On the Job: Cancer

CT scan at Marin Cancer Institute

You’ve got cancer. You’ve got several bags of toxic chemicals connected to your body, hoping the chemo kills the tumors. Or, you’re lying beneath a huge X-ray machine, whose beams are burning the cancer out of you. In the middle of this a photographer approaches and asks if he can take your picture.

Why not? you think, so you say yes. He does, and a few weeks later there you are in a local magazine illustrating a story about the hospital where you’re being treated.

This is much of what I do — enter other people’s lives just long enough to tell a story (or, more accurately, a small moment of a story). I’m always surprised and forever in debt to those who grant me entrance, even when their  lives might not be going particularly well in one way or another.

The inside-out view of CT scan machine above and the strip of photos below were part of a story in Marin Magazine about the Marin Cancer Institute and its director, Dr. Francine Halberg, who is shown below talking with colleagues.

photocrati gallery

On the Job: Community College

College of Marin students YouTube is awash with behind-the-scenes videos of famous photographers like Annie Liebowitz and other high-end shooters doing magazine or fashion shoots. The videos show gobs of equipment and small armies of camera assistants, stylists and make-up artists. With all these people scurrying about, usually to an up-tempo soundtrack, the viewer is given a sense that each of these photographers’ images — and by extension the magazines who pay them — is a production of grand artistic and financial scale.

The everyday reality for most photographers (Liebowitz included) is quite different. Although I do hire assistants and stylists for some jobs, many others consist just of my primary crew: Me.

The picture, shot for the cover of the College of Marin’s latest class catalogue is a good example.

The image started with a call from the college’s communication director. We had worked together a few times before. She needed a picture of several students in one of the school’s new medical programs and wanted to use the emergency room sign at a local hospital for a backdrop. She also needed the photo taken the following day. And at mid-day — the only time everyone was available.

I responded with a photographer’s two most important words: No problem.

I drove by the hospital for look-see. Awful. Cluttered background everywhere, and all but one of the emergency room signs were in parking lots.

The next day, the communication director and I met at the hospital, walked the area together and chose this spot, the only one I thought would work. What you see here is just a few feet of sidewalk. On either side is an array of pipes.

I set up one light in a round softbox, snooted another on the sign, gave direction to the students and started shooting. I’d stop every few frames to move them a bit, add or remove a prop, take off the white jackets, put them back on and adjust the light (which is only about 3 or 4 inches out of the frame.)

I made this frame about halfway through 20 minutes of shooting them as a group. I then did individual shots of each.

Later, after the college chose the shot it wanted from a set of proofs I put online for them, I worked up the image extensively in Photoshop — lots of skin smoothing and cleanup, about an hour in all.

This was not a big job, but it was a satisfying one. A good client needed a photo in a hurry. I overcame a horrible location with some selective framing and light. And the college was happy with the results. A good day’s work for a working photographer.