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Archive for August, 2009

Breathing Through The Lens….

Aug 27

In Uncategorized at 6:39am


When asked, I’ve occasionally described shooting pictures, for me, as being akin to breathing. Something I just have to do. I accept the fact that there are many interruptions in the photographic breathing process that would not be tolerated or fortunate if they occurred in the natural breathing process, but suffice it to say, drawing air creatively and physically is very important to me, as they are to anyone who ever picks up a camera with serious intent.

So when I get the hiccups with my pictures, it gets me down. I spent two weeks recently getting a story off the ground for Nat Geo, and it was stressful, as always, in the photographic sense. This one was extremely stressful because of the physical risk involved. Thankfully, I had angels on my shoulders, and stayed safe, and managed some good frames along the way. My editor hasn’t seen it yet, so I may be apprised differently about these alleged good frames, but for now, for me, the pix are good to go. (Bill, my friend and editor, has a favorite phrase for pictures of mine that go away permanently during the edit process. He’ll say, “This one’s going to Toledo, Joe,” even if I argue vociferously for its’ inclusion. He tends to dispatch these unfortunate frames that will never, ever see the light of day, or the glow of a computer screen, or, God forbid, ink on paper with a malicious little chuckle and rueful “What exactly were you thinking?” kind of tilt of the head. As I always say, apologies to folks in Toledo, cause there’s evidently a suburb out there filled with my shitty pictures.)

Left that job, and had one day off before coming to Maine, where I’m winding down now after two weeks of teaching. Those damn days off. I think it was during that 24 hour period somebody let the air out of the tire. I mean, I’ve been teaching well, with good energy, but I couldn’t buy a picture over the last couple weeks. Last week, even my demo pictures on the first day of the class sucked. (A new low!)

So this week I was kind of determined to get something I could, for a moment, anyway, hang my photographic hat on. Luckily, Tom Sommo, a terrific young dancer, was modeling for my class, and for a demo, I lit up the boiler room in an old school. (The lights are out in the parking lot, for the most part.) Only shot 6 or 7 jumps, and I missed the mark on most of them, but did get a frame I like.

Amazing what just getting a decent picture can do for your spirits. He’s actually physically expressing through his dance what I needed to do at that moment, photographically. Get my eye into the camera, take a leap, make a picture. Breathing easier. More tk….

Searching for AT&T…

Aug 23

In Rants at 7:01pm

I’m in Maine, teaching at the venerable Maine Media Workshops. We had a great week, great class, nice bunch of folks. I haven’t told too many people about it though, cause in terms of cell phone connectivity,  I might as well be in Mongolia. The cell plan there might be better. I hear that after 9pm, you can yak all you want for free. Or is it, you can call all the yaks you want for free. Dunno. Have to read the fine print.


My cell signal I’m sure is out there, somewhere in the fog. Thing is I don’t have a boat. I’m land bound, so I drive around, looking for it. I find it here and there, glimmering at the end of the block, like a special effect in the movies. Five bars! Come closer, it beckons like a siren.  And then it vanishes,  just like those ball players in Field of Dreams.

We’re right at the water, so I’ve been thinking about penning a word doc on a thumbdrive and stashing it in a bottle, and hoping the coastal currents carry it New York way, just to let Annie know I’m safe. It’d be almost as efficient.

I’m operating my communications efforts at the behest of AT&T because Verizon lied to me. The man at the counter told me when I updated to the Storm that it’d work no problem on a Mac based system. A little software assist, and bing, the Storm would be smooth. Like buttah.

No. After two days of trying, which even consumed a freelance day rate to a tech savvy assistant, everyone at the office had dubbed my new phone the “ShitStorm.” Brad and Drew, on their way to Photoshop World, dragged my caveman ass into an Apple store to buy an Iphone. Which is what I made the pictures for this blog with. Thankfully it does takes pictures. Cause otherwise, that puppy’s just so much useless weight on the drag strip right now.

