall and remind him that he’s still in the game.
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 email@example.com. 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.
K-MAN ON THE STREETS OF NY……
Friday night in the meat district…..SB900 on the background, SB200 for the portrait. What is this man doing? More tk.
Long blog. Apologies. This is a history that doesn’t sum up in a couple of grafs. What I am celebrating here is the resiliency of the photo community, and the welcome partnership of Adorama Camera here in NY. They have stepped up to help me shepherd a collection of pictures stemming from the events of 9/11, and we will collaborate via this blog, education and lectures. Please read on…..
Back in 2001, things weren’t great in the photo biz, I tell ya. It was heavy sledding, trying to get work, staying afloat, keeping the studio running. Little did I know that just around the corner the jalopy known as McNally Photography, a sleek machine with a couple of flats, transmission trouble and a top end of oh, about 22mph, was going to get bulldozed by this event called 9/11, which changed all of our lives, forever. Everything after that day became, “the new normal,” a phrase that grew out of just how thoroughly, absolutely, and irretrievably everything was now different.
Like many NY shooters, I had a love affair with those towers, those twin exclamation points at the end of Manhattan. They were in lots of my pix over the years.
In a moment of youthful exuberance, I actually climbed the antenna on the North Tower.
Then they were gone, replaced by this giant dust cloud of destruction that floated out and settled on all of our shoulders, hearts, minds and spirits. “What to do now?” was the oft repeated question. How to deal with the sadness, the rage, the confusion, the uncertainty? How to make a contribution? On some level, no matter how miniscule?
I’m a photographer. Pictures are what I have to offer. (It’s the only thing I really know how to do.) But I did not go to the streets, like so many of my colleagues. Quite a number of them were already at it, in heroic fashion. I could add very little to what they were doing. I stayed at home, hung with the kids a bit, and stewed. First time out with a camera after the day was to shoot Mike Piazza, then the Mets catcher. SI was doing a piece on how athletes played a role in lifting our hearts and minds.
In 2000, I was assigned to shoot pictures for a very small story (which was never published) on a unique photographic instrument called Moby C, which at the time lived on the lower East Side of NY. Moby after the whale, not the musician. (His birthday is Sept. 11th, l965, by the way. Sept. 11th is also my dad’s birthday, back in 1912.) This camera is the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera, invented at the behest of Dr. Land himself. It is the size of a one car garage. Its lens came from a U2 spy plane, according to legend. At f/45, you have about an inch of depth of field. You cannot focus the lens–you have to focus your subject by moving them back and forth in tiny increments. There is no shutter, you have to work camera obscura at the moment of exposure. I used about 25,000 watt seconds of strobe, mostly run through a 12×12 silk. The strobe system was wired to a Mamiya RZ 6×7 camera, bore sighted under the Polaroid lens. We would pose the subject, then wait for the interior workings of the Polaroid to spool up (there are two technicians inside the camera when you shoot, and they have to prepare things, like switch on a Black and Decker wet dry vac to suck the Polaroid film to the giant backplate of the camera). Then I would go dark in the studio, pull the cap of the Polaroid lens, fire the Mamiya and thus render an instantaneous dupe, one a huge positive, and the other a 6×7 transparency.
Huge indeed. What results after the exposure is a life sized image, 40″x 80″. You lay it out on the floor of the camera, wait 90 seconds (it’s the same Polaroid paper that comes in your over the counter cameras) and then peel the chemical backing off. There you have it.
I had convinced the elegant and easy going Jennifer Ringer, a principal with the NYC Ballet, to come and work with me during this first, experimental day with the camera. We made some nice, big pictures of her. (I was chuckling inside during this shoot, harking back to our old philosophy at LIFE magazine: “If ya can’t make ‘em good, make ‘em big and in color!”)
Made seven successful images that day, which is a lot of production for this behemoth of a camera, and found I had a bit of an affinity for working it. (Try anything once, right? Just have faith and remember the Lord looks after a fool.)
