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Archive for February, 2014

On Crossing Borders….

Feb 28

In In The Field at 4:40am

I have to imagine that one common thing we share as photogs is an innate fear of crossing borders with gear. It probably expresses itself differently for everyone. Maybe it’s tightness in the chest, or the icy tentacles of dread reaching down into your guts, making you seek out the first bathroom you see after your passport is stamped, or the forced smile and mildly overblown effusiveness of our greeting. “Hi officer, how are you today? Just look at my smiling, innocent face. I couldn’t possibly have a live animal in my suitcase, so no need to go looking!”

Most of the customs folks I’ve ever met are quite decent, and they do an important job. (I travel so much I know some of the crew at Kennedy Airport.) They certainly face off with a onslaught of exhausted travelers, trying to get somewhere, scurrying to make a connection, and are just one question shy of getting surly about the whole deal. It is, after all, a border, a crossing. Everybody on both sides most likely wishes it could be easier.

We do carnets, all the time, for our gear. It’s like a visa for your equipment, and most of the time, it’s a magic carpet. The officer checks a few things, random, signs off, and you’re on your way. But you have to be careful with those, too. I traveled by myself to Moscow once, with eleven cases of stuff, and I had one number—one number—wrong on my carnet, and it was all confiscated. Everything. I left the airport without a shred of gear. Took a couple days, and the efforts of my fixer, and some, uh, carefully administered dollars to retrieve it.

I shipped 47 cases of gear once to Chile, to photograph telescopes. That was comparatively easy, actually. I think they looked at this mountain of battered cases that surprisingly got burped out of the baggage belt and just gave up.

Once, I made my way from Rwanda once to Uganda, and went through three checkpoints, and at the last, the guards took all my stuff, including my clothes, and threw it out of the trunk onto the ground. I had hidden my medium format shot film inside the cavernous cavities of my 6×17 pano cameras, and the rest of my shot film was wrapped inside a plastic bag filled with really funky, unwashed clothing, so my film made it. That was thing about the film days. After shooting for a couple weeks on a job, that shot film became much more valuable to you than any lens or camera, and it was not easy to hide or store 60 or 70 rolls of medium format film. Here, take the gear! Just leave me my film.

On another occasion, again leaving Rwanda into the Congo, the border guard didn’t bother with my passport, and simply said, “Avez vous quelque chose pour moi?” Uh, why yes, young man, have you met Andrew Jackson?”

Traveling from Ingushetia to Grozny, my intrepid fixer, Igor, who happened to be the freelance correspondent for the Russian edition of Playboy, took a bunch of copies of the magazine and threw them on the visor of the rental car. When going through a checkpoint, the first thing the young Russian conscript would see would be a lovely lady, hi-beaming him through the windshield.

“Can I have magazine?”

“Sure, can we go?” Sure! And onward we’d roll.

I recently made another trip to Canada, which is a place I’ve done a lot of work, and love to go to. I’ve taught up there, shots jobs all over the country, and once did a huge commercial job for Fedex right on the border, north of Seattle. For whatever reason, though, no matter how much I’ve done the transit, the US-Canada border remains the most difficult, nerve-wracking crossing I have ever made. Now, it must sound ridiculous for an American to complain about anybody’s border formalities, as we have a reputation for being a mite prickly ourselves, but sometimes going into Canada can have its moments. (I wonder sometimes if it’s like we get tough on people for a while, so they correspondingly ratchet things up? Dunno.)

On my first transit in, I really should have had a work permit. I was doing not just lectures, but also seminars, and the officer explained that was “providing a service,” and thus required a work permit.

She was quite nice, and told me her range of options included sending me home. But, she opted to allow me to purchase a one-time work permit, right then and there. Took some time, as she made calls to check me out, during which time my cell phone was quarantined, but it got done, and I was thankful. Paid the fee, got the documents, and was on my way. Took a two and half hours, but I crossed the border.

I thought my troubles were behind me, but I did have to bounce from Vancouver to Washington DC for LIFE job, and then back to Van. She assured me I was good to go, as the dates on the work permit extended through my return trip.

Having been thus stamped and approved, on my return, I approached the customs podium with confidence. The officer noted my work docs and said those papers should answer all his questions.

Actually, just the opposite happened. The work permit was apparently confusing to him, it unleashed a barrage of queries, the first of which was, “Do I have a criminal record?”

Now, I’ve done some criminally stupid things on jobs, with a camera in my hands, but I’ve never been arrested. He seemed dubious, and asked again. “No,” I replied. He changed tactics, asking if I had ever been “in trouble in Canada.” I did teach a Kelby seminar in Vancouver one day with a case of food poisoning, but I didn’t think that was the vein of trouble he was potentially mining, so I again, replied in the negative.