Oh well, it’s Maine. (Forget it Jake, it’s…Chinatown.) That beautiful stretch of Northeast that the rest of the country only remembers when they think about going someplace where it’s not too hot in the summer. Lots of nice folks up here. Though it must be admitted, there is a substantial, crusty group of natives who think being born in the state of Maine automatically bequeaths to you the right to be grumpy towards anyone not born in the state of Maine. And boy, in the summer, there are lots of those folks. Vacationers everywhere. Folks from the big city who de facto have no brains, can’t tie a bowline, get up senselessly late in the mawning, and are just uselessly frivolous because they weren’t born and raised up in good old Maine, the land common sense. In particular, if you’re not from here, you absolutely cannot operate a motor vehicle with any skill whatsoever. Given that fact, I drive very cautiously, so I don’t pull a move that will piss off a local. You never know. The person driving that pickup truck you just cut off might be a congenial, blue jeaned, hard working man of the land with a few acres and a barn full of cows. Or he just might be a genuine, deep fried state o’ Maine wingnut who got rid of the cows long ago and now has the barn stuffed with more heavy caliber automatic weaponry than a Somali warlord.

Nonetheless, people are on the roads, though. The traffic in downtown Camden on the weekends looks for all the world like the Manhattan side of the Holland Tunnel at 5pm. Why are all these folks here? Don’t they know there’s nothing to do here? I mean I guess there’s stuff to do, like hiking, boating, fishing, antiquing, staring at the fog, beating back mosquitoes who when they score it feels like you just got stung by a Black and Decker power drill with wings, or trying to decipher driving directions given out in a Maine accent. But most of these endeavors smack of relaxation, so I’m not all that interested.


Best reason I know of to come here is…ice cream. If you are wandering around downtown Camden and are not interested in buying a duck decoy or a hoodie with a picture of a lobster on it, head for Camden Cone. They’ve got this flavor I’ve not seen around before–black raspberry chip. Scoops of purple inundated with big chunks of chocolate. Only downside was that after I finished,  I walked six blocks with my empty ice cream cup, eventually just putting it in the truck and taking it home to throw out. Say what you will about New York, but every ten feet there’s a trash can. More tk….

Peachpit Q&A..Up and Running….

Aug 18

In News at 7:38am

It inevitably happens that I fall behind, and don’t catch up to numerous questions we receive here on the blog. I’m able to get to some on an individual basis, but I often don’t get back. I have the best of intentions, but things do slide, given the road sked we have had this year. And those unanswered questions nag at me, cause I really do appreciate folks chiming in here on the blog, and often they are terrific notes and notions that could open up worthwhile discussion. Also, cause I was raised Irish Catholic, I feel guilty as hell about it, and probably sometime in the late spring of 2014, when get around to my next confession, the priest will slide the little trapdoor, urge me to confess my sins, and might be taken aback when I mention the whopper of “unanswered blog questions.”

My dear publisher, Peachpit, and the creative folks in their office came up with a bit of a solution. A photo Q&A that will acquaint me with unfamiliar traits….being timely, predictable, and organized. Hit this link, and while I still won’t get to all the questions, they will organize them for me, and I will ping it regularly, with encouragement from my editor Ted Waitt, who worked all this out last time we were out in San Francisco. That week in San Fran was great. Was at all these cool places, like Apple (the mother ship), Livebooks, Lexar, Google….while we were there, Drew had some correspondence with folks at Twitter, who asked about doing a lecture there next time out. Ted, ever the wordsmith editor type, saw a golden lining there. He said, “Wow, what an easy lecture. You have to keep it under 140 characters.” :-)


One question we will answer here, though, on the home blog. We have been getting numerous queries about our work flow, and the intrepid Drew is gearing up a blog for next week where he will explain it in detail. He knows it better than I, because, as soon as the job is done, in the grand traditon of NY based prima donna asshole photogs, I immediately don black garments and retire with a gaggle of insufferably hip swells to some ultra-hip, downtown eatery to begin a round of partying that will reel into the wee hours. It is Drew’s current lot in life to roll up his sleeves, pound back several vodka laced double espressos and begin the grim task of saving my sorry ass yet again by making the hundreds of relatively incoherent frames I have just shot (alot of my takes kind of feel like I had a seizure while holding a D3 on consecutive high) and presenting some sort of reasonable visual document to the client.

