Friday, July 30, 2010

25 Years

It was around this time in the summer of 1985 that I took my first fulltime staff photographer job at The Griffin Daily News in my hometown of Griffin, Georgia. This means that I have now made my living as a fulltime photographer for 25 years. I stayed at that first job for about 2 years, until 1987, and have been a freelance photographer ever since, except for a short stint as a staffer at the short lived sports newspaper, The National Sports Daily, and a few temporary fulltime staff assignments at The Atlanta Journal & Constitution. So, even though I have worked very hard at my profession over the years, I have basically gone most of my adult life so far without having a real, fulltime job. I figure that this is probably for the best, because other than my parents and football coaches, I guess I have always had a bit of a problem with people telling me what to do.

What does all this have to do with lighting? Not all that much, I guess, except for the fact that learning how to light has helped me in some ways to live my life thus far pretty much on my own terms.

The photography business has taken me places, shown me things, introduced me to people (including my lovely wife, who I met on an assignment), and allowed me experiences that I only dreamed of when I was younger, experiences that I never could have had in any other business. For that I feel very fortunate and grateful, and I hope that the next 25 years will be much the same.

In 1995, as sort of a 10 year remembrance of my first year at The Griffin Daily News and a 20 year remembrance of my senior year season of playing football at Griffin High School, I went back and photographed a high school football game there, coming away with the photo above. High school football was one of the things I loved most when I was a staff photographer just starting out; I loved walking into the stadium on Friday evening to the aroma of cigars and popcorn, getting a hot dog and a Coke, and then shooting the game. I shot this photo while roaming the sidelines - it is not a posed portrait, I shot it as I was walking by the player. I was using a Vivitar 283 flash with an off camera sync cord, holding the flash low, below the camera, and balancing the background light by metering through the wide angle lens (probably a 20mm or a 24mm) on the Nikon FM2 that I was using. I don't know what the exposure was, I don't really keep up with that sort of information in a situation like this, but I would guess that it was around f5/6, at about 1/4 of a second, on Fujichrome 100 transparency film. I shot a frame of the player and moved on, I don't know if he ever even noticed me...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Virginia Tech Football

I was driving down Interstate 81 in Virginia yesterday when I passed the exit for Blacksburg, the home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. As I was looking over at the mountains to my right, I thought about a shoot I did at the school for Sports Illustrated back in April of 1999. The assignment was to do a portrait of Frank Beamer, the head football coach, and have him in the middle of a swirl of activity and motion created by some of his players.

The day before this shoot I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, doing some still life photographs at the University of North Carolina for a story on Objects of the Millenium, also for Sports Illustrated. After finishing up photos of UNC Women's Soccer National Championship trophies and game balls, I drove to the Greensboro Airport to pick up my assistant who had flown in from Atlanta, and we headed north to Blacksburg to check into the hotel. A few hours later I was checking right back out, as I discovered a bunch of teenagers, there for a swim meet, running loudly through the hallways. I managed to find a more quiet Hampton Inn across the interstate, and finally got to sleep, very late. The next day I went back to the previous hotel to pick up my assistant; he hadn't even noticed the commotion and had no idea I had left.

We headed over to the athletic department to location scout, and I went into the empty stadium to have a look around, but found nothing that worked - stadiums are not always the best backgrounds for the type of work I like to do. We then went across the street to the practice fields, and found an area that had a clean background, and just as importantly, AC power. As we were finishing setting up the lights, Coach Beamer came out with some of his special teams players, guys who were on his punt block team, and we photographed them from several different angles, covering what the magazine was looking for (more on the results from that part of the shoot, the ensuing mini-firestorm, and the two double trucks and several other photos that were used over the course of two issues, in a later post.) As the shoot progressed, the clouds had begun rolling in and the winds picked up, and we wound up racing the rain that seemed to be coming. After finishing the main photos, I wanted to take advantage of the great texture in the sky and do one more portrait, so I asked for two of their standout players, Corey Moore and Larry Austin, to pose for a few more minutes. In a situation like this I always like to protect the equipment, so we had the rental car right beside us, trunk open, so that we could quickly throw the more delicate equipment in if the rains suddenly came. I used a bare bulb Dyna-lite head with a bit of warming gel, plugged into a 1000 watt Dyna-lite pack. I like the hard edge the bare bulb head gives, and sometimes it's good not to have a softbox to break down in case of a sudden thunderstorm in the middle of a practice field. I also put a second light, a little Vivitar 283, on the ground to camera right and slightly behind the players, connected to a Quantum battery pack, to give a bit of an edge of light on the shadow side of the players. I was firing the Vivitar with a Wein ultra slave, plugged into the flash unit with a sync cord. I spot metered the changing sky with a Nikon FM2, and underexposed the ambient a bit to make it more dramatic. Even though it looks like a late evening stormy sky, it was actually in the middle of the afternoon. We got off a quick roll or two of Fujichrome Provia with the Hasselblad, using the 80mm lens, and managed to pack it all up before the storm.

