By James Russell
If you do this business for a while you eventually develop the mindset of a firefighter. The bell rings and we start running. Hell bent to get to the fire.
Getting a call from a camera company is different. The first thought is cool, they respect us and we'll get some props from our peers. The second thought is "uh oh" will people think I'm a sellout. What's next? Soft boxes with my name on them, pocket T-shirts?
The third thought of shooting for a camera company is the agenda. Obviously you want to promote the assets of the camera but since this type of project is not a money earner you defiantly want to promote yourself.
So in theory this type of production starts life as a shared promotion. So rather than just run to the fire on this project we weighed the pros and cons.
Pro. I use the Phase One Backs and they don't break. (Not breaking is a pretty big deal to me).
Con: I don't use them for everything, are these guys going to make me say that?
Pro: It's a gig
Con: It's not really a profitable gig.
Pro: I'll shoot it in Paris
Con: It's bloody winter and I'd rather be in Los Angeles.
Pro: It can be a nice photograph.
Con: We haven't had more than 6 hours sleep a night in two months.
Pro: It'll get our name really big on a really big promotion.
Con: Unless they misspell my name (more on this later).
So we start the conference calls with Phase and their advertising agency. (The names have been omitted to protect the innocent).
The concept is to display the number 1. Concepts can mean restrictions, or can be the catalyst for thought. Phase and the Art Director are cool and say do whatever you want, BUT it has to feature a numeral 1 so do it with this shape as the concept. The AD says "How about colorful, maybe liquid or paint or something like that?".
I start thinking about what visual will work with the number 1.
Chain saw splatter that shapes out the number one? . . . naw that won't play in prime time and if the Cohen brothers or CSI Miami will. How about a tattoo of the number one on a body part? . . . no that's been done 10,000 times and tattoos are so 1999 Rolling Stone.
I finally get away from the thought of concept and more of execution. I come up with making the number 1 out of a faux metal that the model can play around with.
Not just any number one, nothing out of plex or chrome, or some badly photoshopped CG, but a real 3 dimensional model of a number 1 that looks like it withstood a war. That makes sense because I think the medium format companies have been fighting a pretty big war, so an apocalyptic, riveted metal number one should do it.
Had the budget and time factor been larger I would have shot this in a foundry, surrounded by buffed shirtless steel workers (male and female), hammering out the number one covered in sweat, steam and grease, but there really wasn't a budget for a 15 person crew, so it had to be less involved.
Also given my choice I would have shot it black and white or deep brown green toned, all bleached and crushed, but this is a camera company and most people are going to want to see vivid colors, great skin tones, sharp eyelashes, etc. etc. so the deep brown, green toned, palette gets put on the back burner.
We'd been on a long schedule pretty much around the world. The scheduling to shoot the Phase project kept moving, first NY, then we thought about LA (it's warm) but we decide on Paris because I would be working in Barcelona and crewed up on a Ronaldhino shoot and it was a fairly easy move from Spain to France.
Well, almost easy. Air France lost our luggage from Paris to Spain (including the Phase backs and Contax cameras) though after 240 phone calls we finally received the cameras just prior to the Barcelona shoot. After Barcelona we were tired. It was a pressured project and one I'm very proud of, but also one that took a lot of mental and physical juice to shoot.
To get back to Paris I was going to fly and sleep for a day, but after the lost luggage issue I decided to drive the equipment up to Paris.
My friend and coworker (and excellent photographer in his own right) Didier Bizos, a 3rd assistant and I loaded up a truck and left at around 9 am, which should have been about an 7 hour drive. Didier, God love him, can be directionally challenged, so as I sit bumping around in the back seat of the Van working on the computer I look up and notice we're in Lyon, which means we missed an exit, which means that we won't arrive in Paris until 1 or 2 am which means maybe 6 hours sleep . . . again.
Now, I'm not above riding in a crew truck, but I try to keep those days behind me because I've worked damn hard to make my life a little easier, and though I love the time with my friend Didier, riding in a truck really isn't my idea of relaxing.
Still, I gave my word to shoot this thing and since we had trouble moving equipment earlier I couldn't take the chance of it not getting there, and I tell myself it's not the destination, it's the journey.
