Thursday, January 15, 2009

Paris Hilton

“Wait, wait, do it again, Kathy got out of the car ass first” a voice somewhere out in the dark behind the TV camera said. The two women got back into the car. Someone, probably the same voice from the dark behind the TV camera, pounded on the trunk of the limo and the door opened once again. Paris Hilton got out, and then helped her mother, Kathy Hilton, out of the car, head first this time. The limo door closed and they started to walk to the Van Ness Street City Hall entrance. Kathy Hilton jerked sharply back; her wrap was caught in the door. Paris glared at her mom, and without a word they both got back into the car. Another invisible pound on the trunk and they both re-emerged. This time, Paris’s smile wasn’t quite as big, but she made sure her mom was up and out of the car quickly and without any residual clothing left behind.
Paris and her mom were on their way to one of the bigger nights of the San Francisco social season. It’s a typical social event: women in cleavage-featuring gowns, and men all wearing the same tuxedo they’ve had since the eighties. They all have dinner in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, then walk across the street to the Opera House.
The invitees are the usual mix of socialites and politicians, high tech CEOs, and A-list rich people. Every so often there is a celebrity in town that asks to be invited. Once, the celeb-du-jour was Sharon Stone, at the time she was dating Examiner editor Phil Bronstein. The show was sold out, so they had to put her and Phil in a private box where they made out like teenagers. This horrified the staff and put them off inviting Hollywood-types; they wanted to keep a more dignified air. Which begs the question; why is Paris Hilton here?
As I met the PR person at the front door of City Hall, she had an apologetic, yet amused smile on her face. I knew from that look that I was going to be on the receiving end of whatever was amusing her.
She told me who was scheduled to show up for the dinner. There were a few minor surprises, mostly in who wasn’t going to be there, like the mayor, who was out of town. Then, in an off-handed mumble she said Paris Hilton and her mother were coming, and the Chronicle’s news desk knew about it.
Wait a minute…Paris who? Did she say Paris Hilton? I thought they were trying to keep this thing dignified. She must mean another Paris. Is there another Paris?
I asked her to repeat that last part, hoping that she said Perry Como or Percy Sledge or Minnie Pearl or anyone else, for Christ’s sake.
Nope, she said Paris Hilton.
“Is she already here, or going to sneak quietly in through the back?” I asked, knowing there was no chance of that happening.
“She’s arriving in a limousine on the other side of the building, where everyone can see her” she said biting her lip.
“Am I the only photographer here?” I queried, knowing full well I was, but hoping I wasn’t. I don't know why, but another photographer would make me feel less......pandering.
“There might be a TV crew” she said, “Entertainment Tonight is doing a story on her. They flew up here from LA just for this, but she’s not here yet, I’ll come and find you when she shows up.”

Maybe she won’t show up at all. Or, maybe she’ll just get out of the car and walk like a normal person into City Hall, eat dinner, see the performance, and go home. Maybe monkeys will fly out my butt and hand out winning lottery tickets.
I spent about an hour shooting the society types, trying to get a photo that doesn’t look like something Weegee shot it in the 1940's of a bunch of people blinded with on-camera flash.
I went up to the mezzanine to get an overall picture of the event, and to take a little break away from all the commotion for a while. I could see the PR person below me looking around frantically. She finally looked up, she mouthed, “Paris is arriving”.
I went to the Van Ness entrance to see a limousine parked outside. As I walked toward the car, a TV cameraman came from the other side with his light on shooting ME. I gave him a puzzled look and was about to ask where Paris was, when the limo door opened and Paris and her mother got out. I shot a few frames and thought I was done. I didn’t know that getting out of a car had to be scripted, and that anyone could need three takes to do it.
By now, an almost-as-wide-as-he-was-tall San Francisco Sheriff’s deputy had come out to make sure that the media frenzy - there was just me and the TV cameraman - was under control. He saw me shooting still photos, and thought I look paparazzi enough to keep me away from the pseudo-celebrity.
“Do you want me to shoot a picture of you with Paris Hilton and make sure it gets into the Chronicle?”
“No way”
“Then you had better get out of my way”
He moved away like he was on fire.
Paris walked on by, I shot a few more frames, and she went into dinner. Or at least that’s what I thought.

She apparently went inside and directly into the restroom, where she waited for everyone to leave and then was driven across the street to the Opera House. She waited until the lights went down to go to her seat in her own private box, extreme stage right so everyone could see her without turning their heads too far. She sat there until the show started and she and her mom sneaked out of the Opera House and went home to LA.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Baseball and Richard Nixon

