Not quite 3 years ago I decided it was time again for a cross country trip. I did my first major road trip in 1992 in a Pontiac Catalina Safari Station Wagon with 2 Nikons and plenty of Tri-X and it was such a great experience that I was itching to repeat it.
I bought a 1996 Volvo 960 Station Wagon (’cause it’s not a real road trip unless your car is big and temperamental) and hit the road.
I was planning on doing some Getty shoots along the West coast since I had a little support network there, and so this here story is about what happened in San Francisco.
First off I was staying with my friends Jerry and Laurel. I met Jerry when I was on my first cross country trip and he was living in Chicago. I had his number from a friend of mine and called him up when I hit town. He graciously invited me, a perfect stranger to stay in his gigantic loft on the South Side. The loft was in a house that used to belong to Al Capone’s gambling operation, but was home to several young artists when I got there. I had a great time hanging out and Jerry and I stayed in touch, periodically visiting each other. Eventually he moved to San Francisco and married Laurel, a smart, beautiful woman with a sharp sense of humor.
Both are gifted painters and like many artistic freelancers they are resourceful, creative and great problem solvers. Though neither Jerry nor Laurel have the technical know-how of an experienced photo assistant, they are quick learners and great on set with their local knowledge, creative enthusiasm and grounding sarcasm. I hired them as assistants and we started brain storming about what my options were to produce some unusual imagery in SF with a limited budget.
After bouncing some ideas around, Laurel mentioned her friend Andy, who lived on a boat and who rented “the Far Side” for harbor tours and parties. We went to see him and his flat bottomed tin can, settled on a price and started the casting process.
Since the shoot was done for stock, I figured their should be a business as well as a sports as well as a personal angle to it, and so we started looking for businessy-looking guys between 40 and 60, with athletic qualities who could also be gangsters. It’s all about options. Andy, the boat captain pointed us to the South End Rowing Club and we found Dwight and Ned there. Dwight was actually a business man and Ned worked in ship repair. Both were hardcore open water swimmers who had no problems jumping into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay.
I had my own Profoto 7b kit (2 heads) and a Hensel Porty kit (2 heads) which became increasingly unreliable (aka useless) on my road trip. In addition we rented a 7b kit along with a bunch of sandbags from Pro Camera.
The camera was my Mamiya RZ67 with a Phase One P25 digital back. We used mostly wide angle lenses since quarters were tight and we had to fit in the scenery.
We did our own styling and worked without Hair & Make-up. The female models are usually pretty good at doing their own make-up and the guys don’t need a lot anyway. Minor stuff can get cleaned up in Photoshop. As much as a good groomer can add to certain projects, it can be a huge time drain on others, especially on location and I always weigh the pros and cons for each shoot.
We met at the marina and got all our gear as well as food and drinks on board and started towards the bay bridge.
It was much harder shooting from a boat than I had anticipated. My usual way of working is to select a graphically strong background, get the light to my liking and then make sure that everything stays the same so I can concentrate on the person/s in the picture. But that’s not what they let you do on a boat in SF. To begin with, the ambient light was changing about every 15 seconds. There were clouds, sunshine, haze and everything in between and then to make matters even more interesting, that boat would not hold still for even a minute. You get the background just so, then you get the model in position and … hey, off wandered the background? But beside the problems it was a lot of fun to boss an entire boat around.
My general approach to photography is to look for tensions rather than harmony. So the basic idea behind this shoot was to juxtapose outdoor pursuits with an urban setting, and the human vulnerability with scenic grandeur.
We put 4 lights up with regular reflectors and tried to get as close to a “surround” light as the boat and framing allowed. Since Annis had a very warm almost orange skin tone she contrasted nicely with the blue morning haze hanging over the bay.
Next up was the Golden Gate Bridge. I think it’s just about impossible to overstate the beauty of this span. The landscape of the Golden Gate is stunning and the fact that the Marin Headlands on the other side are undeveloped is simply unbelievable. I’ve seen this bridge already in many pictures and a bunch of times in person, but seeing it for the first time from the water made me all warm and fuzzy. Until that cold wind picked up, that is.
We had a kayak that Ned got us free of charge from the rowing club. A little banged up, but nothing Photoshop couldn’t handle. We put 4 lights from 2 packs at the edge of the boat on full power. Annis got in the kayak and did her best to keep in the lights while Andy steered the boat and tried to keep her (the boat) steady. Meanwhile the bridge appeared and disappeared in the fog. Everything was shifting, tilting, shaking, floating, drifting and blowing and in my head I was yelling at Mamiya for not putting autofocus on the RZ. Not many frames were useable from this set-up, but in the end you need only one good one.
After we got Annis out of the water it became time for the guys to shine. Everybody who ever dipped a toe in the Pacific around San Francisco knows how refreshing these waters are. Ned and Dwight jumped probably 10 to 12 times and when they got out there was a frigid wind blowing. No cream puffs these two.
Again there were 4 lights with regular reflectors arranged in a semi circle around the 2 jumpers.
Not to be outdone by the guys Annis hopped in for a quick swim as well. No sissy this one either.