Actually for years I've ridden with Mr. Bizos. He is one of my very best friends. Actually he's more than a friend, he's family, and riding in a vehicle with Didier is unique. Picture a multitasking Frenchman driving with his knees and talking on two cell phones at once, while I yell out, turn here on Rue de Rivoli, and Didier says, uh no I think we do San Germain, and I go no no it's the other way, and of course we miss the next six exits.
Didier is going to take exception to this, but for the first year of riding with him I thought Paris was the size of LA, NY and London combined until I realized that every trip was just Didier's way of going south, then west, then east, just to get north. Don't get me wrong, Didier knows Paris like the back of his hand, but he is has a lot going on in his life, family, business, studios, and in this instance me.
Now I carry a Garmin GPS, though something about a Garmin that is tossing out directions in English just doesn't register in Didier's French brain, so we go northwest to Lyon instead of North to Paris.
The upside to driving long hours is I love coffee and in Spain they have these little portable cups that you press the bottom, the cup heats up and brews a hot cup of coffee. It's probably illegal to carry these things across country lines, because who knows what toxic material gets them hot, but It's so much fun it makes me laugh, so I bought two cases of this stuff and by the time I hit the Perifique, I had so much coffee in me I wasn't going to actually sleep until 2010.
Maybe the common thought on a shoot like this is the camera company provides the cameras, the computers, the software, and the whiz bang techs, but no, it is our cameras, our backs, our lenses, our lights, our grip, our computers and our whiz bang techs and without those elements there is no shoot.
The next day we meet with "clients" and the crew, which consists of Ann Rutherford my partner/stylists/producer, Jocelyne Storr-Pace our Paris Productrice, Didier Bizos, Homer Murray, our first assistant/studio manager and has the title Vice President of New York Affairs, or better put, Vice President of Getting Back to New York As Fast As Possible.
The pre pro was interesting because Ann and I had come down with the Flu. Not just a cold but a Flu that makes you want to go out on the street and lie down in front of a Paris bus just to end the pain. I would say lie down in front of a Paris cab, but as we all know you can never get a cab in Paris.
The Phase people are nice, but really Danish, which means polite and reserved. In fact so polite and reserved I keep waiting for the craziness to pop out. You know – like those kids I grew up with in Texas that on Sunday were all quiet and humble in Church, but on Saturday night burned down half the city and partied like Keith Richards.
Well, the Phase people don't party like Keith Richards, and I don't think any self respecting Dane would ever destroy anything, so mixing with my crew, (which makes NIN look subdued) gives new meaning to the phrase "cultural mix".
Ann and Jocelyn start the wardrobe and there is nothing off the rack that will work for this image, so Ann goes to a dozen Paris fabric shops and constructs the wardrobe overnight and I think it's pretty damn cool (actually I think it's bloody amazing) especially the little flowers over the chest, but I also think Ann's rock and roll roots are showing, which for this isn't a bad thing, but interesting.
Back in the Paris studio, Virgil Venak and his associate Coco, build the big number 1. I keep saying "Make it more like a blast shield" and they keep spraying paint, sanding, hammering in rivets, spraying more paint to the point the studio started to become a toxic fog. I'm not kidding on the toxic fog thing. Didier's studio looked like a special effect and if I had the model in the studio that day, I just would have shot it then.
With the fumes, the flu and my coffee buzz, I decide to get out of there, so Homer and I jump in the Van and head for Matphot to pick up some equipment. Matphot has moved, so Homer types in the new address on the Garmin, though I think Homer (who is a born and raised New Yorker) has been hanging around Didier a little too much because we end up in front of the only ugly building in Paris.
It doesn't look like a rental stage, or production house, but we go in through this dirty yellow door anyway. The lobby has old fruit and 1987 computer parts lying in the corners. We walk up the first landing and this guy jumps out yelling at us in a language I've never heard and can't understand, but I can tell he's not too happy with us being there. Then another guy pops out of nowhere, then finally we're surrounded by about 10 people all yelling. I think I've seen too many movies, but I start thinking we've walked into a sleeper cell so I keep pointing at the map on my iPhone which really isn't getting the message out that we mean no harm, so Homer and I start backing our way down the stairs. I'm waving the iPhone like it's some kind of weapon, but let's face it, an iPhone really isn't that imposing to people who know how to weaponize old fruit and Commodore 64 computers.