News photographers rarely finish a day the same way it began. If you start with a news story; you'll end with a restaurant review. Start with sports; end with a society party. Some days that line can move several times in one assignment.
I was sent to shoot an Angels baseball game in the summer of 1978 while working at the LA Times. It was a midweek day game, a rarity in Southern California because it’s gets very hot and smoggy, and when the game ends, the game traffic flows into the rush hour traffic, causing gridlock.
When they do have these “Businessman’s Specials”, people take off from work to go to the games. I was to shoot some of the game, and get photos of people in suits playing hooky. The Angels at that time were a pretty lackluster team. They didn’t win much and they were generally boring. I had a pretty good action picture from early on in the game, so I was covered there, but the businessman thing; who knew that was going to be the hard part? Between innings I would stand up in the photographers box and look for guys in suits. Most people there were older, and looked retired, or kids with parents who looked like they were on vacation.
Into the 6th inning a twinge of panic was setting in. To make deadline, I had to send a picture by the 8th inning. If I left the field shooting position and took a roundabout walk up to the darkroom, I might see someone fitting the businessman profile.
Angel stadium at the time had a darkroom for newspapers and wire services to use to transmit photos on deadline. The darkroom was up behind the press box, around the corner from the team owner’s private box. Making my way up through the stands, there wasn’t a suit in sight, just Bermuda shorts and the occasional Hawaiian shirt.
After starting to develop my film, I walked out to the press box to see if I could see a businessman. One of the Angels’ ushers walked over and told me to step aside. Turning to see why I had to move brought me face to face with Richard Nixon, fresh out of the men's room. I couldn’t believe it, Nixon. Except for the David Frost interviews, he hadn’t been seen much since he resigned five years before. He looked me in the eye, smiled and walked into the owner’s box, a security guard blocking the door after him.
Nixon was living in San Clemente on the Orange County coast. The LA Times had a photographer working for months on getting his picture, with no luck. He still had lots of Republican friends in Orange County who protected his privacy, including Gene Autrey, former cowboy star and current multimillionaire owner of the Angels.

A suit! He was wearing a suit! Though I wouldn't be surprised if he wore a suit to the beach. He was probably taking time off from whatever evil work he was doing to come to the game. I could come back with a picture of Richard Nixon playing hooky. All I had to do was explain my assignment to the seven-foot tall 300-pound Secret Service agent at the door. Walking over to him, I opened my mouth to speak:
The word didn’t come from my mouth, it came from the Secret Service agent’s.
I started to speak again.
“NO…stand away from the door”

I started to walk away, after all, my film was almost done developing, and I had other important things to do.

Another guy in a suit walked out the guarded door, probably on his way to the men's room, and asked what was going on. I told him what I wanted and showed him my assignment sheet and the part about businessmen in suits. He shrugged and took my piece of paper inside, leaving me face to chest with the security guard. He looked down and shook his head.
“No way are they letting you in”
“Probably not”
“You’re wasting your time”
The door opened and the man who took my assignment form waved me in. The Secret Service giant reluctantly moved aside and I walked in.
There he was, Richard Nixon. He was taller than I had expected, at least six feet. His head was huge, making the rest of his body seem smaller. He looked me up and down like he was doing a Marine Corps inspection. He looked at the two cameras and camera bag over my shoulder. Noticing the label on the camera bag, he asked what “Domke” meant.
“It’s the name of the guy who makes it”
“Sounds Jewish”
“I don’t think he is.”
“It’s a very good bag…”
It was the 7th inning stretch, explaining why he wasn’t sitting watching the game. I wondered if I hadn't been there if he would be singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame".
The owners box was just big enough for about six or eight people. The 85mm lens I had on my camera wasn’t wide enough to shoot Nixon and the game in the background. I fumbled through my camera bag for a wider lens, but to no avail.
“We only have a few minutes before the game starts again young man” Nixon said.
As he looked out onto the field, I shot 4 or 5 frames of a much closer portrait than I had wanted, and was ushered out as quickly as I was ushered in.
“Thank you”. Said the ex-president
“Uh-sure” was my well thought out reply.
Coming out the door, I looked back at the giant security guard. He refused eye contact, or even acknowledging my existence.
As I walked back to the darkroom, hoping I hadn’t over developed my film too badly, several sports writers in the press box asked me how I got into see Nixon. I told them that all I did was ask. They couldn’t believe it.
Finishing up with the film, I called the Times picture desk to tell them I had a picture of Nixon, and to hold the presses; I was sure the publisher would want to speak with me and give me his personal congratulations.
“Do you have anything else?”
“Nixon! I have Nixon!”
“Do you have a good Angels action photo?”
“Yes, but I have Nixon”
“Well, okay, send him too”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Press Conferences and Naked People

