Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category
I like all sorts of music, having grown up in the sixties and seventies. My musical whims are all over the lot, which is probably why Drew and Cali never allow me to plug in my playlists on location.
News came this week that George Jones died. I never photographed him, and only know a few songs of his, but there was a beautiful, suffering quality to his voice. Anybody desperate enough to drive a lawnmower eight miles to town just to get a drink has got something to sing about, for sure.
I did photograph one of the women of his tumultuous life, Tammy Wynette, down at her home, First Lady Acres, in Nashville. Like George, her life was a roller coaster of love, loss, and the lyrics that sprang from it. We only spent a day, but even in that day, I picked up on a wistfulness, a certain ambient pain that lingered around her.
She of course famously wrote, “Stand by Your Man,” of which she once said, “I spent fifteen minutes writing it, and a lifetime explaining it.”
The great thing about being a photog is that you meet people like Tammy. I was working for People Magazine, and one of the smartest, most wonderfully down to earth editors ever, MC Marden. MC was a fan, so I brought Tammy’s Stand by Your Man album with me, and had her sign it to MC, with the alteration: “MCâ€”Stand by Your Magazine.” I believe MC still has it on her wall.
I also made a location snap that still makes me smile, of myself and Tammy reflected in her vanity mirror. I remember saying to her that right then I was the envy of a lot of men, getting a picture made with her. Ever the lady of the house, she smiled knowingly, and fluttered her eyes at me. She knew it was a photo shoot, and she was being flattered, but she liked it, nonetheless.
Music intertwines readily, emotionally with life, and the lives of the musicians who play it. Music sees you through, and it opens your heart. Strains of certain songs are evocative of time and place. Others are a warp speed return to a specific event or memory.
This is certainly true of country music, which I don’t claim to be all that knowledgeable about, but certainly listen to. My life is richer because Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris picked up a guitar and stepped to a microphone. And I do remember that day with Tammy Wynette.
Some years back, I was stumbling around at dawn in the other worldliness of Augusta National golf course when I encountered an ebullient, utterly happy gentleman. I wished him a good morning. He beamed back. In one of the most delicious Southern accents I’ve ever heard, he exclaimed, “It’s April in Augusta! What could evah be wrong?!”
I could have offered up a couple of notions, such as the lack of good coffee at that hour around the golf course, but I didn’t want to blunt his enthusiasm for the sheer joy of smelling azalea bushes, and watching the dew glisten on greens that were as manicured and brushed as a show pony. I also didn’t want to attract attention to myself and my genuine mystification at the sheer, boundless passion this swatch of greensward, located in a town in Georgia that you might only be prompted to get off the interstate and investigate if you really needed gas, prompts in the golf crowd.
That mystification actually fueled some decent pictures during my one and only visit to Augusta National. Everything was new, and exceedingly strange to me. And, not in a bad way. I was genuinely curious about this annual ritual, and eagerly observed the proceedings. The first thing you become aware of at Augusta is the rules. There are so many of them! No cell phones is a biggie. Don’t run afoul of that one, or you’ll be shown the door. There are many others, of course. Like, photographers aren’t allowed on the course to shoot until something like 9am, or so, which exactly corresponds to the disappearance of good light. I got around this by showing up ridiculously early and going through the service entrance with other folks who were actually doing something useful, like bringing in boxes of keychains, umbrellas, wallets, hats, sunglasses, pencil sketches, all emblazoned with the Masters logo. To my recollection, you can’t order this stuff. You actually have to be at the course during Masters week to buy it. And buy it they do. The tent where all the merch is sold generally looks like the Times Square subway platform at rush hour, only more polite.
I screwed up on the rules, big time. I had seen one of Augusta’s more prominent members of their security detail at the end of a lane that was lined with trees and quite picturesque. He had a face like a basset hound, a state trooper’s hat, and was bigger than Ceelo Green. I thought, well, I’ll just go down there and ask him if I can make his picture!
He started frowning at me from about 100 yards away, and when I reached him he had his arms outstretched, palms facing me. They said stop. He looked at me. Actually, he eyeballed me. There’s a difference. “Who told you that you could walk down Magnolia Lane?” “Uh, no one, sir.”
“Do you know that no one can use Magnolia Lane except members, their guests, and past champions? And I suspect you’re not any of those things, are you?”
“Uh, no sir, I’m not.”
I love southern accents, but there’s something about being addressed this way, in a drawl, that makes you feel particularly stupid. During his line of questioning, he left unspoken, no doubt for reasons of decorum, that which he truly wished to say, which might have been along the lines of “You big city, shit for brains, dumb ass. What do you think you’re doing on my beloved Magnolia Lane?” Indeed. I had chosen to try and photograph the Lee Ermey of Augusta National.
