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Archive for March, 2008

Back on a Plane

Mar 15

In Rants, Thoughts, Travels at 9:59am

Back on a plane. This time through Atlanta to Albuquerque. Gonna teach my lighting workshop at Santa Fe, which I always look forward to. More on that tk.

Early morning rush at the Delta terminal in Laguardia and I’m shuffling towards security, my pants down at my ankles, holding a tray of meager possessions. Only thing missing is some split rail fence, the pungent smell of cow flop, and the occasional moo.

In the background I’m hearing the drone of the TSA lady. “Please keep moving. Walk forward. Please keep moving.” Superfluous advice, no? I mean, of course I’m going to keep moving. What do they think I’m gonna do? Riverdance?

Actually, the TSA has gotten much better to deal with. They have it as streamlined as it’s gonna get, I think. They are certainly working on being a bit more friendly. Guy who checked my ID today was genuinely decent about it, so, you know, I’m inclined to be pleasant back. We bantered a bit, and I thought, he’s a hard working guy, probably got up even earlier than I did, and he’s out here getting his ass kicked just like I am. So there you go.



The best was yet to come, though. Got onto a way overstuffed jet to Georgia, I mean packed. We’re talking pickled herring back there. Overheads are spilling stuff everywhere, and we’re trying to get outta Dodge and the flight staff is urging everybody to move out of the aisles so we can shut the door.

So there’s this lady. She is one of the last people on board. Bling city. Bandana in the hair, Hollywood sunglasses, hubcaps for earrings, pink bra, with some sort of tied up piece of material that I guess serves as a shirt but leaves her back pretty naked, a burp blanket over her shoulder, a 4 month old baby, and a carry on the size of your average Midwestern city. She’s got two flight attendants in tow, one of whom is carrying her baby, and the other is trying to sort out what to do with the bag. They are probably just as exasperated with this passenger as everybody else, but for now, they are hewing to the path of sisterhood and trying to help her out.

I mean, if I had tried to get on at that moment with that size bag, they would have hand checked it immediately and, as soon as it was out of sight, switched the destination tag to Duluth, just to teach me a lesson.



But, you know, there might be formula or diapers in there with the rest of the jewelry and lipsticks, so they encourage her to disassemble it and stick various small pieces in a variety of overheads. Everything that comes out of this bag was incredibly colorful. There was a hot pink purse with gold corners, a Betty Boop backpack (not kidding), multi colored scarves, you name it. I’m watching this and thinking, shit, the circus in town?

She’s breaking this thing down like a Russian matryoshka doll, and bending over and bending over and then standing upright to reach the overheads repeatedly. I feel like I’m watching an accelerated version of the “bend and snap.”
And then, of course there’s the thong. She’s got low slung, painted on jeans and she is standing in the aisle next to my seat putting stuff in the opposite overhead which means of course I am eyeball height and inches away from the old butt crack. Talk about fill the frame.

And there it is! Again and again! Peek-a-bootie! She certainly didn’t look like a plumber! There was this little swatch of material supported by 3 strands of floss. Good thing I didn’t have anything stuck in my teeth, but that would have been too forward on my part, I imagine. Geez Louise. Thankfully my eyes don’t focus that fast, that close too well anymore.

And of course I find this funny and just start giggling like an idiot and the flight attendant leveled me with a look that said, “One word outta you and I call the air marshal.” She was stressing pretty bad with this passenger.



Ahh, the ongoing adventure of the skies!

Back to basics in the next few blogs…got some lighting stuff etc. Enough of this levity!

A Wonderful Day In New York City

Mar 13

In Uncategorized at 10:44pm

Now I know to some folks, “wonderful day” and “New York City” don’t belong in the same sentence. But I have always loved the city, lived there for 16 years (not anymore), and have fond memories of the energy, the lights, Central Park, first runs of movies, and yes, even the muck, the squalor and the noise.

