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Archive for September, 2008

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.

News and Notes

Sep 18

In News at 11:55am

Just had a conversation with my buddy Bill today. Both of us noted with wry satisfaction and a collective sigh of relief that we seemed to have dodged the current economic bullet by both continuing to endeavor in that relentlessly upbeat, growth area of the American marketplace, print media. Whew! And, as Bill reminded me, I needn’t fret over the future of McNally Photography, or, as he has been wont to call it, McNallyCo International. In his words, “Don’t worry about your company, Joe. Its just too big to let fail.”

Dang, I feel better already!

Speaking of print media, I shot the October cover of the Geographic. Story on Neanderthals. As I mentioned to my editor, they got the right man for that job. More tk on the mysterious land inside the yellow border.

In Prague right now, one of my favorite places. Rolling through NY this weekend and will see the inside of Kennedy Airport only on my hop to Santa Fe, where I start teaching for the Geographic this Sunday. Always look forward to the Expeditions Workshop–lots of nice folks hanging about for a week, talking and shooting pix.

Teaching with my bud Jerry Courvoisier, who just came out with a new book, Lessons in DSLR Workflow with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Check out his podcast here.

Ya know, I tried to get Jer to jazz up the title a little. LESSONS FROM THE EDGE: SCREAMS IN THE PHOTOSHOP NIGHT! Or, DIE, DIE, LITTLE PIXEL! Or, even better, become the Russ Meyer of post with, FASTER PUSSYPIXEL, KILL, KILL!

But no. Anyway, its a corker, and definitely listen to the podcast. He knows his stuff.

My buddy Jay Mann, who shoots great stuff while he labors in midst of the geology and the oil of the Middle East, wrote in, curious about the highlight on Tom’s face in our backyard studio.

Can’t say with absolute certainty, but methinks its a bit of flash blowback from the MRI on the lower left, the lighter scan without alot of black area. seems logical, given the orientation of it on Tom’s face. Liked it, so let it stay. One of those happy accidents you tell your editor you planned:-)

The red and green tape on my SB800 units….used to make sense. We had some running on rechargeables, and others on straight up batteries. The tape told ’em apart. Now they’re all on recharge type bats, and the tape lingers. For, oh, about a year now. I’m on top of it, I tell ya…..more tk.

That Day, Again

Sep 15

In Stories at 12:01am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t Get No Respect:-)

Sep 10

In Friends at 9:23am

My picture editor at the National Geographic sent me this picture the other day. It was sent to him by a long time colleague, who came upon this scene in a public bathroom. On the toilet is what we have come to call “The Red Book,” here at the studio. It’s a lighting brochure I did for Bogen where I employed the services of a leggy, beautiful Kazahk model for three straight days. This picture was accompanied by the following text:

I want to be among the very first to congratulate you on this remarkable new multipurpose product.

The new McNally “Moment I Come” autoerotic aid and bathroom tissue, all in one handy package, promises endless hours of very personal and private fulfillment. And, using high-recycled content paper, users will have the additional satisfaction of knowing they’re being “kind to the earth” even
as they’re being…well….kind to themselves.

In a time where major national magazines are dropping like flies in a bug zapper, its heartening to know this kind of inspired creativity continues, promising literally dozens of dollars of revenue over the product lifecycle.

Way to go Joe. You’ve got this, as they say “in hand.”
None of the above is surprising, or disturbing. Which may be, in effect, disturbing. I leave that for wiser heads to decide. Its just my old buddy Bill, best man at my wedding, editor of 8 major stories I have shot over the years for Geographic, bending his incandescent intellect in, well, a different direction.

Where’s Rodney when I need him?

Shot this many years ago, a five minute backstage portrait session. But with Rodney, it was always the right five minutes. His rubber face was ready for the closeup.

I’m no stranger to Bill’s jousting, of course. We have been friends a long time. Nowadays, when time allows, we have a phoner during his morning commute we call “the morning rant.” Topics range from the general disrepair of the photo industry, to the antics of government, to the wild and woolly state of things in the new millennium.

