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Archive for September, 2010

From the Visual Research Dept.: Frank Webster and I used to live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood  for a while, and I would recognize particular buildings, and typical vistas, mundane or trashy, that every New Yorker is familiar with, in his large paintings.   But where I would be slightly annoyed by an overgrown condo high rise going up in real life, baffled yet accustomed to sneakers hanging from overhead wires, and just plain pissed at plastic bags in trees,  I would be stunned by the melancholic beauty of Frank’s version of these things.

When it comes to making the ordinary interesting in art, many (and I mean MANY) have tried and many (MANY) have failed , but Frank Webster is the rare artist that can actually pull it off.


Frank Webster’s website

All images in this post © Frank Webster

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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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Stefan Falke is a Brooklyn based German photo-journalist who has worked and traveled extensively for a wide variety of magazines. On top of that he has made himself a name as a stills photographer on big German movie productions, a part of the business I know almost nothing about. So I’m very glad and grateful that Stefan agreed to do an interview with me for The Heavy Light. The movie we’ll be talking about is “Die Buddenbrooks”, an adaptation of the sprawling Thomas Mann novel, directed by Heinrich Breloer.

Dirk Anschütz: Tell me a bit about the Buddenbrooks project. How big was the production?

Stefan Falke: The movie was a big feature film released by Warner Brothers. For a German production it had a very large budget of around $20 million, of course that would be pretty small for the US. The filming was done in the summer of 2007 and the movie was released in late 2008. The director Heinrich Breloer is considered a Thomas Mann specialist, he won an Emmy for his TV series about Thomas Mann and his family “The Manns”.

DA: Did you read the book before the job?

SF: I tried but then I decided to wait for the script. (laughs)

Da: How did you get the job?

SF: I’ve worked with the director before, as well as with the production company Bavaria Film, as well as the distributor Warner Brothers. My initial way into the business was by complete coincidence. An old childhood friend of mine Hermine Huntgeburth became a movie director and asked me to shoot stills on one of her productions in 1996. It was just one of these things in life.

DA: For how long did you work on that movie and how long were your days?

SF: I worked for about 4 months, 5 or 6 days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day. When I started shooting on films, that’s when I thought I really became a professional photographer, because you have to shoot everyday for months. It’s different from a lot of other freelance jobs.

DA: What equipment did you use?

SF: I had 2 Nikons D200. The lens I used the most was a real cheap plasticky Nikkor 18-135 mm f 3.5 to 5.6. I never thought I would use this lens, it just came with one of the cameras but I ended up really liking the range of the zoom. The other lenses I used were a Nikkor ED 28-70mm f 2.8, a 17-35mm f 2.8, an 80-200mm f 2.8, a 300mm f2.8, and an 85mm f1.4 for portrait shots. The lens factor of the camera was 1.5 and changed the focal lengths accordingly. I work out of a backpack on set but it’s easy to store gear and lenses that are not needed on a film set.

DA: Do you shoot with a blimp (a device that muffels the sound of a camera) ?

SF: No, which is rare in the business. There are two aspects of the filming I need to cover: The making- of and the film stills. For the making-of part or if there is a lot of noise in a scene, I don’t really have to cover up the noise my camera makes. For the quite scenes I work like this: During the filming I look for photographically interesting moments during the scene, and when the filming is done I jump in and ask the actors to redo the entire scene or a part of it, while all the lights are still set up. If it’s only a part I give them the sentence they said at the time and they can snap right in. Obviously to do that you have to really get along with the actors, the director and the DP (Director of Photography).

DA: How do you interact with the actors or the director or DP for that matter?

SF: I’m just being myself but as a stills photographer you have to be aware that you’re the only person on the set not involved nor needed in the making of the movie, and many people treat you accordingly in the beginning. I hear there are a lot of tears being shed on movie sets by still photographers (laughs).
Beside being a good photographer this job is really about weaseling your way into a large group of people that have very little time. You work around them, they don’t work around you. I treat a film shoot mostly like a reportage. Even though they pay me, I still want something from them. You also have to be totally decisive in the moment that is your moment, which can be nerve wrecking. You might have to wait around for your moment for 2 or 3 hours and then it’s only going to be there for a very brief time. In that moment you stop a huge machinery, 40, 50 people stop what they’re doing for you to take your pictures, so you have to be decisive about what you want.

DA: How much do you mimic the DP’s vision in your photographs?

SF: The photographs have to look like they’re images from the movie. I try to shoot alongside the camera as much as I can but at other times you have to come from a different angle.

In this picture below the camera crew set up in the speeding carriage to film the actress cradling her husband in despair. There was no room for me in the carriage and I could not ask for a restaging of this scene for my photo. So I asked the DP where exactly they would stop filming and he showed me the spot on the street. I set up a ladder right there to shoot down into the carriage while it was still moving and while the actress was still in the full emotion of the scene. Everything had to be very precise cause the second they stopped rolling film you could see me and my ladder in the frame of the movie camera.

DA: Do you ever work with an assistant?

SF: Almost never. If you shoot the poster, you’ll have an assistant but not on set.

DA: How do you deliver the images?

SF: It depends. For the Buddenbrooks I delivered RAW files and they did the post. But I also gave them my edit as finished jpgs as well. Sometimes they say they will do the post but they don’t always do.

DA: What ASA do you normally shoot on?

SF: I’m usually on 800 (inside scenes always 800, outside 100-400, 800 at night). And let me just say that I love digital. I love digital! It made things so much easier. You don’t have to carry a huge bag with daylight and tungsten film and filters and all that, and shooting with a high ASA is really not a problem anymore.

DA: How is the field changing with movies being shot on HD video? Do you think that a lot of the stills will be pulled straight from the video?

SF: Yeah, that will become a problem. Right now though a lot of the “moving” images are a bit blurry since a lot of them are shot at 1/50th of a second and you still need a photographer for the making-of pictures.

DA: Did you ever shoot video on a job?

SF: Yes, I tried to shoot a making-of video during a film once but had to stop. I could not shoot video and stills at the same time. I’m really an image maker. I want to fill the frame. I’m a stills maker.

DA: Are you a Movie buff?

SF: Pretty much. I normally watch half a movie every day. I usually fall asleep on the couch halfway through.

DA: Do you have a favorite movie?

SF: Well, there are a few, but maybe my favorite one is “The Professional” by Luc Besson with Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and a young Natalie Portman.

DA: Is there a director you would like to work for?

SF: I would like to work with Wim Wenders for the visuals of his films and I would love to work with Werner Herzog. I can really relate to his mixture of fantasy and documentary. Plus he works all the time. I really admire that.

DA: Any concluding tips for working on a movie set?

SF: Don’t think you’re important. I mean, of course you are important, but don’t let it hang out. You have to be really strong and might have to stand up to the director or DP to get your shots, but you have to fit into the team. The best praise I’ve gotten was when at the end of the movie the film people love the pictures but ask when I had taken them.
I see every production as a privilege. If I get the opportunity to get access to these great actors and directors, the job might be difficult, but it’s a privilege.

DA: Stefan, thanks a lot for the interview.

Stefan Falke’s website

all photos © Warner Bros. Pictures / Bavaria Film / Stefan Falke

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There is a new portfolio on my website that came out of a pro bono shoot I did earlier this summer for Upstream Arts in Minneapolis.
A blog post about the shoot will follow sometime in the (possibly near) future.

And while we’re at it, here’s a little reminder that Stephen Mallon’s show opens tonight at the Front Room Gallery in Williamsburg.

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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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