Last month I had a quick job for the New York Times where I photographed outrigger canoe instructor Solomon Pali for a business profile the newspaper did on him. Pali takes Fairmont Kea Lani guests out on short trips teaching the basics of Hawaii paddling skills.
The job was fairly quick and I had a short window of time with the Hawaiian water man as I had to photograph him in between customers and his schedule.
I did the standard shots of him but we decided to go out on the outtrigger canoe where I would photograph him with the ocean as his background. It is always nerve racking to get into a small boat with thousands of dollars of gear but the resort’s canoe was fitted with two amas making the outrigger very stable and nearly flip proof, especially in the hands of experienced paddlers. He and a few others paddlers from the hotel took me out into the ocean for about 10 minutes but that was all the time I needed.
The shots were fantastic and powerful. The best shot was of Solomon blowing a conch shell. Traditionally, he said, Hawaiians blew the shell when they were paddling in warning anyone on the beach of there arrival. The editor chose a standard shot of Solomon smiling into the camera. My favorite is below.
Honolulu suffered a major tragedy this last week when a fire broke out at the Marco Polo, a residential high rise, killing three people along with a dog and displaced many from their homes. As of this blog posting, the cause of the fire is unknown but we do know the fire started in one unit on the 26th floor and spread to the 27th and 28th floors destroying dozens of units in its wake. Marco Polo also did not have fire sprinklers as the law mandating sprinklers in new construction was past several years after Marco Polo was built in 1971. Currently, there are no laws requiring buildings in Hawaii to be retrofitted with these fire safety measures.
The Associated Press sent me out to cover the blaze as a three alarm fire in a high rise was sure to make national headlines . When I arrived on the scene, black smoke billowed from the upper floors turning Hawaii’s blue skies gray. Flames danced inside the gutted apartment units quickly spreading from floor to floor. Onlookers said they heard cries for help and others spotted people waving from smokey balconies. Some residents claimed they didn’t hear the fire alarm go off and only knew there was trouble when they saw the firetrucks.
Those who evacuated the building, along with many onlookers, watched in shock as the fire spread from floor to floor. The intense heat shattered glass and broke apart balconies sending debris crashing down on the street below. Firemen had a tough time containing the fire as it was said they had to daisy chain hoses and walk them up the emergency exit stairways to reach the fire.
As I continued to photograph the fire, I interviewed many people using my iPhone to record video accounts of their experience. I spotted this one woman with a towel wrapped around her shoulders as she was led away from the building and asked her what happened. The 71-year-old Karen Hastings said the fire felt like a ‘horror movie.’
The following day, I went back to the building to report on survivors and the damage left behind. The upper middle portion of the building was mostly destroyed and smoke and flame damaged covered the structure. Authorities allowed residents back into their homes around 2AM Saturday morning and many returned to soot, smoke, and water damage.
Since the building was only allowing residents inside, I spent my time interviewing people outside who told me of the damage and witnessed the damage on the affected floors. I was also able to get one guy to share his images with AP as he photographed the damage first hand when he went to check on his unit which was above the fire.
It is never easy photographing a human tragedy, especially in your back yard. And especially when you live in a high rise. Apparently, a lack of sprinklers allowed the fire to grow unchecked but the cost to retrofit an older building might force many from their homes. Estimates could be in the tens of thousands for each unit in a high rise. There is no price on safety but home owners might not be able to afford such safety measures. Lets hope new laws and regulations are reasonably reviewed and not harshly passed.
In regards to my photography and coverage of the fire, I found myself relying heavily on my iPhone for video as I able to text message small clips of the fire and interviews I did with survivors. My videos were seen across the internet via AP.
Not very long after I wrote my post, ca 1990, I had various responses from friends commenting on the mental eye while another snickered about my decisive moment and those who just have no clue. After reading my post, Jordan Murph emailed me exclaiming it is “proof that pictures come from the inside”. His words moved me as did his belief in photography and how he understood the meaning of my simple line drawing from years ago. His statement gave me lots of encouragement to continue in my chaotic world of “visual storytelling” and using my eyes as my language. Again, I do not wish to portray myself as some deep artist but I do feel a slight pull of the subconscious in my images.
