Archive for the ‘history’ Category
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…
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….
Kim Phuc, pictured above, was running from an airborne attack, horribly burned with napalm, in June of 1972, 40 years ago this month. She ran blindly, in unbelievable pain, right at the lens of Associated Press photog Nick Ut. I don’t know what his shutter speed was. 1/125th? 1/250th? The blink of an eye. The click of a shutter. And this young girl ran into the pages of history.
Nick, a good photographer, and an incredibly decent soul, made the frame, and then saved her life. He got her to an army hospital. From there she was transferred to a facility in Saigon, the only one in Vietnam equipped to handle complex and severe injuries. Many months of convalescence later, she went back to her village, still in pain, but alive.
Horst Faas, the legendary AP shooter and editor, broke the general rules about nudity on the wire service, and ran the photo. It shocked the world, galvanized the anti-war movement in America, and won Nick a Pulitzer. (Horst recently passed on. Please check out colleague David Burnett’s excellent blog about his impact on photojournalism. David was also on the road that day, with Kim, and Nick.)
One of the privileges of my career was to be assigned by LIFE magazine some years ago to find and photograph subjects of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. Generally, if you’re the principal in a Pulitzer, it’s not a fortunate, nor a planned thing. Certainly nothing was planned on that road long ago. Nick’s presence there saved Kim’s life, but the picture he made changed the course of that life. She became a propaganda tool of the North Vietnamese, and of course the picture was a rallying cry for the anti-war movement here. She was allowed, eventually, to move to Cuba, where she met a fellow Vietnamese, Bui Huy Toan, who fell in love with her and became her husband. They honeymooned in Moscow, and their plane stopped in Canada. They defected, and have lived there since 1992.
I visited her at home some years ago. Such a wonderful lady. We talked. I was direct with her, as I believe a photographer needs to be in any sensitive situation. I had to make a picture that showed her scars. She knew that already. Luckily, she had given birth to Thomas, a beautiful little dumpling of a baby, not that long prior to our meeting, and was still nursing him. Photographing this lovely new life that had sprung from her scarred body was certainly a moment I remember at the camera.
Kim has found peace, and a message she can offer, borne of her suffering. She runs The Kim Foundation International, which promotes reconciliation, and she acts as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. She has transformed from “the girl in the picture,” or, “the napalm girl,” into a viable, visible symbol of peace and hope. Her’s is an important story of resilience, courage, and forgiveness.
For me, doing this assignment reconfirmed so many things I’ve always believed about photography. That photo made on that horrible day was made in less than a second. Yet a lifetime spun on its power. With so many photographs being taken everywhere, easily, and thoughtlessly, it’s easy to forget how powerful they can be, and occasionally are. I have always felt that for everyone, looking at a photo that means something to them induces an interior, seismic shift. It may be imperceptible, and not understood immediately, but your compass has been altered, ever so slightly, and you will never be the same again.
Kim and Nick, who she calls, Uncle Ut, I’m sure will see each other this week. I wish them well. The split second crossing of their lives, in a picture, has echoed for a lifetime, and we are all richer for their journey, from that moment, as painful as it was.
Time moves. Pictures stay still. More tk…
A couple months ago I had the cover of Newsweek. It was a stock shot of the Navy Seals, running the beach at Coronado, their West Coast training base. I’ve worked with the Seals a bunch, and many of those frames are in the stock library at Getty Images, who made the contact and the sale. It was cool to see the image used in this way, and it gave me a quick snapshot of the biz as it stands. Getty billed Newsweek about $1700 for the usage, which then was split with me. (I have no input or influence over what Getty chooses to charge for the use of an image.) I was, honestly, happy to hear that figure, given the dire and prevalent news of covers being sold for $50 bucks and the like.
While rates haven’t advanced, in this instance, neither have they retreated drastically. I’ve shot a bunch of assigned covers for Newsweek over the years, and it was always heady to corral that coveted piece of real estate. When I was shooting a lot for Newsweek, editorial rates were hovering around $350 per day, and if you could pull in a cover for a couple grand or more, shazam, you just copped the price of a couple more weeks of day rates. (The formula we all worked for at that time was day rate against space. In other words, if you worked 10 days and they ran nothing, you got those ten day rates, plus the expenses. If you worked one day, and the force was with you and you produced a cover and three double trucks, you got all that space payment, even though you worked only a few hours.) Those days were the stuff of the fevered imaginations of every mag shooter out there.
