o How did you become a photographer? Describe your career development?
On my eighth birthday, I got a Kodak Instamatic X-15, a starter roll of 126 film and a pack of Magicubes, (which were more fun to stomp than fireflies).
Serendipitously, my father rented some office space at the 325 W. Huron building in Chicago. The building was home to Helix Camera, which is the big photo outfit there. Most everyone in the building except my dad was in the photo business. Kodak had offices there. There was a modeling agency and there were a lot of commercial photographers there. I became friends with a few of the photographers, and some would let me sit in and watch them work.
A union elevator operator I became friends with surprised me one day with a Nikon F2AS and a 50mm 1.2 lens. My mother was sure it fell off a truck and my dad looked the other way, but I couldn’t have been happier. On my 12th birthday, he built a darkroom in the basement. It was an amazing gift — a second-hand Nikor enlarger, a brick of Tri-X, and a pinball machine.
I saw a Bruce Davidson book in a dentist’s office and for a year or so, I had a secret life sneaking away on the L train, to Chicago’s mean streets, shooting pictures of families in urban housing projects like Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor homes. At this point I was probably 13 or 14, with a pair of worn, brassed out SLR’s. The F2 and an Alpa, which was an obscure but incredible Swiss-made SLR. I wish I still had it. As out of place as I was, nobody messed with me and families were nice about sitting for me. Suffice it to say, Bruce Davidson’s career wasn’t in danger, but I learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t.
Cut to 16. I had a driver’s license and was free. I was at a Chicago Bulls game one night and found a press pass on the floor. It was this metallic gold card with a Bulls head on it. This was my Willy Wonka golden ticket. I remember the guy’s name on it: Jack Minnevich- WGN Sports. I snuck into games that entire season, sitting on the wood with the “real” photographers and shooting greats like Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson in his rookie year. I was pretty audacious. I’d ask the magazine guys for their settings and go or it.
In high school, I took my first photography class. On the first day, the teacher asked “Does anyone here know how one becomes a famous photographer?” A few hands went up and some guesses were tossed about. The teacher responded “No, no, no. You become a famous photographer by taking pictures of famous people.” At the time, I thought it was a joke, or educator bitterness, but it’s not without some truth.
From there, while in college at Northwestern and University of Colorado at Boulder, I picked up a pawn shop Linhof 4X5 field camera with Schneider glass that I loved. I shot lots of landscapes and lots of Polaroid portraits of friends. I also learned the discipline to slow down and compose carefully.
Strange as it may seem. At no point did I ever consider becoming a pro.
o More specifically, was there one or more life changing moments that helped you move to the next level and become the photographer that you are now? Perhaps a big break, a perfect mentor, a movie, a mystical moment?
I love films where there isn’t a frame that you wouldn’t proudly hang on your wall. Lawrence of Arabia. The first two Godfathers, Elio Petri’s L’Asassino and everything by Wes Anderson and Federico Fellini. There are dozens, but those are some examples.
There were a few key milestones. I was invited to a holiday dinner at a friend’s home in Los Angeles. I was using a Contax G2 rangefinder at the time and started snapping photos of the kids at the party. TMax 3200 stock pushed a stop. As a thank you for having me as a guest, I sent some sepia-toned prints to the parents and grandparents. The grandfather, as it turned out was a guy named Sid Sheinberg, President & COO of Universal Studios and the man, who among his many achievements, gave Steven Spielberg his start. He thought the pictures had a “Schindler’s List” quality to them, which was a huge compliment, since I love Kaminsky’s cinematography. Mr. Sheinberg referred me to his landscape architect, who hired me to shoot some of his client’s gardens. We did a lot of celebrity homes, shot mostly with Mamiya RZ67, Fuji 6X9 & Fujichrome Velvia 50 film stock.
From there, a college friend called me and asked if I would go on the road with him. He was directing a TV show for Playboy and asked me to shoot some key art and unit stuff. We traveled around and had a lot of laughs. The first city we shot in was Phoenix. The first person I shot was Dita Von Teese, who, amazingly, a dozen years later I’m collaborating with on her beauty book for Harper Collins Press.
