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Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

Photog of the Future?

Sep 8

In Friends, history, Stories at 9:04am

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I like it. I’ve certainly lost weight, and have the lean, mean look required for success in the intensely competitive arena of the photographic marketplace nowadays. Strong, elongated, prehensile fingers, and at first glance, it would seem, opposable thumbs which are always useful. This of course was conjured for me by the irrepressible Mr. Hobby of Strobist, who recently mentioned an article on the HSD in this month’s Digital Photo Pro.  He’s done things like this before- taking my face and placing it in the movie poster for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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This is great. David and I spoke last week and I told him such ramblings fit perfectly with two goals I have for the rest of my career: A) Never take myself particularly seriously; and B) Have fun.

Not the first time David and I have gotten a touch, well, goofy, witness our Dubai antics (Shot by the equally goofy Bobbi Lane)…..

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Of course this type of activity–a creative imagination plus a bent sense of humor plus knowledge of Photoshop plus access to the internet does create a climate the nuns used to warn us about. You know, “idle minds,” etc. We were urged to go to confession for having an idle mind, which, when you are talking about the mind of a 10 or 12 year old boy, is never particularly, you know, idle. I never really feared confession, to be honest about it, ’cause the priests I would be confessing to back in the day seemed to be in such a perpetually booze fueled state of serenity that virtually nothing you could say to them in the confessional was overly troubling to them, and they would mete out relatively light penances. You would, you know, confess all sorts of goings on in the typically X-rated big top of the youthful male mind, and they would come back with a gin fumed mandate to say five Our Fathers.

Five Our Fathers seemed cheap admission to the realm of my imagination, truth be told. Kinda like paying a nickel to go to a particularly colorful peep show.

I digress. What the ever prescient DH has actually construed with the Gollum idea above is, I think, nothing less than the….Photog of the Future. Hear me out.

Obviously, lean and mean, as I have noted. Doesn’t eat much. Could probably subsist on a diet of rainwater and bark. Remember in the movie, he would jump into a stream, grab a fish, and just start eating it raw? So, imagine the Gollum photog gets booked into a hotel that has one of those aquarium displays with over-sized koi in some algae infested waterway near the reception desk. No bills for dinner! ( I’ve never completely figured out the indoor lagoon thing in lobbies. Why would you want to sit and have coffee and a bagel next to an under tended, foul smelling water display invariably complete with a drizzly waterfall effect that makes it sound for all the world like your table is right next to the urinals in the men’s room?) No matter. This raw fish meal practice would thrill the accountants at a place like Time Warner, ’cause it would cut T&E substantially. Not that it has gone up all that much. They haven’t raised the per diem there (last time I checked) since the 80’s, so you are still supposed to spend something like five bucks for breakfast, twelve for lunch and hoo boy, 25 balloons for dinner. Get crazy! This of course means that if you go to Denny’s for breakfast and have a French Slam and a large OJ, you’re on your own dime for eats for the rest of the day. Your per diem is just as burnt as the toast.

Gollum knew the secret passageway into Mordor, remember? That means the Gollum photog would be most likely devious enough to slide, unaccredited,  into virtually any presidential tight pool, at least for a few frames.

Clothing. Uh, minimal, obviously. The means no special wardrobe to be purchased even for extreme conditions, and certainly no dry cleaning bills. This type of expense has always nettled the accountants. The legendary story that rattles the hallways of the Geographic is of a shooter who was assigned to an extremely cold location and promptly went out and expensed a hugely costly fur coat. The powers that be of course bounced that piece of paperwork back to the wayward journalist. It was turned in again a week later, with the exact same total and a note that read simply….”Find the coat.”

That brazen display of contempt for the accounting process of course is mild by comparison to that of the China correspondent for Nat Geo circa the 40’s. I cannot confirm this, but legend has it this particular scribe received a telex from home base stating, “Mission accomplished, return to HQ.” To which he replied, “Confirm. Can I bring my junk?” To which home base replied in the affirmative. Several months later, an ocean going freighter with a full blown Chinese junk strapped to the deck steamed into the Washington ship basin and the individual in question lived on it for several years.