After having lost track of each other for close to a decade, a close friend discovered my website and claimed in her email “you’re not really a photographer…you’re still a writer…” I once sent her many letters from my travels abroad describing the visual, verbally. I only wish I had copies of those letters as they would help me understand and harness my creativity. I was a better writer then than a photographer. It took years of apprenticeship in New York to help me fully understand the visual of my world. If you have those letters, please send them back.
As I stumbled into my photographic archive and found an image with nothing striking about it on the surface. I snapped this picture of a girl on the phone in Pattaya, Thailand in the early 2004 as I waited to enter Banda Aceh, Indonesia, ground zero of the Asian tsunami which devastated…well…the globe. The photo reminded me of the unbearable pressure before entering a world I was unfamiliar.
Wandering the seedy Thai town, its hard to stay focused as so much is happening around you. I found myself drawn to this girl. I snapped all of three pictures of her but didn’t understand why I aimed my camera at her. You don’t see her face, there is nothing particularly exciting about the image other than her body language and the elements around her but the moment felt right. Maybe its the fact you can’t see her. She is sexually ambiguous, her body not clearly telling us if she’s a woman or an adult, her chopped haircut, her boyish attire. Triangles jut from the from the phone booth in front and behind, her elbows thrust and mimic her surrounding. Squares and circles define her presence, bokeh fills her background. But in reality it is just a girl on the phone pushing her hair down on her neck. But as I looked at the picture, I recalled Jordan’s words, I saw my drawing and understood why the images stands out to me.
There are clearly art and design fundamentals that appear in our everyday world. The fundamentals never disappear. I love this commercial for squarespace web design as the creators clearly create design art throughout the entire the ad. Almost every shape, movement, and line visually pushes the viewer into the center negative space which fills with text, or the main message of the ad. As commercial art goes, its beautiful. the lighting, the set design, the props are perfect. As art and design, it is wonderful.
It clearly reflects the aesthetic of photographer Garry Perweiler, who wrote a wonder book on still life designed in the 80’s. As dated as his imagery is, the art design is no different than this ad for squarespace, just modernized. Again, everything falls back on the fundamentals.
I must admit and I have many times over the years, I feel no difference from a xerox machine as sometimes I just push the button to copy what’s in front of me. However there are those images that once I go back and discover them, remained linked to the fundamentals of photographer Garry Perweiler, the squarespace designers, Avedon, Da Vinci, and all and all those before and after. Like language, the rules of art don’t change. You still need a subject, adjective, and verb and like art, you will always need a line directing the viewer, some negative space, and a little bit of weight to balance it all out.
As we rolled our gear into the darkened garden center, the overwhelming smell of chicken manure filled the air. The earthy yet foul odor, as disgusting as it may sound (or smell), helped soothe the pregame jitters I usually get when I show up on a location and need to build a studio. What made this job different was that I was shooting in the garden center of a well known big box store in the middle of the night. Well, not that late but when you’re call time is at 10pm, it’s pretty late to be thinking about setting up a seamless, lighting it and bringing your subject to stage—ready to work–at midnight.
Well, it’s all in a day’s work for me. I never know what strange request I’ll have and hours I’ll need to be available. I was assigned by a client (who I should probably keep confidential as the article isn’t published yet) to create a portrait of an associate who works at said big box store. This particular client was featuring an associate, a Samoan woman, who has become famous for her local style chicken wings recipe. The problem was the associate didn’t show up till 11pm and they required I shoot her on location during her shift. The client wanted the subject shot on a white seamless backdrop which would be stripped away and placed on a white page with her recipe printed next to her. I just had to fit the subject onto the provided layout and ensure I had a quality shot to deliver.
Lighting a portrait can be tricky. There are as many ways to light a portrait as there are light modifiers. In my assistant days in NYC , I pushed to perfect the perfect light. I learned how to use studio strobes (and hot lights) in just about every conceivable situation and location. Those days were invaluable, as they helped me understand my own work and how to approach different situations. I learned how to light everything from a tiny tube of lipstick to an entire warehouse. I learned to get F16 from corner to corner, top to bottom, including the floor, on a white cyclorama. My light meter and I were best of friends in those days. I loved to work out light ratios and I reveled in my craft. A photo editor once told me it was obvious I had worked with Nathaniel Welch as she saw the same approach to light that he takes in his work. There wasn’t a prouder moment than to hear this from a big time photo editor. It was then, that I realized how far I had come from my assistant days. I wish I had learned more, but you can only assist so much before it’s time to do it yourself. Again, I think any budding photographer out there needs to assist in the big cities. Books and your own small time assignments can’t teach you what you can learn from the pros in the big cities.