He was pretty relentless, and brought my docs to two other officers to confer about them, and me, I imagine. I was feely poorly, as it was after midnight, and I was an unshaved, scruffy mess. I mean, I would not have let me into Canada simply based on aesthetic considerations.

He took a red magic marker and began to furiously scrawl on my immigration form. He was really bearing down, so much so I grew wide eyed and tried to look over his counter on tiptoes. I saw that my document had basically become a fourth grade art project, featuring large, looming letters, mixed in with perhaps an exclamation point or two. He handed it over to me and told me to move on, but said that “We’re going to continue to check you out.”

I replied, “No worries, officer,” in downright cheery fashion. I have found it does no good to get cranky in these scenarios. You are absolutely under the control of the customs officer at hand. You can neither go back, nor go forward, without their blessing. So, if you are encountering someone who is determined to “continue to check you out,” so be it. All you can do is be calm, and honest.

I approached the secondary checkpoint with a document that was now glowing. I might as well have dressed in a threadbare, tattered, stained smock, hung a “LEPER” sign around my neck and started chanting, “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead.” The officer at that point directed me to Area B. On my first entry a week previous, I got Area A, so I felt a little uneasy about this. Had I been downgraded? Or was Area B where the real serious miscreants end up? I envisioned myself perhaps being sentenced to forced labor at a Molson’s factory, or being locked in a room and forced to watch endless repeats of Team Canada’s victory over the US hockey team in Sochi. I was worried.

But then another customs officer approached me, and he was quite friendly. He looked at me and said, “You’re Joe McNally, right?” I said yes, though at that point I thought I was thinking of trying to pass myself off as Moose Peterson. He said, “I’ve got your books.” That gave me the sense my evening was about to get better, unless of course he hated TTL.

But we had a good chat, and he disappeared for a short bit and told me I was okay to go. Adventures at the border!

More tk…..



I Think I’m Working These Guys Too Hard!

Feb 26

In In The Field at 4:06am

Busy couple of weeks. Went from KelbyOne in Tampa to LA to shoot for LIFE, then Vancouver to teach. Left Vancouver on a red eye to Washington DC, continued the LIFE job, and then rotated back to Van for our last days at the Vancouver Photo Workshops. Flew from Vancouver to home, did laundry, jumped on a plane to London, where I am right now.

Cali, our very capable first assistant, stayed with me through Tampa, LA, and Vancouver. I left him behind in Vancouver, on his own for three days, a stint of dangerously idle time from which that fair city has perhaps not recovered. Jon was in Tampa, went back to the studio, re-upped a new gear pack, threw it in the truck and rolled it Washington. He met me when I got off the redeye at Reagan National, and we went straightaway to shoot. Worked for three days, and then he dropped me back at Reagan, and I was off to Vancouver, and he headed north. I rejoined Cali in Van, and we finished our stint there for VPW, and then did similarly quick laundry and chores, and came here to the UK.

While in Tampa, we did a couple videos for the Kelby clan, playing the the notion of motion. One thing we showed was an in camera double exposure, during which the subject moves position. When Cali and Jon were working with me to set the lighting, they gave the camera the above expressions. Hmmm.

Now, we are blessed at McNally Photo with the fact that Lynn, our intrepid studio manager is also the accounts payable department, the production department, the client liaison officer, and, well, the list goes on. She is also the human resources department, thankfully, so if they walk into her office with disgruntled expressions such as above, she will smile sweetly at them and crack them in the back of the head and tell them to get back to work. (Think Gibbs in NCIS.)

Kidding, of course, at least most of the time. Lynn, in addition to running the studio, is also an advisor, confidante and overall font of sage wisdom about photography, and the art of life and business for these young men. We are truly blessed at our shop. In addition to Lynn and the guys, we also have Lynda, who helps keep everything glued together. Everybody works incredibly hard at keeping us bobbing along in the turbulent sea of photographic endeavor.

For the KelbyOne videos, we stayed simple a lot of the time, trying to examine how to make one speed light and one hot light work to produce a simple motion result, such as below. We examined the basics of front curtain, rear curtain, color shifts, etc. We also did some more complicated stuff like hang a camera on a bicycle and an ambulance. They will hopefully be fun to watch.

In Vancouver, I was demonstrating a tight, beauty dish attachment for a speed light, and some high speed flash techniques, and got a couple frames that were decent of Aaron, who has a wonderful face for this kind of a light.

More tk….


Keeping It Simple in Vancouver….

Feb 15

In Lighting, Seminars & Workshops at 6:14pm

We continue to push ahead and have some fun up here at the Vancouver Photo Workshops, doing a whole week of experimenting with speed lights.

