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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

THE BEST ASSIGNMENTS ARE FREE….

Dec 15

In Thoughts at 11:12am

They are gifts we give ourselves…..

You already know the ones…the ones that really terrify you. The ones you think you can’t handle. The ones you think are way, way, beyond your capabilities. Gateway assignments. The ones you need to take. They come in on the phone (rarely) or in the email of your imagination as loud as the “TERRAIN! TERRAIN! TERRAIN!” warning in the cockpit. You must respond. You must engage.

Increasingly, these are the ones you give yourself.

On the other side of that job, win, lose or draw, you will be a different photographer, and presumably, absolutely, a better photographer. Like a redwood, you just accumulated another ring. You could liken it to a scar, the way things go in this business. I try not to think about it.

But here’s the beautiful thing about scars. They are on the surface. Not attractive perhaps, but at the end of the day, inconsequential. They don’t affect your core.

Someplace at or near my core, I’ve got this fortress. It is well fortified, and I don’t let anyone in there. No tedious editor, no residue from a soul blasting job, gets in there, ever. Cause inside there lives whatever makes me love doing this as much as I do. Dunno the why’s and wherefore’s of it. I don’t unwrap it or turn it upside down and shake it, trying to figure out what’s inside, cause I might break it. It is what makes me hold my breath at the camera, makes me curse my mistakes and short circuits of mind, will and body, and gives me the recurring nightmare that I am swimming underwater and when I try to break the surface I find it is glass. I can’t break through and I am breathing water and jaysus-be-jaysus where the hell is the next good frame? Why can’t I figure this out and why haven’t shot anything worth a good goddamn in the last bit of forever? Is this the end of the road and the limit of my talent? I wake up in a cold sweat.

Nice, huh? The miracle of photography, sitting on your chest in the middle of the night like a big wet dog, panting in your face, demanding to be fed.

Like the boxer in the song, photographers remember every cut. I certainly do. (It’s just that way with the Irish.) Those cuts are the jobs, the frames. I can remember what I said before and after certain rolls went through the camera. I can remember what I had for breakfast that day and whether I was just shy of 5.6 at one twenty fifth. I can remember the smells in the air, and just how miserable, elated or terrified I was. Often, I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but those are yesterdays I didn’t make a picture.

Ironies abound for photographers. They are occasionally huge and cruel and we either laugh them off, smile through our tears, or are crushed by them. Some are small and produce rolled eyes and a sigh. We are on assignment to shoot the CEO, but we come up the freight elevator. Our work adorns the hushed hallways of corporate palaces even as our demise is plotted and graphed. The rakish, insouciant legacy of a Robert Capa and the derring do that produced those pictures that are the stuff of our collective memory is celebrated and paid lip service, but hey, wait a minute, look at these expenses! That was then fella, and this is, well, now.

Or, we attend a photo gathering where a picture editor exhorts us from the podium to step it up, work harder, get to a new level, and push the envelope. Then that picture editor goes into closed door meetings at their shop and advocates against raising the day rate.

I am the last staff photographer ever, at LIFE magazine. I didn’t get that mildly undesirable title by doing anything in particular. I just kept shooting assignments, and then they fired me. Later, the magazine did its final, absolute death spiral. Like Santino in the Godfather, it took a lot of bullets, but it finally went down for good.

Round about that time, the Time Warner colossus was seeking to “build a bridge to the visual community.” and instituted the Eisie’s, a prestigious series of awards in honor of the legacy of Alfred Eisenstadt. It was determined that LIFE would be the host and sponsor magazine, much to the dismay of TIME, then the big budget gorilla of the photo world.

During my brief tenure at LIFE, I agitated to do stuff, as all of us do. One result of my agitation became a story the mag called “The Panorama of War.” It won the first Eisie for journalistic impact.