Given the splendid start to our relationship, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I came away without a photograph. I’t didn’t help that I had trundled a four wheel cart filled with strobes and c-stands down there with me, and therefore looked for all the world like an itinerant vendor calling out “Clothes, rags, bottles!” All I was missing was a broke down nag and a wagon, a roughly painted sign and a gypsy dancing girl.
In short, I didn’t fit in at Augusta real well. Which is okay. As a photog, you are often an interloper, a stranger at least occasionally eyed with suspicion or dismay, the guy at the bar with no one to talk to. I was there courtesy of Golf Digest, and had the benefit of course of being coached by their wonderfully experienced set of staff photographers. I still screwed up, but less than I would have. But, truth be told, they actually brought me in there because golf is not my world, and the newness of it can really fuel some odd or different pictures.
I did have a good time down there, to be sure. I was fascinated by the decorum which prevails, and the fan rituals, such as rushing to locate your vantage point near one of the prime greens. Every morning of the tournament, Augusta stages its own version of the Oklahoma Land Rush. You secure your spot by placing your chair down, and that placement is respected throughout the rest of the day. To get this prime seating, you rush. You fast walk. But you do not run. Those are the rules. It’s probably a good thing, ’cause people are so keyed up for the morning opening of the course that the lords of Augusta could probably borrow the mechanism of start off from another time honored American sports classic, the Kentucky Derby, and just put these folks in chutes and ring a bell. Best they don’t do that, as most of the Augusta watchers are not exactly in thoroughbred race horse shape, and someone could get hurt, or worse, just keel over from the sheer excitement of it. The imagination I have of that happening brings me to an old golf joke about George and Harry, best friends who played a round together every Saturday morning for thirty or forty years. Upon his return home, Harry’s wife asked, “How was the golf today, dear?” He replied, “Horrible. On the third tee George had a heart attack and died!” “Oh goodness,” she exclaimed, “That’s terrible!”
“You’re tellin’ me! After that third tee, all day long, it was hit the ball and drag George! Hit the ball and drag George!”
The folks at Augusta are super nice, so I’m sure they’d drag along whoever fell down or had a heart attack racing for a good spot on the course. As long as it didn’t slow them down too much.
Passion prevails across the undulating, lushly green sweep of Augusta National. Passion and tradition. Two powerful things to photograph, even when, not being a golf fan, I didn’t completely understand them. I was more comfortable amidst the messy, stark differences the rough edged town of Augusta offers, relative to the manicured, meticulous nature of what goes on inside the gates of Augusta National. James Brown was Augusta’s most famous son, so I photographed him in a downtown building lobby.
And I wandered into some neighborhoods, and quite wonderfully stumbled into a church, where I was welcomed by the minister.
Pastor Grier might have thought it strange that I wanted to photograph him in the context of shooting for a golf magazine, but he was amenable, and stood before my camera, holding the cross as powerfully as the golfers teeing off down the block might hold a three wood. He, too, represented passion and tradition.
In all their forms and expressions, those are quite amazing things to witness with a camera in hand.
I have a great deal of empathy for pet photogs, those fonts of perpetual patience. I’ve only had one experience doing it, and it came to me via LIFE magazine, who had a notion of doing a four page double gatefold of all 148 (at that time) breeds of dog present at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison Square Garden in NY. This year’s show just concluded, with an affable Affenpinscher named, oddly enough, Banana Joe, as the winner.
The things you do as a photog. I set up a 617 Fujica Panorama camera, on a super heavy tripod, and gaffered it to the floor. We then massed sandbags around the legs, so many that the thing looked like a machine gun placement out of a World War II movie. The camera could not move for three straight days. It was looking at a stage we built, with draping and brightly painted blocks for the smaller pooches to climb up on. Behind the drape, concealed, stood the owners. (Trust me, show dog owners are a highly specialized breed, themselves.) I then would try my best to get the little darlings attention, via all manner of undignified noises and gestures at the camera. It got so embarrassing, so quickly, that my assistants taped a scrawled message to the back of the camera: “You Said Yes,” referring to the assignment.
I did say yes, and when you open your mouth as a photog, and that word comes out of it, the editor then shifts the responsibility for whatever happens to your long suffering shoulders. I had great support from the LIFE staff on this job, gathering pooches, keeping the breeds straight, making sure that no animosities surfaced on the set amongst our star subjects. (I don’t want to be next to the Ibizan Hound!) The whole thing was the brainchild of Melissa Stanton, one of the senior editors, and a dog lover.
