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.