I found myself on stage, at a gala hosted by LIFE, accepting a LIFE sponsored award for a LIFE assigned and published story. Mildly ironical problem, though, as I stood there, prize money and the paperweight of the award in hand, was that LIFE magazine had fired me the week before the ceremony. I chuckled inwardly as I smiled at the podium. I even smiled at Norm Pearlstine, the boss of the whole deal, who was sitting in the front row, looking for all the world like he was in a dentist’s chair. I actually felt bad for him cause he had come over to run Time Warner from that sea of type known as the Wall Street Journal and had never met a picture he understood. Here he was at a photo banquet, fer chrissakes, and later, he had to give out the most important award of the night, and thus make the longest speech. He had a terrible time pronouncing “Sebastiao.”

So it goes, and it always has. We are on our own. Whether we are on assignment or on staff or on Flickr. Whether we are making a buck or winging it, unfunded and unfazed, on the increasingly threadbare seat of our pants. That’s as it should be. Trust me, When it comes to corporate belt tightening, housecleaning, and general neutron bomb keep-the-building-lose-the-people cost cutting, we are both the baby and the bathwater. We get thrown out. They will never understand that picture gathering cannot be plotted on a chart, estimated in a graph, or measured in people hours relative to numbers of units produced. Thank God. If they ever figured it out, and really understood the astonishing alchemy of it all, they would want to be us, and trust me, there’s already plenty of us.

One of my heroes is Frank Hurley, the shooter on the Shackelton expedition. He was one tough nut of an Aussie. When their ship, the Endurance, got locked in the ice, he stripped down and dove into the frigid hold to retrieve his plates.

Hurley “is a marvel,” wrote Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance. “With cheerful Australian profanity he perambulates alone aloft & everywhere, in the most dangerous & slippery places he can find, content & happy at all times but cursing so if he can get a good or novel picture. Stands bare & and hair waving in the wind, where we are all gloved and helmeted, he snaps his snaps or winds his handle turning out curses of delight & pictures of Life by the fathom.”

As Shackleton said, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.” The Endurance was doomed. The crew was stranded. Hurley kept shooting.

The ever prescient David Hobby just threw a big rock into the pond of our psyches. Lots of ripples, from Chase Jarvis to Moose Peterson, to Vincent Laforet to the gang over at Sports Shooter. Just like a couple hundred photographers at the exact same location will produce a couple hundred picture points of view, there are lots of opinions out there, from “Yeah, that’s the deal,” to “Is he crazy?”

Not crazy at all, methinks, and that’s not to say we should all apply for non-profit status. I think what David is talking about, really, is not dollars and cents but growth and direction as a photographer, increasingly an isolated task, as the more collective staff photographer experience withers and dies. My advice to young photographers has always been to join the staff of a newspaper or wire service. Get some editor on your case, putting your ass on the street and your eye in the camera everyday. Come back to the wet darkroom to soup your stuff with the rest of the shooters and kibbitz, compete, spin tales, drink beer and give out shit. And listen. And learn.

That is increasingly anachronistic advice, of course. Digital has changed the deal, and the curves in the road upcoming for all of us are steeper, sharper and many aren’t even on the map yet. More so than ever, we are on our own, crafting a path unique to our skills, intentions and career goals. Take a look at Doug Menuez’s recent musings on career path.

A career in photography is a journey without a destination. And really, do you think someone’s gonna buy you a ticket to someplace you can’t even point out on the map? Try writing “meander” on a travel requisition and see how far you get.

I’m not suggesting you don’t need to make money as a shooter. Far from it. But those pictures we get, the ones we keep close, the deepest cuts, if you will, are really of our own volition and making. And those are the ones we seek and need, or better, the ones that seek us. They are way stations. You will stop there, or need to stop there, no matter if someone is paying you or not.