It should be a good blog, as our work flow invariably involves high drama, passenger pidgeons, and a truly unique machine we refer to as the digital transmogrifier. You see, I’m still shooting Agfachrome (those rich earthy tones) but Drew is able to dump it all into this machine and it crunches everything down, embeds metadata and spits out files at the end that make it appear that I am shooting high end digital cameras. It’s a tough day at the studio when we kick in this machine for a big take, cause it sounds a bit like a wood chipper, but hey, deadlines call.

Drew will then wait for the red phone to ring, usually late at night. It will be my agency, run by the one we simply know as “The Corsican with the Scar.” Voice suffering from french inhaling too many Gauloises, he will rasp, “Do you have ze photos?” Drew acknowledges that we do, and then immediately gets onto the train for a late night trip to the city. There’s a bank of pay telephones at Grand Central, just by track 17, and if he hits it right, when he gets off the train, the 4th phone from the left will be ringing. There, an intermediary for the Corsican will give him instructions where to drop the files. The exchange point is usually the first garbage can (are they trying to tell me something?) on the right side of the pedestrian ramp to the Staten Island Ferry. Drew drops our bag o’ files there, and behind it is a paper sack filled with non-sequential, used dollar bills. Though, I must admit, with tough times lately, it had generally been a bag of loose change, most of it zlotys.

Lynn, bless her, has a hand in this process as well. She scours the rubble of one of my takes, desperately searching for a frame that could be loosely interpreted as “portfolio material.” She then will run it to the local CVS and have an 8×10 printed, which she then takes to the basement and runs off hundreds of copies on a hand crank mimeo machine. She will then take the copies and staple them to light poles all over the neighborhood. (Business isn’t up, but boy, complaints are, so someone is noticing.) The stuff off the mimeo machine is kinda monochromatic, lacks detail and is certainly out of focus, but we figure that’s the sweet spot of the marketplace right now. Just trying to catch up here with current trends…..:-)

A quick note of thanks to the folks at Shutterbug, who worked with the studio to produce the August cover….


And thanks to Barry Tannenbaum, who puts together Nikon World Magazine. He’s a good writer, and a knowledgeable photo guy, and we just collaborated with the Nikon gang to produce a wraparound cover for the new issue. Kinda cool for me, in a very personal sense. I grew up looking at this magazine, and other anthologies Nikon would produce, and my eyes would get pretty glazed over. I would think, maybe, someday, could I get a picture in there? Far fetched at that moment of course, cause I was ragtag photo student and this mag was replete with work from my heroes like Jay Maisel, Pete Turner, and Eric Meola. They were at the forefront of the wave of Kodachrome shooters who were taking color photography to places it had never gone. Many years later, made it. Another thing on the list of things to do before I die I can check off.


The cover subject is dance, and the dancer is Jenn Concepcion, one of the most truly gifted and physically expressive dancers I have ever worked with. Imagine how hard it is to do ballet. Then imagine keeping your line, your cool and your moves together on a nearly blacked out stage with multiple stroboscopic flashes going off in your eyes. Then you get your head around what Jenn did for me to get this picture. We shot this for Kelby Video Training, once again working with all the gifted folks at NAPP. More tk….

Joe’s Version of “Children of the Corn”

Aug 14

In In The Field at 9:33am

The creepy hand in the cornfield! OMG! It’s getting closer to her!  Get off the beam! Harvest the corn! Plant soybeans!


This has been rattling around on for quite a while. Had a blog teed up last year about it, and never finished it, and then a reader sent me a link last week that jogged my memory. I am a disaster. I admit it. I guess the nuns were right.