Hmmm. Things stick with you, right? A week after 9/11, I sent an email to the only guy I knew who had a bunch of cash and would give me a quick decision; the editorial director of Time Warner, John Huey. John’s basically an old Southern newspaper man who kind of looks at you sideways, lets you babble, and then tells you what he thinks. He’s smart as a whip, quick off the mark, and does not suffer fools or photographers gladly.
I sent him the email on a Thursday night. He gave me money for the project Monday morning. The pressure was on. He was taking a huge gamble with his company’s dough, $100,000, to be direct about it. He looked me in the eye and drawled, “Joe, you spend $20,000 and get me no pitchahs, that’s okay. You spend $100,000 and get me no pitchahs, we got a problem.” He kind of drew out the word, “prrroblem.” I gulped and left his office.
My notion was that this camera was made for people of stature, a heroic instrument, if you will. You have to literally stand for your portrait. You collect yourself in the dark, holding still, waiting for the strobe explosion. And then you are done. One shot. (90% of our subjects we did in one exposure. Each sheet of Polaroid cost $300. I dreaded blinkers.)
It became a document known as Faces of Ground Zero. It toured through seven stops, opening at Grand Central Station, and coming back to NY a year later. For the anniversary show they threw a huge tent over where they usually put the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. It was seen by lots of people. The Polaroids and the resultant book(s) helped the sponsors, Time Warner and Morgan Stanley, to donate close to $2 million dollars to the relief of downtown public education. In the tent at the Rock Center show, we sold about $40,000 worth of books in 3 weeks. All of it went to the downtown PTA’s.
It also acquainted me with an extraordinary group of people, many of whom I stay in touch with to this day.
Danny and Joanne Foley. The Foley’s are one of the most giving, decent, loving families I have ever met. A firefighting family. Danny promised his folks he would bring his brother, Tommy, home. Tommy was on Rescue 3, one of the first responders. Eight men were on that truck. None came back. Danny stood for this picture a few days after finding Tommy’s body. In the year after 9/11, he stepped up and took his brother’s place at Rescue 3, in the Bronx.
Joanne, about a year later, at the family farm, with Tommy’s cowboy hat.
Jan Demczur, a Polish window washer who scraped through 6 inches of sheet rock with his squeegee blade and thus saved the 4 people he was trapped in an elevator with. His squeegee is in the Smithsonian.
About a year after, Jan didn’t go outside much, and was living very quietly.
Mike Wernick, who survived the 93 bombing, and 9/11, now retired. His story of the day is powerful and moving. When he came into the Polaroid studio, the shock of it was still on his face.
Mike and his wife Nuri are one of the most loving couples I know. They survived that day quite simply because of that love. Together they run a motorcycle garage in Manhattan called Rising Wolf (one of the only bike garages in NY) and I managed to shoot this from the back of my assistant’s Jeep a couple years ago.
My good friend, Louie Cacchioli. Louie saved a lot of people that day by keeping his head and telling them to follow his light. Out on West St., running from the second collapse, he was overtaken by the cloud of ash and soot. Blinded by the smoke, he felt along the ground and stumbled onto a discarded oxygen mask. He clapped it to his face. He estimates he had about 30 seconds left.
Later that year, he looked at the skyline from the Staten Island ferry.
Years later, he posed for the prototype D3.
I always describe Louie as a firefighting Robert DeNiro. He tends to make women swoon. He’s retired now, and gives lectures and tours at the WTC site. He was the cover of the book (go figure) and it is one of the blessings of my life that having a camera in my hand enabled me to meet this man.
Joe Hodges. A veteran firefighter who could have easily retired after 9/11, but chose to stay on. “The older guys have to stick around and show the younger guys the way,” was how he put it.
Joe works now at at the Governor’s Island house, and I shot this on July 4th a couple of years ago.
I’ve always been convinced the project worked quite simply because it was photographs of a bunch of really, really good people. We had luck, to be sure. The camera never broke down. Good thing, as it really has no spare parts, and is finicky to work at best. Most guest shooters would make, maybe, 5 images or so (you rent the camera on a daily basis, at that time $2000 per day, plus $300 per sheet). There were days (and nights) we pulled over 40 images out the machine. It kept working.
