Continuing our discussion with 12 photographers and two questions. This time they answer the question: “What is the best moment or time in your photographic career and what did you learn from it?
On assignment in the wilderness of Alaska for over a month sounds, to most, like a romantic, dream job. It did to me when I got that phone call asking if I was interested in being in on the project. I quickly jumped at the opportunity to be the one to bring the concepts to life. Preparation was vital. In order to make this four week shoot work the way it was supposed to, a team of individuals would have to coordinate and plan for any and all contingencies. There would be no running to town to restock or replace. There wouldn’t be a place to rent a damaged piece of equipment. Our contact with the outside world would consist of an occasional jet trail going 25,000 feet above us, and a two hour bush pilot ride to our “location”.
The summer days in Northern Alaska, are long. Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, separated by a momentary period of total darkness, interspersed with the thin gray overcast of passing Pacific storms. This makes for a blurry eyed, challenging, yet spectacular, opportunity to create vibrant,exciting images. The initial excitement of being dumped into the Alaskan wilderness with an art director and an assistant, along with our cache of supplies quickly began to turn to apprehension as the weight of a large budget and uncertain circumstances settled on my shoulders. The sight of the 1200 pound Alaskan brown bear in the brush didn’t help either!
Now, let’s just say the next 20 days were not easy. Lot’s of rain and sitting in a tent with an AD whose shots just were not coming as fast as he would like. A food supply depleting by the minute ( Sitting in a tent for 20 hours while it downpours tends to make the provisions rapidly disappear), and the constant visits of Mr 1200 pounds and his friends, made us all a bit on edge.
As fortunes might have it, clearing skies and warming temps made for a productive last week. The smells , the sounds, the views! All spectacular! The beauty of a 4 hour sunset, followed by the twinkling, dancing skies of the Northern Lights, followed by a three hours sunrise…WHAT A TREAT!
One Of The Best
As part of a larger project, I had the opportunity to photograph a four year old cutting his own hair. Makes me smile just to think about it, and I think I smiled my way through the entire project. The little guy was to hack away in the kitchen of the location, and it was a delight to behold. He had no plan, and certainly no hairstyle in mind, and he was happy just to keep whacking away at his little head-hedge. He was having a great time, and so was I, when his little sister, a two and a half year old, could no longer restrain herself: SHE had to cut her brother’s hair HERSELF! ”Okay, okay,” I said, “Don’t worry, let’s get you something to stand on.” An assistant whips an apple box onto the floor, pushes it next to the brother, I hand the scissors to the sister – yikes, be careful, those things are sharp! – and away she goes, like she’d worked in salon for all 2.5 years of her life. Her concentration was phenomenal! The house could have been on fire, and she would never have noticed. Now, the brother, who initially didn’t care how the heck his hair looked, is covering his face, dismayed at what his sis might be doing to his “masterpiece”, and I can hardly keep from laughing. I took a ton of shots, and I was just besides myself with laughter and gratitude. I love my job. Where else could I get this kind of opportunity? The occasion was so joyful, so filled with fun and wacky-ness, that I would be hard pressed to organize something like it again. I learned, I hope, that opportunities like this are rare, and that I need to seek them out, and embrace them and make every moment count. And guess what? I was asked another time to photograph a kid cutting his own hair! Ain’t life grand?
The Best Moment
In the Spring of 2007, I received a call from an art buyer I had known for some time who had a ‘pro-bono’ shoot to discuss with me. As it turned out, the creative was amazing and although there was little money, I shot three ads which turned out beautifully. I submitted the images to the CA Photo Annual competition and not one but ALL THREE were accepted and as a result, I had two pages in the prestigious publication all to myself that August.
In September, I received one of those ‘calls out of the blue’ from another art buyer, this time from an agency in Toronto I had never heard of. It turned out to be Juniper Park, a newly formed shop which had this little bitty piece of business called Frito- Lay!
The Creative Director had seen my work in the CA Photo Annual, visited my web site, and decided that I was THE ONE to photograph his substantial re-branding campaign consisting of 10 ads. He also noted my humor and landscape work, both of which had been created on personal self-assigned projects. We created 10 ads which appeared in every major publication in the US.