“What’s the longest lens you have?” said John Ohara, a San Francisco Chronicle photographer.
“I think I have a 180(millimeter lens)”
“Can I use it for a minute?”
We were at the window of the pressroom on the 20th floor of the San Francisco federal building waiting to shoot a press conference with Sonny Barger, the president of the Hell’s Angels. Barger had been brought up on federal charges of racketeering, but acquitted by a jury that afternoon.
The federal building pressroom is a large corner office facing north and west, with windows all around, the view of San Francisco is spectacular on a clear day. From there you can see all the way to Marin County, and out to the Farralon Islands.
I gave John the lens, assuming he was going to shoot a picture of the view, but he pointed his camera out the window and almost straight down. “There are some naked people on a rooftop across the street, and I think they’re going to have sex”.
Huh? It was the middle of the afternoon, and they were on the roof of a three or four story building; they had to know that people could see them. John shot a few frames out the window and said, “I’m going down to my car to get a longer lens. This is too good” and handed my lens back. I put the lens on my camera and took a look out the window. Yep, naked people, and yep, they are doing it. I shot a few frames of my own.
This caught the attention of another photographer, Sammy Houston from the Associated Press. Sammy was in his late fifties and still frail from throat cancer he had a few years earlier. He spoke through an electronic thing he held up to his larynx. In a flat, robot-like voice he asked, “What’s going on?”
“People on the roof across the street having sex”, I said. He quickly pulled out his camera and the longest lens he had with him.
The couple on the roof were not people having just basic missionary position sex. These two were experts. They changed positions every few minutes and were doing things that would make a porn star blush. As a new position would manifest itself, both of our cameras would go off, almost spontaneously.
All of this picture taking caught the attention of one of the TV cameramen who was setting up for the press conference on the other side of the room. When he saw what was going on, he brought his camera over to the window. There were now three of us, watching and taking pictures.
Ohara got back from his car in record time still huffing and puffing, which is weird, since there are no stairs to climb to get to the pressroom. John took his place at the window with a much longer telephoto lens.
As more TV cameramen showed up, they too would go to the window. There were now at least eight photographers capturing every movement.
The only sound in the room was the distinctive sound of Nikon f2 motor drives, and the occasional comment.
“Hmmmm, nice one”
“Which one is on top now?”
“That looks uncomfortable”
“Think she’s double jointed?”
There were a few more, but not as printable.
The couple changed positions and a TV cameraman said, “Is that his HEEL?” Sammy Houston came back immediately through his electronic voice box, “YEAH, THEY LOVE THAT!”
Someone behind us said, “Is that couple screwing?” (he used a different word). A TV reporter turned around to tell the latecomer what was happening, but stopped. Sonny Barger, his wife and his lawyers were all standing behind us wondering what was going on. The other side of the room, set up with chairs and a table for the press conference, was completely empty. Sonny elbowed his way through the crowd to the window, as we all slinked away to our posts. He watched for a while until one of his lawyers suggested that he come over to the press conference.
During the press conference, Barger said the case
should never have gone to court on such flimsy evidence. When he was asked why the government did pursue his case, he answered, “They were trying to do to me what that guy out the window was doing with that woman”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Michael Palin

Back in the seventies, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was cutting edge comedy, and I was a big fan. I’ve always been a fan of comedy, but not so much of comedians. Comedians are funny while performing, but in person, sometimes they can be downright obnoxious.
My theory was that the Monty Python guys were different; being British they would all be naturally funny and not at all obnoxious. But I had run up against seemingly nice, funny people, at least that’s what their public image was, who turned out to be anything but.
Michael Palin was my favorite member of the group, he seemed to have a subtle, yet way-out-there humor that appeals to me, and so I was hoping for the best.
I got a chance to photograph him while he was doing a press tour to promote ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. I knew that it would just be a guy in a downtown hotel room and a 10-minute shoot-and-get-out, so I prepared my blasé, met-and-seen-them-all attitude, but was still excited.
Knocking on the door of the appointed room; Michael Palin himself answered the door. It wasn’t some lackey; it was Michael Palin. It was the first time I had seen this happen. The door is always answered by a publicist, who asks you to wait a minute while the subject finishes another interview, or combs his hair, or talks on the phone to their coke dealer. No, Michael Palin was standing right there, smiling that familiar, show-lots-of-bottom-teeth smile.
I wasn’t prepared for this. I use the time publicists insist on to steel myself against any fan-type reaction to the celebrity du jour. This time I had to go straight into it, without as much as a faux jaded look.
Michael reached out his hand and said “I’m Michael Palin, a pleasure to meet you” in an exceedingly polite English way. I just smiled and stared. He said, “You must be from the San Francisco Examiner, she (the publicist) is just inside on the phone".
I opened my mouth to introduce myself, and started laughing. Not the kind of polite laughter that comedians come to expect, but full-on maniacal laughter.
He asked me if I wanted something to drink; my answer was hysterical laughter. He asked where I wanted to shoot the photo, more hysterical laughter. He must have thought the Examiner sent an absolute moron.
We walked back into the sitting area of the suite, where the publicist was still on the phone. Michael started doing funny faces to make her laugh. As I tried to compose myself, I realized that the room was rather dark, and holding a camera still while laughing was going to be a challenge. But by now my laughter was unstoppable. It only made it worse when I tried to stop, like trying to stop giggling in church. He continued annoying the publicist, but she managed to keep a remnant of her composure; I, on the other hand, was nearing apoplexy.
Managing to work up enough self-control to actually say something, I asked him to just stand in the doorway to the sitting area, since it had the best light. He stood there pleasantly posing for me, while I shot several frames. What I was seeing through the camera was not the man I had met; he just looked like a dull Englishman standing there in a doorway. My laughter was dying down to occasional snickers now. He looked like he didn’t know quite what to do, so I said, “Let me know when you've had enough of this.” He snapped back with, “That’s enough”.
I started laughing again. He repeated, “That’s enough”, and his eyes got big, and he advanced toward me. He was now swinging his arms wildly and doing pseudo karate chops at me. This just set off my laughter once again, but I managed to keep shooting. He closed the sliding doors to the other room while standing between them, and kept trying to get to me. He started yelling something in German, and fought with the sliding doors, making weird noises until he was right up against my wide-angle lens.
I was completely helpless, my eyes were all teared up and couldn’t breathe, let alone speak, and I was almost out of film. In just a few minutes I managed to shoot and reload three times. Knowing that by now I had to have some good pictures, and that I was looking more and more like a complete idiot, I ended the photo shoot on account of laughter, definitely a first.
Michael suddenly stopped his tirade, and turned instantly back into an English gentleman. It was like he threw some kind of Jekyll and Hyde switch. He politely asked if I was sure I’d gotten enough, I squeaked out, “Yes, more than enough”. He reached out his hand again, and I managed to shake it and looked for the door through my still tearing eyes.
I composed myself to some degree as I walked down the hall to the elevator. The elevator door opened and there was a crowd of tourists, I lost it again; they were all speaking German.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Clint Eastwood

