Archive for August, 2012
Haven’t been in Miami in a long time, so really looking forward to this Kelby Tour Stop. It’ll be this coming Monday at the Miami Beach Convention Center. One or two (maybe three) lights, all day long.
It’ll be even more fun for me, personally, because Annie will be there with me, along with the man himself, Jeff Snyder, from Adorama Camera. Just did something for Adorama TV, playing around with TTL transmission at a distance on the streets of Hong Kong.
Miami is just as exotic as Hong Kong, in its own way, and we fly tomorrow. Drew and Cali are already down there. They googled “hottest poolside scene in Miami Beach,” and came up with the Perry Hotel, below. Needless to say, I’m not staying there, which they’re very thankful for, fearing, methinks, that I’ll walk up to whatever group of young things they are chatting up wearing Bermuda shorts, black socks and my Jesus sandals. I would also of course have a floppy hat (for the sun) and a pair of flip down shades (handy!) and a D800 with my extra wide paisley strap around my neck. They would have to try to explain me away as a crazy uncle who’s “interested in photography.”
Hmmm….from the look of this place Annie and I better get down there to do some chaperoning, or perhaps refereeing, or by Monday I might have no assistants at all and I’ll be having to ask folks in the crowd to move light stands and such. Strange stuff can happen in Miami!
Have a great weekend everybody! More tk….
I had been a pretty decent photographer for a long time, churning out coverages for mags like SI, Nat Geo and LIFE, and just generally living a life through the lens in fairly typical, routine fashion. Phone rings, get on a plane, bring back some pictures. I mean, I got noticed every once in a while, mostly when I messed up. Being a general assignment, problem solver type magazine photog can be a little like being an offensive lineman on a football team. Do your job, nobody notices. Screw things up, and you’re in the highlight reel. I mean, some people cared, every once in a while. For instance, my mom occasionally would ask, “Joseph, what is it again that you do?”
But then, I asked some folks to take their clothes off for some pictures. And not just anybody. I asked some of the world’s most famous athletes to doff their duds. It was 1996, and man, that just flat rattled some folks, and they started asking, “Who is this guy?” So here’s a kernel of advice. If you ever want to get noticed as a photographer, undress the famous.
I ended up on the Today Show, GMA, CNN, getting all sorts of both press and air time, with everybody asking about how it was done, with some winking and nodding to exactly how scandalous, forbidden and naughty it all was.
How fast and far we’ve come in such a short time. Now, it’s almost a rite of passage for the supremely athletic to bare all of their magnificence for the camera. The ESPN Body issue rivals the SI Swimsuit issue in terms of notoriety and anticipation, and, wonder of wonders, it actually photographs athletes, with all sorts of sinew, attitude and body ink. It hews much closer to the zeitgeist than the beach cuties can ever hope to, no matter how much body paint you throw on them, or how floss-like the attire. The ESPN crowd is all raw flesh and power, shot with an edge. Looking at that issue, you’d never know ESPN was owned by Disney.
But in ’96, in anticipation of the Atlanta games, when I went to Dan Okrent, my managing editor, and told him I wanted to shoot these folks nude, I did so with a nervous gulp. Luckily, Okrent was smart, knew the value of a picture, and was a pretty ballsy ME, which was not the case with lots of Time Inc. editors. He looked at me and asked, “You can get these people to take their clothes off?” I said yes. “And you can shoot it in a way I can run it?” Again, yes. “Okay,” he said. And I had one of the biggest assignments of my life. It was an act of faith and daring on his part to be sure. Time Inc. is a pretty conservative, publicly held company, and of course, LIFE was freakin’ Disney in print. We were going to get complaints. We were going to lose subscribers. He still said, “Do it.”
So I went in search of the best of the best. Below is famed long sprinter Michael Johnson, still the only male to win both the 200 and 400 meter races in one Olympiad.
Of course, I complicated matters even further by initially insisting I shoot the thing in 8×10 B&W. Blessedly, my first subject was an amazing athlete who since has become a good friend, a three time Olympic fencer, Sharon Monplaisir. She was so wonderful, and beautiful, she made my job easy, as I struggled on the first outing to find the style of the job, and wrestled with a behemoth camera. She was truly a magnificent subject, and thankfully I’ve worked with her a couple times since that first encounter.
