Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Riding a bike was part of my growing up, but not exactly my favorite part. The only times I was very, if briefly, excited about biking was when I was given a banana seat bike, and again after I got a snazzy 10 speed racer. For the most part though I only biked when I was too late to walk someplace. My biking career ended abruptly and not surprisingly on the day I got my driver’s license.

To my amazement though, biking has made a strong comeback in my personal life as well as becoming an important part of my photography. I thought it might make for a nice intermittent series of blog posts to write about the bike shoots I have done.

It all started with me still being a committed pedestrian, when my good friend Silvia (a journalist) and I teamed up as a writer-photographer combo. We were mulling over possible projects to propose to German publications, when we came across ” The Ride of my Life” the autobiography of Mat Hoffmann, the daredevil BMX champion and later Jackass semi-regular. The book was highly entertaining as it described the growing-up and daily brushes with death of a child/man with no fear. Anybody reading the book would seriously question his/ her desire to become a parent, since one would suffer at least 47 heart attacks if fate would bless one with a little Mat Hoffman. To read about it though, was great.

©Unknown Photographer

Silvia and I wrote up a proposal to portray Hofman and send it to a high-brow weekly newspaper in Germany, that has a section somewhat comparable to the NY Times Magazine. They liked the idea and hired us, but then our arrangement kind of backfired on me.

On a previous job I did for the paper the expenses ran (not terribly) high. Not completely because of my fault either, but my invoice was definitely higher than usual. Then the editor for the paper called me up to suggest that I pay for part of the unexpected expenses by lowering my fee. After a bit of arguing back and forth I agreed to do it, if and only if he payed the same amount as I towards the bill. I thought it would be only fair if we both help the paper financially since we were both involved in the production. For some weird reason though, spending his own money was less attractive to the editor than spending my own money, and he agreed to pay my invoice in full. Of course little victories like that often come back to bite me in the ass.

And now was ass-biting time. When Silvia and I got the assignments to produce the Hofman story, the editor presented me with a budget that was so tiny that I had to work for free instead of very cheap, which was normal. I would have never done that, but here he clearly had me by my huevos. If I just turned down my assignment, they would have sent (and paid) another photographer to shoot my story. If we had turned it down as a team, I would have cost Silvia her job as well, and they might have sent another team to do our story. Silvia graciously offered to share her fee with me, which I didn’t take because of course it was more the principle then the dough. In the end we did the story and I was glad we did, but I never worked for that paper again. To paraphrase Paul Simon: There must be 50 ways ways to lose a client.

The shoot was taking place at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, FL. We flew down and up in one day, and sans assistant of course. To transport my equipment ( 1 Pro Acute 1200 with 2 heads) in the park, Universal gave me a hard plastic double toddler stroller. It’s always important to travel in style when on a job.

Mat Hoffman and a bunch of fellow BMX’ers were doing a regular show there that summer in a bike park in an amphitheatre. I looked for a quiet location that didn’t scream theme park and provided us with some privacy and a clean graphic background. I found it behind the theatre. After an hour of corporate interference we were finally allowed to shoot there.
In the first portrait I tried to come up with a classical pose in which he can be clearly seen and can make eye contact with the camera, yet in which he also shows his athleticism. We talked about this, and Mat came up with different suggestions. Finally he busted out the one seen on top. I love how he looks like he’s just loitering on his bike with a half-bored sarcastic ta-daa pose. I used a little slower shutter speed to get a little bit of movement in. This way you realize that he’s not just leaning against the wall, but rolling down the lane.

For the second picture I asked him to take off his shirt. I’ve been around athletes a lot and have seen some banged up people, but no one ever came close to Mat Hoffman. We talked about his knee, which was his injury-du-jour and he showed me how he could move his kneecap around in ways that made you question every assumption you ever had. His torso doesn’t look so terrible until you start zooming in on all the scars and bruises hidden in plain sight.

His amazing pain tolerance and complete lack of fear still astounds me. A while after the shoot Mat was in a vicious car accident in which he nearly lost his right arm. For years after that he couldn’t ride a bike, but thanks to a special brace and some major physical rehabilitation he now is back on the bike again.

There is a recent ESPN movie out about Mat, that was produced by Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville. Looks like it could be a lot of fun.

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When the big (and reluctant) switch to digital came for me, I decided to go with a medium format back instead of 35 mm setup. The price difference was a strong argument for the small format but I really loved working with the larger, slower cameras and the “big occasion” feeling they bring to a shoot. I also like how things just have a slightly different feel with the longer lenses needed to cover the same view. Unfortunately I still think that the medium format sensors are pretty close to not worth it since they’re not even 645. I wish they would finally come out with a 6×6 or 6×7 sensor, real medium format, and it wouldn’t even need a gazillion mega pixels.

