Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Boys of Fall

A couple of weeks ago I went to a funeral here in my little hometown of Griffin, Georgia. It was for a man that I had known since I was a kid, a man who was good friends with my father when I was young. It was a good remembrance, lighthearted, as was the departed man, who happened to have been a great athlete in his school days. The thing that struck me about the gathering was that afterwards, while walking out of the church, my father, who was also a great athlete in his school days, and some of his old ball playing buddies started talking about the old days. They laughed and hugged and slapped each other's backs, and the stories flowed. Like the one about my father and one of his buddies driving in an old Nash car out to The University of Wyoming, where both were on scholarship to play ball...and then my father getting homesick and heading back south to sign a contract to play pro baseball with The Atlanta Crackers, and his buddy staying in Wyoming, for a little while longer anyway, and hanging out the window of the dorm building waving at him as he motored towards Georgia. The memories were still clear, and were the thread that tied these men, both living and departed, together throughout a large portion of their lives. Now in their mid-seventies the stories brought them great joy, and as the talk and laughter wound down, they promised to try and get together again. They then said a few more words of fond remembrance of their departed teammate and buddy, and went their separate ways.

This is the magic of playing sports in high school. Memories are made while you are still young, spirited, and unjaded, and the future is spread out before you. The vast majority of high school athletes will never again have a stadium full of fans cheering their every move as they fight for the honor and glory of their school. The vast majority will also likely never again work as hard physically to achieve a common goal. I am glad that I had the opportunity to play ball and to have these experiences while I was in high school, and even a bit in college; the memories and friendships from those times are some of the best that I have.

The guys in this photograph played football this year for Griffin Christian High School in Griffin, Georgia. I had the honor, as I have for several years, of being their defensive line and defensive ends coach. This year we were moved up into a bigger classification where we were often basically outnumbered and outmanned, and it made for a big challenge. They don't give points for excuses, though, so we went out and worked hard and fought hard and did pretty well, finishing the regular season with a record of 6-4. We made the state playoffs, where we lost in the first round to the eventual state champion, Deerfield-Windsor High School down in Albany, Georgia...and suddenly, it was all over.

There is a popular song that came out during this football season called "The Boys of Fall", in which country music star Kenny Chesney sings about football, about hard work and commitment, about dedication and watching out for one's teammates. It became something of an anthem for a lot of teams this year, but when you think about it, the thread of this song really runs back many decades and generations, back to the guys in leather helmets, through my father's generation, through my generation, and on up through the players of today, including these at Griffin Christian High School.

I think that these guys have made some memories for themselves, and formed some friendships that were cast in the midst of blood and sweat and competition, and in the end, some tears too. Bonds like that don't really come from too many other places. I hope that about 55 years from now, like my father and his buddies, they can come together and hug and slap each other's backs, and tell some stories about the old days. And when they speak of their coaches, I would hope they speak well of me, and remember that they always had my respect and admiration for their gallant efforts...and that I considered it an honor to be associated with them at this important time in their lives.

It's hard to be a coach and photographer at the same moment, the commitment required on each end is too great, which is why this photograph was lit and shot in a big hurry...I had to get these guys on the field for practice. I lit the photo with one medium Chimera softbox, with about 2000 watt/seconds coming through it from a Dyna-lite 2000 watt pack. I was having trouble balancing the light on the side of the photo away from the softbox - the sun was coming in on the shadow side of the faces but it was too side-lit to help much. I set up a Lumedyne with a bare bulb and reflector, at about 200 watt/seconds, and that gave me some fill light to help balance it out. What I probably would have done if I had been on assignment and had more time (and an assistant or two), would have been to set up a softbox on both sides, with another Dyna-lite pack, and balance out both the exposure and the quality of light...but again, the blocking sled was calling us. In other words, I think the photo worked out pretty nicely, but I wish I could have had the time to tweak it a little more.

I have shot some team portraits on assignment in the past, most notably the team portraits for the NBA All-Star teams. In a situation like that, I would usually use four softboxes, two on each side, one up, one down. When you have guys like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and their cohorts sitting there waiting for you to hurry up and just take the picture, you can't be quibbling with the light, because after a few minutes they don't really care. You want it even and without shadows, and you want everybody's face lit the same. However, that can get a little visually boring, so if you have some guys who will work with you it's always nice to make a group photo like this a little less stiff and a little more interesting.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Where Are They Now - Robert Edwards

A few days ago I pulled this week's copy of Sports Illustrated out of my mailbox, and saw that it was the annual Where Are They Now issue. This is the first Where Are They Now issue that Sports Illustrated has ever done that does not have any of my photography work in it, going back about 10 years. Of course this is a little disappointing, but hey, that's life nowadays in the modern magazine business. I have always loved working on the Where Are They Now stories, because you get to meet and work with some of the old legends of sport, usually in a much more relaxed setting than with current athletes.