I never had the benefit of working in those days of shenanigans and largesse. When I came along, the accountants were slowly, Gollum-like, hissing in the ears of the powerful, and loopy, frivolous, “gifts for natives”  expense accounting (an actual category in the old Geographic daily log books) was  rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Closest I came to a whopper was during the first launch and landing of the space shuttle. Hank Morgan, David Strick and I were out in the vast nothingness of Edwards AFB, trying to figure out which corner of the sky the shuttle was gonna drop out of. Hank being Hank, said something endearing like, “So long, sucker,” and brought the hammer down on his rental. I plunged after him, which was a mistake, cause given the dust trail he was churning at 100 plus mph I could see absolutely nothing. But I figured as long as it was dust, it would be okay. If the cloud turned to flames, then chances are Hank met with something truly unfortunate, and I should slow down.

A tremendous crack reported from the undercarriage of the car, and while it still drove well enough, I noticed my gas level was heading south as fast as a dropped rock. Much perhaps, like the rock I had just run over, which plowed a canal in the gas tank wide enough push a supertanker through. Holy shit. David and I started pulling gear outta the trunk like crazy, thinking that a vehicle with a hot engine in the desert sun in the middle of a lake of gas had disaster stamped all over it. I called the car rental outfit and complained that their vehicle had malfunctioned and hadda get towed from somewhere in a couple thousand square miles of desert. They called me two days later, and hadn’t yet been able to find it. Yikes.

I started thinking then about how I could creatively use my expense account to incrementally cover the cost of a Buick Regal. You know, a few high priced dinners, lots of Manhattan cab rides, a camera repair or two…..Sheesh. They did find it, thankfully. But you know, if it was the Gollum photog, there would have been no rental car needed. Food for thought….more tk.

Lately….

Jun 5

In Stories, Travels at 2:12pm

The blog’s been a touch erratic. (Okay, remember who writes it.) But definitely having ups and downs. Truth is, I’ve been completely knackered of late. It’s been harder than usual for my pinball machine of a brain to make it to the keyboard. Fatigued. Get up in the morning, and feel like going back to bed–right away.

Plus my legs have been killing me. No surprise there. Trust me, after being a photog for 30 odd years, there’s not too much on my body that don’t hurt. My legs have taken the biggest beating. When I started in this game, it was standard operating procedure to use a camera bag (Domke was the way to go) and walk, run, adjust, bend, climb, scurry, jump, sing and dance all day long with a 40 pound anchor on your shoulder. This is the reason the x-rays of lots of photogs spines look like the S curves at LeMans.

My back, being of Irish descent, remains intact, thankfully. But the knees and ankles–yikes. I think about the offensive linemen in the NFL, the big guys. They pretty much shoot their lower extremities to hell and back in the course of a 5-10 year career. A fast cha-cha to Limpville. For photogs, it’s more of a slow bump and grind. You basically throw your knees in a blender and hit stir instead of liquefy. It takes longer, but the end result is the same. After an average Olympics, for example, for about a week I’ll unfold out of bed like an unwieldy, collapsible card table. When I was shooting the Sydney Games, for instance, my first few steps of every day sounded like I was walking on bubble wrap.

But lately, with both the pain and the fatigue meter spiking, my wonderful wife, Annie, blessedly (and sternly) greeted me at the door and turned my sorry ass around and pointed it at the doctor’s office. Pop diagnosis? Lyme disease. I pretty much concur. Had a bout of it before.

First got it in Nashville, on assignment for SI. I was shooting Mike Reid, former pro football player turned singer-songwriter,  and lighting his house from the outside, traipsing my lights around his garden.

Then shot in a local theater….

Noticed at the end of the day I had picked up a tick. Hmmm. Not much I could do about it, cause my next stop was Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost tip of the continental United States, and one of the true garden spots of all time. My ultimate destination was Cooper Island, a tiny stretch of ice and sand a bit off the off the North Coast. I was shooting a cover for the New York Times Sunday magazine, and was going there to profile George Divokey, an ornithologist who had been studying a colony of birds on Cooper for over 20 years. His copious notebooks of their behavior had become an empirical, indisputable record of bird biology to be sure, but additionally, very significantly, global warming.