Lesson : Personal work + Pro Bono work = $$ and the largest print assignment of my career! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
One of the best moments would have to be when I first had my daughter in the studio. Being a specialist with compositing images, my wife and I always try and plan some sort of fun holiday card each year. Our daughter, being nine months old at the time, was sure to be the center of the photograph as she is in our lives. So we dressed her up, plopped her in a chair, and she was the perfect model. Not that she understood what was going, but she was such a sport and we all had a blast making the image.
My first shoot for a commercial client wherein I had no idea what to charge and the AD guided me to a rate that set me on the path to shooting full time.
I was still working full time and shooting on the side. By word of mouth an AD asked me to shoot a series of corporate ads that required “someone who could be comfortable hanging from a rope”. I had no idea about usage nor commercial rates. In my head I had a number but the AD was helpful in guiding me to a number that was many times the number I had and opened my eyes to the possibilities of making my passion a livelihood. From that point forward I learned all I could about the business of licensing and usage while also building the skills I then lacked in lighting. I was driven and loving it and soon transitioned to full time. What I learned was best phrased by what Dick Durrance told me last year: If you have a gift and an opportunity to act on then you honor the gift of life.
One Of The Best
One of the loveliest times in my photo career was pretty early in the game. I was on a trip to NYC and hanging in the windows of HSBC branches was a three image series I done earlier that year. On that same trip, I went into Tower Records and a bunch of images I had shot for an Ani DiFranco record were hanging throughout the store. It was so cool to see the work hanging large in stores in Manhattan.
Many memories come to mind when I think of game-changing moments in my career as a photographer. Some are photographic — like the first time I saw a shot unfold in my studio exactly the way I had envisioned it in my mind. Others are people-related — like realizing I could make a client comfortable, however nervous I might have been (I’m talking a long time ago, I’m totally cool now…). But the really great moments that stand out the most involve collaborations with truly creative minds.
One of the most exciting times for me was the time just after the new millennium. I was busy shooting alot of QuickTime VR for car maker websites. Business was booming.
However, I wanted to push the limits and boundaries in the VR/internet world and the time was right. I pitched some (at the time) far-fetched ideas of shooting 360-walkarounds of cars on location to Toyota. And we weren’t just talking shooting on level ground. That had been done. I wanted to shoot a 360-spin in rugged terrain, and a frozen moment (ala The Matrix) of a vehicle crossing a river or something similarly dynamic. I wanted to do things no one had done before while keeping the image quality very high and consistent. This wouldn’t be easy, or cheap. It would be risky and expensive. I wasn’t 100% sure if these concepts/practices would work because they’d never been done! Both the client and I took huge risks.
Toyota trusted me, and awarded the project with it’s sizable companion budget. We got to shoot their full line of trucks on location for VR including the initial launch of the Sequoia. For the 4Runner we built a 100’ diameter circular dolly track around the vehicle as it sat perched on The Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains with a commanding view of the valley below. It looked like a version of Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland. Then we shot multiple passes of 36 frames (every 10 degrees) around the vehicle. We had to complete shooting this “circle” in as little time as possible so the light didn’t change too much from start to finish. The complexity and logistics to get the track and construction materials to the site was daunting. All the equipment, lumber, scaffolding had to be shuttled from the grip trucks about a 1/2 mile to location on a 6-wheel drive Unimog. And to watch the grips build it was stunning. I remember they ended up working into the night and staying over on location at night to be ready for shooting the next day. The shots turned out fantastic, showing off the 4Runner in it’s rugged element. The client was thrilled.
After that location we moved to a river location where we worked with a camera supplier to set up an array of 30 cameras around the river crossing. When the Sequoia came through at-speed, all the cameras fired. I later turned this into an QuickTime VR object movie so the user could spin around the car all at that one frozen moment in time. Very cool. The first of it’s kind for a car on the internet. The client loved it.
The shoot continued on to the southern Sierra Nevada, then on to Las Vegas and Southern California for about another week. It was an awesome trip with outstanding agency creatives and crew that yielded outstanding results that benefitted the client and my career.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to break boundaries and push for what YOU want to shoot! Know it’s not always possible with every job though. Opportunities are rare, or at least they are for me. You may have to ask many different clients many different times, but if you push consistently and aren’t afraid to risk as much or more than your client, the rewards can be huge.