Cause what we are talking about here is food for the table and food for the soul. You gotta sell your stuff. You gotta pitch clients. You gotta make some dough with that fancy machine you have in your hands. And there is no problem with that. It is in fact, a very honorable and wonderful feeling to make your living with a camera. Trust me, I have shot all manner of jobs. I’ve shot for clients I shouldn’t have worked for, just to keep the studio alive. I’ve shot bad deals just cause I wanted the pictures so bad. I’ve shot wonderful jobs that have pushed me personally and professionally. I’ve even gone to photo heaven. In the last couple of years I’ve worked for a client whose art director is a wonder, the people running the show have become like my family, I’ve been treated fairly and I’ve expanded creatively. And, along the way,  I’ve shot jobs so thoroughly mercenary that in my head I don’t hear the whir of a motor drive, but the kaching of a cash register. Its a wonderful sound. It means I will be able to keep that camera in my hands a while longer, and extend a little further, reach a little deeper, and stay the course. What an amazement! I got paid to do that which I love!

Many pictures I shoot nowadays have only me as the client. They are pictures I need to do and want to do. I fund them myself. Did one last week in Vancouver. Wanted to work with a dancer, so came in early, rented a studio, paid an assistant and paid the dancer (I always pay the dancers, they work just as hard as we do and make even less) and shot some pictures I really like. When I finally get home I’ve got a studio, six square feet of chrome diamond plate flooring as a backdrop, a smoke machine, some heavy gauge chain, a battered chainsaw, and a physical trainer whose endearing nickname is “The Pain Chisel” all arranged for. Can’t wait.

I could gin up a portfolio of fancy flying, dancing, body bulging, glam type pictures and bring them to one of the stylish, au courant type magazines, and they would laugh me out of the building. I’m realistic about this. For better or for worse, I grew up shooting for mom and dad’s magazines–LIFE, National Geographic, Time, Sports Illustrated. At a place like Vogue or Esquire or GQ, I couldn’t get arrested. At one of the hipper men’s magazines, a book I’ve shot a couple covers for and a couple years back knocked out a fashion piece involving the U.S. military (which they liked so much they expanded the story from six to ten pages) I had to go in and show my book to the new, thirty-ish photo editor. He liked my stuff and was very respectful. As he closed my portfolio, he looked at me and said, “You’ve had a great career.”

In other words, “I’ll hire you for an editor’s note picture if I can’t find someone else at the last minute.”

Okay. Picture editors at places like this are relentlessly searching not so much for good pictures, but for buzz. Occasionally, good pictures and buzz coincide. Tough thing is though, even when they are able to stuff good pix into their mag, it is so graphically cluttered (the printed version of a sound byte) you can’t really enjoy ‘em anyway. Hell, lots of times you can’t even find ‘em.

Will some of these pictures I pursue on my own ever sell? Dunno. Never been much of a stock shooter cause my stuff has been so assignment specific. I get sales reports now with my pictures turning around eye popping amounts of remuneration, like a recent one I got from a prestigious bastion of publishing erudition for all of $4.67. Jeez, never thought a stock sale wouldn’t even get me into the movies. Shit, that one won’t even get me one of those big boxes of Raisinets.

I get a check like that and I either laugh or cry, depending on how many days I have left to pull together the mortgage. I look at these picture statements and I feel like a kid in a Cape May arcade who just turned about $50 of cash money into a clutch of “admit one” tickets that gets dumped into the counting hopper and spits out a chit that allows him to pick out anything in the shop that’s worth less than a buck.

This is not a good business model. My accountant on occasion has mentioned my endeavors lean more towards “hobby” than profession. Okay. The numbers don’t add up. Pretty much, I’ve never added up either, even to my parents.

We run when others walk. We work when others play. We adjust our schedules to accommodate theirs. We present the flimsiest of reasons to insist that we be allowed to keep doing that which we need to do, something for us that is as necessary as breathing. Paid or not, it is what we do.

By the way, at the age of 76, Frank Hurley came back off assignment, and shrugged off his camera bag and sat down, saying he didn’t feel well. He was dead the next morning. I suspect there was still film in his holders.

More tk….