The one fun drawback to assisting at the top levels was the access to gobs of equipment we had at our fingertips. At times, I probably had been in charge of $50,000 or more of strobe equipment and had access to so much more –Broncolor and Profoto mostly. It now seems insane–I don’t have this type of equipment at my fingertips any longer–but I do own quite a nice arsenal of gear. And fundamentally, the study and methods used in lighting has changed over the years, as well as the camera gear itself. In my earlier days, I worked with photographers who shot with large medium format systems and which required powerful lights sources to shoot at small apertures. I remember working with 4800ws strobe packs and bi tube heads. Now, with DSLR cameras, you can pop on a 60ws on camera flash and photoshop your effects. My how things have changed. A lot about lighting that used to require the most acute hands-on skill and craftsmanship can now be done on a computer with a slim collection of modern software–pirated at best.
My lighting scenario was pretty basic as I had to light the subject with a nice broad but specular light. I opted for a Photex umbrella as the main light but fill it in with a Chimera large softbox from the side. Umbrellas are one of the most classic lighting tools available and frankly, one of the easiest to travel with to a location. If used a certain way, umbrellas cast a dramatic light wrapping around the subject with a sharp drop off and deep shadows. Sadly, the client wanted a fairly flat light with little drama so the large soft box was the filler to balance everything out. The 9′ white seamless was lit by two satin umbrellas and everything was powered by Profoto. Profoto is the professional standard. Sure, everyone raves about what an on camera flash can do but try to light a 9′ foot seamless with two Canon 580s. When I know the art director wants to strip the background out of the shot, I don’t worry too much about being 100% perfect but will strive to get my background nice and clean.
Paul, my surfer and dog loving assistant, modeled form my light tests and I found I had great examples of how I used multiple light sources to get the right light. The first light is to check how the back ground lights affect my subject. The second shot is to see how the Chimera fills on camera left and the last picture shows all the lights working together. The light worked well for our circumstances and it does highlight Paul’s perfectly flat feet. I can’t get enough of those boats he walks around on. He seems more suited for living in water than on land. Well, maybe on land, possibly like the base of a tree. A big tree mind you. Paul has become one of my better friends and for me to call him an assistant feels like I belittle him. He’s not a photographer by trade but understands what I need to get done. What he lacks in technical experience he makes up in people skills and being very bright…but more so, his friendship. Besides, I’d love to be a Hawaiian surfer dude, flat feet and all.
I did shoot with my newly acquired Canon 1Dx and the new version of the Canon 24-70mm F2.8 lens. The combo is really nice; I clearly see the advancement of Canon’s newest flagship camera and lens. The metering is superb and the handing is pretty nice. I do have to say the older Canon 1Ds Mark III is a great camera but the 1Dx is a vast improvement.
So onto my associate, who I can’t show you, so you’ll just have to imagine Paul holding a plate of chicken wings, Samoan chicken wings. We got our shot done pretty quickly with a little tough love wrangling to ensure the picture was useable. It was a tough night but we were able to finish by 1am. It took us about an hour and change to set up our seamless and lights but took all but 20 minutes to get the hell out of dodge. We ended the night with the taste of Samoan on our lips and the smell of crap up our noses. Luckily, both wash off.
I few months ago I photographed, of all things, ferns and other succulents. I, of course, treated my subjects like works of art and it was good enough for the photo editor to make this shot the cover of Halekulani Living, the in house magazine at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki.
Shooting flowers wasn’t something I really though about or did but what fun it was. The macro world is so unique and beautiful. So many little curves, bumps, and life in flora. A medium bank and 2400ws of power lit my little friend nicely. I all the greenery at Paiko in Kakaako and they were very forgiving of all the time I took in their small little shop.