The momentous event of the passing of the centuries drove a couple of stories Bill conjured and then hung around my neck, much like a farmer might throw a sturdy yoke around an ox, then sit down in the cart and expect to go somewhere. Around that timely time, we did a story on the globalization of culture, and another, modestly titled, “The Universe.”

Both were corkers to do, and a lot of fun. (Its all fun in retrospect. At the time, Bill referred to my efforts at space photography as “The Universe Death March.”) He wanted me to do the globalization story very badly, as he well knows my psyche is a loosely connected pastiche of pop culture, bad movies, comic books, and celebrity magazines. By contrast, he doesn’t get out much, and his idea of a raucous evening is to drive his Prius out to the rolling hills of Virginia and after a meal of organically raised free range chicken breast and strained carrot juice, curl up with his favorite monthly magazine, The Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. He really did a Nat Geo story on nanotechnology. During this period, I remember calling him and asking how the story on “really small shit” was going.

I really wanted to do the Globalization story because research indicated at that moment, Baywatch was the most viewed television program on earth, and I was gonna be sent to Will Rogers Beach in LA to check it out. Purely, of course, in the interests of journalism and the subsequent advancement of peoples everywhere.

Truth be told, that may be the only story I really ever substantially contributed to the enormous database that makes up Bill’s brain. On virtually everything else we have done, I must confess, by the start of the story, he’s got the Ferrari of his intellect already in the passing lane of the interstate, while I am fixing a flat on the jalopy of my noodle, back over on County Road 213. He is remarkable in the depth and breadth of his interests and knowledge. He’s one of them, as that tribe of children said in Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome, “that’s got the knowin’. (See why he hired me for global culture?)

He’s also a helluva editor. Even though we are close friends, he has no problem taking off the buddy hat and putting on the dispassionate, “why the f**k did you shoot it this way?” hat. He is remarkable in his faith in the process of picture gathering, knowing full well that all photogs run themselves into innumerable rabbit holes during the course of a coverage. He has patience that the story will turn in our favor, and is willing to be steadfast during some of the rough sledding that inevitably accompanies any assignment undertaken. I’d love to say it all goes like clockwork out there, but it don’t.

He also allows me a tremendous participatory role in the editing process.

Here, he is showing me the one I’m going to like.

And, he has no problems telling me when my pictures suck, as they quite often do. His favorite phrase for a photo of mine that is going away forever is, “Joe, this one’s going to Toledo.” My apologies to folks in Toledo, cause there’s evidently a suburb out there filled with my shitty pictures.

I’ve shot a lot more bad pictures than I’ll ever shoot good ones. I’m quite comfortable admitting this. I have always been compelled by my time behind the camera, my love of actually shooting, no matter if I win, lose, or draw. And boy do I lose a bunch of the time. Every shooter does. The ones who tell you they are always knockin’ on heaven’s door when they take a camera in hand are bullshittin’ ya blind.

We all shoot bad stuff, good stuff, in between stuff. It’s the stuff of the photographic life. Failure is part of it. No shame there. If we knock it back all the time, or feel like we do so, then we’re not trying. As I always say, if the feeling of been there, done that, nothin’ new here, I’ve seen it all, let’s move along overtakes us, then its time to hang the cameras up. Then we can go inside and become editors!

Kidding, of course. Direct, constructive, dispassionate criticism are essential for any possibility of growth as a shooter. Without it, we are lost, and our interior compass loses any true reading or direction. There are photogs out there working who have evolved beyond criticism, of course. They have become their own outsized brand, big as Cheerios, pricey as Prada, and knowing as Dr. Phil. Think Oprah with an H2.

Anytime you got people thinking that the finger on the shutter is the finger Michelangelo’s touch of God was modeled on and the pixels jamming through the USB and splashing onto the Apple Cinema display in the studio should produce rapture amongst the natives on a scale of offering a virgin to the Kong–well, that’s a problem.

These folks should just spend a day with Bill. Highly recommended.