One speedlight, outside the window. Tri-grip diffuser held up against the glass. TTL signal from camera pulsed out the window to the flash in the street. Couple frames, soft light for Mary June, who is a lovely model. Tomorrow is a big group here at The Ironworks in Vancouver for an all day lighting demo. Then, for me, a red eye to Washington DC (if it every stops snowing). Back to Vancouver later next week.

More tk….

Adorama Meets Fashion Week

Feb 10

In Friends, Links, News at 9:02am

Adorama, the camera store, took a plunge into the wild world of fashion this past week. Yowza.

Seems the store had a vacant space, big enough for a runway, chandeliers, and a press lounge, not to mention dozens of impossibly tall women wearing everything from sequins to feathers. In a city where there are lots of folks trying to make a statement, every day, nothing takes a back seat to Fashion Week, which explodes this time every year, colorful as a Carmen Miranda headdress. This year it’s been a refreshing splash of vibrance and life in the midst of a burg traumatized by a Polar Vortex, desperate for winter to be over, and so bored with waiting for a sliver of sunlight as to become heated over the way the new mayor eats pizza.

Getting the management of Adorama, whose sartorial tendencies favor black and white, on board with the wild and wooly nature of the fashionista crowd, was an interesting leap, indeed. My wife, Annie Cahill, who runs the Adorama Pro Department, is nothing if not fiercely determined, saw the possibilities of the empty space, and fashion folks who needed to display their wares, and made the match. It’s also been an opportunity for multiple communities to get together…..the photo folks, the fashion folks, and even the whole neighborhood of Chelsea. I tried to get a coffee at a local bistro I drop by every once in a while and forget it, the line was out the door. Busy, in a word. 

So, it’s been nothing short of fantastic! An otherwise vacant storefront on 17th St. is swirling with life, color and clothes that I guess some people wear, sometimes, quite likely well after I go to sleep. And of course, where there’s designers, gowns and models, there’s photographers. Lots of them. Some, admittedly, more professional than others, and some who look like they belong on the runway on the other side of the lens, but photogs galore, and pictures by the thousands.

I dropped by after straight after getting off a plane the other day, stupidly, without my DSLRs, and just an Iphone.(Which actually made me fit in quite well with all the other fancily dressed swells and assorted hangers-on.). And of course, my bud Peter Tsai snaps Numnuts here chimping on the damn smart phone. Sigh.

More tk….

Super Bowl

Feb 4

In history, In The Field at 8:27am

So the Super Bowl ball game is done, and has now modified and progressed into the Super Bowl of Trying to Get Home. A wall of snow just fell on NY, heavier and more sustained than a Kam Chancellor hit, and football fans of all descriptions are stuck in the Big Apple. I flew out this past Supe Sunday, and thus escaped before the city got rolled by the weatherman.

I shot one Super Bowl in my day, which was amazing to me, as I suck at sideline photography. This may sound odd, as I did have a contract with Sports Illustrated for a number of years, despite not being adept at shooting moving objects. I would get intrigued by the hoopla, color and obsession of the sport at hand, but was not all that compelled by the grunting and sweating out on the field. So, they would send me to something like a Super Bowl to shoot that which no one else was interested in, in this case, the refs.

The game was the 1987 matchup of the Broncos and the NY Giants, a game won by the Giants, and featured a legendary performance by QB Phil Simms. I don’t really recall seeing any of the game itself, as I had to key in and shoot pix of all nine of the refs. One of the biggest challenges was getting them all together for a group shot, however quick and dirty it had to be. And trust me, it was.

The above was shot less than two minutes before kickoff. I had made arrangements with the refs to meet me in the corner of an end zone that had a last sliver of daylight, with the field as a backdrop. To “fill” this picture, my ever grumbling SI staff assistant had to hoist a 4×6 Chimera soft box onto a monopod, and sling four Norman 200B battery packs on his shoulders and follow me out onto the grass. Phil Jache, the resident techno-wizard at the mag, had adapted a Speedotron Quad to Norman cables and flash tubes, so I had the equivalent of 800ws of portable power blowing through one lamp head. It was truly a Rube Goldberg arrangement, and the two us trundling this Frankenstein of a light out in front of millions of people I’m sure looked perfectly ridiculous.

And of course, there literally dozens of my colleagues on the sidelines, all being helpful. “Hey Joe, the flash isn’t working!” “You’re light’s not goin’ off, dipshit!” Constructive suggestions as to my lighting, staging, composition, overall demeanor, my looks and my ancestry rained down on me. The intimation my light was malfunctioning was a real possibility, as it was pre-Pocket Wizard days, and I was using a Hawk Radio transmitter system, which had all the sophistication and dependability of your basic garage door opener. Shot Kodachrome, no time for testing, or Polaroid.

I got a serviceable group shot, and then spent the rest of the day chasing the zebras during my one and only Super Bowl adventure. Story never ran. More tk….