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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Returned and rested from my extensive (not really) European vacation, I have to ease my way back into the blogging lifestyle, so, here’s a short and easy post as a warm up for next weeks usual wordiness.

These pics were taken as a quick and easy shoot for Getty a few years back. The brothers live near my German hometown and are the neighbors of a friend of mine.  When shooting stock it is important to keep the costs of production down (now more than ever) and besides, it’s always nice to work with people I know.  So we asked the kids if they wanted to model in exchange for prints/files and we asked the mom if she was ok with it, and would sign a model release.  Once that was squared away we went through the kids’ closets to pick the wardrobe.  It wasn’t exactly easy to find outfits without tons of logos, but we got it done in the end.

If I were to ask a New York mother if it’s ok to take her two boys into the woods for a photo shoot, I would be a little afraid of the answer, but these boy’s mom just said I should try to keep ‘em busy ’til dinner time.  I love rural Germany.

We shot with a Mamiya RZ67 with a tethered Phase One P25 .  One set of Profoto 7b’s and and set of Hensel Portys (2 heads each).

We started of with the ferile close up portraits….

staged a brotherly fight, which was a big hit (pun alert) with the boys…

and ended up showcasing their soccer skills.

Then dinner was ready and we all had to go home.

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I’m vacationing in the land of my youth.  Cheers.

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Once a year, I usually go back to Germany to visit Mama, bond with old friends, and make sure that nothing crazy happened while I was gone. I also try to work on some personal or stock projects when I’m there, since I like working outside of New York in general, for the obvious reasons like cheaper, easier, nicer, and with parking. So, when a friend told me about a kid near my hometown, who was supposed to be a crack BMX’er, I thought this could make for a nice little Getty shoot.

The rider’s name was Johannes Burg (which would’ve been funny in South Africa) and he was just a hint over 18. We talked about the shoot and he was totally into it, so we decided to meet at his local BMX track, a dirt loop with plenty of built-in jumps that was pretty much abandoned when we got there. Ideal circumstances. We started off with an easy shot to warm up.

Johannes had to go full speed into a bank, pop the front wheel a bit and then avoid the lights and the camera.  We had this shot after a few tries and moved on to the next and more difficult scenario.

For the next shot he had to fly off a jump and I had to catch him in mid air.  We picked the jump with the nice tree details in the background and set up lights from the 4 corners.  We had one Profoto 7B with 2 heads and regular reflectors on one side and and a borrowed Hensel Porty with 2 heads and regular reflectors on the other side.  We did a few trial runs to see where I could set up the camera and to get the timing down since I couldn’t see him (and he couldn’t see me) until he was in the air.  We nailed it pretty much straight away.  This was the second frame we shot:


And we should have moved on, but we didn’t.  Why, you ask?  Because we were stupid, that’s why.

Johannes and I looked at the good frame and we felt that if we can get that on the second jump, we can get something even better if we keep trying.  During the next few jumps I kept inching in with the camera for something a bit more straight on and Johannes kept trying to get more height out of the jump.  Finally between my moving the camera closer to the landing spot and Johannes changing the line of his approach we created this situation:

Johannes came over the hill and he was pointing fairly straight at me.  I let out a mighty gulp, clicked the shutter way too early and tried to hustle out of the way with a tethered Mamiya RZ and a tripod.  Johannes tried to change his trajectory in mid flight, which is never a good idea, though I’m still grateful he did.  He was way too high anyway and came down hard in the flat part after the jump right next to me.  He fell and slammed into the next bump, breaking his hand and his bike in the process.

There was a pretty depressed drive to the hospital, that didn’t get any better when he realized that he would miss two major championships he was training for.  Johannes got his x-rays and his cast without any trouble thanks to the German healthcare system and the most positive take on the situation was, that it could have been worse.

I had a miserable, sleepless night after this disaster and felt out of sorts for a few more days.  Mostly because looking back I couldn’t believe we kept repeating a dangerous stunt for no good reason and getting sloppier and sloppier as the shoot went on.  I felt like an amateur and a moron.

I saw Johannes again a few days later and he was back in good spirits  ( I guess, if you’re a serious BMX’er, you can’t dwell on spills and injuries ) and that in turn made me feel better.  He was not pressing charges against me (yeah) and I reimbursed him for his smashed up bike parts. The lessons of that shoot are still with me of course: Don’t push your or other people’s luck, stop when you have the shot, be in control, don’t egg each other on, work precisely and carry insurance.

The most interesting part of that last shot, is an extreme crop, because this is the face of someone, who knows he’s in trouble.

There is also a curious little aside to the story:  I promised Johannes to get him some bike parts from the famous S&M Bikes in California.  All the parts he wanted had names like Beringer Fork, Beringer Stem, Beringer Bar, etc. , I didn’t think anything of it until I met Matt Beringer himself last year on another BMX shoot.  And there you have it, it is a small world.

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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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