Right around that time, I picked up golf. Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to photographer and Smashbox Studios/Cosmetics co-founder, Davis Factor. We played golf every day we weren’t working. One day we were playing at Rivera. Davis and his brother & business partner Dean, more or less told me that they believe in my work & informed me that I was turning pro. I laughed and told them I was too old to start a new career. They were supportive and kind, and offered to let me use their studios and equipment to begin testing. It was there that I proceeded to blow my life savings over the next year taking my first test images. In exchange, I agreed to teach his crew and studio staff all I knew about high-end medium format digital, which was an emerging technology. I was working as an I.T. consultant at Disney and Universal, and was a natural digital tech for obvious reasons The Factor brothers offered me my own digital capture business inside Smashbox. And while it no doubt would have been lucrative, I didn’t want to be computer guy anymore — I figured, let’s go for broke here and make photography happen. I ran digital for Davis for eight months or so, until one day he told me, “It’s time for you to turn pro. You’re fired. Go make it happen.” Life has a lot of twists & turns, but if it weren’t for those guys, I’d still just be an enthusiast making a living one way or another.
o How do you learn your techniques?
Many ways — first and foremost, taking a lot of bad pictures… good old fashioned trial-and-error, which of course, over years leads to better work and fewer mistakes. I constantly continue to learn by dissecting bits and pieces of work that inspire me and painting my own stroke of color over it. Oftentimes, I find myself figuring out light from paintings & films, as much as magazine & book pages. I’m constantly impressed by the things my team suggests. Assistants are the unsung heroes of the photo business. Technically, they know it all, but the great ones see it all. Besides lighting, they have a preternatural understanding of the bones of a photo shoot. They process the timing issues from shot to shot; they make suggestions. How many shots until lunch. How we’re going to dissect the shot list. They feel the moods of clients, talent, things I might not necessarily notice. The first assistant keeps the ship pointing in the right direction & allow us to relax more & create better work.
Who are your photo heroes? Or who has inspired your career?
So very many. It’s all a mosaic, really. The best ones are the masters of connecting with their subject. This was Richard Avedon’s greatest gift — a near perfect batting average of “old friend” intimacy with his talent.
As far as contemporary photographers go, I think Annie Liebovitz and Steven Meisel are a couple of the greats. It’s amazes me how busy these two are. How many campaigns, stories and covers they shoot. Every month, day in and day out. Never a misstep with either.
I love Brassai. He was so painterly. So soulful. I love Cartier-Breson. I love Hurrel’s light and how fastidious he was about figure study. I don’t try to emulate any of them, but appreciate them.
o What is the worst part about doing what you do?
The not photography part of it. The bidding, the hustling. The occasional abrasive rejection. It’s a necessary component of most careers, particularly in the beginning. To be honest, I think we would all just like to be childlike and creative.
o What is the best part?
Creating an indelible moment, a whole story in a fraction of a second. The photograph is the nucleus of every memory. When I think of Jimi Hendrix, the first thing that pops into my head isn’t the sound of “Purple Haze.” It’s Jim Marshall’s image of him burning that Stratocaster. When I think of Nirvana, it isn’t “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s the naked baby, underwater shot. When I think of Fleetwood Mac, it’s Annie’s photo of Mick in that wedding dress. It’s our responsibility as photographers to make our subjects look the best and most memorable they ever have in their life. Having a hand in that is the best part.
When I was shooting actor Carlo Rota, who was a cast member on “24” at the time, I pitched him, my idea that ended up being “The Sledder.” I told him I had rented this antique snow sled and was going place him on this sand dune, and put him in a suit and so on. He was apprehensive at first and asked “Mate, how is this image going to benefit anyones career but yours?” And I said, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll shoot two “bread & butter” looks for you: a classical portrait and a lifestyle shot in your home. They’ll be good, but human brains see a lot of those pictures, and they have a limited attention span. Give me a few minutes for my idea.. When it’s finished, I’ll email it to you and if you don’t love it, nobody, including your publicist, will ever see it.” It ended up being the only image the magazine used.
As far as process goes, the best part is putting together a fun and incredibly talented group of people. There’s a rush that comes from everything working right. When shutter clicks take your breath away and you’re grateful just to be there.
· Learning from the Pro
o What are we going to shoot today?
We’re shooting Dita Von Teese here at Milk Studios in Hollywood, California.
o How did you learn how to do what you are about to show us?
Photography isn’t unlike music, where there are 8 notes, 12 tones, whatever. The rest is just moving the furniture around the room & making the best use of the tools we have available to us.
I hauled out the basic ammunition, a cart full of Broncolor Scoro A4S packs, heads, reflectors, a Para 220, some flags, C stands, sandbags & a white beauty dish.
From there we begin our pre light. With every subject and look, the focal point changes. My focal point in this shot are her lips, since it is for her forthcoming beauty book and the Michael Schmidt designed crystal sunglasses she’ll be wearing.
