Continuing on with my interview of 12 photographers and two questions. Here they describe their worst moment or time in their career and what they might have learned from it.
The Worst With a Good Ending
My rude awakening happened pretty early in my career. In fact, I was still at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but was taking commercial assignments in my tiny basement studio off Colorado Avenue. A designer I had worked with previously approached me with a great project for MCA Records — a poster that would be seen nationwide in record stores. It was right up my alley…cool, conceptual photo illustration. But before I could call it mine, I had to meet the Creative Director at MCA. No problem! I had a decent book (at least that’s what Art Center told me), so I made my appointment. The book showing was classic — the CD reviewed my work (8×10 transparencies), two at a time, while on the phone. He held them up to the fluorescent lights in his office. To say it went fast is an understatement. The mount boards never stopped moving. He flew through them like he was an animator flipping through a sequence. The elevator ride up to his office was longer! But, in the end, he trusted his designer and we began the project.
Then came the daunting task of creating a bid for such an assignment. First, there was the size of the client, national exposure and usage, plus a fairly complex production. As a student, the opportunity had value for me, but I still wanted to charge appropriately. We agreed on a price. A very low price. But great for me at that point in my career. It was by far the biggest quote I had ever done. It was accepted and we were off and running. We had a hollywood prop shop build a custom prop that was the hero of this image. I needed to shoot it in studio and light it in a monumental way and create the illusion of steam as if this thing was cooling in a cave somewhere. We did it! The shot looked great with glowing blue light in the background and steam trails rising against into the darkness from a stone surface. Perfect! The image looked just like the comp. The designer, who had worked with the CD for years, was happy. Job well done!
Not so fast! A week later I get a call from the CD at MCA. He tells me there’s a problem. They have decided they don’t like their idea anymore and need to alter the photograph to fit a different concept. Instead of a scene where this thing is cooling, they want to make it hot. This would now require purchasing a stock photo (back when that cost something) and they needed to take money from my fees to cover it! Excuse me? He went on to assure me that their own vast experience would allow them to fix “my” mistake! UNBELIEVABLE! Given my lack of resources — and a pricey bill from the prop shop — I had very little choice but to settle the matter and move on. The designer promised that I’d make it up on future jobs, but those never happened.
This experience forced a new perspective about the commerce of art and my abilities to participate in that commerce. I needed capital. At that time, I needed to be paid and couldn’t prolong the matter. My interests were not protected legally, and I didn’t have the resources to pursue a better settlement. And I’m sure they knew that. Not long after that, I graduated and closed my studio in Pasadena. I took a staff position at Hallmark Cards where I could build that capital and start my own studio another day. As it turned out, the job at Hallmark enabled me to dive into the emerging world of digital photography and computer manipulation (pre-Photoshop), and enhance my skill set for the marketplace. Five years later, Darryl Bernstein Studios re-opened in an above-ground studio in Kansas City, MO.
I had a feeling that when the offer of an assignment came through for a large European luxury bus manufacturer came through, it would end up being a memorable project.
The initial call was actually an offer of the job from an advertising agency I had worked with on many occasions, for other clients. When the phrase ” we don’t have a very big budget on this one” came across the phone line, I should have hung up and blamed it on AT&T. Instead, I continued to help develop the plan.
The next day I found myself on a conference call with a couple of agency people and a French accented client based in Ontario, Canada. We discussed the shots they wanted, we discussed the logistics of getting the shots and we discussed the budget, or should I say the lack of much of one.
The concepts were great and the potential for some great “book” shots put me over the edge. I’d do it, even though the pay wasn’t great and it could be a logistical mess.
They had no budget for a location scout, OK I know Southern California pretty well, and in mid February this would be the place that would provide us with the best weather and access to the greatest variety of unique geographical features. A bus rolling down the road in cool places! How hard could it be? Normally, not too tough. Somehow this would not be normal.
First of all, the client was providing the bus and driver. A blue and purple specimen, worthy of being featured in a “B” movie about the hair bands of the 80’s. Add to that the fact that they wanted to shoot in three days…in six different locations! And oh, by the way, we have no time to secure permits. At this point, I went against my best judgement and after voicing my opinion to the client and AD, gave in. After all, I had TRIED to educate the client on the difference between shooting in Quebec City and Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, I soon found myself in the wandering Southern California photographing this big monster from as many angles as possible, in as many situations as possible, under some of the ugliest light you could imagine. I forgot to mention, by this point they had “asked” for as many PR shots , in addition to the ad shots, as possible. All in all, the shoot was progressing as smoothly as possible, until the second day. We had no trouble getting our shots and all had gone smoothly. Until, that is, we made it to Mojave National Preserve. As I photographed the bus traveling up and down the lone two lane highway that crosses the preserve, I made sure to point out to the bus driver that once he passes our shooting spot, he needs to continue down the road about a mile to a large turnout to turn around. Lots of loose desert sand in that area! As the bus passed camera and dipped out of sight beyond the hill I changed camera angles and waited…..and waited….and waited. Finally , a crackled response over the walkie talkie suggested there might be a “problem”. I jumped in my Suburban and rolled down the road. Right beyond the first hill, about a quarter of a mile from our camera position, was a large, ugly bus, sitting perpendicular across the highway, rear wheels spinning in loose sand.
