On a plane….where else to write? Got to my seat, did the usual. Cameras in the overhead quickly, to lay claim to that real estate. Overhead space has become so valuable to get to first that, come boarding time, the gate agent might as well have a starter’s gun instead of a PA system.
Other bag….pull out laptop, and Bose headphones to weather summertime’s screaming children passengers. (I like kids, but on deadline, after a job, on planes, well, the bad Joe takes a bit of an inside word ramble. “You have a lovely child. Looks a little under the weather. Oh my! I’ve got some Benadryl right here!)
Ipod and Iphone go in the seat pockets. Power cord for the whole electronic shebang, should I be blessedly upgraded. Cards and reader come out, to download pix. Eyeglasses geared for the computer screen.
My “normal” walk around glasses have a progressive lens pattern that is so outright weird after 35 years of straining my left eye through cameras, while my right eye often stays open, that my prescription reads like an unsolvable math problem. My right eye will roam when I shoot, on patrol for approaching permit police, pedestrians about to cross the lens, misfiring flashes, editors with unhappy expressions on their face, and hair and makeup people poised on the fringe of the frame, desperately searching for the stray hair.
(The fashion folks are great, but their on set antics always conjures up a wartime buddy movie in my admittedly oddball noggin. Tensed and ready, they operate in teams, desperately searching for the offending garment wrinkle or slightly uneven bend of the guava passion pink lip liner. When they see it, they might as well be dressed as commandos. “I’m goin’ in!” shouts hair. “On your six!” makeup calls back. And boom, like style medics they are on your subject. I can just about feel the downwash of the approaching rescue helicopter on my neck.)
Anyway, my left eye bulges, ogre-like, into the eyepiece and my right eye tends to pinwheel. This has left me with a combo that according to my eye doc should have me walking, punchdrunk, in a small circle all day long.
That hasn’t happened yet, but it could. I put almost nothing beyond the potential consequences of doing this thing that we do. The ramifications ripple through the rest of your life. I’ve been blessed by most of those ripples, generally. At least none has outright laid me low. But you know that it could. The camera is a machine that produces change. Every time you shoot with meaning, like a tree, you grow another ring. You throw a rock in the pond. Sometimes a big one.
Just grew another ring. My 15th coverage for the National Geographic got published this month. (Fifteen coverages spread over 24 years doesn’t sound like a lot, but I took a break from the freelance wars in the 90’s to become a staff shooter at LIFE magazine, and thus exclusive to them.) Interesting topic, as yellow mag subject matter tends to be. The evolution of the electric grid in the U.S. It’s a desperately important issue, which of course, drove the magazine to tackle it.
Nothing exotic. No Tahitian sunsets, no blasÃ© French couples coupling on bridges overlooking the Seine. No strange tribal rituals where boys become men, should they survive. (“If you wish to photograph these secret rites of passage, you, too, must pass the test where you pull the sacred ring of the maiden from deep in the throat of the massive river crocodile who happens to be in mating season!” )
“Uh, thank you, no. I’m busy shooting the electric grid.”
The grid had it’s moments, though, I tell ya. For a week, I went to work with lineman building the Tehachapi Project, in the Angeles Forest, north of LA. Tough piece of terrain, very fire-prone, very protected. Hence, there were no roads to much of the area where the towers got built. Helicopters were the vehicle of choice. The linemen would stand on heli skids, yoked to the outside of the bird, and get flown into the very top of the towers, little metal peaks they call “goat tips.” The foreman looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, it’s cake.”
Yeah, but cake tastes different when you’re 57 than when you’re 25, and have rubber legs. Barreling into these towers, holding on left handed, and firing a D3S fixed up with a 16mm fish with my right, I was pushing more than a camera button. You can hear the wind in your own wires, whispering, “Can you still do it, numnuts, or are they gonna take your sorry ass outta here in a basket?”
For the above pic, I went up to the tower early, and the chopper dropped me right where you see this crew getting dropped. I shouted to the pilot to make sure he put the crews right there, i.e., in good light. He screamed back, “I’ll pop ’em any goddam place you want ’em!” After I got dropped, I scampered (make that painstakingly put one foot in front of the other) to the other goat tip, where I climbed up and shot this crew going to work, which, thankfully, the magazine ran as a double truck. Great, clear morning. Got lucky with the light.
Every morning, I would stretch out, have a quick conversation with St. Jude, and jump on the skid. “Da guys” were great. More than once they would sling my Moose Pack along with their tools and lunch bucket, leaving “the old guy” just toting a camera. The chopper pilots were amazing. Precise as surgeons in the air, they’d pull wire with a couple inches of clearance, and pick and drop guys off three inch angle iron 300 feet up as easy as taxi picks up a midtown rider.
I got used to moving around up there, though I was painfully slow, compared to the real line guys. I found the “dead end boards” daunting. Hung from the actual cables, these extend out from the towers at precipitous angles, bouncing in the wind. Lineman walk them like they’re on a Sunday stroll. I was stiff legged, and held the safety wire with a death grip.
But that’s what you do. As a photog, you’re always the new kid. You get a brief, and you go. Pictures to be made, stories to be told. It’s that old Irish thing, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound. Rather die than fail. Actually, considering the earful I would get if I handed a bad take to my editor back at HQ, it’s not a bad philosophy. (I think that’s my father talking there. He used to call the obit section of the paper the “Irish sports pages.”) More tk from the land of the yellow border tomorrow.