Cause this is hard to do, right? Day after day, you come back without a great or even good frame. I’m reminded of the conversation betweeen Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in League of Their Own.

Jimmy Dugam: “Baseball is what gets inside you, it’s what lights you up. You can’t deny that.”
Dottie: “It just got too hard.”
Jimmy: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”

There’s a lot of analogies between photography and baseball. Ray Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe wrote, “A critic once characterized baseball as six minutes of action crammed into two-and-one-half hours.”

Sounds like a photo shoot to me.

The picture up top is courtesy of Lynn Johnson, who quite simply is one of my favorite people in this industry. If you don’t know her work, you should. Lynn is a remarkably compassionate, direct, connected photojournalist. We have all been to photoj conventions, you know, where you occasionally hear from the podium that, you know, “I spent a few minutes with the family, and they began to trust me and I was able to move around like I was invisible.” Okay. That happens I’m sure. But I must confess, when I do hear stuff like this, occasionally I heave a bit of an inward sigh.

Not so with Lynn. She really does that. I have watched her work, and seen the results. Always, as I said, connected. Always honest. Always sympathetic to the human condition. She, as a photographic persona, remains in the background, becoming a remarkably transparent vehicle for real life to transfer to very real pictures on a page. She has my absolute admiration. The highest praise I can ever offer another shooter is, “I wish I had shot that.” Lynn’s shot a bunch of those.

Except, maybe, this bathroom snap. This one I might have passed on:-)

Or not. Ya gotta be able to laugh at yourself, at this industry, and at the machinations, peccadillos and affectations of those who labor in it. Personally, if I don’t laugh about 10 or 12 times a day at all the crap we have to slog through to participate in our current, motor driven version of cave painting, I would simply start crying.

And, as we all know, there’s no crying in photography. More tk.

Vegas, Baby, Vegas

Sep 5

In Lighting, Seminars & Workshops at 1:42am

PhotoShop World. Vegas. Its pretty crazy here. Lots going on. I guess I might have been unconsciously preparing myself for it by putting D in the lake in Santa Fe.

I’ve been friends with D for about 6 or 7 years. She is one of the most expressive people I’ve ever had in front of my lens. She creates her own art form from her movement, her face and the angular, radical shapes she can make with her physique. As I think about it, she is her own one person Cirque du Soleil.

Shot with one SB 900, zoomed to 200, through a largely blacked out umbrella.

It was a natural leap from the lake to Vegas, in a way. Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I shot a story for Nat Geo called “The Power of Light.” I spent some time in the city of neon and glitz.

Nothing like chopper work at dusk to test your hand holding capabilities. Never use a gyro up there, just useless weight on the drag strip. But I do try to stay steady, and not drink too much coffee beforehand. Geographic never ran this, but the I did get the lead to the story here.

There’s almost 40 xenon arcs up at the top of the Luxor Pyramid, all aimed somewhat uselessly (hey, its Vegas) right up at the sky. I’ve worked with xenon arcs in studios (big studios) and they are powerful beasts. Which is why the tech working with the lights is wearing a bomb suit and a face guard. One of those bulbs explodes, you are in for big trouble. Of course, I was up there in shorts and a t-shirt, which did give me a bit of pause. But it was hot. Damn hot. Of course I chose to make it more uncomfortable by dragging a smoke machine up there, to create some vapor trails for these lights. Ran as the opening double truck, though, so I was happy enough. I wish you could know that kind of stuff when you were shooting. Maybe by the time the D8 or something comes along, there’ll be a little indicator that goes off and an audible computer voice tells you, “You have just made the lead photo for your story. You can relax now.”

Wouldn’t help me, though. I’m a worrier. Whenever I get a Geographic story, especially the old style Geo stories that ran for months, it would stick to my head like glue. Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever gonna work. Think about it in the shower. Think about it when I would play with the kids. Wake up in a cold sweat, thinking, okay, they’re gonna find out now, on this one, that is all a sham, and I can’t shoot, and I’ll never get another job from anyone, and my children will starve. Fun, huh? I mean its uncomfortable. Its like walking around for a few months with an A clamp on your nuts.