I knew I had to mix hard and soft light sources and control them in a tight, head and shoulders setup.
o What tools are you using to make this image?
My key light is the Broncolor white beauty dish with the sock. This was on a boom, about 18 inches over my head.
To highlight the glasses, I used a Broncolor reflector with the tightest honeycomb grid, 10 degrees and flags above and below to feather that hard light in just so.
I cut out a 2”x5” strip of silver shiny board, which a member of my crew uses to surgically highlight Dita’s lips, to get that nice shimmery highlight.
My fill light, just behind me and off my left shoulder was the Broncolor Para 220FB umbrella with the #3 diffuser, which is super soft. It was just a kiss of light, & just what I needed as frosting. It makes everyone’s skin velvety and gives this picture a beautiful overall finish.
I love the Para’s and seem to end up using them on many shoots. It brought the Katy Perry “One Night Stand” image to life, & was the only light source on the Lindsay Lohan “Bossy” cover for Universal.
Sometimes Para is just a bit of pop over daylight, sometimes it’s the only lighting source with a group. It’s versatile. It can go from super crisp to mushy soft. It’s focusable, you can use it with regular, twin or ring flash heads. You can also use it with Kobold HMI continuous lights.
I lit the background with two reflectors onto grey seamless.
o Why did you choose these tools?
I generally work backwards. I knew what I wanted this to look like before I booked the studio. Getting there is different every time. I started with the beauty dish. I brought in the the reflector with grid and it hardened up the glasses, but the image felt more contrasty, and shadowy than I wanted, so we gradually goosed up the Para until it was perfect. After that I pressed the button and got the hell out of her way. Dita’ is a joy to work with. She knows her angles. She works tirelessly and brings it every time.
o What features of the equipment that you use make it easier to do your job?
The RFS transmitters are life changing because they allows you to quickly make adjustments to all of your light sources from the camera or computer.
I’m fortunate enough to have a great team, but it saves a ton of time to not have everyone running around from pack to pack making micronic adjustments, like the old days (last year).
o Did you use competing products in the past? What made you change?
I wanted a greater level of control over my details.
When I was getting ready to invest, I did an in studio, side by side tests of 3 brands.
First and foremost, the flash duration comparison was no contest. I don’t go by numbers, I’ve actually never even read them. These were real world tests. Liquids flying, fan blades at full speed and hair blowing. The Scoro froze motion best, had the fastest recycle time and the most consistent color. They were also a few bucks less expensive than their closest rival.
Dialing in color temperatures in mixed color environments is a real luxury. If I’m mixing with daylight, I can match it or contrast it. It saved my butt on a studio shoot last year. We were in a remote city, and I wanted more light sources than we had on hand. All this studio had were 20-year-old Speedotron packs. I figured that we’d be close enough, being “daylight” and all. The Speedo’s lights looked like they were covered in pink gel. We color metered it, dialed up the Broncolor’s, matched the Speedo packs, re-balanced everything and life was beautiful.
In the end, the Broncolor Scoro A4S was the victor. They had the most power at 3200 watt seconds. They had the shortest flash duration and fastest recycling time. They also have 3 output channels, which is a big bonus.
My “Desert Island” rig is my Broncolor Verso A2. It does it all. It’s a totally capable, no compromise, 3 channel studio pack. It produces that classic Broncolor light. It’s also the best battery powered pack I’ve ever used. I used to have to get my old portable packs modified to keep the modeling lamp on during pre light or to use in dark places or where I needed it to focus. It’s built into the Verso. It may seem like a minor distinction, but when you have 15 minutes with a celebrity in a dark, setting, and have to have an intern shining a flashlight in their face to focus… well… you only need to have that happen once to realize you need more.
On the continuous light front, I’m loving the Kobold HMI’s. Continuous light was the beginning of studio photography. I think in many respects, it’s the future. More and more clients want us to shoot video on our shoots. The Kobold’s aren’t the big, hot and heavy ordeal that they used to be. You don’t need a movie business grip truck and a diesel generator anymore. These aren’t your daddy’s HMI’s.
The Kobold’s have this gorgeous pearlescent specularity. They come with every type of lens you could want, and have available, all the modifiers you will ever need. I’ve been using the fresnel lens for the beauty spots I’ve been directing for Urban Decay Cosmetics.
The Kobold uses very little power and come in 200/400 & 800 watt configurations. I can run 2 800’s off household current. They are dead silent, with no fans and somehow stay cool. Best of all, they’re waterproof. You can shoot all day in the rain with them and hose the mud off them when you wrap.