But what’s way cool about this flub is that it opens an interesting window into being a magazine shooter, real time, circa now.

Let’s start at the beginning. SI called and wanted me to go to Iowa and shoot the state’s favorite youngster, Shawn Johnson. (As well she should be. What a lovely, accomplished kid.) Idea was to put her on a balance beam out there in the corn, something Iowa is famous for. Makes sense. (This type of thing has precedent. If you can, check out Neil Leifer’s 84 Olympic portfolio for TIME, which has athletes from all over the world in front of their national symbols. Best frames are of two gymnasts, one from China on the Great Wall and the other in Japan, on the rings, dangling from a crane in front of Mt. Fuji. Good ideas, good shooting.)

First words out of every editor’s mouth at every magazine out there nowadays is, “Do it cheap.” SI is no exception. So first things first. Find a free balance beam and a free corn field. In Iowa, not hard to do. Folks are willing to pitch in. Try that in NY or LA.

Balance beams are about 16′ long, 4′ high, 4″ wide—and somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds. Suffice it to say, we mashed down a lot of corn getting this beam into the field. The injured stalks were put upright and A-clamped to light stands. (We are in seat of the pants, on location, do what we gotta do mode.)

The beam is in the field, and the wind and weather are picking up in ominous fashion. Also, the corn is about 9′ high. So the beam’s gotta go up. We accomplish this with about 20 or so apple boxes, which gets it to the right height for a picture, but it’s nowhere near stable. Enter, maybe, 400 to 500 pounds of sandbags, which stabilizes the beam…a little. Time for the assistant sandbag!

Both of my assistants go under the beam and essentially hang on small ropes, letting their full weight apply to the beam. Better, but still not great. Shawn gets up there, brave soul, and starts to pose just a bit, in gingerly fashion. Can’t blame her. We are in a cornfield, not a gym. And I’ve got the top gymnast in the world on a shaky beam, that’s nine foot high, no safety mats, with storm winds swirling. The farmer helping us, and I believe, her dad, go under the beam, basically to play catch. It’ one of these multiple folks’ hands you see in the corn. Don’t remember who, exactly. What I do remember is desperately not wanting to this photo session to make the next day’s newspaper. “America’s Leading Gymnast Injured on Sports Illustrated Photo Shoot!” If anything had happened to Shawn, I never woulda gotten out of Iowa alive.

Lighting is right outta the KISS playbook. One big Octa, with two Ranger heads in it, to pick up some power. It’s a good distance from her, camera left. Height of the light is an issue, as you can see from the select that ran as a double truck in the magazine’s year end issue.

Not, by my lights, the best pick, but, hey it’s not my magazine, they can do what they want.The corn near the light is hot, cause, obviously the light is right there. Tough getting the big Octa clear of the shrubbery. It is high but not high enough. Got it sandbagged to be sure, and also have ropes to two tether points on the soft box that run back to the front bumper of the rental van, but it is still bouncing in the wind like an amusement park ride.


I woulda gone with the frame below, which is one of my favorites over the last couple years. In this look, got the light pitched a touch higher and feathered it off the corn, then burned down the lower left corn in PS a touch. Like the composition of this one, with the rows of corn lining up. And those dark clouds! Fantastic. Until they did what clouds do. It poured, turning our 500 pounds of sandbags into, say, 1000 pounds of sandbags. The farmer who loaned us the field was amazing. Probably in his 60’s, forearms like Popeye. If it weren’t for his help, that balance beam would still be out there, and they’d just be plowing around it. But I like the frame, particularly the farmhouse/barn in the distance. Gives it that “Little Beam on the Prairie” feel.



Historically, magazines would hire a photog because they thought that photog’s vision and energy would apply well to the job at hand. To that end, they rarely expected to see the whole take. They expected, and accepted, the photographer’s edit of the events in the field. (Unless of course, there was a disaster, then the whole take was called in.) On a job for SI, for instance, I would routinely shoot 10, 20, 30 rolls of film, and send in 10-30 selects. The mag would pick from that edit. If I really, really liked a take, I would edit even tighter, doing my best to script the story as I had seen and experienced it. This was not prima donna behavior, it was routine, expected. It was a practice virtually every magazine photog engaged in.