The mayor and some of the city council wanted to ban ice cream sales in downtown Carmel, because the sidewalks were getting sticky.
Clint Eastwood liked eating ice cream, so he ran for mayor. At least that’s the reason he gave. 
Clint tried to keep his campaign a local one with local issues. He would only talk to local press, and The San Francisco Examiner was considered local press, and only about the campaign. He didn’t speak to national press, and definitely not to the tabloid press. 
I couldn't help thinking that even though we had an appointment with him, I wasn’t going to get to see much of him, except from far away.
Having an assignment that requires you to spend the night in Carmel is always a treat. There’s no place to stay down there that isn’t very posh and expensive, and we had an expense account. 
Arriving at our more than nice hotel, there was a message from Eastwood’s campaign headquarters. Clint wanted to meet us at 10am at his restaurant, the Hog’s Breath Inn, instead of at his campaign headquarters. This was not good news, the place was dark inside, and if Clint wanted to stay inside for the interview shooting him was going to be tricky, even if I could get him out on the patio, the light there was patchy at best.
We arrived at the Hog’s Breath at the appointed time, the restaurant was completely empty. Then out from behind the bar came Clint himself. He’s tall, easily 6’4”, and has a slow, Henry Fonda-type walk. His pants are pulled up a little higher than most people, in an almost little old man way, but even though he is older, he’s no little old man.
He greeted us cordially and gently, in a very soft-spoken way. He almost had the demeanor of a funeral director. He looks you directly in the eyes, and you can feel his gaze in the back of your skull. When he speaks he looks away, choosing his words purposefully.
He had some work to do at the restaurant, which is why we were meeting there, but he was almost done. He asked if he could get us something to drink. I said, “No thanks”, in a deeper than normal voice, while trying to stand as tall as I could. Even though I’m about 6'2", I felt like a dwarf, John, my reporter was no more than 5’8”; he didn’t stand a chance.
I noticed another photographer out in front of the restaurant. There was something a little different about his equipment and the way he was dressed. He had a european look about him; a cultured five o’clock shadow, a black photo vest, and a flash on his camera in the daytime. He had to be paparazzi.
Clint came back out from behind the bar. Maybe I could talk him into going back to the campaign headquarters for the photo, now that his work was done. I would explain that the light was better there, and I could get a campaign sign in the background, and maybe some local voters. I had worked out exactly what I was going to say.
As he walked up to me, I opened my mouth to speak, but he spoke first, “Come on”, and walked out the side door. We both followed like well-trained cocker spaniels, wondering where we were going. As we got out on to the sidewalk, the other photographer noticed us. He came sprinting over, backpedaling in front of us, and started shooting. It felt weird having my picture taken by a paparazzo. Clint didn’t bat an eye. No matter what this guy did, Clint didn’t react. At one point the paparazzo knelt down on the sidewalk, right in Clint’s path. We all kept walking, and Clint stepped right over him as he bent over backward, still shooting.
After a while we reached our, or Clint’s, destination; Eastwood for Mayor campaign headquarters. This is where I wanted to be in the first place. There weren’t many people in there, and the few who were there didn’t pay much attention to the candidate. I sized up the light, overhead fluorescent lights and a few spotlights, not the greatest, but I’ve dealt with worse.
Clint continued walking through the front of the storefront and towards a back room. I couldn’t believe he walked through a perfectly good, photogenic campaign headquarters and into a small, probably dark, back room. I slowed down, hoping Clint would get the message. He didn’t even break stride; he was going to that back room.
I was trying to figure out if I could somehow force Clint Eastwood into staying in the adequately lit campaign headquarters. Clint opened the door to the dreaded back room. I started gesturing toward the main room, Clint looked at me, squinted his eyes and walked into the back room. You don’t GET Clint Eastwood to do anything,  you don’t even get his attention when you try to.
I was now imagining a photo of Clint with a mop, a broom, and a ‘Employees must wash hands before returning to work’ sign behind him.
Why didn’t I try harder to get him to stay out in the main room? Was I actually believing a probably made up Hollywood tough guy persona? This is just a tall guy with squinty eyes, I should be able to get him to do what I want. I’ve gotten tougher people to do what I needed them to do. Besides, he’s probably a perfectly reasonable man. He’s a director, he’ll understand the need for proper lighting and a good background in a photo. I’ll appeal to his reason.
Clint was now inside the back room. I followed him in and once again opened my mouth to speak. As I did I notice a nice large window. Looking around I saw that it wasn’t a small, dark, broom closet, but a large, nicely lit meeting room with a clean background and plenty of room to work.
I must have psychically gotten through to him. He obviously succumbed to my shear force of will and went to where I needed him to be.
Okay, he knew where he was going all along, and he does know how to find the light that will make him look the best. I never should have doubted him.
I started shooting as he sat down in a folding chair and putting his feet up on a table. He was talking with the reporter, but looking out the window. The light on his face, and the direction he was looking made perfect use of his chiseled features. Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood was photogenic?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

