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 photoshopdisasters.com 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…..