Things to be Thankful For….

Nov 30

In Thoughts at 11:50pm

Anybody who knows me a little bit knows this is my favorite picture. Its my oldest daughter Caitlin, about six months old, trying to walk. She couldn’t quite get the hang of it right then, but trust me, she already knew walking was where it was at. She saw that people who could walk could get places faster, and she was definitely interested in that, even as a tyke. Heck with this crawlin’ shit! I’m gonna walk!

Wasn’t too long after this she indeed was walking, and very soon thereafter, running. She has pretty much lived her life (she’s 23 now) with the pedal to the metal.

Much to her old man’s consternation. She has had, well, a tumultuous early life, let’s put it that way. She pushed the envelope, her’s and mine, and we have had some tough, angry times. But its not all on her. (Never is, right?) I’ve been a here and there dad, being a roving photog. We used to use the term “magic daddy” sometimes when she was small. She would go to bed and I’d be there, and wake up, and I’d be gone. Or vice versa. Sometimes when I would be home, I really wasn’t. Tired or distracted, we’d snuggle for a bedtime story, and once, I just said, “You know, sweetie, dad’s so tired tonight I don’t think I can get through even one story.”

She reached over a tiny hand (she was about two) and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry daddy, just do the best you can.”

I put alot on her, of course. Between being gone, and also kind of making her my daughter and my son. Got her scuba certified when she was 12. Took her on her first night dive three dives after her cert. Trust me, when the ocean gets inky black, it can freak even some experienced divers. She was unfazed, and fascinated.

She rode a horse like a bat outta hell. Coming back from camp, she allowed that she had won the competition where you stand on the horse’s back, barefoot, holding the reins. I didn’t really want to know. She once broke her arm snowboarding, and sawed off the cast after about a week cause it was “bothering her.”

She kind of just knows. She can sit at the tiller of a boat and know how to drive it. I let her drive my pickup on the NY State Thruway and points everywhere when she was 15. (Yes, its true. I’ll never be the cover subject of Parenting magazine.) I put both her and her sister Claire on a dog sled years ago for a joyride and Claire got seriously cold. Caity opened her jacket, untucked her shirt, took Claire’s boots off and stuck her sister’s feet next to her skin, and then just folded herself on top of Claire. She just knows.

She’s a pretty good grip. She can handle a c-stand and ratio a pack. She’s been to the Eddie Adams Workshop at least seven times. But she has no interest in photography. She kind of grew up in a photo hothouse. Her mom is the DOP of the New York Times. Her dad is, well, her dad. She has chosen a different path. Can’t say as I blame her.

But she’s a tough kid. Cool under pressure. She’d be good to have in the foxhole with you when the chips are down.

Two days before Turkey Day, she was leaving her boyfriend Ryan’s house early in the morning, and she hit black ice. Her car slid right off the roadside where there should be a guardrail and plunged down a 40′ ravine, rolling over twice. It came to rest upside down. Caity was left hanging in her seatbelt, also upside down, and covered in blood. She was lucky to still be conscious. There is no sight line from the road to the ravine, and no one saw her go over. She could have easily bled to death at the bottom.

She unbuckled her belt. And was collected enough to grab the oh shit handle above the passenger door and with both feet, bust out the passenger window. She clambered back up to road, still spilling blood everywhere. She doesn’t remember walking back to Ryan’s house.

At the hospital, she got 3 stitches in her hand. All her cranial wounds were left to close on their own. Cat scans were negative. She was stiff and sore, but told me she was thinking of going to work that day. Wiser heads prevailed.

As I told her tonight, maybe the best genetic gift I gave her was a hard head. I’m very thankful for that.

More tk….