FGZ Grand Central StationAfter 9/11, I shot a project on the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera that was known as Faces of Ground Zero. (Maybe in a future blog, I’ll talk a bit about it, and this singular beast of a camera–interior chamber of the camera is the size of a one car garage, for starters, and in 90 seconds you peel the backing off a 4’x9′ life size image.)


One of the gifts doing the project gave me is the lasting emotional relationships I have with people who came before the camera. One of those is with Archbishop Demetrios, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. He graciously agreed to see me yesterday to present him with a copy of The Moment It Clicks, which has a photo of him in it.

The photo in question came from the assignment I received from the church to make the Archbishop’s official portrait. What an honor of an assignment! I got a chance to make a picture that will last in the annals of the Greek church for all time, way past the time they pry my D17xs from my cold dead fingers. (That’s ambitious, eh?)

Archbishop Demetrios Archbishop Demetrios

We sat and talked for about a half hour. He is one of the most decent people I have ever met. He radiates forgiveness, warmth and a love of humanity in all it’s shapes and forms. I took a deep breath when I got out of the building and onto 79th St. Proximity to such goodness lightens anyone’s mind and heart, even a prone-to-be-cynical 30 year career photog. The irony of feeling such a blast of clear air in my head and my heart was that the Greek Archdiocese offices are directly across the street from former Governor Spitzer’s residence. The news trucks were still there, and you could smell the smolder of something that had gone terribly wrong.

Mom's Hands with DollThen I headed west, across the park and delivered a book to my mentor and editor, John Loengard. John was a staff photographer at LIFE who become the magazine’s DOP for a long time. We sat and talked pictures for about an hour and a half, and it was just remarkable. He remains one of the truly smart and perceptive picture people walking around. His book, Pictures Under Discussion, is a must read for anyone involved in photography. I took a class from John called “Editorial Concepts in Photography” at the ICP in 1977. 30 years ago! I was a copyboy at the New York Daily News. He gave us an assignment on dolls. This was a great assignment, and one of those beginning points. I made this photo of my mother’s hands with an Alexander doll. I have photographed hands ever since.

Ivan BankoffFor class, I also started photographing a gentleman named Ivan Bankoff who would pluck his ukulele outside of the tonier shops on 5th Avenue, and lived in my building. (Should give you an idea of what a high rent place that was.) He would occasionally pull in a fiver from a well heeled passerby, and pull it out of his hat and wink as he pocketed it. He would regale me with tales of his days in vaudeville, a showman to his core.

John flipped through Clicks like it was a flip book, and then paused and looked at me and said, “You know I’m a fast looker, right Joe?” I smiled and reminded him of the first time I brought a carousel of pictures to him at LIFE around 1980. They were splashy and full of color, but utterly devoid of content. He never took his finger off the advance button except to pause and say, “You know I’m a fast looker, right Joe?” He also noted very pointedly that my controlled work, the work with strobe, had more “energy” than the more reportage pics in the tray. A harbinger of a career to come.

Still the same John, and by that I mean as quick witted and sensitive to nuance and detail as ever. After his review, he looked over and said he thought the book was terrific. Then he went on to say that the Steve Martin picture was “tilted” a bit, in a way LIFE had not done, and he liked it better in the book. Also, he was smiling at me but his eyes narrowed in disapproval as he noted, “You cropped Bernstein.” And he held up the gold man on the roof, and asked if I had lost the original. True enough, the repro of that picture is not as good as it could be.

This all happened in just a couple of minutes. We went on to talk of the field, and what photographers do now to survive, and he said, “This book is not your best work.” I readily agreed. It was not meant to be that. Some of the pictures I chose were failures on certain levels, or addressed field problems or mistakes. He gave, as always, good advice. He counseled me to think about the book. The book. The one I leave behind. “It may take you 5 years to do, Joe. You should think about it now.”

dscn1044.jpg Rats–all the good titles are taken.

We rambled, and bitched in genteel fashion, which is what happens when two photographers sit down for any length of time. His voice has always been clear and consistent, and I have heard it on location often, sometimes in the back, but very often the front of my head. It was good to hear it again.