R. Crumb

Eccentricity is celebrated in San Francisco more than in most cities. LA has its crazies looking for attention, but San Francisco has genuine unconventionals.
Zap Comics was a major underground publication in the sixties, and R. Crumb was its iconic artist, coming up with such characters as Mr. Natural, the Keep on Truckin’ guy and others.
To call R. Crumb a media recluse would be a major understatement. The only reason anyone knew what he looked like was from his self-portraits in Zap Comics. When he lived in San Francisco, he was rarely seen in public, and never did interviews with mainstream media. He just did his work, and kept a low profile. It’s not like he never talked to anyone, he was just very picky about who he did talk to.
When a press release about a benefit party for a local non-profit artists group at a pizza parlor, with R. Crumb as a special guest came to the San Francisco Examiner, reporter Jennifer Foote and I jumped at the opportunity to get to talk to him.
The pizza parlor where this was to take place was not the quirky local neighborhood kind where you would expect to see a great counter-culture icon; it was part of a chain, the kind of chain with an old timey piano and picnic tables with benches.
Arriving a little late, we took a quick look around, and there sitting alone at a table was the master himself, R. Crumb, nursing a beer. As we walked over to him, an enthusiastic man dressed all in white, and looking like he was going to play tennis at the Jay Gatsby’s house, intercepted us. He said he was Mr. Crumb’s ‘spokesperson’. He told us that Mr. Crumb does not speak to the media, except through someone else. I asked if photographing him had the same kind of restrictions. For instance; did I have to shoot someone else, and say it was R. Crumb? No, he said that I could shoot all I wanted, but couldn’t talk to him.
Jennifer and I sat down across the table from Crumb. His spokesperson sat next to him. When Jennifer leaned over to try and say something to Crumb, he ignored her and the spokesperson leaned in, listened to what she had to say, and repeated it to Crumb. Crumb then answered the spokesperson, and the spokesperson told Jennifer what Crumb had said, even though we could both hear him just fine.
Jennifer and I turned and looked at each other. I felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie. This guy was really going to ignore anything said directly to him by anyone but his spokesperson. It was like someone translating English to English.
The noise from the party was getting louder, and hearing what the spokesperson-interpreter was saying was getting more difficult, so Jennifer moved to the other side of the table next to R. Crumb. Crumb was now between the reporter and the interpreter. When she asked a question, she had to lean forward and talk across the interviewee, and get her answers back the same way.
This was getting weirder and weirder, but R. Crumb was taking this like it was an everyday event.
Jennifer was becoming irritated, yet amused and started asking questions like, “What’s it like sitting next to someone who is talking about you, but you don’t say anything?” or, “How’s that beer tasting?” hoping to get a direct answer from him, but no, every word had to go through the interpreter. The interview, such as it was, went on to it’s conclusion. Jennifer said her thanks to the interpreter and then to R. Crumb, getting a “you’re welcome” from the former, and not getting an answer from the latter.
I stood up, and reached out my hand to Crumb and said thanks. To Jennifer’s astonishment, he shook my hand and said “No problem”.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bruce Springsteen