Had to helicopter out there due to the ice conditions, and the weather had us socked in for two days. Welcome to Barrow.

I was staying in a shack of a hotel, feeling worse and worse, and by the time I got choppered out (small bird, had to lash all my gear onto stretcher boards out on the skids) I was running about 103 fever or so. No source of heat on the island, except the cooking stove. Had a pup tent, out there shimmering around in the icy wind. I crawled into my sleeping bag and started dosing myself with antibiotics I had in my old Nat Geo medicine kit.

It’s all a little fuzzy now, but I basically spent two days sleeping and taking doxycycline. Poor George thought the magazine had really sent a deadbeat. Out there they give you a PLB (personal locator beacon) which, if you punch the button, means the Coast Guard rescue choppers are on the way. I remember looking at that thing. The magazine was paying me the princely sum of $350 bucks a day to shoot this, and I thought, ya know, I don’t wanna die out here. Had all sorts of fever induced imaginings. Like my remains would be eaten, along with my Kodachrome, by a polar bear and crapped out on the tundra, and then found many years later by a team from the National Geographic, and somehow the pictures would be published, albeit in a different magazine.

Spent 8 days out there with George, his research assistant Tamara Enz, call sign Tango Echo, and the birds.

George is a great guy, very dedicated scientist. He did enjoy the fact that when I returned to life, I was very hungry, and started cooking up a whole bunch of Dinty Moore stuff with red pepper and anything else spicy I could find in the food locker. Also, the article did him some good, cause he ended up on the Letterman Show of all places, which had to help his fund raising. We’re still in touch, off and on.

But the antibiotics are kicking in! Feel better today than I have in two weeks, and I’m driving everybody in the studio nuts. I think they’re gonna hide my prescription. Got some energy back, thanks to my doc, and my regular breakfast of cheerios, skim milk, a banana, a couple of those little red sudafeds, and 8 cups of Cafe’ Bustelo.

Good thing too, cause there’s a bunch of stuff in the pipe. On a plane tonight to Italy. Then, in couple weeks, a commercial gig I be looking forward to. Great folks, fun to work for. Got a Geographic job cooking now, and a story coming out in the June issue. More on that stuff, as they say, tk….

Getting High….

May 26

In Stories at 2:13pm

Summertime, officially. Right here in NYC. This time of year comes round, and I love going to Manhattan again, enjoying the late light, and the kinda clear skies of May. It’s still cool enough, and the heat of August hasn’t risen up and shrink wrapped the city in a dirty brown, clinging smog.

It was about this time of year I shot this…..

105 stories up on the Empire State Building, the true grand dame of all buildings. Not the biggest, just the most storied. I have always loved climbing around up there. I’ve got this little niche…hell, it’s not even a niche, it’s more like an on again, off again hobby, kind of like a vacation type scuba diver who only goes in when the water is clear and warm. That morning, on assignment for the book America 24/7, I worked once again with my friend Tom Silliman, an engineer and fearless builder and climber of antennas. One SB80 by the way. My assistant at the time, a terrific shooter named  Alicia Hansen, had to bury the flash in her, well, under her, uh, chest, and shield it from all the other transmissions up there, cause they were driving the flash nuts.

I had met Tom shooting this….

This was one of those jobs. Had the bright idea of putting a different twist on changing a light bulb for a story called “The Power of Light” for the National Geographic. I thought to myself, okay, we can do this. I’ll take a picture of them changing the bulb at the top of the Empire State.  What could go wrong? Well, lots, as it turned out. First climb, I was competing with Ripley’s Believe It or Not television program, believe it or not. They had a chopper floating around out there, and had the notion of wanting to see the light come on and off while Tom was just approaching it on the antenna. Things went haywire with their communications, and, after slogging my way up the antenna to about where I was oh, 15 feet shy of it, the light shut off. I mean I’m hanging there in my harness, and the bulb’s dead. Had to settle for this, and crop the top of the antenna out of the frame. Wasn’t what I came for.