“Clicks” Cover Shot Explained & Vertical Grip

Mar 11

In Lighting, On Location, Tips & Tricks, Videos at 1:56pm

A reader wrote in and said they enjoyed the book, but was disappointed I didn’t discuss how I did the cover. So here goes.

Cover Image new cover sketch

The model is holding the jagged mirror in her left hand, and the camera is basically perched on her right shoulder. Shot with a D2Xs, with a 17-55, my favorite DX format lens. The camera sees the sky, and her reflection (tweaked the mirror just about where I wanted it). Then, off to camera right, is an SB-R200, the baby close-up brother to the SB800. It is about 2′ from the model’s face, just off the field of view, and controlled wirelessly from the SU 800 on the camera. As I recall, the sky is pulled down about a stop via minus one EV, and the flash is pumped up just a touch to compensate.

Da Grip….update….Couple of folks wrote about vertical grip on the camera. Here’s the thing. The grip I’m talking about really is mostly applicable to left eyed shooters of motor driven cameras. But that doesn’t mean elements of it–the boxer’s stance, the elbows tucked, center of gravity positioned properly, exhaling, etc. can’t be stripped out of this and applied on a selective basis. Some folks asked about shooting verticals. Without a vertical release, holding and firing the camera in the vertical position is plain and simple just tougher than holding it horizontally. (I have asked art directors for more money to shoot a vertical picture as opposed to a horizontal one, just on the basis that it is harder to turn the camera vertically. Haven’t gotten it yet. I’m only kidding, but if someone offered me the dough I would take it!)

Also, for those interested, here’s the video version of Da Grip and an outtake featuring Nigel, my wife Annie’s cat, who joined us on the set for a bit.



Da Grip

Mar 10

In Rants, Tips & Tricks at 4:13pm

Some folks have written to me about hand holding cameras. I talk about it a bit at workshops and the like. (There’s a page in Clicks about it.) Seems pretty straightforward, I know, but as has been noted before, I have a tremendous capacity to state, explain and generally belabor the obvious, so at the risk of talking about yesterday’s news and telling people that which they already know, here goes.

[By the way, I’m flying right now, back from Spain, and eating on top of my laptop. When I’m working I just close the computer and put the food tray on top of it. Is that weird? I don’t know. Might be risky, I guess, but I do it often. I think I’ll be alright. The tortellini I’m scarfing is encrusted in it’s plastic dish like a bunch of barnacles below the water line of a Greek fishing vessel, and I’m having a hard time prying them outta there with my little plastic fork, so definitely no danger of spillage with these.

Could be trouble with the coffee and the water, I guess, but I’m pretty careful. I don’t think I’ll have an accident, but, just like driving in the snow, ya gotta watch out for the other guy. My neighbor seems nice enough, and not prone to sudden movements, unlike the guy who is sitting in the seat connected to my tray table who’s been trying to get comfortable for about a half an hour now, and the seat’s yakking back and forth like he’s boffing his girlfriend…]

Okay, back to the grip… First, what not to do:

Grip - Bad Posture

Bad posture, Mr. McNally, as the Sisters of the Precious Blood used to tell me (my blood, not their’s). This type of deal is a one way ticket to the spine doc, and field fatigue. Field fatigue is something we don’t talk about much, but man, it’s there. The more tired you get, the worse your pictures are. The more compact your movements, the more comfortable you are, and the more you support the camera with your body and not just your arms, the more spry you’ll feel, even at the end of the day.

[…But my seat mate’s cool. She’s a slender female, which is great cause I’m hoggin’ the armrest like crazy. Last flight I was next to some guy who literally spilled into my seat and smelled like low tide. Couldn’t even find the frikkin’ arm rest, let alone compete for it.

Armrest comp is great. You get a couple of guys tight together for a few hours, and let the games begin! (This really occurs between guys. Most women tend not get involved in this kind of petty, machismo hoo hah.) I can always tell the ones who’ll be tough. They’re suits, mostly, and they work on PC’s and they immediately pop up a screen with, like, third quarter results, just a spreadsheet stuffed with numbers and bar graphs, and they study it real intently, like they’re a windtalker and trying to crack some kind of code…]

(Warning, warning! This camera grip is much more convenient and doable if you are left eyed and use a motor driven camera, which is obviously deeper, say, than a D70. So we’re talking a D300 with a grip, or a D3, that type of body. Also, the left eye thing. I just have always used my left eye. Dunno why.)