In the late eighties Bruce Springsteen was at his apex and touring the country doing large arena shows.
One of these shows was at the Oakland Coliseum, where the Oakland A’s play baseball and where the Oakland Raiders didn’t play football, having recently moved to LA.
Shooting rock and roll can be fun, but after a few years it can be a grind. There are a lot of restrictions put on photographers.
To shoot most rock shows photographers need to pick up a special pass and be escorted into a backstage holding area. Sometimes the promoter will make you sign a waiver that restricts what you can do with the photos, except with the permission of the musician (promoters call them the artist, people who make art are artists, people who make music are musicians). A few minutes before the concert starts, security escorts you to a pit in front of the stage. It’s a good place to shoot, but you are usually looking up the band’s nose.
You get to shoot the first three songs only. Sometimes it’s the second three, or just two, but the general rule is the first three. Most of the first song is spent figuring out the lighting. The second two songs you shoot like crazy and hope something interesting happens on stage. I use two cameras, one with a wide-angle lens, one with a mid-range telephoto, you never know where something is going to happen. By the third song, panic has died down and you can concentrate on getting a picture. But once that third song is over, security is literally shoving you out the back door, never to be allowed to return.
The time came to be escorted into the back stage area for the Springsteen concert. Waiting with the other photographers, is always an experience. There are lots of hoops to jump through to shoot a large concert; like showing press passes, your name being checked against a long list of people, and getting searched. But there are always people back there that obviously aren’t real photographers. They have cheap, Instamatic-type cameras. They must be friends of the promoter or won some kind of radio station contest to be there. This time it seemed like there were more than the usual number of them, and if just one does something stupid, we could all get thrown out.
The lights came down and it was time to be escorted into the pit. We were all herded from our holding area around the huge stage to the front. But the pit wasn’t the usual space between a four-foot barrier and an eight-foot-high stage, it was right next to a series of multi-level platforms, the lowest point being two feet high and right in front of us. I felt like I was going to be part of the show. I fidgeted with both of my cameras, trying to figure out where Springsteen would be when he came on stage.
The lights came sharply up to a blindingly bright level, and the E Street Band started playing. Bruce came on stage from the right, singing and jumping down from level to level until he was right in front of the photographers. I had made the assumption that Springsteen would be a distance from us, at least at first, so I was holding the camera with the telephoto lens. When he jumped down to within a few feet of me I had to change cameras to the one with the wide-angle.
As Bruce jumped down to the last and lowest level, he stumbled very slightly at about the time I was looking down, reaching for my other camera. When he stumbled, the trademark red bandana he was wearing on his head came flying off and landed at my feet. Oddly enough the other photographers didn’t notice this. I looked at the bandana at my feet, and then up at Bruce, he was staring straight at me, and then back down at his bandana. I didn’t know what to do, reach down and give it back? No way; it would screw up his song, and possibly sic security on me. Should I just ignore it? An iconic piece of cloth was lying at my feet; would I leave the Shroud of Turin lying there? Should I pick it up and give it to the security people to give back to Springsteen? I’m sure Bruce has dozens of these, and besides the security guy would probably just keep it. The answer was to pick it up while no one was looking and put it into my camera bag, I’d figure out what to do with it later, after all it’s just a bandana. As I reached down, making sure none of the security people or photographers saw me do it, I was spotted by two people: Bruce himself, and a female concertgoer standing behind me. The concertgoer tapped me on the shoulder and held out her hand, expecting me to give her the precious artifact. I just ignored her, pretending the music was too loud to hear. Springsteen just looked down and shook his head and turned back upstage, knowing that he had just lost another bandana.
I shoved the Bandana of Asbury Park, as I was later to call it, into the bottom my bag. I shot my three songs and was whisked out by the security people, the whole time expecting a tap on the shoulder. But I made it outside with The Bandana, no one the wiser.
From that point on, and I take no credit for this, Springsteen stopped wearing a bandana.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mikhail Gorbachev

