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.