Crazy. Bulb’s dead, and there I am, wearing the only light in the joint, my headlamp. Shot from a chopper by a really good photog, Jim Anness, then of the Bergen Record.

Sheesh. I was not in shape for that climb. The antenna at that point is like a telephone pole at 1500 feet. It moves around a lot, and has climbing pegs on either side of it. As I came down the pegs, my hand cramped on one of them. Had to reach around the pole and pry my fingers off of it. Otherwise, I might still be up there, kind of french fried, hanging off the side of one of the biggest microwave transmitters in the world. I think they have a power setting on the antenna called “london broil.”

I got my chances up there because of a truly great New Yorker, Alex Smirnoff.

Alex was in charge of what they call the mast operations at the building. He was always approachable, and he instinctively knew that the Empire State wasn’t just a building. It’s the centerpiece of NY, an important piece of the history of the city crafted in limestone and granite, and it was built to be photographed. He had a job where the easiest thing, always, would be to say no. But being a gentleman who appreciated the beauty of the building, he said yes. I remember breathlessly trying to give him a rationale for a particular climb, and I heard him chuckling at the other end of the line. “Don’t give me that crap, Joe, you just like to climb stuff,” he said, in his kindly fashion. A great man, who sadly, has passed on.

All this silliness began many moons ago, about the time I came to NY. I was a copyboy at the NY Daily News, a real rube in terms of NY press photography, but I was determined to impress my boss, Eddie Peters, and I requested a loaner of the Nikkor 15mm wide angle, the only one in the department. I was gonna climb the Queensboro Bridge with it, cause they were repainting it. Things were looser back then. I walked onto the bridge, talked the workers, told ’em I was from the News, and started climbing.

This was also a good lesson in what I was worth as a photog. Eddie loaned me the 15mm, a very expensive lens, with considerable doubt in his eyes. This green, untested kid was taking one of the most valuable pieces of glass the newspaper owned. He looked at me, and asked if I would do him a favor. “Sure,” I said. He said, “If you fall, could you find a way to leave the lens behind?”

Got this…

I was off to the races with this climbing thing. Next up, the north tower of the World Trade Center.

At that time, no harnesses, no zorbers, none of the sophisticated safety stuff we have now. I had a belt and a rope, and, well, not much in the way of brains.

That climb up the tower was a one off, but I did return to the Empire State a number of times. Put Donna Weinbrecht, America’s freestyle skiing champion up there….

And of course, a long time ago, in the middle 80’s, on assignment for Geo magazine to shoot a story on gargoyles, I went up the Chrysler. Little did I know at the time this gargoyle would become like one of those “picture spots,” you know, like they have at Disney, markers telling you if you point your camera this way, a good picture results. This has become, over time, a very popular gargoyle, especially with photogs. Me being me, of course, I am hunched over with a flash meter taped to a monopod, getting the read from the strobes I have on a portico several stories below.

There’s that damn “safety” belt again. I tell ya, glad we got harnesses now. If I had fallen with that thing, it would have saved my neck but broken my back.

Got this, available light…

And this, later, with flash.

I know, I know, the available light is nicer…..oh well. Shows me what good it did to drag Speedotrons up there

Had some funny, stupid stuff up high as well….King Kong on the Empire State…

And this one up the old Coke sign at the north end of Times Square. That’s all some sort of lcd, led, computer driven display now. Makes sense. Musta been a bitch changing all these bulbs.

The weather breaks like this in New York, and I find myself looking up still…..more tk

Noo Yawk

May 4

In Computer Technology, Friends, Stories at 11:05am

Knocked around the city last week with a great group of folks. Been a long time since I’ve done that, picking up a camera and wandering the streets of the city, looking for pictures. Truth be told, I’m not much of a street shooter. I’ve always needed the box of an assignment, a destination for the pictures, and some sort of narrative in my head, however hazy, that directs my efforts. But last week, out on the avenues, the boardwalks and the eateries of Manhattan and Brooklyn, it was fun.