A few years later, I shot her in the studio, and again, she was an amazing physical presence. She joked with me. “Joe, are you ever going to shoot me with clothes on?” We’ve always had a laugh when we have worked, and she remains one of my favorite people. When trying to launch a project like this, your first encounter is critical to the mood and feel of the whole deal, and as I said, she made things easy. Working this job convinced me very quickly that in many instances, I would have to work faster than the 8×10 would allow me, so the rest of the assignment was mostly done with medium format.
They weren’t all easy, to be sure. Jackie Joyner Kersee, a truly historic American athlete, was very dubious. But I had worked with her before, and I simply tried to maintain a calm on the set. I wanted to shoot her from the back, and she eventually agreed. Given her significance, the picture below is now in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
When Linda Somers crossed the finish line first during the Olympic time trials for the women’s marathon, I whisked her away to an impromptu photo studio I had created in the parking lot, asked her to take her shoes and socks off, and quickly shot a picture of the bottoms of her feet just after running 26.2 miles, all the while chattering away in reassuring fashion about how I wasn’t just some guy from New York with a foot fetish.
This was where I was going with this job. I wanted to see the Olympic body, unadorned with clothing to be sure, but mostly to show how the physique responds to the stresses of achieving athletic excellence, to see what price going farther, faster and higher than anyone extracts from the human body. So, while the above picture is “naked,” it’s certainly not racy, and it is informative. Your feet are in tough shape after running all that way. It takes dedication, and a pretty high threshold of pain.
Below, I shot American fencer Cliff Bayer again in 8×10. (What was I thinking?) Take a look at his right, or fencing arm, and see how much bigger it is than his left.
But then, there are athletes you just want to see, because they are truly, the epitome of human form and excellence. Carl Lewis, seen below, could easily have laid claim to being America’s best athlete, ever.
He showed up at the shoot with his mom, and all of his gold medals, save the one he buried with his father. Carl is an Olympian who became a bit of a lightning rod for some controversy, and took a lot of hits in the press, but I worked with him numerous times and always found him to be a gentleman.
Gail Devers, at that time the world’s fastest woman, had a big personality. Sprinters can be much like their explosive sport. They come at you, hard and fast. Gail was very generous in giving me this picture. She just flexed, and I framed. Shot in ten minutes, available light with a fill board. First place in portraits at the World Press Awards that year. Weird. It was an honor to photograph Gail, by the way. She bounced back from Graves disease, and the possibility that her feet might even have to be amputated, to become the fastest female in the world. Her long nails were her signature.
I shot the arm of Jeff Rouse, Olympic gold medalist in the backstroke, because I was fascinated by the powerful sweep of his arm as it pulled him faster than anyone else in the pool.
And Gwen Torrance, a lovely and amazing sprinter, was so dedicated to her workout routine that she refuse to leave the Emory track stadium at midday. I had to construct an impromptu set of walls with black material so she would have a bit of privacy amidst the lunch crowd at the stadium as she posed for what became one of the covers.
And then of course there was the water polo team. Athletic power to be sure, but also a bit of humor.
I shot super heavyweight lifter Mark Henry, all 435 pounds of him, by putting my strobes behind him and letting a bunch of reflected light wash around his massive frame. Then, I came in close to see a hand that could help lift hundreds of pounds into the air.
And diver Mary Ellen Clark, clenched into a tuck, was trying to make the team as she was struggling to overcome an onslaught of vertigo. She went onto win the bronze medal in 10 meter platform diving.
Amazing bodies, to be sure. But so amazing in other ways as well. The drive to be excellent. The mental toughness. The refusal to quit. That, I think, is why we celebrate these folks every four years. Hats off to all the Olympians as the Games close.
And then of course, there’s the body issue. More tk….
The New York Times just did a piece on the grabbing and grappling that goes on under the surface during the very tough sport of water polo. It’s rough down there. Water polo athletes are amazing aerobic machines, constantly jockeying for position, levering their bodies high out of the water for shots, and fighting through opposing blockers and grabbers. The submerged WWE matches that occur are all just part of the game to the players. But, all that underwater strategizing was one of the reasons I once took the entire 2000 version of the U.S. women’s water polo below the surface for a portrait. It was a hoot.
I’ve got a huge, huge American flag I’ve used at the behest of Sports Illustrated, LIFE and National Geographic many times. So, I simply took the flag and put it in the pool, and let the team get creative. The above ran as a two page spread in SI.
