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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A Pro’s Pro

Dec 3

In Friends, history at 1:02am


When I was growing up photographically, which was a long time ago now, achieving the distinction of being a professional photographer was just that, a distinction. It had the aura, just a bit, of a degree, hard won after years of training and tribulations. It was attained by a relative few, and I have to imagine many folks, given the daunting aspects of forging a career and sustenance via the alchemy of acetate, wisely chose not to pursue it at all. I have always likened the career path of the photog of that era as a country road traveled by a hardy few, which the digital revolution has now replaced with a multi-lane superhighway, traveled by many, at a high frame rate. The dawn of shooting ones and zeros threw the door open, I believe in welcome fashion, to many, many folks, and image making now takes place at a feverish rate.

But, being of a certain age, I guess I remain somewhat rooted in tradition, and thus continue to celebrate the value and worth of the truly professional photographer. It’s a tough thing to do, and it tests the durability, patience, skills and fiber of those who choose to engage it in full blown fashion. When I was coming up, if someone was referred to in reverential tones, as a “pro’s pro,” it was high praise indeed. It meant the individual in question could do anything with a camera. Ken Regan was one of these. Read the rest of this entry »

And now, the weather report…

Oct 23

In history, In The Field at 8:44am

The weather is always with us as shooters, right? Unless we’re still life folks, and click away unhurriedly in a studio, to the strains of Bach or Brahms, safe from the howling elements. (I personally would rather try to shoot frames in the teeth of a hurricane than do still life, by the way. I suck at it so badly that I have great admiration for those who do it well. I’ve tried on occasion, with abysmal results. How can a thing give you more trouble than a person?)

My history with weather is a fractious one, indeed. Just ask my buds Alan Hess and Earnie Grafton in San Diego. I go there as often as I can, and whenever I do, I think Alan just starts nailing plywood boards over his windows. Earnie, a durable, talented, former military shooter who’s now with the San Diego Trib, has shot his way through a ton of shit conditions over the years just looks at me and shakes his head. I think he thinks that way back in Ireland. long ago, the local hag (Cailleach, in Gaelic) cursed my family tree with the rain. Earnie is sort of mystical about this himself, and every time I show up in SD, he tries to break the curse by the mutual imbibing of the holiest of waters–beer.

The curse was in full throat roar recently in Tampa, though, so the suds aren’t working. I was down there to shoot a video for Kelby Training on….well, I can’t even remember what we were going to do originally. I could say I was going to teach a class stemming from my latest book on PhotoShop, entitled, “The Layers of Hell,” but you would know that I am lying. Anyway, whatever we were going to do went rapidly away, and our hopes for a sunny Florida shoot went swilling down the sewers along with a whole bunch of Tampa topsoil. So, as you do on location, we rolled. Shot through the wind and the weather, sat in cars, tried to keep the cameras and the models dry, went inside, shot into the wee hours, sought cover, and cursed the rain. The result actually, was one of the more fun shoots I’ve ever had in Tampa, to be honest. Standing out there on a dock, getting pummeled by the backhanded breezes of an offshore hurricane does inspire some lunacy, and some ad hoc decision making in terms of what to shoot and how to shoot it. The Kelby folks, a generally solid group of relatively normal people, actually got a little dizzy themselves in the midst of the mayhem and went running off the deck into the deep end with the video below.

The elements are always with us as photogs, right? We gather our gear in the morning, squinting at the sky like some sort of Crocodile Dundee armed with cameras and glass, wondering what the clouds will conjure in the afternoon. Moose Peterson is actually quite amazing at this. He’ll gather a bunch of folks around him and say something like, “Well, the wind will pick up later and ricochet off that far canyon wall and drive the afternoon cumulus towards that cleft in the rock. The sunlight filtering through that cleft will give the clouds a nice shimmer. This will happen around 4:10 pm, so set your cameras on aperture priority at minus 1.3EV and go to continuous high as this phenomenon will only occur for about two minutes.” He says this type of thing with such authority that people just nod in response and start adjusting their machinery without ever cocking their head to the side and wondering aloud whether if that was the biggest bunch of bullshit they’d heard since the last presidential debate.

Of course, though, he is so damn good at this, he’s often right. I was standing next to him, and he told me the light would hit the waterfall just so, and everything would be alright. It did, and I got the only decent landscape picture I’ve ever shot.

My history with weather and the National Geographic is a sorry, almost punitive one. They sent me (just once) to the magnificent beaches of Cancun to observe Spring Break, that sun drenched celebration of tequila fueled hormones. I came back with this.

This was perhaps deemed, well, cheeky. So it was back to business as usual, and they sent me to Siberia, in February.

And I spent a dismal but necessary night in the local drunk tank, where the depression caused by the ongoing darkness gathers in sad, rough fashion. The drunks stumble out of the bars, and flop onto the icy walkways. Police patrols haul them in, restrain them, and let them sleep it off, lest they be stiff as a cord of wood in the morning, and just as dead.

On a more uplifting note, I did find my way into the ladies’ locker room in a mine, where the darkness problem is obviously exacerbated by the endeavor at hand, and watched as these shift workers bathed themselves in the salubrious wash of UV light, before heading home through the bleakness outside.

These Russian kids do the same thing at school, where the only evidence of the sun is painted on the walls, and they can perhaps dream of its warming rays and the resplendent promises of the rainbow.

Funny, I do the same kind of dreaming myself…..more tk….

Shuttling Through the Years

Oct 16

In history at 11:06am

It ended as it began. And, for me, further proof, as if I needed any, that I’ve been shooting pictures for a long time. The shuttle Endeavor just got towed through the populous streets of LA, to it’s final viewing place at the California Science Museum. (The staff of the LA Times put together a terrific time lapse. Check it out here.) Back at the beginning, the shuttles were also towed, out in far more sparse areas, on their transits from being constructed and tested in Palmdale, over to Edwards AFB. I shot the first three launches and landings of the space shuttle program, staying at the Days Inn in Cocoa Beach, and listening to Shirl the Girl at the Mousetrap with my bud Hank Morgan. We’d then hightail it to Orlando Airport, fly to LA, pick up cars, and head for the desert, hoping the shuttle would stay aloft even longer than the planned mission, so we could accumulate more day rates. And, being that freelance day rates for magazine at that time were a whopping $250 a day, you needed to garner a bunch of those puppies just to stay afloat. So, we would fervently hope for bad weather, so the fellas up in space would just have to go around again a few dozen times before landing.

As the young guys here in the studio noted, neither of them were born when I made these pictures. They mentioned that one of these days soon I’ll end up in a museum. Of exactly what, I’m not sure. More tk….


Sep 13

In history at 7:42am

It’s been fun watching the Williams sisters make a lot of news of late, from gold medals and grand slam victories to a cover story in the NYT Sunday Magazine. It’s been amazing to see these two take their talents as far and and as long as they have. When I first encountered them, Venus was the budding star, nobody really knew about Serena, and they were a pair of funny, mildly awkward teenagers.

They were kids, really, with braces and beads in their hair, which was something of a signature fashion statement for them at that time. But even in their goofy camaraderie, you could see the beginnings of their power and talent.

When you’re a people photographer, it’s kind of like having a really big version of a family album. You make a photograph of someone, presumably because that person is in the news, or is very good at some particular thing or another. You might stay in touch, or shoot them again at another point in time. Or you simply sit back and watch them live, grow and achieve. Your pictures are kind of like your kids. They’re a great way of noting how time flies, and how, every once in a while you can stop it, however briefly. More tk…


Aug 13

In history, Jobs at 5:45am

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….