But anyway, I bit the bullet and got a Phase One P25 with a Mamiya RZ adapter from Dave Gallagher at Capture Integration (highly recommended).

After I exchanged a very large portion of my bank account for a very small metal cube that I didn’t even really want, I felt an inexplicable feeling of anxiety and decided to calm my nerves (and blow some more money) by visiting a friend in Salt Lake City for a little skiing.

On a heavy legs day I checked out Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of that place. It looked like something out of “Lord of the Rings” and there was one of these great Western storms approaching. I took some pictures and was pretty much all thumbs. I took the back off the camera to change from horizontal to vertical and was immediately hit by a good old dust cloud. Fumbeling like the absolute beginner that I was, it took me forever to get the back back on. Fortunately there was no permanent damage done to the sensor, and things started to go much more smoothly in the P25 department soon after, but retouching approximately 764 dust spots was a pretty special way to start the digital era.

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We finally ended our road trip through Turkey in Istanbul where I found the name for this project.

At the Topkapi Palace is an impressive portrait gallery of the original Sultans, the Ottoman rulers of yore, and there was just no denying the resemblances of faces and postures between the subjects of the old paintings and the men we had just photographed.

Like most people who are groovy with Democracy, I’m not big on the concept of royalty, as a matter of fact it creeps me out quite a bit.   However, many of the common men we photographed had a quiet dignity that came across as noble.  The more I thought about it the more I had fun envisioning the new Sultans as working farmers, shepherds and fisherman instead of inheritors of power and wealth.

These paintings were often done by Italian artists like Bellini whose portrait of Sultan Mehmet II is at the top of this page.
As we were walking through Istanbul’s great bazaar in the following days we found simple hand drawn copies of these portraits on pages cut out of old books. We bought one of  Mehmet II, a ruler famous for conquering Constantinople, an event that eventually marked the divide between the middle ages and (more) modern times.

Another portrait we purchased was of AbdulHamid II, who was one of the later Sultans.  He was not exactly known for his skillful governing, but rather for escaping dozens of attempts on his life. He was also such a cruel, murderous ruler that he earned himself the nick name “The Red Sultan”. But who can stay mad at a guy wearing a fez. I know I can’t.

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Second day:

After Cappadocia we traveled on to the southern coast where we stayed in a little village named Cerali. We asked Ali, the owner of the pension we stayed at, if he could recommend a local helper and he volunteered to do it himself. After walking around Cerali for a day we got the strong impression, that old men were in short supply and Ali explained to us that the older population leaves the sea side for the mountains during the summer, but that he knew where to find them. After a few days of swimming and lounging, Susie, Ali and I made for the hills. We climbed about 1600 meters ( 5250 ft) during a 45 minute drive which led to some nervous giggles amongst the non-locals.

The first people we met on the mountain top were Mehmet and his wife, who graciously invited us for tea in their “summer shack” before we started setting up.

Field Editing Station:

As our shoot with Mehmet was winding down, we saw 2 gentlemen drive by in a pick-up truck. Tied up in the back was a stately billy goat. Ali flagged down the car and asked Yusuf and (another) Ali if they would have their portraits taken. Without any questions or hesitation the two got out of the cab and climbed on the cargo bed where they immediately started posing with their (very impressive) angora goat.

I snapped a few frames with my Canon G10 and was seriously considering bringing the lights over for this scene, but I quickly decided against it. I usually try to start with the stuff that’s most important to me especially when I shoot “real” people. You always have to expect a short attention span and if you don’t get what you want in the beginning you might not get it at all.

Shooting on that mountain was one of the highlights of this trip. We would have never found this place on our own and the people we met during the shoot were interesting, gracious and very hospitable. At it’s best photography is a door into another world that you would not find without it. Plus: Another great thing was that they did their own styling.

The Sultans-Magcloud Magazine

The Sultans-Issuu

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I’m always fascinated by how some ideas percolate in the back of one’s mind before they find the right outlet.

I took these 2 portraits in 2007 during a stock production in India (more about this in a future post) and even though I liked what I was getting during the shoot, I didn’t think too much off them until I got home. Without really knowing why, I kept being drawn to these 2 images in edit after edit.

I printed them up and taped them to the wall next to my desk where I kept an eye on them for about 2.5 years.

Last September my girlfriend and I decided to spend our vacation doing a road trip through Turkey. Obviously a vacation is always a great time to work and so I decided to bring my camera and a set of lights.

I met my friend and Corbis AD Tobias Prasse for dinner a few days before departure and he generously offered to loan me his lights for the trip. This would make it my regular 2 packs/ 4 heads set-up. For a little while I was tempted to stick with just my set, since one 7b outfit is already a substantial schlepp, but Tobie quickly talked sense into me. Something along the line of “If you gonna take pictures, you might as well take your kind of pictures.”. He’s a good dad and clearly he was right.