I also had to listen to the owners, one of whom, whose charge was a Labrador Retriever, warned me, “Whatever you do, don’t use a squeaky toy to get his attention. He will come get it, and I probably can’t hold him.” My bad. I didn’t convey that to the crew, one of whom was behind me with a squeaky toy, and gave it a good honk. That lab bounded off the stage, dragging his owner through the draping and plowed through my lights and stands to, well, retrieve. Mayhem ensued. Throughout it all the pooch’s expression of the sheer joy of the chase never changed.
The gatefold itself was put together back at the magazine in Rubik’s Cube fashion by the art directors. You can see the original 617 transparencies above, still in their sleeve, with grease pencil marks, adhesive tape codes and numbers, which I dodged out (badly) to simply show the physical nature of chromes and how they would be transported into print. It was a very popular spread in the book at the time. Lots of dog lovers out there.
Sitting in Atlanta Airport, a very familiar place, and trying to get home. This all started because of a capricious, nasty girl named Sandy, an evil child of Mother Nature. I started my trek in Copenhagen, where, looking back at home, and knowing trouble was closing in, I started making changes. I moved my flight up, as best I could. Re-routed, changed the itin, threw a dart at the wall, and Delta got me to Atlanta. Grabbed a hotel, and made my way back to the airport this morning about 5am. They said, incredibly, a flight to Westchester County Airport was gonna go. Pinch me, I’m dreamin’!
And, of course, I was. So I sit a bit, and have now placed my bets on Hartford and a flight that goes (???) in a couple hours. If it goes, I go. If not, I’ll continue to conjure a path home. My bag? Well, that puppy’s in for its own version of “The Incredible Journey,” one of my favorite books as a kid. I have confidence I will see it again, in a few days, or, perhaps more.
Here’s the thing. I’m pretty calm about this stuff. Resigned, perhaps, but also, it’s just another turn of the page. Whenever travel goes smoothly, I’m surprised. As I look out the window here in Hartsfield Airport, there are so many moving parts out there on the tarmac, all churning and chugging at once, I’m amazed anything works, at all, ever. And there are worse things than cooling your heels at an airport like this, which is basically a super sized mall. Sandy has done her worst to the folks on the ground who took the brunt of it. It’s heartbreaking to see the floods, the fires, and lost homes.
Part of the zen I have about travel is that I’ve done a lot of it, to be sure. My current account at Delta puts my history with them at about 1.6 million miles. They have their moments, to be sure, but they are basically a good airline. I’ve flown on airlines that are not good, and on flying machines that have definitely spoken to the virtues of a long walk.
I got on one such plane in Mogadishu, Somalia. I was working there, and the calendar was veering close to Christmas. I had gotten in on a Red Cross plane, but getting out on one of those was doubtful. The holidays were approaching, and the Red Cross personnel naturally, rightly, had priority on the limited seating over the lowly journalist. My guys, the Somalis who were translating and protecting me, told me they could get me out on a drug plane. They were strong with the Aidid clan, and that particular warlord controlled a dirt airstrip south of Mog where gutted Cessna prop planes would fly into Somalia with bales of khat, which the Somalis chew voraciously. It’s a plant which, when masticated, gives you an all day buzz. Which is an advisable thing, if you live in a place as strife torn and bereft of hope as Mog.
The “airport” itself was a cluster of dust, noise and third world chaos of Spielbergian dimensions. People were swarming up to these planes, trying to stuff goods, mail, and notes onto them, to try to get word to relatives in Kenya, which is where the planes would head back to. I struck a deal with a pilot, fought my way through the crowd, and threw my stuff in the back of the plane, which was stripped of seats to make room for what was basically enormous bags of weed.
People wouldn’t disengage from the plane. The pilot stepped forward on the small gangway, and struck the nearest person to him with two roundhouse blows that sent him reeling backwards into the crowd. He simultaneously shouted orders to his co-pilot to start the props, which he did, right in the middle of this swirling mass of people. The plane became like the center of an explosion, with engines roaring to life and people radiating rapidly away from it in a 360 degree pattern, like so much fast moving shrapnel. He slammed the door shut, slipped into his seat, and pushed the plane down the runway. A few seconds later, we were airborne.
I had been a month in Africa. I slumped, exhausted, on the floor of the Cessna, relieved to be going home two days before Christmas. The co-pilot twisted in his seat to look back at me. I looked back and raised my hand, and said, into the din of the props resounding through the empty shell of the plane, “Excuse me, I ordered the special meal?”
He tilted his head, and I think he was possibly thinking of shooting me. But then he smiled and turned back to the controls. I hit Nairobi Airport, walked to a counter, and found a flight home. More tk….
Ever wonder how a reindeer achieves aerodynamic lift? Or how many elves Santa actually employs? Who designed the sleigh? How many world leaders are actually informed about Santa’s flight path? (Closely guarded secret, mind you.) Why the North Pole, anyway? Do reindeer retire?