We freelanced it a great deal. Bogging down on the lower East Side, with a guide who seemed absolutely pre-occupied with telling us why a building might have been important 100 years ago (all valid information, just not to us, cameras in hand, index fingers twitching in sync with our focus eyes, desperate for a lively frame of street life). We dismissed her and I headed us into Katz’s Deli on Houston, a place I have always had good luck shooting. Thankfully, some things don’t change, and we were welcomed.

This gentleman was checking the food tickets at Katz’s, and one of our group, Lex, had misplaced her’s. He went by the rules, not allowing her to leave, until she found the ticket. Sensing Lex’s immediate future might involve washing dishes, I looked over at the guy, and told him he reminded me of Hollywood actor Delroy Lindo, which was the truth. He relaxed a bit. I then told him that if I had an assignment to photograph my 10 most favorite, interesting faces in Hollywood, Lindo would be on my list. In lieu of getting such a job, I asked if I could take his picture. While all this was going on, Lex found her ticket.

We went out to Nathan’s on Coney Island, a place with hot dogs of such stature that the very sizable fish just plucked from the ocean will have to wait.

Closing time on the the Boardwalk. Closing time for Coney Island as we know it may be coming soon with the advent of new developments.

All in all….fun on the street.

Lessee…onto my own personal area of expertise–computer technology. This is a strength I share with my bud, Moose Peterson. We are down right now in the Outer Banks, on another DLWS adventure. He recently blogged his method of organizing files. Very cool. Good, straightforward, essential, completely boring information.

He knows all that, but it is his lot in life to explain stuff like this to folk like me, who are organizationally challenged. I have written right here in this blog that Moose is a walking, talking main frame who can accomplish more in a one hour concentrated burst of energy than I can in, say, a week. I daydream. I look up movie quotes. I stare at pictures of Annie. I make coffee. I nap.

But Moose’s folder blog really lit a fire under me. I thought, hell, I can do that. I use Aperture, a really elegant, versatile program. Just gotta figure out topics, and general headings, and load my stuff into those respective folders. Piece of cake.


This just about covers it. I feel better. I can really find stuff now…..more tk……

Goodbye, Bird….

Apr 20

In Friends, history, Stories at 1:26am

In the summer of l976, a youthful goofball named Mark Fidrych blew fastballs past just about everybody with a bat in their hands on the way to a 19-9 record, a 2.34 ERA, and the Rookie of the Year award. America’s pastime grew more and more fun with each start, as the Detroit youngster with a ball cap stuffed onto the hay bale of hair on his head threw strikes, talked to the ball and skipped about the mound like a three year old in an FAO Schwartz.

He was having fun, and so were we. Then he blew out his arm. Tried a comeback or two, but the zip was gone, and hitters he once had in a trance were jumping on his stuff. As fast as he hit the national radar screen, he was gone, a rueful footnote. Dang, Mark. That sucked. It woulda been so much fun watching you pitch for a few more years. (I woulda loved to shoot him pitching, but SI never gave me that duty, knowing full well I can’t shoot anything moving faster than tree sap in the wintertime.)

One of SI’s big sellers every year is the “Where Are They Now?” issue. Where do all these big time athletes go? What is their life after the diamond, the field, the court, the rink?

Some years had passed, so Bird qualified for a “where are they now” treatment. The Bird was back on the radar. SI was wondering where he had flown. The editors conferred. “Hmmmm. Who do we send to take pictures of this zany, eccentric chatterbox of a former athlete who still seems to live in a fantasy world?”

The first time I met up with Mark, he was making a go of it as gentleman pig farmer just outside of Boston. He approached me and the story carefully, as one would who had the experience of the world’s media pounding on his door and screaming for his time and then blowing away like yesterday’s newspaper. He had learned the hard lessons of fame, and exactly how ephemeral all that bullshit really is. So we took it a step at a time.

But he warmed up. Didn’t take long. Mark was such a bubbling life force that he couldn’t hold himself back from engaging. Remember, he used to talk to the frikkin’ baseball on national TV. Reserved is not the adjective for Mark, at least for long.

