The ProcessWednesday, September 22, 2010
There are some elements about photography that are hard to teach particularly when I realize it took me a long time to find out about them. I now question if these elements are innate, or are absorbed through trial an error.
A case in point are the five photographs I took for the Georgia Straight this last week for their Fall Arts Preview. I have worked on this perennial assignment for some years. Every year it has become a tad more difficult because of the Straight’s plunging budget for photography even when you take into account that many of the pictures they use are what we call handouts.
Handouts are pictures that are provided by the arts organizations. As an example if actress Lois Anderson is going to be written about, the art department of the Straight might call the theatre company of the play that Anderson is in and ask them to send a photo. This is cheap and does represent savings for the paper. At one time there would have been courier costs. Now those pictures are email. Other modern organizations like the Arts Club Theatre will have a media FTP site where arts newspapers are able to select and download high res photo files of the directors, actors and playwrights. These pictures (as well as many of the dance ones) are usually taken by the extremely competent photographer David Cooper. The only problem is that his excellent pictures will appear in various publications. They will look pristinely, the same.
At one time when the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight had nicer budgets, they competed for exclusivity (and I profited by it handsomely!). The cover of the Straight featuring a Vancouver Opera premiere would be either a picture taken by assignment (in many cases that was me) or the Straight arts editor would politely ask the Vancouver Opera publicist that the picture that would be provided would not be used by any other media organization.
That situation is now history. One of the best ways to find out if a paper’s photo is an assigned original is to look for a photo credit. When it does not have one, that usually means that the picture was provided by the artist or the organization representing the artist, actor, dancer, etc.
At one time the Fall Arts Preview cover for the Straight would have been one of my pictures. Some years ago they started assigning the cover to someone else and this year they simply purchased from a stock agency a picture of a half violin.
With that out of the way as background let me go further into the process of the taking of the fall arts photographs which are now for music, theatre, comedy, visual art and dance. The comedy one is a recent one. Some years ago these would be photographed individually. I would photograph a male dancer and then a female dancer, a male actor, a female actor and so on.
I may have cut my own throat some years ago when I was asked to photograph pianist Ian Parker as the musician and Ballet BC dancer Edmond Kilpatrick. I came up with the idea of taking two pictures but with both the pianist and the dancer in the picture. The difference would lie in that the person making eye contact with me would be the person featured. This idea was used for a few years after until budget dictated that there was only budged for one music picture, one theatre picture and so on. This meant as it meant this year that I might have to photograph two dancers who have absolutely nothing in common except that they are dancers. I have to throw them together and make the most of it.
Three years ago was the last year I used a theme in a picture. In that year the art director suggested that my subjects bring something red of their choice. The theme was red. Last year there was no theme and the theme, by default became my particular style of using a gray background, one light and shooting tight.
I let go of my studio last year so when the Janet Smith, the arts editor of the Straight emailed me to ask me if I wanted to tackle the job I was pleasantly surprised. The over the hill situation was postponed for a while. She asked me what the theme would be.
This idea of a theme has increasingly become more impossible because the writers who do the profiles do not hand in copy until the last moment. In years back I would have been sent the rough pieces or, in some cases the finished essays, a few weeks before the Straight’s deadline. This is no longer in effect. This means I am given names, phone numbers and emails and no more. With the visual artists their names were emailed a mere half week before my picture deadline.
Of the five setups the toughest was the music one. It featured the young pianist Evan Yu and the avant-garde composer and performer Andrea Young. They had nothing in common. In fact Andrea Young told me the piano was not an instrument in the repertory of what she does. If I were to feature both with my home Chickering baby grand he would be the pianist and she would be seen as the singer, the page turner, etc. In the end I opted for a pose in which the piano represents music and nothing more.
The actors Aslam Husain (left in picture) and Amitai Marmostein almost became as tough as the musicians. This is because they were the first and the first that I photographed in my “new” home studio in my living room. The actors did not remember it they had met before and I had next to no info on them. They came to my house as cold call salesmen. What makes actors easy to photograph is that they can act! They are able to show emotions. I enquired about the possibility of using my Pancho el Esqueleto (the Mexican skeleton). The actors agreed. Everything looked pretty good in my iPhone test picture (I use the iPhone to show my subjects the idea but then I use a big camera with film). But I thought that Aslam Husain might look better without his shirt and wearing the black T that he was wearing underneath. I took another iPhone test and I was given the green light.
The dancers were tough because I knew nothing about the new Italian dancer for Ballet BC, Dario Danuzzi. As a classically trained ballet dancer he had little in common with the modern dancer and choreographer Jane Osborne. Osborne and I waited at the Vancouver Dance Centre lounge (they have a nice neutral gray wall there) for Danuzzi to finish his practice. He emerged sweaty and looked just great. But he went and took a shower and returned wearing a hoody. I did not know what to do. The worse part of all is that Danuzzi has the most wonderful, large black eyes (puppy eyes) but I eliminated him looking straight at the camera and opted for the pose you see here. Danuzzi was not especially keen on my idea but I insisted.
The visual artists, Judy Jheung and Erica Stocking) also had nothing in common. In all cases here I suggested to my subjects that they email back and forth to get to know each other before they posed for me. Few did except to check for schedules of mutual availability. The visual artists showed up with nothing of their work that could be incorporated into my photo. I decided then to go for a tight portrait.
The comics where not easy either. They ignored my emails for setting up a time to take the picture. They ignored me until I told them that if I did not take their picture I would not get paid for it. I was a freelancer and not a Straight staffer. Janet Smith helped by stating that no picture meant no article.
Someday soon one of our local arts publications might feature an article about the importance of publicists in arts organizations. In my years in Vancouver (since 1975) I have worked with a gamut of publicists. The worst have been the feature or TV film publicists. It was either my friend Les Wiseman or John Lekich (or both!) who once told me, the purpose of a film publicist is to prevent access to the star. The rock and roll publicists had the extra problem of having to act with divas. Pity the poor publicist who had to represent the Police!
There are intrusive publicists and there are publicists that are almost invisible. For me the best publicist in Vancouver (and alas he has been promoted to marketing) was the Vancouver Opera’s Doug Tuck. He was efficient, learned, witty, helpful, and in short a Boy Scout.
Many of the struggling arts organizations are not able to pay good salaries to good publicists so these publicists that they hire do not last long and new ones have to be found and trained. Some of these publicists are not able to push (gently) their diva-like clients who will then refuse to pose for this photographer (a subsequent loss of revenue) and a standard handout will be sent instead.
The comics brought a publicist ripe out of representing big recording firms. These publicists have to push their weight around. It is the nature of their business. The comic publicist pushed weight around in my living room and I had to sit and take it because I know that as a photographer I represent the newspaper that hires me. And I if lose my temper there is that possible loss of revenue.
I have always felt that comics are funny at their most serious. I wanted to play on the fact that one of them was extremely tall. This was nixed. What you see here is the compromise. The gestures are not my idea. Of all the pictures this one is my least favourite.
In the end I had to admit to the Straight’s editor, Charlie Smith that these assignments are tough and thus lots of fun because of the challenge.