I digress.

Wouldn’t ya know it I come to Vegas, teach the pre-con Photo Safari with my dear friend and great shooter Moose Peterson, and I end up with a frame I like of a cowboy by the side of the road. We went to this little ghost town place called Nelson, with a bunch of folks, and tried some lighting solutions.

It prompted me to think about a quick lesson for the Hot Shoe Diaries. Sample below…..

Why would you do that? Why would you go from the the safe haven of light you can see, touch and feel into the mysterious, uncertain and quite possibly dangerous land of flash? That’s like sailing across eel infested waters and then climbing the Cliffs of Insanity! Inconceivable!

Think of it this way. That available light is available to you, for sure, but then again it is available to everybody. You can make a picture that will look kind of the same as the guy next to you as the guy next to him. Then, for instance, all of you submit those pictures to the same magazine, or agent, or stock house or whatever, and the reaction is, hey, wait a minute, these all look…the same. It’s like Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon showing up on Oscar night wearing the same dress. Quel embarrassment!

In a world of sameness, where there’s a Starbucks, a Gap, a Barnes & Noble, and a Pizza Hut on every other block of every other town you’ve ever been to, there is vibrance and joy in difference. In an era of pictures by the pound, royalty free, rights free, fast food photography, it just might pay to step back and try to make your pictures the equivalent of a mom and pop shop, the old curio store, or the place where the locals really eat.

One path to difference is to use light in creative and unexpected ways. Out here on the road, in the middle of no place Nevada, the sun had gone down. There was still plently of light, but it was cool, subdued, and expressionless. It was, you know, available, but unexciting. I put Chris, our actor cowboy up against a old barnside that had lots of cool stuff stuck on it, and made a picture. A very average picture. (That’s being kind.) It was a record of the scene, and not an interpretation. It was shot at 1/80th at f2.8.

But what lingered in my head was the sun going down over the distant hills on camera left. It had disappeared behind those hills just when it was about to get colorful and interesting. (Available light will do that to you.) So I put up a flash, with a full cut of CTO on it and placed it on a stand about at the angle the sun had been. The CTO turned the clean, neutral white light of the SB900 into the color of sunset. The 900 was especially advantageous here because of its capacity to zoom to 200 millimeters. When you zoom the flash head to 200, you concentrate the light. It gets punchy and direct, kind of like, oh, late afternoon sunset light.
I aimed it at a pretty steep angle to the wall, and triggered it with a CLS i-TTL signal from the SB900 I hot shoed to the camera. Made another frame at 1/80th at 2.8. You can see the scene warm just a touch. The camera is doing its job. It is mixing the flash and the available light in a reasonable way. Remember, it’s a machine. It does what it does. Like a food processor, it chops, slices, dices and blends, all with the aim of uniformity and in worship of what it perceives to be the happy place, the land of the histogram right in middle of things. Safe, in a word.

Safe, as in…blah. A smooth exposure. Publishable. But nothing with edge or difference or color. So, I got rid of it. All of it. I took over the controls (Luke’s switched off his targeting computer!), and put the camera into manual mode, and dialed in 125th of a second at 5.6, underexposing the scene by about 3 stops or so. Predictably, I got this. Ordinarily, you’d say Whoops! and check your settings. But here, in this dark place, is where I wanted to be. Now I have control.

What happens when you open a camera shutter in a black room? Nothing, until you light it. I had turned this roadside scene into a black room via use of shutter speed and f-stop. The camera sees almost nothing now. It is waiting for input. It is waiting for light.

Made another exposure, this one with the speed light firing and hitting the actor and the wall in a hard, intense way, creating lots of highlight and shadow areas. The SB900, zoomed at 200 millimeters, gelled warm, gave the scene life, dimension and color. Shot about 5 frames, turned it over to the class.

You can do a lot with one flash and a stand by the side of the road. You can make the sun come back. More tk.