As we hit the street the yellow door slams shut and I look at Homer and say, "What the hell was that all about?" and Homer replies "I seen it before". Nothing bothers a New Yorker.
So we make our way to the real Matphot.
Once back to the studio Phase wants their videographer to tape me. I keep saying no, I look like crap, I feel like crap, I think I was almost kidnapped today, so let's do this tomorrow, but they insist, so I sit there crammed on this little stool while the videographer tries to light the reflections out of my glasses. I keep protesting I don't want to do this video now, but because I'm so damn sick I don't think anyone believes I will live though the day, so I guess they want to get the sound bites in before I fall over. They shoot the video and though I blame nobody but myself, I don't like the footage. In fact I don't like it so much I ask Didier to shoot stills of the production and later cut my own movie from the stills.
The power of the web still amazes me. In just a few weeks this little clip got over 640,000 views.
The lead makeup artist is stuck on the Perifique and is 2 hours late.
Once again I promise myself that the next call sheet we produce for Hair and Makeup is going to have a start time of 6 am, that way they'll get there before noon.
Actually Virgil did an amazing job, and since he is also the prop master and put in about a billion hours and an accident on the Perifique is not his fault, so I guess I shouldn't complain, but asking a photographer to not complain about having less shoot time is like asking Dick Cheny to ride a bicycle to work.
The shoot is like any other shoot, other than Phase people are nice. Really nice, almost to nice. I'm used to clients with more "requests" and have a whole list of ways to work around it, in fact I'm proud of the 10,000 ways I've learned to say yes, no, maybe, we'll try, but it doesn't work that way, with the Phase people, because they don't seem to need too much convincing.
I love Didier's studio. It is small but intimate. We've got flags, gafer clamps on the beams, no seam paper pushed, pulled and crammed as far back as possible and I'm in the doorway of the water closet to shoot full length. Actually it's such a wonderful contrast to shooting in this space compared to our normal studio productions. Normal studio is a two walled cove in NY, that is so big and white you start to suffer from snow blindness. Not to get off topic but there is something really strange about working on a huge white sterile cove. I do it a lot, sometimes weekly, but it just always seems to be so formatted and indifferent that I wish these huge white places never existed. How photography ever ended up in these type of studios is beyond me, but sometimes I think there needs to be a rethink of our business and a moratorium of a year without studios.
Anyway, Didier's studio is lovely and I thank him for his hard work and hospitality.
At the end of the day everyone has a glass of wine, I drink another two dozen espressos and we makes plans for dinner.
Now at first I think I'll take the Phase people to the Pigalle and see if Danes really do get wild and dance on tables, but then I think better of it. For one I'm too damn sick to sit in smoky Pigalle bistro while twelve gypsies hustle me to buy those fake red roses, and the Phase people are too nice to tell me they would rather not, so instead we go to Le Cafe M on Boulevard Malesherbes.
When finish eating everyone says their farewells. No dancing on the tables. I crawl back to the hotel and ask the night manager if they have a local priest that can give me last rights.
For every project I build a cohesive website.
It starts with pre-production materials and ends with final delivery with links for all downloads.
My post production is all online because I'm always traveling and always working. I produced the web galleries and front page in Paris, then the image markup for retouching in NY, then the corrections in Dallas, the final delivery in Los Angeles.
I travel with so many computers, my hotel rooms looks like the safe house from a B grade spy movie and I expect any day to be sitting in the Avalon surrounded by Homeland Security as they yell over a loud speaker "Put That Mouse Down And Raise Your Hands".
The Final Phase Select
You gotta' laugh.
Flash forward three months.
Last week I'm in Samy's Fairfax buying more hard drives for a shoot.
As I round the corner past the rental counter there is a 10' tall poster of "my" shot reproduced beautifully.
Homer, Ann and I go dead stop in our tracks and think how cool, wow, that's really nice until I realized they left my name off of it.
Well, at least they didn't misspell my name.