I had a chocolate shoot scheduled for 2 days during an unusual heat wave in SF. My studio was on the second floor in an old warehouse with terrible insulation, and a black tar roof in the Mission District. I knew the chocolate would melt and sweat on set if I didn’t figure something out. I looked into renting and or buying a commercial air conditioner but had no luck finding anyone who would install it before the shoot. I only had three days to do something before the shoot. After much research I bought two 5 gallon buckets of specialty silver reflective roof paint and painted to tar roof above my space. I bought 12 fans and put one in every window and skylight in the studio. Then I built a two layer shooting table and put trays of dry ice on the lower level and the chocolates on the top table. It took some testing to figure out the perfect distance to keep the chocolates cool enough without freezing the table and chocolate. With all the fans going at the same time it sounded like the studio might take off, but we just turned up the stereo and had a great shoot. Not a single chocolate melted, the client was thrilled with the results and we collaborated for several years.
Laura Crosta was unable to meet the deadline so my good friend and über-talented photographer Eric Hameister stepped up to fill the 12th photographer spot. Thanks Eric!
“I am Jesse James.” Coffee table book
The book entered #9 on the New York Times best seller list the first week out. A rare accomplishment for a picture style book. Now, it appears, I am a best-selling author.
It began with me showing a portfolio to Jesse. I started out working for Jesse, spending time hanging around West Coast Choppers for a number of years during the return of the chopper boom. I kept busy setting up shots for advertising purposes, as well as documenting bike builds, crew working etc. This lead to a meeting where I proposed the idea of a coffee table book idea. Jesse liked it. We went straight to Penguin Putnam Publishing in N.Y.
To be Honest. It was easy for me as I got to follow my passion of motosports. How can you NOT get a great photograph of machines like that… being around a West Coast Chopper? It made for powerful eye catching photographs.
Also, as a result of tooling around and shooting for Jesse, I had the opportunity to shoot a number of celebrities and events that were associated with Jesse James. That opened the door to many other subjects other than just motosports… I was getting hired for my photographic style and not so much of what I shoot. This is something that always mattered to me.
What I’ve learned?
Passion always wins! Follow your passions… by doing what I love, and enjoying it, what came to me was the nod that took me to a best selling author… Actually, I like to think of it as a rewarded photographer.
I know that I have chased many things, but what seems to come to me and works best for me is when I am pursuing my passion! I am amazed that photo assignments continue to filter in as a result of all this… All from just doing what I felt I wanted to shoot.
Working with a team, as a 1st assistant, on a site shoot, we packed up to make a 6-8 hour trip away from the big city. Somewhere about 4pm prior to a sunrise location shoot I realized… O.M.G. “I FORGOT THE FILM”… ALL OF IT!!! 8X10 TRANSPARENCY TOO… (no chance of finding that at a gas station!!!)
Frantic and embarrased, I told the 2nd assistant what I did… We started making phone calls on these brand new things, at the time, called cell phones.
We had 12 hours to make something happen, or I would have to tell the photographer, art director, car prep, assistants, talent-models that we can’t shoot because the photographic experts didn’t have any film… I still get sick to my stomach when I think of it…
We started the phone calls to the photo lab… assistants… airlines cargo departments…
Here is how it went down…
1) An assistant in L.A. dropped everthing to make it to the photo store within 27 mins of closing.
2) Purchased the film and put it on the photographer’s account.
3) Rented 8×10 film holders on the photographers account too. (lots of trust those days… that seems to be all gone)
4) After the stop at the photo store made a stop to the local K-mart… purchased two ice chest coolers. Put the film and holders into the coolers…
5) Drove to LAX Delta Airlines…
6) Put the coolers on an airplane for a flight that was leaving in an hour or so… Those pre-911 days you could do that!…
MEANWHILE… BACK AT THE RANCH…
7) Assistant drove from the hotel to the local airport to greet the luggage with out a passenger… (about one hour away)
Picked up the coolers at baggage claim…
9) Drove back to the hotel arriving about 12 midnight…
10) Met with the assistant to turn the hotel bathroom into a dark room with gaffers tape and duvetyne…
11) Proceeded to load 100+ sheets of 8×10 film finishing about 2am… Remember we had a 4 am call time?
12) After 2 hours of sleep, we made it to the location…
We got all this done thanks to cell phones and a strong crew base.
The lead photographer never knew a thing.
To the best of my recollection, this was a $200k production! Talk about stress!
What I’ve learned?
Check lists are really…really…really important… as well as back-up plans… Always have a way out of each and every thing your producing… i.e. need a camera for the shoot? got a back up? need a stand? got a back up? need a flash card? got a back up?