But over the last few years, there has been a sea change in the way photo departments relate to the rest of the mag. The SI department, run by the formidable Steve Fine and Jimmy Colton, does an amazing job year after year, even though they are in the position so many of us are, which is (to borrow my bud Kevin Dobler’s phrase) needing to do “less with less.” They still produce great work, but are under constant budgetary assault. They also try to alternately please, educate, and understand the managing editor, who, in the grand tradition of Time Warner managing editors, has no sympathy for the picture gathering process and less understanding of it. Most ME’s come from the word side, and kinda do a quizzical head tilt when looking at photo budgets. “Why does just shooting some pictures cost so much money?” They ponder this and other cosmic questions at their table at Elaine’s.

Hence the notion of a photog controlling their edit is to a degree, a thing of the past. (Every photog always has their own relationship, protocol and work flow with every client they have. For instance, at Nat Geo, from the very first story I shot in the 80’s to the one I am currently shooting, I have sent every frame to the editor. Every frame, good, bad, indifferent. But with many other magazines, I would edit, sometimes extremely tightly. On a LIFE portfolio at one point, I had 8 subjects and I sent in 16 selects. Two per portrait scenario. Done deal.) With a future feature like the one under discussion, one would think you could dawdle a bit and tinker with an edit. Not so. The pressure on the photo editors at a shop like SI is so high, they generally want the take in the house like, now. I can understand. When voices get raised at the picture showings, along the lines of  “Jesus Christ, why doesn’t he have the sun on the right and the ball on the left!” the photo editor doesn’t want to have to call the shooter to see if such a frame exists. They wanna go back to their machine, spin the dial and see right then and there if his guy’s got the sun on the right and the ball on the left. So when I shoot, I am dumping the whole take onto an FTP site that night. Truth be told, I often don’t even look at them that closely, especially if American Chopper’s on:-) Not completely true, but at the end of the day, they’re getting every frame. I will see their thinking when I buy the mag on the newsstand. Or call. Which I never do on deadline, in the heat of things. I wait.

Sometimes, working for a excellent editor and gentleman like Porter Binks (former SI editor), I wouldn’t have to wait. He would always call with an appropriate Tennessee-ism, such as, “Joe, ya did great. They liked it. You be in tall cotton, and that’s better’n bein’ a lost ball in the weeds.” In other situations, no call would come. I’d walk around for a couple weeks even, with kind of a low grade headache rummaging through my moods and thoughts. “They hate it, that’s why they’re not calling. They hate it so bad they reassigned it. It’s over. You’re toast.” That whispering voice of despair, anxiety and insecurity all shooters have in their head. Our own personal Gollum.

Finally, I call. And sometimes, really, I’d have to jog the memory of the beleaguered picture editor, who, understandably, two weeks downstream from assigning the job, having edited about 10,000 frames for other breaking stories, would have to reboot the memory stick for a second. “Oh, oh, yeah. The beam in the cornfield thing (or any job). It was fine, uh, they liked it.” “They” of course are the group, indeterminate in number, who constitute the gateway through which the pictures must pass. “They” are not in the photo world. But “they” judge your pictures. I’ve been blessed with managing editors like Dick Stolley and Dan Okrent, who had a beautiful touch for photos, and knew a good picture when they saw one. With some editors over the years, I woulda had better luck showing my stuff to Stevie Wonder. No matter the extremes, when I would get the word “they” liked it, and my emotional desperation would dial backwards from 105 on the reactor to its customary levels of ambient angst.

When a block of pictures hits the buzzsaw of a weekly magazine on deadline, stuff happens. Quickly. Especially on the web side. I have no idea of the specifics of the work flow when the the mag is going to bed, but I do know it’s hectic, and the SI website, desperately competing for presence out in that crowded cyberspace, is getting put together faster than shit through a goose.