TIME of course paid more. They always had more budget than Newsweek. As my friend Jimmy Colton, then an editor at NW and now at SI, was fond of saying, “TIME is a hospital. Newsweek’s a MASH unit.” Below is the first cover I shot for TIME, and if I recall, they paid about 3 grand. Other shooters, the real premier cover guys, got more dough, for sure. I was definitely not in that group. If I got a cover, it was either an accident or a last ditch phone call by a desperate editor.
But TIME was the big boy on the block. As a shooter or an agent you could always expect more days, or bigger stock checks from TIME. The two mags were neighbors actually, with Newsweek being on the east side of St. Pat’s, facing Madison Ave., and TIME of course sitting astride 6th Ave. on the west end of Rock Center, just a couple blocks away off 50th St. Picture agents, attempting to sell their plastic sheeted, pre-digital wares, would often be at both mags on a Friday as they closed, trying to push their agency’s stories. They used to call this newsweekly Friday night tour the “50th St. shuffle.” There were certain agents who operated in totally blase fashion, selling packages of pictures labeled “Exclusif! Mondial!” (Worldwide exclusive!) simultaneously to as many editors as possible.
Selling pictures had a certain charm to it back then. You could liken it to loading up a buckboard with a bunch of pictorial clutter, harnessing Old Blue and clip clopping through the neighborhood, intoning “Rags, clothes, pictures, bottles, shiny objects….” Digital delivery is vastly preferable in terms of economy and speed, though the personal touch is a bit lacking. As a shooter, I could lumber up to Newsweek on closing night, hover at the light table, beer in hand (supplied by the picture editor, Jim Kenney) and look and listen in amazement as experienced chrome editors flew through stacks of slides, clapping a Schneider loupe to each successive transparency with the insistence and speed of a well handled set of castanets.
I shot a lot more for Newsweek, the poorer cousin of the newsweeklies, and got used to doing more with less. When I got sent to Poland for the first visit of Pope John Paul II to his native land, we had 7-8 shooters, and predictably, TIME had about 12. But, we had an ace up the sleeve, in that Kenney had wisely gathered in the services of Sygma, the Parisian based agency, to shoot for him. They were a wonderfully eccentric, experienced group of international news photogs, led by the incomparable JP Laffont. Shrewdly, they showed up in Warsaw in a Winnebago, driven in from France. In the initial days of the papal visit, while we were all in Warsaw, that meant that JP and company would routinely show up at your hotel door, and in gentlemanly fashion inquire, “May I please have a shower?” All of us fancy pants shooters with hotel rooms would make good-natured sport of our mobile home compatriots, down there in the parking lot with none of the amenities of the Warsaw Intercontinental.
Ah, but they were smarter than we were! When Il Papa got out there in the hinterlands of then severely Communist Poland, the press corps was relegated to cold water dorm flats and rickety, swayback cots set into ancient bed frames. Memories of the comparative luxury of the Intercontinental faded fast. The restaurants would routinely have a giant “X” through the entree list. They would often have only a bit of ham and some bread. And no booze! Everywhere the Pope went was dry. It was trying, I tell ya.
One night, having spent the day being harassed by the Polish militia, and fighting through thousands of people stacked against each other to hear the Pontiff say mass, I was stumbling back to my prison cell of a room. I believe I had just dined on water and stale bread, and was tragically without the anesthesia of several beers. My desperate nose went up in the air. The smell of truly wonderful French cooking was wafting about! Fragrant and beautiful, the scent led me right to–you guessed it–the Sygma Winnebago. I stood at the door of this four star restaurant on wheels, and I must have looked for all the world like a refugee child at the screen. So much so that JP had mercy, opened the door and handed me a glass (not plastic) of wine. “Drink, McNally. Enjoy. It’s good French Bordeaux!”
At that moment, and it wasn’t just because we were on a papal trip, it was like receiving communion.
Lessons learned along the way….more tk….
You know you’ve been in the picture making business for a while when certain milestones rise up and pass you by like a sign on the highway. Trust me, as you get older, those signs loom faster and whisk by quicker. Your pictures then, become a marker, an “I was there” notation, surely as the “Cracker Barrel, One Mile, Exit 14A” billboards on the interstate. That’s the inherent beauty of being a photog. You had to be there to make that picture. I have used this logic with pup reporters on stories at various times when they have lamented to me on the homeward bound airplane, “Well, you’re sure lucky, your job’s over, my work is just starting!”