We did some damage control by not bringing spare batteries but otherwise accepted the idea of traveling heavy.

One thing we probably all can agree on is that air travel is in a very sorry state and the American carriers might be among the worst of the bunch. So, my priorities are usually 1) get a direct flight and 2) with a non-American airline and 3) for a reasonable price. The direct flight is paramount since my anecdotal evidence shows that any stop-over represents a 20% chance of your bags getting send to purgatory.

Anyway, we went 3 for 3 and got a reasonable direct flight with Turkish Airways. We took a car service to JFK, paid for excess baggage, went through the usual check-in cluster-f, and were on our way.

We flew into Istanbul, rented a Renault Megane Diesel (which really helped us save on gas quite a bit ) and made our way to Cappadocia. After settling in a bit and checking out the area for a few days, I was itching to start the photo project. The problem was though that I still wasn’t sure what the project would be.

We were hanging out on the horse ranch of a friend’s friend and asked him if he could find us a local guy we could hire to translate and assist. He recommended Sedat, a young guy working with the horses, who turned out to be perfect for the job. He was highly energetic, charming, not shy at all and a quick learner.

When in doubt I would always consider myself a portraitist first and so I decided to start driving around with Susie and Sedat and see who we could find to take pictures of. I’ve always been interested in portraits of men and Turkey has such a patriarchal society that it made sense to explore that angle. We photographed this young guy first…

and then this older guy….

and then it all snapped into place.

Looking at the older man through my lens the India portraits started to make total sense. I realized that what I liked about them was that the men carried their age in a way that’s all but extinct in western societies. In the US and Europe just about everybody tries to be between 25 and 35. No matter if you’re a five year old girl or a seventy year old man you try to hit that sweet spot as fast as possible and stay there as long as you can. This is also true for fashion. A little girl and her grandmother might both dress like Byonce or a 4 year old boy and his 70 year old granddad might wear the same kind of shorts, sneakers and t-shirt without ever being considered strange.

In Turkey the old men looked like old men, and there was no air of defeat about them.

They also had great style even when their clothes were old and worn. Almost all of these guys were tough and skinny, and you could read their history in the lines of their faces.

I had my project.

We drove on to the next town and saw 2 or 3 oldtimers hang out at the town square. We set up our lights in a spot where we could easily rotate for 2 different good backgrounds and once we were ready to shoot, Sedat approached the men and explained to them what we were trying to do. They were a bit skeptical at first but finally decided to help a fellow out and once we could show the first portrait on the computer we had no problems convincing other men to sit for us.

What also helped was that a lot of these Anatolians spend time as guest workers in Germany when they were young and so I could talk to quite a few of them without Sedat translating.

After the town square we went to a more rural part trying to find a few men that Sedat knew from his horse rides. We drove a few miles on dirt roads and the first one we met was this shepherd with his flock of goats. He was in his early forties and the youngest in this project.

Trunk editing station:

The next stop we made was at a little cabin that was used by father and son beekeepers. It was on a beautiful spot of land near the Avanos river where they kept around 180 (!!) beehives. The portrait of the father became one of my favorites….

and we got a snack of honey that was nothing short of incredible.

We drove through a little town where we saw some prime candidates for our shoot sitting in the tea house but by now the sun was getting pretty low and we couldn’t find a decent location with good light in easy walking distance for the old men. So we decided to drive some more on the dirt roads around town to look for the last shot of the day and we came across this man who was riding on his tractor. He was working on a nearby construction site and told us, he would sit for us but had only a few minutes.

We hustled to set up our kit in record time, but as soon as he saw that there were 4 lights plus a large camera pointing at him, he told us, we could take all the time we want. I guess everybody likes a little Hollywood.

The Sultans-Magcloud Magazine

The Sultans-Issuu

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Whenever I’m getting ready to go on a well deserved vacation, I struggle with the same question that has tormented photographers for thousands of years: Should I bring the lights?

And the right answer is: Yes.

I was traveling in Puerto Rico, driving through the El Yunque rainforest when I came to this beautiful spot. A window in the otherwise dense canopy opened up to reveal a view of sky, sea and a bit of civilization in the distance. I set up a 7b with 2 heads (regular reflectors) left and right of camera. I had to put a plastic bag around the pack because the ground was so wet that it kept sinking in. The camera was a Rollei 6003 with an 80mm, which in my humble opinion, is still the best camera I’ve ever shot with. I took a polaroid or two and then I exposed 2 rolls of Kodak NC 160, varying the light slightly and getting some different cloud patterns.

This image became my best-selling landscape with Getty back when there was still such a thing as a selling landscape with Getty, and I’m still having fun looking at the large print of it in my living room.

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