I’ve always admired the professor on Gilligan’s Island. He had this amazing ability to make a Geiger counter out of bamboo, or a shortwave radio out of a coconut. He was truly a handy guy to have around when the castaways were in a real bind.
I really could have used someone like the professor when I was recently asked to photograph six photography icons and found myself without any of the tools I depend on to make pictures—including a camera.
The road to that day began several years earlier when my brother Mark and I decided to take a week off to find inspiration and time to produce some photographs that were different from what people were paying us to shoot. When we heard about a workshop called Photography at the Summit—and read the list of the photographers and editors who were going to be there—we both thought it would be time well spent. Once we discovered that it could also mean a week among cowboys in the shadow of the Tetons, we realized it would be ideal.
For most of that week, I did my thing—portraits of working cowboys in their natural environment—and Mark did his—mounting a remotely-triggered Nikon atop the head of a steer. When the week was over, we both agreed that the two brothers from Los Angeles had just had the time of their photographic life. Our pictures were never the same again and we both left the workshop more enthusiastic about photography than ever before. Last fall, my brother and I decided to do it again.
Each of us had been teaching for several years at the sister Sports Photography Workshop and we viewed this week in Jackson Hole as a vacation and an opportunity to see some fine photography, enjoy the beauty of Wyoming, and visit with some old friends at the famed Silver Dollar Bar. Among the brilliant photographers who going to be there this time were William Albert Allard, Rich Clarkson, Jodi Cobb, Jay Maisel, Tom Mangelsen and Jim Richardson.
By late in the week, Mark and I had enjoyed many fine meals, ventured up to Yellowstone national park, and been humbled by the pictures we were seeing from these masters of the medium. As a young photographer, I’d admired every one of these photographers. After spending a week viewing their photographs and listening to their wisdom, I realized that I didn’t admire them nearly enough. That was about the time that Rich Clarkson, the workshop organizer, approached me and said, “Can we take advantage of your presence here?” He then asked me if I would make a portrait of some of the instructors for an upcoming magazine article about the workshop.
“I had absolutely no lighting equipment, no light modifiers, no meters, no grip equipment, not even a shred of gaffer’s tape.”
Under normal circumstances, I would have viewed his request as both an honor and as a remarkable opportunity. But almost immediately after I eagerly agreed to make the portraits for the article, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no lighting equipment, no light modifiers, no meters, no grip equipment, not even a shred of gaffer’s tape. In fact, I didn’t even have a camera with me. All of the tools that I depend upon to make pictures were 1000 miles away. I had originally come to visit with old friends and look at some brilliant work, but in just 15 hours I needed to make pictures of several of the most iconic photographers living today.
Once the day’s events ended, Mark drove us back to our hotel while I thought about what I was going to use for lights, gobos, scrims, diffusion and a location. Once we got there, the first thing I did was head straight for the bathroom. When I looked up, I saw that my desperate wish had been granted. Over the sink area was a lighting fixture that was covered with two grid panels that I could use for light control. A black one would have been ideal, but I was in no position to complain. I now had two large silver grids that would help me to control the light. I was off to a hopeful start.
My second break came when I found out that Ross Lowel was one of the workshop attendees and that there were a set of lights that bear his name that I would be able to use. I’ve used hot lights frequently in the past—mostly fresnel lights for portraiture—but I’ve always preferred strobe for it’s flexibility. Strobe gives me the ability to set up the lights exactly where I can get the quality of light that I’m after, and then adjust the power of each head to get the quantity of light I need to obtain the desired ratio and f/stop.
With hot lights, that’s very difficult to accomplish. Usually, there is no way to change the intensity of the light without somehow changing the quality of the light too. And since I didn’t have any light control equipment with me anyway, it was going to be a real challenge to control the light in a way that would allow me to make the kinds of pictures I wanted to make using only the small, three-light Lowel kit. Just setting up an umbrella or two wouldn’t do for these icons of photography. What I needed was a way to tame bright, broad, wild light into something that I could manage and control.
“I’m going to do it with lights I don’t use, cameras I’m unfamiliar with, and light modifiers I’ve borrowed from catering and my hotel bathroom.”
The next day I arrived early at the Museum of Wildlife Art auditorium—where the workshop was being held, and where the photographs needed to be taken—and started to take inventory of what I had to work with. There were three small Lowel lights, three rickety light stands, an umbrella, a pole I found in a storage room for holding museum displays, and the bathroom grid panels I’d appropriated for the day. I decided to borrow some black tablecloths from catering to use as flags, a few white ones to use for diffusion, and a chair or two to hold the grids in position in front of the lights. Photographers Chris Steppig and Matt Sewick both graciously helped me with the logistics of the shoot, and photographer Brett Wilhelm generously handed over his entire backpack full of cameras and lenses—equipment I was completely unfamiliar with.
So, just to review: I’ve been asked to shoot some of the biggest names in photography and I’m going to do it with lights I don’t use, cameras I’m unfamiliar with, and light modifiers I’ve borrowed from catering and my hotel bathroom.
As I began to build the set, I knew what I wanted to see in the photographs, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it with tablecloths and bathroom panels. In other words, I was making it up moment by moment. It took more time to set up than usual, but after the first few test captures were in the camera, everything began to feel comfortable. By the time Jay Maisel walked in more than two hours later, I was able to focus on him and the rest of the the subjects as though I was using all of my own equipment—a great reminder about why it’s so important to get all of the technical issues out of the way before the subject arrives.
Each of the subjects were incredibly cooperative and I was gratified to learn that when Rich Clarkson was honored in New York with a Lucie Award, the portrait I’d made of him was used in the video tribute that was played in front of an audience that included photographers Neil Leifer, Chris Johns, Bill Eppridge, Eli Reed, Jodi Cobb, Annie Leibovitz, and many others.