“That might be true, but here’s something I bet you haven’t thought of, dingbat. I better have it in the can right now, ’cause I can’t make a picture over the phone.”
I’m sure digital technology will evolve to the point where we can make an interesting picture while on the phone. (Not with a phone, on a phone, of someplace or of someone we’re calling to.) I’m sure that day is in our future. I hope I’m dead.
The tenth anniversary of the death of Ken Kesey passed not too long ago, without too much fanfare. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The quintessential Merry Prankster, author, and provocateur, who, along with some mates, boarded a bus called Furthur and set off on a cross country, drug fueled jaunt. The group became the stuff of legend, largely due to the mythologizing capacities of Tom Wolfe, who penned a chronicle of the bus trip called The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. (Both of the above are required reading, by the way.)
I visited Kesey at his place in Oregon quite a number of years ago, courtesy of the London Observer, which was a terrific magazine to shoot for. (For them, I also shot Angie Bowie, the subject of Mick Jagger’s “Angie” and, as she put it, graduate of the real first class of rock and roll. Shooting Angie undraped will be the subject of another blog, sometime or other.)
But Kesey was not an easy mark. Smart and media savvy, he put up a bit of a tussle, which I’ve written about. That was okay. Most folks worth photographing often put up something of a fight, or at the very least, are not the most predictable of sorts. (You would not expect predictability from the mind that spawned Randle McMurphy.) I spent two days at his place, on and off, picking off a picture or two, as he made time. It was okay by me, as being around Kesey, even briefly, was like buying a ticket to the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair. You came out a little unsteady, and your compass no longer spun right to true north. Seeing as I’ve always enjoyed being off by a few degrees, it was an enjoyable visit. Plus, it was cool to shoot the bus.
It’s also, roughly, the 50th anniversary of when Tony Bennett first sang his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Tony is still belting them out, thankfully, and those little cable cars are still climbing to the stars. I’ve worked with Tony a number of times, and can report that there is no classier person in all of show biz. Decent, and gentlemanly come to mind, immediately. When I was with him in out at the city by the bay, he graciously agreed to go out to the worldwide symbol of SF, the Golden Gate Bridge. There, up on the headlands, I made a quiet picture of him sketching the bridge.
That night, onstage, he stopped his show, which normally was as scripted as a Swiss watch, looking down at his ordinarily immaculate shoes. He shook his head and chuckled a bit. “I was out at the Golden Gate Bridge earlier today with the photographer from LIFE magazine, you know, taking some pictures,” he told the audience. “And I just noticed, I’m up onstage here, and I got mud on my shoes!”
“I’ve never done this before onstage,” he continued. And, stopping everything, he reached down to both his shoes and did a little quick maintenance. Looking up and smiling, he went back on script. I was shooting him from the back of the house, and I had to return the smile in the darkness. Photography, once again, proved to be the break in the day, the unexpected turn in the road, and the mud on someone’s shoes.
Tony’s wonderful to spend time with, being easygoing, gregarious, and of course, supremely talented. Everyone knows about his legendary pipes, but what is sometimes overlooked is his skill as an artist. I made these pix in his NY apartment as he sketched his view.
I didn’t have the nerve to ask him for the sketch. It would have been inappropriate, even though he made it, quite quickly, so I could shoot him while he drew. It was beautiful, and done in a matter of minutes. Another great thing about being a shooter? You get, occasionally, to meet people who are supremely talented at what they do. It’s enriching, and humbling.
Tony being a kid from Queens, I shot him with another bridge, by the way.
And, news came this week that Italian soccer star Giorgio Chinaglia passed away. Flamboyant, outspoken and stylish, both on the field and off, Giorgio was in the vanguard of international soccer stars that propelled the early days of the North American Soccer League. He played for the NY based Cosmos, alongside the legendary Pele, and German star Franz Beckenbauer. This trio ensured that the Meadowlands, home of the NY Giants, rocked and rumbled to capacity crowds cheering a different sort of football.
I covered Soccer Bowl ’78, and it was a wild time. I ended up in the shower with Pele. Hmmmm….life as a shooter has always been weird, and wonderful.