A few minutes later we were rolling down Interstate 81, towards the Greensboro Airport and the plane ride home to Atlanta, and Coach Beamer and his Virginia Tech Hokies were rolling towards the National Championship game with Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, which they lost 46-29.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rest in Peace, Mel Turpin

This is the anti-"WHERE IS LEBRON JAMES GONNA GO?!" story. This is the flip side. On the same day the world awakens to the momentous news of where LeBron James will take his basketball skills, with gnashing of teeth and heads bowed in Cleveland, and literal dancing in the streets in Miami, Mel Turpin is found dead of an apparent suicide at his home in Lexington, Kentucky. Mel was a star basketball player in college, at the University of Kentucky, but didn't find the same great success in the NBA. I was assigned to photograph him for Sports Illustrated in 2004, for the Where Are They Now issue, and when I saw the news of his death this morning it knocked me back in my chair.

I met him at the automobile dealership in Lexington where he worked as a security guard. Security guard? An ex-basketball star? That's one you don't hear all that often, especially for someone who, although not a huge star, played several years in the NBA and had some name recognition. I wondered what he would be like, whether he would be surly and impatient, like some of the people I deal with. He pulled up in a modest little compact car, all nearly seven feet of him. I'll never forget watching him uncurl himself from the interior of that car, little by little, until he towered over me and my assistant on the hot black asphalt of the parking lot. He was smiling from the beginning, affable and easygoing, talking with everyone who crossed our path. We did his portrait at a spot I had found earlier, he rounded up a security guard patrol car for me to use as a prop. One of the great things about shooting for the Sports Illustrated Where Are They Now issue is, as a sports fan, you get to hang out with the old time sports stars and heroes, get to chat with them a bit between shots and talk to them about when they played. Mel talked a little about basketball, he seemed to have enjoyed his time playing and seemed content with having moved on to a basic and middle class life back home after being famous. He said he still had lunch with his old college coach, Joe B. Hall, every Sunday at a local cafeteria. I tried to make him look imposing and dangerous, like a big security guard should look, and he obliged me and stopped smiling for a few minutes. He did everything I asked of him for the hour or two we were shooting in that sweltering June Kentucky heat, and then he shook my hand and smiled and went into the dealership to go to work. Thus ended one of my favorite assignments ever.

Every once in a while in my business, you photograph someone who, although famous, makes you feel like they are instantly your friend, and that was the case with Mel Turpin. Since that shoot in 2004 I have occasionally thought about him, wondering if he was still patrolling around that Lexington dealership, watching out for trouble, smiling at those he met. Apparently he had some things going on that were bigger than his outward smile, and that is a shame. All you have to do is read a few of the articles already written on his death, and you will see that many people saw him the way I did, a friendly, smiling, seemingly happy giant of a man, content with his place in the world, despite his lack of riches and NBA superstardom. Maybe that was not the case, we might never know. However, here on LeBron mania day, it kind of makes you wonder about priorities, doesn't it?

(Since this is primarily a lighting blog, I should say that the portrait shown here of Mel was lit with one medium Chimera softbox, with a warming gel on the Dyna-lite flash head, which was connected to a Dyna-lite 2000 watt power pack. It was shot with a Hasselblad with an 80mm lens, on Fuji Provia film, with the exposure probably about f/11 at 1/500th of a second.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bryce Florie

I did this portrait of Boston Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie for Sports Illustrated back in 2000, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, just across the river from Charleston. Bryce had been hit in the face during a game by a line drive, the baseball shattering the bones around his eye. The story was about his injury, and his comeback to baseball. The lump on his cheekbone is still visible in the photo, on the right side of his face, on camera left.

My assistant and I met Bryce at his house, and we decided to go to a nearby baseball field that was part of some local recreation league. Unfortunately, the gates were all locked so we had to park on the side of the road and climb a fence that was covered by dense brush, hoisting ourselves and the equipment over. I did the bulk of my work for the shoot with Bryce posed on the pitcher's mound, using broad light, I think with a softbox, to get a nice full length portrait for the magazine. The shoot went well and Bryce was very accommodating, especially considering that the baseball I brought for the shoot was the first one he had touched since the game in which his face was shattered. As we were packing up, I looked over my shoulder and saw this beautiful sky shaping up over the harbor just beyond the trees in the outfield. I quickly took out my battery powered Lumedyne kit, no time to plug in for AC power. I wanted a dramatic, spotlight effect, emphasizing the lump from the injury, and put a metal tube on the flash tube to create a snoot. I keep a secondary snoot on the metal snoot, a piece of old manila envelope wrapped around the tube that slides back and forth and allows me to further narrow and focus the light. I put a bit of CTO warming gel over the tube, to make the subjects's face warmer to contrast with the deep blue sky, making sure to light the side of the face where the lump from the injury was visible. I spot metered the sky with a through the lens meter on a Nikon FM2, and calculated the exposure to balance the sky with the strobe. I was shooting hand held with the Hasselblad, 80mm lens I believe, at around f/5.6 or so, with the shutter speed at about 1/8 or 1/4 second, and got a few frames off before the sky went away...
We are currently making plans for our first lighting workshop, an idea several years in the making. Stay tuned for more details.