Being in the Communication Arts yearly has always been kinda cool, and we’re selected again this year, after a pretty long hiatus. Didn’t bother submitting much in the last few years, as the kind of magazine assignments that generated that kind of play for us as a studio don’t exactly drop from trees anymore. But this year, we had a pretty visual story, on telescopes, for National Geographic, so we zapped in our entry. The CA yearly anthology is a grouping of some of the best visuals of the year, and lots of industry folks view it as a good guide to who’s doing what.
Contests, awards–they’re funny things. As I’ve always told young photogs, winning a contest doesn’t mean anything on a day to day basis, really. No magazine I’ve ever placed for has come back to me and said, here’s more dough for your next job ’cause you done so good. Given the vagaries of the magazine industry, the opposite is more likely to be true. But what they can occasionally do is make getting the next job easier. Or make the process of wringing money from an institution to fund a project slightly less arduous. That’s about it.
Not that it’s not cool to place, or sake’s alive, even win. It’s a kick in the pants in a good way, and it can take you out of the doldrums of the assignment grind. I’ve always been fond of a couple yearly photo gatherings, most notably the World Press Competition, held in Amsterdam every spring. It’s a bit heady to enter, ’cause you know you’ve just jumped into the pool with the world’s best photojournalists, and your work will be measured by an unforgiving and unyielding yardstick. I’ve taken a few spots there over time, once winning a first place for portrait, for the shot below, of sprinter Gail Devers, then the fastest woman in the world.
Was it the best portrait taken in the world that year? Dunno, and, quite frankly, I doubt it. Here’s how it came about. Mr. Genius went to LA to photograph her legs. Pretty logical, as that was the engine of her fame. Shot this, which I was happy with.
But, you know, I always advocate asking the question. That uncomfortable, exasperating photog question that just about spins your subject over the top. As we were leaving, literally packed up, I gulped and asked Gail if there was anything else she could show me that I was missing. (Reason for the gulping was that Gail, like many sprinters, was a very forceful personality. Sprinters are often very confident, brash, in your face kinds of folks. I’ve often thought their personality reflects their endeavor, which is of course a complete, explosive, all out burst of energy in a very short time.)
“So, anything else instrumental in your success?” I inquired. She shrugged and said, “Well, I’m pretty strong.” And then popped a bicep that would make Ahhnold jealous. Throw in the fingernails, and we had the makings of a picture. The finger curl pic was shot in less than ten minutes, available light, with a big foam core white board being the only assist I offered the cloudy LA daylight. No photographic virtuosity, just some quick snapping. And a willingness to venture the potentially annoying question at the end of the day.
The other big dog on the contest block is the Pictures of the Year competition, held every year at the University of Missouri. The above pic won a first place, for magazine illustration, which was cool. This of course was a construct, done with light and mirrors, to honor the perennial all star shortstop, Ozzie Smith. As they said, he was baseball’s Wizard of Oz who looked like he was playing shortstop from 5 different spots at once, such was his range. My solution to show this was mirrors, which spawned a whole generation of mirror pics in Sports Illustrated. Tough shot to do. Mirrors, unsurprisingly, are heavy, fragile and (who’da thunk it!) highly reflective. Just a bear to work with.
But it worked. The trick of the pic, if you will, is that Ozzie himself is standing right next to me at camera while I’m shooting this. Just had to locate the mirrors specifically to his angle and light it well. Sports Illustrated liked the photo, running a different version, one with Ozzie actually in the frame with his reflections, on the contents page.
But, to fit it onto the contents page, the biggest, most important reflection (created by the mirror closest to camera) of Ozzie had to be cropped out. Which pretty much punctures the picture. Sigh. These things happen. It ain’t my magazine.
This one won another first at Pictures of the Year, which came from a boomed F4 with an SB 24, 25 or 26 on it, fired by radio. The camera was clamped to the end of a c-stand, which I had resting on my shoulder, and hash marked right where I needed to run it out to. Which I had to do repeatedly, in the days of shooting film. Pull it in. Reload. Run it back out. Yikes. The real prize here is that we landed safely.
Contests. They’re a nice pat on the head. But be careful about all the backslapping and hand wringing that goes along with them. I won the first Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Journalistic Impact for a story called The Panorama of War. A couple of pictures from the story are below, shot in Rwanda, post genocide. There was an awards dinner, which is typical of these things, and prizes, a check, and all sorts of stuff. It was a worthwhile evening, during which numerous photogs received honors, and many speeches were made. Only thing was for me, as I stood at the podium to accept my award on behalf of LIFE, I was pretty much the only person in the room who knew I had been fired by LIFE just the previous week. I was their only staff shooter at the time, and in what has become a yearly rite of passing in print journalism, I was let go, along with numerous of my colleagues. At Time Warner, it wasn’t called being fired. The process was referred to as “reduction in force,” or “RIF.” So I didn’t get fired, I got riffed.
So be it. Happens, right? I remember being up on stage, smiling through the irony. Thing about being a freelancer, as podunk as it is, you keep moving. You have a camera, and an eye, and there will be someone else to shoot for. You stay in business. You keep shooting. What the hell else you gonna do? Lord knows I’m not going to fire myself. And, I don’t regret a minute of my time at LIFE, and I’m still involved with the name in a big way. (Some photo historian eventually might note that I am the last staff photographer at LIFE, thereby making me responsible for the death of photojournalism.)
It’s all cool. Things change. Institutions come and go. Film gives way to pixels. Awards sit on shelves, and gather dust. We can’t. More tk….