For a newspaper photographer, photographing an event with a sitting head of state has all the charm of going through airport security on top of waiting for the cable guy to show up.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet Communist president, was meeting with president Ronald Reagan and speaking at Stanford University in 1990. The heads of state of the two most powerful countries in the world were at the same place at the same time.
Security was extremely tight, to say the least. To be at a photo-op, the press had to show up four hours early, in this case 7am, go through a single metal detector set up specifically for the press with the sensitivity turned WAY up so everyone who passed through set the thing off, and then wait in a roped off pen for a chance to see president Gorbachev walk out one door 30 yards to another door and disappear. 30 seconds from start to finish. This was my assignment for the day. I was to shoot the picture, and race back to the paper and get it in the three-star late edition. Originally, Gorbachev was to stop at another roped off area next to the one we were herded into and speak with some children from an area school, but the school bus was stuck in the traffic created by Stanford security, so their roped off pen was empty.
The absence of the school kids was a minor problem for the photographers; the president was going to walk by without stopping. We weren’t going to get a photo of him with giggling pre-teens, one of which was sure to give him a bouquet of flowers or a hand-made pseudo-Russian gift of some kind. But we would get a photo. It was a major problem for the writers, radio reporters and TV reporters, none of whom spoke Russian, so they couldn’t even yell out questions as he walked past, like reporters used to do when Reagan walked out of the White House to a waiting helicopter and pretended he couldn’t hear. They had no chance of getting anything but video of a man with a port-wine stain on his head traverse a small patch of ground and enter another building. You could smell the panic.
Being a well-rounded man of the world, I dabble in a few foreign languages. When I say dabble, I mean I try to learn an obscure phrase in an obscure language, and use it at inappropriate times. In the late eighties I had a few friends who spoke Russian, and I got the translations of a few key phrases, one of which I had been polishing the pronunciation and accent. The phrase, and I’m writing it phonetically here, is: pozhalta vstanchee blizche ya bohlshe nye bollen.
A little background before we move on; the dynamics between photographers and newspaper reporters can be a very symbiotic, win-win experience, TV reporters, somewhat less, but with radio reporters, it can be worse than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Radio reporters have this nasty habit of shoving microphones into the faces of people that press photographers want to take pictures of, and there are very view situations where a microphone helps the composition of a good news portrait.
One radio reporter, I’ll call him Slappy, was particularly angst ridden about the lack of school children. He was now reduced to holding his microphone up and recording the sound of a man walking out one door and through another. Slappy wasn’t even going to get close enough to Gorbachev’s face to shove a microphone in, and even if he could, he didn’t speak Russian.
Slappy got on his two-way radio back to the radio station to tell his dispatcher the bad news. The dispatcher told him to learn some Russian quick and try and yell out a question. The back and forth between Slappy and his dispatcher was a classic journalistic conflict between a seasoned reporter and an assignment editor who had never left the building for anything more important than getting a cup of coffee, let alone a breaking news story. After the dust-up had died down, Slappy did what all good reporters do; he tried to learn some Russian.
Enter me with my freshly polished phrase. I told him I knew a little Russian, just enough to get someone’s attention. He jumped at the chance to learn it, as one of the State Dept. handlers had just come out of the closely watched door to tell us that President Gorbachev was going to be here in about 10 minutes. In State Dept. time, that’s about 20 minutes to half an hour.
I went over the phrase slowly several times for Slappy, but the odd sounding Cyrillic vowels would not sink in. He finally wrote down, in his own phonetic style what he thought it should sound like. This seemed to have done it; he pronounced it almost perfectly, at least to my ears.
The much-watched door opened slightly, then closed, and finally flew open. The
President was coming. Several Russian security people and US Secret Service agents came out first. Photographers and reporters jostled for position at the front of our roped off pen we had come to see as home these past four hours. I decided to play kind of a free-safety position, as I was taller than most people there, and I could move and shoot from several angles.
As I readied my cameras, Slappy was standing right next to me repeating the precious Russian words over and over again to himself. He stopped halfway through his mantra, and in one of those “ah shit’ moments of clarity asked: “What does this mean?” I told him it meant “Please rub up against me, for I am no longer infected”. He said, “ I can’t say that” I told him “ Suit yourself, it’s the only thing I know how to say in Russian”.
He started to get mad, but we could see just inside the doorway was Gorbachev himself.
The press surged into the rope, only to be quickly shoved back by the security details. Reporters yelled out questions in English, only to be ignored by the president, not in a Reagan can’t hear you over the helicopter noise way, but a sincere, "I have no idea what you are saying”, kind of way.
When Gorbachev was about 25 feet from the dreaded second door, I could hear from my right the first part of my Russian non sequitur; “Puhzhalsta vstanche bleechy ya bolchy…..” I started to laugh slightly, while still shooting pictures. What a maroon, this guy is actually using that stupid phrase. The cadre of men that follow Gorbachev; his translator, the guy who carries the case with the Soviet version of the nuclear launch codes, and another guy carrying a huge 1980’s Soviet version of what must have been a satellite phone, all began to snicker, but continued to look straight ahead and not at the press pen.
It occurred to me that I had better get behind Slappy, in case Gorbachev himself reacts to what he was hearing, and maybe even stop his quick-march to the ominous second door. While the entourage didn’t break step or look to the right or left, Gorby started laughing and looked incredulously at Slappy, obviously thinking he was the product of inferior Western schooling.
My free-safety position behind Slappy put me get in just the right position to get Gorbachev with a big bemused smile on his face that hadn’t been seen by most people in the West as of yet. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the other men in line with the president barely holding their laughter. He didn’t stop, but did slow down a little to see where the strange proposition was coming from. He then continued through the second door.
I had my picture and I knew it. It's bad luck to talk about how good your photo was until the film is processed, but I still knew it was a good one. I worked my way back through security, past a line of Zil limousines, the Soviet version of Cadillac or Lincoln. Finally back at my car, I drove the 40 miles back to San Francisco and got the photo in the three-star.
John Storey, another Examiner photographer was inside the door that Gorbachev disappeared into, waiting to shoot him at a podium giving a speech. I knew my photo was going to be the slam-dunk winner between the two. What chance would his photo have over a smiling, bemused commie president? No chance at all, EXCEPT if Gorbachev were to step back from the podium and raise his clasped hands like a boxer who just managed to win a fight by negotiation, without throwing a single punch.
I was screwed, John’s photo knocked mine off the front page in the next and final edition of the paper. Seven hours of work for barely a roll of film and one photo in one edition of the paper that is only seen by afternoon BART riders. I searched the newsroom later that day to find a few copies of that precious three-star edition. I found six, one with a round coffee cup stain, but I was keeping it.
As for Slappy, he wasn’t really mad at me once it was all over. His report was made up of the noise of the press yelling and his telling about how he said something in Russian to the president as he walked by, and getting a polite reaction. I’m sure his assignment editor was happy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Peter O'Toole