The Javits Center

Nov 2

In Seminars & Workshops, Thoughts at 6:56am

Photo East was great. It always is cause I see lots of friends and colleagues I never get to see, and I had some good classes, but man, was it busy. There were folks sloshing around everywhere in the Crystal Palace of the Javits Center on the far west side of Manhattan. It really sits there like a space ship in the middle of kind of the only stretch of streets in NY, NY where there just ain’t much of anything else. That’s why I guess they can get, you know, like $5.75 for a bran muffin. Hey, some fiber in your diet’s worth it.

Whilst wandering through the swirl of ones and zeroes mixing it up in the Javits ozone, I wondered how many PPE folks might recall the guy the place is named for,  Jacob Javits of NY. A tailor’s son who became a Senator, he was by all accounts a devoted public servant, a champion of civil rights and a remarkably decent man. He helped shaped NY and its future with intelligent stewardship, moderation and common sense advocacy, traits tough to find in the political hubbub of today. I don’t claim to have known him, but I did photograph him, in his waning days, those days when a case of ALS was inexorably gaining the upper hand. He fought the disease with grace and dignity, two traits that marked his political life.

Shot it in 1984, when I was really still a pup shooter. I can remember the light at camera left, a Norman 200B with a Chimera 3×4 softbox, Nikon F3 camera. I remember him being affable, though he really only communicated with his eyes. He was nattily dressed for the photo, though I suspect he always was, photo session or no. His silk neck scarf partially hid the respirator tube he depended on at that point. He attempted a smile here and there. I worked alone, and quickly.

The photos I shot that day won’t stand the test of time. In fact, they already haven’t. Average snaps of an above average man, encased in plastic slide pages for over almost 25 years. But I remember the day, and the man, and that human intersection that occurs on a photo assignment. I remember my battered 200B, very dependable, and the equally dependable F3, with its distinctive shutter noise. I remember, too, back then and now, the sense of boundless possibilities that start dancing in my head, most destined to go unfulfilled, whenever I pull a camera out of a bag. The adventure begins! Sometimes it ends gloriously, sometimes rudely, sometimes not at all, and sometimes with me just about begging for it to be over. This one ended simply, quickly, quietly. A job, nothing more.

But it reverberates, every once in a while, in my head and surely no place else, when I wander the Javits, past the memorial sculpture of him and his office chair, and then into the aisles, where in the midst of jonesing after the latest in high speed circuitry and supergig flux capacitors, I think of a small slice of a day in a life long since gone. For me, this has always been about stories, and memory.

My personal hero and mentor, Carl Mydans, former staffer at LIFE, impressed this on me. During a lecture, he put up a picture he made during the Cuba missile crisis of a U.S. destroyer forcing a Russian cargo ship bearing missiles to turn around on the high seas. The picture, by all measure, was average. A record frame from the air of two boats in the water. Then Carl, in his stentorian, made for radio voice, read from his caption book. He described the weather, the time of day, the hum and crackle of the radio transmissions, the stern voices heard on the ship radios, indicating there were to be no compromises, turn around or be sunk, the faces of the young servicemen with him watching tense history unfold a few hundred feet below them. Carl, whose book, Photojournalist, is a must read, described the completeness of the moment, down to the wind in his face, his exposures and lens choice, and this simple photo of a crucial pivot point of our time, all in his Bostonian accent, clear and authoritative.

(Carl grew deaf in his later years, so that amazing voice grew correspondingly louder. The day I was fired at LIFE, I bumped into him right at the juncture in the hallway where the business side and the edit side of LIFE joined. It was of course, a business side decision to ax a great deal of the edit staff. Carl grabbed both my arms in his hands and told me in no uncertain terms how despicable he thought all this was, how unnecessary, how short sighted, how etc. etc. My smile grew wider and wider as he grew more descriptive about the greedy bastards, because I knew those words and that voice were echoing all the way down the hall and into the oblivious sanctums of those who only see numbers.)

In the fog and burble of the Javits Center, I can still hear his voice.


Notes, Thanks and…. In the Beginning, There Was Greg….

Oct 22

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.

As Good As It Gets

Sep 23

In Thoughts, Travels at 12:03am

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.