I believe this is also the first year in which the SI Where Are They Now issue doesn't coincide with the July 4th holiday, and Wimbledon. It is unfortunate timing for me that they wait until this year to make this change - Wimbledon has cost me two SI Where Are They Now covers over the years. The first was in 2004 when Maria Sharapova won and became a sudden media darling, bumping the cover story photo I did of my childhood football hero, Dick Butkus, from the full cover to a small photo in the top corner, above the photo of the young, pretty, smiling Sharapova. The second time was in 2008, when Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in what was considered by many to be "one of the greatest matches ever", and of course an action photo from the epic contest became the cover. I wasn't quite so impressed - I didn't really consider it epic enough to keep my portrait of The King, Richard Petty, from being the full cover, again reduced down to the smaller photo in the top corner above the two tennis players...but what can you do?

As I am an old school sports fan with far more interest in the golden age of sport of long ago, my SI Where Are They Now assignments have provided some of the highlights of my career in photography. One of my favorites was a couple of years ago, in 2008, when I was assigned to photograph Robert Edwards, former University of Georgia and NFL running back.

It is a bittersweet, inspirational story; a player's promising career nearly cut short as it was just getting started, yet that player overcoming incredible odds after a devastating injury to battle back and play again. Robert's knee was basically destroyed playing, of all things, flag football on a sand field, as part of the Pro Bowl activities in Hawaii after his rookie season. He was told that not only might he not PLAY again, that not only might he not WALK again, but that there was even a chance that his leg might have to be amputated, the injury was so severe. All this after the guy had a standout year with The New England Patriots in his rookie season in the NFL - how do you come back from something like that? Well, apparently you come back by having an incredible amount of dedication and love of the game, which Robert had. I don't think he had to play for the money, I seem to remember reading that he had a good insurance policy, and he had just been a first round pick in the NFL draft with surely a contract to match. I followed along in the media as the stories came out about his rehabilitation; his hard work, tenacity and dogged progress was inspiring. Finally, a few years later he made it back to the NFL, as a running back with the Miami Dolphins, and in his first game he scored one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown. He played that season with the Dolphins, and then played in Canada for a few years; when I photographed him he was a free agent and winding up his career. I remember he mentioned he was interested in coaching.

I've photographed some well known names of sports history for the SI Where Are They Now issue, but the story of my assignment with Robert is most relevant today, because last night I actually faced him on a football field. In my life away from photography I have another part time job, coaching defensive linemen for a high school football team, and Robert is the new head coach of a team that we play, a team we had a preseason scrimmage against. It was a good scrimmage, hard hitting, and I'm happy to say that my team did pretty well. However, one of the best parts of the night for me was standing in front of the gathered players from both teams after it was all over and telling them Robert's story, a story that reinforces some of the things we try to teach our players - dedication, persistence, hard work, love of and respect for the game. It was good to tell them this story, and then to point to him and tell them, "THIS is a football player".

It seems that a lot of people nowadays have somewhat questionable reasons for their choices in their sports heroes, mostly based on flash and cash, and glitz and glamour. If anybody happens to be looking for a sports figure with a little more substance, they would do well to look to Robert Edwards and check out his inspirational story. And, if anybody is looking for a football team to pull for this year, they should look to Arlington Christian Academy High School, in Fairburn, Georgia, led by first year coach Robert Edwards...unless they are playing my team, Griffin Christian Academy High School, from Griffin, Georgia, in which case we would appreciate you pulling for us.

For the shoot with Robert I met him at a sports facility in Roswell, Georgia, where he was working out with his friend, NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes. After some weight lifting, the two did some running on a nearby track, which is where we set up the shoot. My goal was to make Robert look determined, noble and inspirational, still working hard at football. I knew he would be glistening with sweat after running in the Georgia summer heat, but I also knew that it would evaporate quickly, so we brought a gallon jug of water to continually pour over his head, to maintain the rivulets and beads of sweat. Robert's buddy Takeo was helpful with this part of the shoot, he seemed to delight in pouring the water on his friend's face. We used two lights - a medium Chimera softbox with a Dyna-lite strobe head powered by a Dyna-lite 2000 watt pack, and the sun. The softbox provides the main light on the face, and the overhead sun provides the highlights on the top of the head, helping to make the water / sweat shimmer. The exposure was 1/250 at f/16, underexposing the ambient by about two stops to saturate the background and sky, and to decrease the effect of the sunlight on the face. The camera was a Canon 40D, with a 16-35mm lens, set at 35mm. The look of determination on the face was provided by the subject.

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.