As a general rule press photographers shoot the more nouveau, flavor of the month type celebrities. The durable, living legend kind don’t really make news much, and if they do, they don’t have to put up with the local press, so it’s rare to get a one on one.
Coming into work one day, the Examiner assignment editor met me half way to his desk and said that a last minute assignment came in to photograph Peter O’Toole. One of the other photographers standing nearby asked if he was the former police chief. I told her, "Lawrence of Arabia, Lion in Winter, you know, Peter O’Toole." "Oh, THAT Peter O’Toole", she said.
The reason he was doing a press tour was the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia. I didn’t care; I just wanted to shoot him.
The interview and photo shoot was at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. I went up to the designated room; a large corner suite with good light.
A well-worn publicist answered the door. He looked like he had been chasing a five-year-old around all day. His formerly neat blue oxford shirt now had wrinkles and the beginnings of pit stains. He said only “Examiner?” I told him yes. He said to come on in, the reporter was already there interviewing Mr. O’Toole, and would be right out. He saw the bag of lighting equipment I had with me. If I was going to get a chance to shoot Peter O’Toole; I was going to do it right. He gave me a “Do you know what you are getting into” look. Regrouping, he said, “You should know that Mr. O’Toole does what he wants, goes where he wants, and smokes where he wants”.
I'd never heard a publicist issue this kind of warning. I've heard; "He likes to be shot from the left side", and "Don't shoot her from behind", but this was a different, more prophetic warning. Then I remembered how worn down he looked. Publicists, in this situation are not so much publicists as babysitters. They make sure the publicizee gets to where they have to be at the right time, looking good, and with a basic knowledge of with whom they are speaking. Sometimes they have to do this in several cities across the country, and if the tour starts in New York, it usually ends in San Francisco, and if this is the case, explains why the publicist looked so tired.
There was a high-back wing chair in the living room of the suite, and I thought it had a decidedly British, Peter O’Toole look to it. I started setting up my lights around the chair. I though that if I use my large white umbrella, he will look very stately; add a grid-spotted hair light, and he will retain some Hollywood glamour. I used the ragged publicist as a stand-in and managed to get the light about where I wanted it. I would fine tune on the real subject.
San Francisco had just passed a no smoking ordinance a few months earlier. It prohibited smoking in most public places, bars and restaurants and the like. While we were waiting for him to emerge from the other room, the publicist started to open up about working with Mr. O’Toole. He said that he was a local publicist, not from New York, and that he would be doing this just for today. Since it was barely 2pm, and he looked so tired, I asked if the day had started early. No, he said they had started at about 10am, when he picked Mr. O’Toole up at the airport, and had only left the room for lunch. He then told the story about the airport and the lunch. “Mr. O’Toole does what he wants, goes where he wants and smokes where he wants”. These words came back to me. Apparently, Mr. O’Toole, while walking through the non-smoking airport decided to light up, causing all kinds of attention, both from Airport Police and then adoring fans, some of who wanted to defend his right to smoke, no matter what the cost. Getting to the hotel was another adventure, as anyone or anything that caught his attention from the car window had to be investigated, including interesting street people. The publicist thanked god he didn’t want to actually stop and talk to anyone, just go around the block once or twice and get a good look. Lunch was, once again, a non-smoking nightmare. Eating at the Redwood Room of the Clift Hotel, Mr. O’Toole continuously lit up between courses, causing restaurant management to threaten them with ejection, but finally moving them to a private dining area.
As worn out as the publicist was, this was his first day and we were his first round of interviews.
The door opened before what he had just told me had a chance to sink in. Peter O’Toole walked out, smiling and nodding, holding a loaded cigarette holder and wearing what looked like 1920’s Englishman’s leisurewear; a pink striped shirt, pink tie, pastel blue pants, and a rough linen sport coat, all that was missing was a straw hat. I was a little disappointed, I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe showing up dressed as Arthur Chipping, from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, or Henry II from either Beckett or Lion in Winter. But here he was dressed more Great Gatsby than T.E. Lawrence.
He did seem to have an aristocratic bearing though, acknowledging me, but not making eye contact. He walked by the nicely lit high backed wing chair and acknowledged it too, continuing on to another chair at the head of a conference table at the other end of the room. I asked him if he would mind coming back to the area I had lit for him, and he kind of mumbled something like; “hahyessshumph”, and remained sitting at the head of the conference table. I looked over at the publicist, who had now passed beyond tired and exasperated onto a kind of Nirvana. He didn’t seem tired anymore, he just smiled at me, and gave me a “you handle it, I’m done” look.
It occurred to me to go over and force one of the greatest actors of our time to get up and sit where I wanted him to. After all, I was in my thirties, almost late thirties, I had been a photographer for more than 10 years at the second largest newspaper, in the fourth largest city in the most populous state in the union. I'd even won awards for shooting portraits, for Christ sake.
What had he done? Worked with the likes of Lord Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Katherine Hepburn, appeared in dozens of movies, in the theater and on TV over the course of the last 35 years.
I took another look at where he was sitting. He sat just close enough to the window that the light was as soft as what I had been trying carefully to do with my expensive lighting equipment. He sat in such a way that his hips were pointing away from the light, but his shoulders were pointing slightly towards it, causing the light to emphasize his face. The greenish wallpaper contrasted perfectly with the pink leisurewear shirt. And finally, he was reflected in the conference table that I would never have sat him at, giving a placid, yet formal feel to the picture. The photo he had seemingly walked into blindly was much better than anything I could have created. Maybe working with David Lean and some of the world’s greatest directors had rubbed off on him. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked past my lighting setup. Maybe he wasn’t a strange man in odd clothing who had worn a publicist
down to a nub in four hours. Maybe he was the genius I had thought he was to begin with. Maybe.