We talked, we laughed. I got on my knees into a bunch of pig shit to shoot him. A neighbor’s youngster watching the whole deal called him a buckethead. I agreed. Then he called me that, too. Again, I agreed. A pair of bucketheads, out there in the mud.

More years passed. Once again, SI wanted to know about the Bird, and wanted to know big time, like, you know, cover story. “Lessee, Fidrych is still a nut job, right? McNally available?”

This time I went back out there at the behest of my dear friend Mo Grise, now Mo Cavanaugh. Jesus, I miss Mo at the other end of the line. As an editor, she was that wonderful blend of empathy, enthusiasm, love of photography and the engagement of people that making good pictures requires. She’s a mother of two now, with a third on the way, and I daresay, she left the picture game at SI just about the right time. We went up to Massachusetts together, to meet the Bird, along with another feathered creature, Sesame Street’s Big Bird.

Days like that are the reason I have been a shooter for 30 years. Dreams of more days like this are the reason I remain a shooter. Met Mark again, and we just smiled. One more time around the block. Pair of goofballs, out there now with a yellow, nine foot, talking bird.

I also rented some baby chicks, which Mo had a helluva time wrangling, cute as they were. Little suckers are apt to go anywhere. I put the tiny darlings all over Bird, and he got down in grass and played with ’em just like, you know, a kid.

Lost the cover. Lost it to a grouping of the very first iteration of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. (I was shooting for SI, you may remember.) I’ve lost so many covers in my career, I don’t even think about ’em. But this one stung, mostly cause, once again, Bird had ventured. He played the game, opened his door, and his heart, and didn’t get the cover. I felt bad in the way a field person does, that way that a NY managing editor with a regular table at Elaine’s can never know about. You make a bridge, right? You connect. You push a little, prod a touch, and do your job. You come back with pictures, and, on those best of days, something that remains in your heart. A good feeling. Maybe, even, a friend. You never, never promise anything, cause you know how it goes once you drop those pictures into the giant maw of a powerful weekly magazine.

But the promise is there, nonetheless, hanging in the air, the elephant in the corner everybody tries to ignore while they continue pleasant conversation. The cover. Hope I get it. Not for me. Really wanted it for him.

It went away. The story ran, and it was a good story, and by NY publishing calculus, everything was cool. “Hey, he got ink! Who’s he to complain? Story ran, he should feel lucky.”

Yeah, I guess.

It was a good story. One paragraph….

“To feed the hungry furnace of his mortgage, for instance, he now works as an independent subcontractor, laying sewer pipe and doing road repair with the aid of a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he bought in 1986 for $88,000. “The truck has kept the fahm goin’ and kept my life goin,” he says.  The other day, though, on a road repair job at afternoon drive time, he accidentally dug into a water main that had been mismarked on the macadam.  Which is how Fidrych–perhaps the most famous man in America during its bicentennial summer–found himself standing, forlornly, in the slapstick spray of God’s seltzer bottle. “I don’t know if you evah seen a broken watah main,” he says. “but 100 pounds of pressure through an eight-inch opening, that ain’t no small thing.” No, Indeed, and thus there appeared a geysah ovah Woostah.”

Now he’s gone, killed underneath that damn dump truck. I won’t go to see the Bird again, for another of our ten year reunions.

We had a prop jersey for the shoot. He signed it for me, and I have it framed. He simply said, “To Joe….what it is… Bird.”

Mark was what he was, at every moment. He threw a fast ball right into our hearts, and we loved him for it. Like Peter Pan, he always seemed suspended by wires, floating through a daydream of a life. I’m sure there were dark times, moments and memories. That was never shared with me. The Bird I knew, just a little, was a big kid with a big heart, a cartoon character with a Boston accent, and a slightly, wonderfully cockeyed view of life around him.

The last picture I made of him that day was the Bird walking with the Big Bird, over the hill, and through the grass. Laughing and chattering, as birds do.

Farewell, Mark. Godspeed. What a flight it was…….more tk…..