So we kept working. Our last subject was Rudy Giuliani. He finally came on the last night. We were out of money, out of time. We shot 2 Polaroids of hizzoner, and closed the doors.
Things you don’t think about while you are in the throes of a project like this, are, what happens next? When the Rock Center show closed, I became the owner, lock, stock and metal framework, of about 10 tons of photography. (The framed pieces, which form the traveling core of the show, are 4′x9′ and weigh about 300 pounds.) They reside currently in museum quality, climate controlled storage in a warehouse in New Jersey.
That’s a lot of pictures.
That’s also a pretty sizable storage bill every month, which I have handled pretty much on my own for the last 7 years. Sometimes I just shrug and think of it as a second mortgage. Other times, when there has been no work and less grace in this business, it has veered close to breaking the studio. There have been nights I have woken up and simply thought, well, I’ll just get a permit from my buds in the fire department and set the whole thing ablaze and be done with it.
Together with Ellen Price (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is the curator of the collection, and has worked more pro bono hours on its behalf than I can remember, we have plied the hallways of corporations and spoken to many about its survival as an important record of that time. Jan Ramirez, now the Chief Curator & Director of Collections at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, has been a champion of the collection since early on, when she was at the NY Historical Society. Along with Alice Greenwald, the Director of the Museum, they have issued a letter of intent to acquire, which has been a huge blessing. It means that sometime down the road, these pictures will find an appropriate home.
Many powerful people came and spoke powerful words while standing in front of these pictures in the days after 9/11. So powerful, they are not the kind that return the phone calls of a freelance photographer. No surprise there. (Or, I’m sure to any who have made their living over any period of time with a camera. I write occasionally to my alumni magazine at Syracuse, to the section which details the comings, goings and achievements of past graduates. I simply say, “After 35 years, Joe McNally is still jobless, and living around New York City.”) Funny, they’ve never published that.
This was impressed on me even further at the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. We staged the Polaroids again, this time at the NYC Fire Museum. We had no money… not a dime. We made entreaties, asked around as best we could. Nothing. I have a loose affiliation with Getty Pictures, so I wrote to my editor at the time, David Laidler, a good guy, who’s no longer there. Came back with a no. Alright. I’m nothing if not tenacious. I wrote again, more, shall we say, pointedly. Getty coughed up $10k. I chipped in five grand of my own dough, and we had enough to pull off a show.
The crates weigh about 2,000 pounds, and we had no funds for a forklift. So groups of off duty firefighters would come in shifts to pull and haul. I tried helping, but Keith Johnson of Ladder 6 just turned to me and said, “Joe, stay away from the crates. We’re firefighters. We’ve got lifetime disability. What happens if you throw your back out? You’re a freelance photographer. Nobody gives a shit about you.” True enough.
So, they sit now in crates, once again. I spoke recently at Adorama, and had a great, fun audience. I presented a few of the Ground Zero images. Memories of that time are still powerful. Jeff Snyder, who came to Adorama from Penn Camera, and I have been friends a long time. We started talking. He set up a meeting with the administration of the store, which was not held over a conference table the size of a football field on the 60th floor of a midtown tower. We sat in a small room over a camera store. It was like meeting the family. In fact, it was meeting the family. We shook hands. There were no lawyers, no contracts, no clauses with subsections 1 through 17, paragraphs D, E and F.
Adorama now is a partner in helping me keep this collection together and finding it a safe harbor. The people in these pictures trusted me with their images, thoughts and feelings in those tortuous days after 9/11. They made the effort to come to a camera that sounds strange, despite best efforts to describe it over the phone. They have formed their own, informal, emotionally connected community. I owe it to them to see this through. Adorama, will now help me do that.
There’s a reason they call it “the photo community.” Because it is.
Again, many thanks to Jeff Snyder, Monica Cipnic, and all the folks at Adorama.