I write, Phase apologizes, and explains they were under a time crunch and it just got missed, so they produce a PDF giving credit on the shoot, and are now reprinting the posters.
You know, this business is never what you think it's going to be. Some days it's so magical and wondrous it impossible to explain the rewards, and other times you just make the best of what comes.
I never viewed the credit line stuff as a complete deal breaker because the secret to this business is not making a good photograph, or even getting paid, the key to this business is making the best out of what is handed you, and continue to go forward. Or as my mother says – doing a good job is reward enough.
Whether I received credit or not, I'm glad I shot the image. It was an experience (from what I remember, actually fun) and hopefully gets good play for my studio and Phase.
I think it is important to note what a company like Phase is all about. They're not 4,000 people with stock options, corner offices and Google-like cafeterias. They are engineers and inventors first and marketing is somewhere way down the line. Put this in context to what we now think a camera company is; like Canon and Sony. Those are huge conglomerates, making product that covers a lot of territory, and we all know with their resource and size they do this quite well, though also can become somewhat homogenized as they are playing mostly to the masses.
A company like Phase is just the antithesis of this. When you talk to their marketing department you are talking to one person, not a committee, and if there is an issue you talk to the CEO. It's interesting because as much as digital capture has changed the way we shoot, display and present, the companies like Phase, Leaf, Sinar are just small companies that produce product from the heart.
Personally, I find it quite remarkable that these companies even exist in today's world of leveraged buyouts and stock holder demands. Today most marketing decisions are focus group tested and sifted through dozens of committees and hundreds of hours before they are even presented to a photographer to shoot. To me the medium format companies may not be the world's best at getting their message out, but they are very good at making a product that many of us would miss if they didn't exist.
Though I've learned to be a business person, I always have and always will be driven by the photograph, and I think the medium format companies share that calling. I know Phase does, and though all of us have a long list of things we'd like changed, modified or improved, it's cool that there are still small companies out there willing to innovate and produce specialized equipment. When the medium format companies say they make the world's best cameras, in so many ways I believe that is true.
To shoot for a company like Phase is much more intimate and personal than a lot of our large projects. In some ways there is more pressure to produce a successful image, because this photograph isn't going to hide in 14 dozen ad campaigns that roll out every week. This campaign is just one of a few so it must work without exception and instead of it going to the public, it goes to the ultimate critics . . . my peers.
When I now step back and look at this I have to ask myself, would I do it again? That's hard to answer because I don't make my living selling cameras.
Then why do it?
Well in all honesty because I believe it is an honor, but more importantly when I work, I work with my friends.
Sometimes my business is what people think it is. Travel the world, hang out with pretty people, eat well, stay in nice hotels.
Since we produce our own productions it's not always that glamorous, as we still stay in nice hotels (which doesn't matter because all you do is try to get 4 hours sleep) and a lot of the process can be a fast blur.
Regardless of the hours, the challenges, or the project, it's the people that make a difference. This project had crew and clients from Paris, Spain, America, England, Denmark, and Belgium.
I am always amazed to step off a plane (or out of a truck) and there are people I know from around the world, already working huge hours, usually at some form of personal sacrifice. I can't even begin to count the number of times we've had dinner at midnight or lunch at 4pm, or going without any meal for the day. I also can't count the times that after a project I learn that someone missed an important personal event, like a birthday, family reunion, a wedding.
I'd like to think they do it for me, but I know they are driven by their own personal calling, where their word is always backed up by results, and I'm proud to know each and every one of them.
When I'm asked who I work with my answer is simple. I work with my family.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due.
Ann Rutherford - Stylist/Producer
Didier Bizos - Friend, Paris production, studio owner.
Homer Murray - Vice President of everything that involves getting back to New York as soon as possible.
Jocelyne Storr-Pace – Productrice, Europe
Bethany Duggins - U.S. Producer, talent casting/negotiations
Virgil Venak-Prop Master, Makeup/Hair
Coco-Assistant Prop Master
Aline Chasse - Makeup/Hair
Jose Carayol - Assistant
Nicolas Leprovost -Assistant
Anca – Model, Major-Paris
James Russell – Photographer