Lighting this type of scene is simple in terms of structure, but daunting in terms of volume. To do this, I laid down a 20’x20′ silk on a frame right over the water. How you do this is to sand bag the hell out of the frame corners resting on the deck, and then tie rope to the far corners. Those ropes run up to high rollers, again thoroughly sand bagged. You basically construct a primitive pulley system and just gently lower this huge diffuser down to where it is inches about the water line. Then you pump six 2400ws units through it. I used Speedotrons out of the SI bank of gear for this. Underwater, you trigger the whole mess with a flash running off of your underwater camera. That lights up a slave eye that is dangling at water’s edge. That, in turn, fires all the packs. Trust me, all those huge packs are safety roped and backed off the water. It would not be a good headline…”Sports Illustrated Photographer Electrocutes Entire US Water Polo Team.”
Shot the pix with a Nikon RS camera, an underwater SLR that they, sadly, no longer make. I loved that camera, despite its tendency to flood. Great array of lenses, and for an underwater rig, eminently focus-able and handy. I’d wait underwater with two or three bodies, and the water polo ladies would confer up top about what to try, and then just all jump in. It was awesome, kind of like being depth charged with beautiful, athletic women. Below is my favorite frame of the take, albeit not really a storytelling, publishable image. A shot like this just goes away in the rush to publish a weekly, but it has a certain randomness I’ve always enjoyed.
We’ve all been lifted up lately by the shows of daring, stamina, sportsmanship, and excellence in London. In the midst of all of them, a tiny Olympian with a huge smile and an embracing manner defined the term “grace under pressure” and spun, whirled and smiled her way to the all around gymnastics title. Little Gabby Douglas, aka “the flying squirrel” lifted the whole room (the whole room in this instance being the world) with her performance and heart warming demeanor.
That smile harked me back to my very first assignment for LIFE magazine, in 1984, when they sent me out after the LA Olympiad to capture another pixie who had leaped, double spun and vaulted into our hearts…Mary Lou Retton. As bubbly in person, off stage, as she was in the public arena, we spent just a few hours together after the Games were over. My mission, obviously, was to capture the smile and the personality….and the medals.
Mary Lou won the overall gold and several others of different shades to bring her medal haul to five. At that point, as I recall, she had yet to be photographed with all of them. So, in the brief period we had together, we conjured a hat in honor of her training home in Texas and figured out a way to rig the medals on it. (This was quick, direct magazine photography at that point. No stylists, makeup, smoke machines or art directors out there with us.)
Made the frame, and the one below, on Kodachrome, just flying blind with the light and moving fast. Needed a twofer, and the effervescent Mary Lou had a blast with the stuffed bear. It was the picture above, though, that got the most notice.
One of the reasons the pic with the hat and medals was important was the fact that she had not been shot with all five of them prior to this. We made some frames, and Mary Lou was as easygoing and gracious as could be. But then, the reporter I was with fielded a phone call from her agent, who demanded that I surrender the film and leave it behind. Evidently there was a big deal going down with a sponsor, behind the scenes, and the exclusivity of a pic of Mary Lou with all her medals was a talking point. Needless to say, the few rolls I shot came with me, back to LIFE. (Mary Lou couldn’t have cared a whit, by the way, about all the backstage shenanigans. She was as fun to photograph as the pictures indicate.) But it does get interesting when the agents get involved. (And by the way, I’m totally with the Olympians in terms of sponsorships, support, you name it. They labor, intensely, largely in obscurity, for a sliver of a chance at success that comes along once every four years. If they do well, I say go for it!)
The pictures never ran in LIFE. When I got back to NY, I found that the assignment had taken a different direction, and it was pulled from me, and my pictures were killed. Another shooter was assigned, who went on to photograph Carl Lewis as Hamlet and other more elaborate constructions. I thought, well, that was a brief, but interesting career at LIFE that I just had. One job and done.
But….and here’s the vagaries of the path you walk as a shooter, the very next month. I got a phoner from the mag and assigned to a far bigger job, on the art scene on the lower East Side of NYC. Similar in a way, as I was once again photographing something gold.
Poppo, from Poppo and the Go Go Boys. Painted gold, on a roof at sunrise. As I always say, stuff like this happens down on the Lower East Side all the time:-)
Very happy that Kelby Training has launched the dance photography classes we created in January in collaboration with some truly wonderful dancers in Vancouver, Canada. The above series is of a marvelously powerful dancer with Ballet BC named Gilbert Small. The class that is up and running now is called Light, Shadow and Motion. Coming next week is Dancers in Flight, and I’ll keep you posted on that. Many thanks to the folks at Kelby Training, and all the dancers who worked so hard in the studio. Their devotion to craft and artistry is routinely amazing. Below, Jeff Mortensen conjures simple magic in the air.