[…Speaking of wind, I shouldn’t complain about anybody sitting next to me, cause I’m tooting like crazy during this flight. Must be the pressure change or something. Or that double beef bean burrito I ate in Madrid before embarking.

In Flight Update
Oh well, I digress. Brad’s gonna read this blog and make sure he gets his seat on the other side of the aircraft from now on…]

Focusing left eyed brings your motor driven camera closer to your left shoulder. (Really Joe, no shit?!) That’s a good deal. If you swing your body around into something resembling a boxing stance, your left shoulder becomes a base, or a platform for the camera body. It also brings your center of gravity back under the camera. Also a good move.

Grip - Left Eye

An overhand grip might be cool if you throw a baseball for a living, but not if you shoot pictures to conjure bread on the table. That overhand grip! See it all the time. Bad news. The overhand pulls your elbow out, away from your body, like a bat wing, and meanwhile you have that ham hock of a hand laying atop the lens like a couple of pounds of ground chuck. Useless weight on the drag strip.

Grip - Overhand Bad

[Flight update….currently there is a baby screaming and a dog barking (no joke), each within five seats of mine. I noticed this lady who got onboard with a little barking rat inside of one of those mesh bags, and sure enough, he’s a yipper…]

Put the left mitt under the lens, or, if truly skinny on shutter speed whilst using a short lens, clap that puppy over your right hand gripping the camera.

Grip - Left Hand Under

Grip - Left Grip 1

Grip - Left Grip 2

[Flight update….they’re coming by with the duty free cart. All the vices, tax free. Liquor, cigarettes…surprised they’re not running a special on methamphetamine. I was thinking to myself, “Who buys this stuff?” and I got my answer. Guy four rows up just bought what looked to be an incredibly expensive woman’s watch. I know desperation when I see it. Must’ve forgotten to get something for the gf while land based and this is his last chance for something appropriately chic and European. Whew! Dodged a bullet there. If he showed up empty handed he probably wouldn’t get lucky till late fall.]


Mar 7

In Rants, Thoughts at 7:10pm

Goofy Joe
(Photo by Scott Holstein)

“Hi, my name is Joe, and I make mistakes.”

I always say it. In Webster’s, next to photographer, it says “he or she who makes mistakes constantly.” Let’s face it, we are the most fallible of creatures, and I’m not saying that to knock us down. Lord knows, your average photog does enough self flagellation to qualify for a 13th century monastic order. (Chant after me, and Monty Python. “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.” Thwack!)

No, mistakes are just with us, that’s the deal. I could wax on/wax off poetically about how we make mistakes because we are supposed to embrace the world with the eyes of a child: So new! So fresh! (Say the last with Michael Jackson’s voice.) But that could easily be construed to be just so much smarmy bullshit. I think we just plunge ahead, as the English say, bash on regardless, and mistakes occur. I make tons of ’em on location. Zig when you should zag. Commit to the wrong angle, and get back to the studio and look at a bunch of images that might as well have “What was I thinking?” embedded right there in the EXIF data.

I can’t tell you how many times on a job I’ve looked at a Polaroid, or an image on my laptop, and shook my head in dismay and thought it was a great thing I wasn’t doing brain surgery cause there just went the piano lessons and the gift of speech. (These are inside thoughts, of course, cause usually the client is looking over your shoulder and you have to be happy happy joy joy. “Oh yes, it is going to be fine! We just have to tweak the lighting a little! Just soften the tones, you know, because we’re being forced to shoot the boss man right after he got hammered at lunch and now he looks like a stoplight with a neck tie, but that can be fixed in post and if we move the light this way a bit you won’t even see that stylish plaid shirt!”)

[More after the jump]

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