After watching the panicked 70-year old driver about to go into cardiac arrest, I decided to refrain from making any comment to him about his lack of judgement. Instead a course of action was needed, and rapidly. Luckily, that particular spot , had a bit of an area where my assistant could direct a single row of cars around the bus. He took that duty while the AD and myself grabbed shovels and started to dig. No luck! we had to get that thing out of there before a Park Service Ranger or a Highway Patrol happened by. Fines are huge for shooting without a permit. And, for turning your bus around across a highway! When all the digging and piling rocks under the tires failed to budge the beast , I came up with a last ditch plan before calling out a tow truck (which, by the way, would be over two hours away!). I took my trusty dual sided, twelve foot ladder and busted it into two pieces. This created a “Ramp” which we filled with rocks and road debris in hope of getting enough traction to get the behemoth out of it’s sandpit.
With this improvised ramp, and a tug from the rented suburban, the beast lurched onto the paved portion of the highway and down the road. A stern command over the radio told the driver to keep going until we caught up with him. As we loaded the last of the now shattered ladder into the suburban, dusted ourselves off and prepared to catch up to the bus, a CHP officer pulled up to ask if we had seen a stuck bus out here. “No sir, we’re just out here taking some pictures in the desert!”….and off we went.
The worst time in my photography career(and life in general) would have to be following the death of my father in November 2008. I had just returned from a fantastic ten day photographic journey through the Southwest, had some big time agencies knocking on my door for bids, and was really feeling some positive momentum. Then one Monday morning all of that was jerked away when my Dad’s heart suddenly stopped. It was an event that was entirely unexpected and the ground still shakes for me when I allow into my conscious the memory of the stone-faced, doctor coming into our small waiting room to break the news. Dad was gone. It was a scene played many times in the movies and on tv but you could never be prepared for your own life to take such a stage. To add insult to injury, the next week my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and would have to begin treatment almost immediately. Things had changed and little did I know was just how much. The task at hand was daunting and I had never experienced something along the lines of the stormy waters filled with lawyers and accountants that waited for me.
My photography business basically had to be shuttered and I found myself actually turning down bids and other work in order to get the bigger picture in order. There was also the inner panic of emotional stress and what impact it would have on my creativity. For me at least, since I rarely shoot (settle for) straight-forward photography, there is always the pressure of always coming up with the golden concept or technical solution for solving the image in front of me. Adding the anxiety of the current state of affairs became too much and many times I wondered if it would ever dissipate. The result was a crippling of my creativity and I was forced to step out of the “box” for awhile. In time, when things began to clear a bit I was left with a sense of perspective and appreciation I never had before. Don’t get me wrong, it was always fun and exhilarating but I don’t think I really appreciated the process like I do now. Now I view my photographic intuition as more of a gift and calling than before when it was just “something I did”. I can’t say I’m completely free from the bouts of anxiety but I’m finding that occurs less frequently as my grip on things becomes stronger every day away from what was a traumatic 2009. As we enter into 2011 I’ve come to realize I was just as broken by the events as my business. Now, two years later, I’ve got hope and a different perspective than before and as I put one foot in front of the other I’ve got my eyes wide open for my next photographic inspiration.
The worst time in my career happens to coincide with the best time in my personal life. I was expecting my second baby, and about half way through the pregnancy I had to stop taking on new work. Marketing and self promotions were completely out of the question. I simply wasn’t able to keep up with the demands of my work, a 1 year old baby, and another on the way in 6 months. By the time I was ready to get back to work, I had a lot of rebuilding to do in my business. I discovered (the hard way) the importance of a steady and consistent stream of communication with existing and potential clients. This business is so competitive; to get art buyers thinking of you at the right time, you have to remind them often what you do best. If you fall off the radar and don’t keep your work in front of them, someone else most certainly will.
One of the worst times was many years ago when I was shooting for a car manufacturer. We were in-studio shooting a 360-degree 36-frame object movie of the car on a turntable. This movie would be used on the manufacturers website so users can virtually walk around the car. It wasn’t my first walk in the park by any means, but the process was still relatively new, complicated and evolving. We were trying out a new sunken turntable (flush with floor.) This new turntable would make life easier for us. It had a cool remote control that would automatically rotate the table 10 degrees at a time so we would end up with 36 frames. We would move the turntable, shoot, move, shoot, etc. Great! It saved us the time and drudgery of measuring and thinking about the turntable movements.
After shooting we did our usual back-up and test but somehow we didn’t notice a BIG problem. I only found the problem days later when I started post production.
Oh crap! There are only 35 frames here and I need 36! I searched and searched. Checked the back-ups. I wasn’t missing any files, that one position just hadn’t been shot! Suddenly I felt like I needed to barf. This was going to be my first reshoot, and a costly one too!
Not one to give up easily, I continued to look at other options. When I looked closer I found that the missing shot was the one 10 degrees off profile. My Photoshop wheels were spinning. Compared to the profile angle this one would be the easiest to flop. So, I did. I took the shot from the other side, flopped it, removed the gas tank, and switched things around (even lighting) in such a way as to create frame #36! It wasn’t easy but I pulled it off and no one ever knew any different.
I haven’t used the “automatic” feature of that turntable since.
Lessons: Don’t get lazy and trust automation too much. Check, double-check and triple-check your files and if possible get another set of eyes to do the same. Be skillful in Photoshop or at least know what can be done. It is a powerful creative tool but can also save your butt!