If these and other questions about Santa’s mythology circle through your head at this time of year, you might want to check out the 15th Anniversary Edition of the Flight of the Reindeer Did I say mythology? Hmmm…..might be time to reconsider that label.
As famed Polar explorer Will Steger relates in this tome, “Above us, gliding, were a hundred reindeer? Two hundred, five hundred! They coated the sky.” Please note, he said reindeer, not stars. Even staid Sir Edmund Hillary finally admits in Flight that he actually observed his companion Tenzing Norgay “placing some cookies and some chocolates…in the snow.” Figures, really. Highest point on the planet would be a good cookie break stop for the big guy in the red suit.
Seems that the author of this journalistic account of the actual how-to, behind the scenes look at Santa’s big night, Bob Sullivan, through exhaustive research via reliable sources found an entirely new species of reindeer, called Rangifer Tarandus Pearyi. It is from their ranks that the select few who fly the sled are chosen.
At the last printing of the book, Bill Clinton was President, and in fact, as also reported by The Boston Globe on December 25, 1996: “President Clinton signed an official proclamation this week ordering American airliners to be on ‘heightened alert’ last night as Santa Claus made his appointed Christmas Eve rounds. The President’s proclamation called on Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to ‘restrict all flight paths on all United States registered aircraft and all aircraft in or around the area of the North Pole on December 24th and 25th.’ The presidential action came in response to [information] that former President George Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that signing the Santa Clause executive order was among his finest moments in the White House . . . In Clinton’s proclamation, the President instructed all pilots flying near the North Pole ‘to be on heightened alert for red sleighs traveling at an expected speed of 650 miles per second at a cruising altitude of approximately 30,000 feet.’
The book has beautiful illustrations, maps and photos. Which of course got me to thinking. They need photos? I called Sully, the author, and Glenn Wolff, the illustrator ( I figured they must have connections, like, an email, or a cell number) and said, hey, please let them know up North I’m ready. I’ve worked a lot in Siberia, I’ve been backseat in tons of tactical aircraft, I’ve climbed stuff so I don’t fear heights, and I can work a camera pretty well. So, you know, after 35 years, I’m, you know, ready. They sent my request for media coverage to the North Pole, and I anxiously await. This is more nerve wracking than waiting for an Olympics credential to come through!
I sent my D3S cameras to Melville for clean, check and winterizing. Thankfully, shooting digital, ’cause when I used to try to load Kodachrome in the Arctic, the film leaders would just crack like crazy in my gloved fingers. Now–I got 32 gig Lexars. Figure a few of them will get me through. Put through a couple requests to position remotes as well. Whaddaya think lens-wise? Figuring two bodies, 24mm f1.4 for low light stuff. 14-24 for in close on the sleigh. 70-200’s gotta come. Fast 85? Probably smart. I know the big guy’s concerned about additional weight. (Kinda the pot callin’ the kettle, right? I’m just sayin’….) SB900 with an SD 9 bat pack. One flash. Lumiquest softbox. Couple warming gels, in case I get to do a blend with tree lights. Not going for remote flash stuff up there. Hot shoe stuff all the way. Throw in an SC-29 to get the light off the camera, but then what I am gonna hang on with, my toes? Might have to go straight flash, ride and shoot, ride and shoot. Gotta have at least one flash, though, ’cause all those chimneys are gonna be a bitch. Figure I’ll sling the whole mess in a Thinktank belt harness. Wave tool? Always handy, and Santa don’t do TSA.
This new printing is an anniversary edition, as I mentioned. Glad they brought it back, as it was a favorite for my kids back in their day. TIME for kids noted about the original: “Little kids love stories about Santa’s flying reindeer, but maybe you’re ready for something more scientific. Now you can read the not quite down-to-earth facts in Flight of the Reindeer by Robert Sullivan, illustrated by Glenn Wolff. Sullivan interviewed reindeer experts, historians, flight specialists and other ‘Santa’s helpers’ around the world. Their eyewitness accounts of reindeer streaking across starlit northern skies are, well, unbelievable. Wolff’s beautiful, detailed drawings show how the aerodynamics of reindeer flight are like airplane flight. . . .Secret details of reindeer flight are revealed. Did you know that all U.S. Presidents sign a ‘Santa Claus clause’ directing planes to clear North Pole airspace on Christmas Eve? That Dasher was hyperactive as a fawn? That the team has been together for 2,000 years? (Except for rookie Rudolph-just 1,500 years.) There’s incredible, detailed history here. Sullivan seems to be full of it!”
They’ve got a Facebook page going for the book, and I think they’ll be posting fitness reports on this year’s reindeer crew. I’ll let you know on the credential. More tk…..