And with the wind blowing, and the corn moving, and the rain coming, and the beam shaking, and all the files from a boatload of prolific shooters on different stories peppering the home server like it’s Jimmy Caan in The Godfather, well, it’s always amazing to me that all the pages come out right side up. This gives rise to the hand in the corn. It was clean in the mag, but not on the web. I kind of like it. The howling wind….the stormy sky….the rustle of the stalks….the hand in the corn. Reminds me of a story I made up to tell my girls when they were small that was an amalgam of scary stories I had heard when I was a kid. I called it “The Dusty Lane.” It would scare the bejeesus out of both them but they would routinely beg me to tell it, as opposed to reading a story from a book. Caity always liked it when I made up stories and didn’t read them verbatim. She would sit on the edge of the bed and say, “Daddy, tell me a story from your mouth.”

So, I’m a  Photoshop disaster. Way cool. That’s not to say I don’t use Photoshop, and play around with it, albeit badly. And truth be told….I have manipulated pictures……a tawdry tale of a photog gone bad….stay tuned…the truth is….tk…..

Big Light, Small Light….

Aug 10

In Lighting at 11:31am

Had a terrific job recently for a dear friend of mine who is the publications director of Villanova Law School. They just built themselves a brand new building. Thank goodness. I shot a few times in the old building and, well, it was tough to find an angle. Let’s leave it at that. The new building has two amazing innovations. Windows and light!

And big common spaces, one of which I needed to show in a picture. Yikes. See below.


Real big space, lotsa light outside, not too much filtering in naturally, given the angle of the sun. Whaddaya do? I could have drug my shutter and blown the windows, but there goes the detail, some of which speaks to the nature of it being a brand new space. I often advocate mimicking window light by using softeners like bed sheets and the like, and that does produce something very akin to the soft, natural feel of a window. You can do the same thing at the other end of the scale. What would hard daylight do to this room?


Okay, it’s a starting point. The light in question here is an Elinchrom Digital RX 2400ws unit, gelled warm. Nothing fancy. Just a big, raw light on a stick. Okay, the place is lit, roughly speaking. Time for our wonderful subject.


Oops. I had hopes the big light might clip that seated position, and we’d be sorta done, but no such luck. Didn’t want to move the main, cause I had a pillar acting as a big gobo. The pack is cranked to the max, a freight train of light, so that hunk of concrete between the camera and the flash was helpful.

So the mission became to get another light, a key light for my subject, that would resemble the hard feeling of the light in the background, but also be pleasing, and somewhat selective. In other words, not another big light. That woulda turned the whole place into the equivalent of a tanning salon.


Time for small flash, which you might think would be out of the game, given the monster truck nature of the main, but it fit in perfectly. Flagged it with some gaffer tape to cut spill, zoomed the head to 200mm, gelled it a bit warm, and dialed it into SU-4 mode, so it would simply trip off the big flash, which was in turn triggerred by a Skyport radio trigger. Nice thing about the Skyport when a light is this far away I can not only trigger it, I can adjust power, right from camera. Got this.


In Capture NX I decided to cool this down slightly. Liked the warm nature of the light, but at the end of the day, given the midday blue of the sky, thought I had stepped on the warm pedal a little too hard. But, the happy, and mildly predictable accident? What can happen when you blow a light into a space indiscriminately, just as the sun might do? Without lifting a finger to the lights, you can get a completely different look to the photo by adjusting lens and position.


This one I let stay warm, cause you only see environment that is dominated by the flash. There’s no other input that would strike an incongruous chord. No umbrellas, no soft boxes. We were done.

Of course, it is tough to come up with all the unpredictable splash and permutations of good old daylight. Late in the afternoon, when the sun actually got to an angle that it saw the interior spaces of the building, I got this, straight up available.


Simple lovely daylight. Who knew? I gotta try this more often! More tk….