Private Lives, Public Moments

Holly SeelerA great privilege of doing journalism is the temporary passkey it gives me into the lives of others.

At times, this entrance is burdened with sadness or results in a stinging anger from the injustice in our society that holds so many at the bottom despite all their efforts to the rise up.

More often than not, though, I am rewarded with the pleasure of meeting someone who is charming or beautiful or enticingly smart. They allow me their company, permit me to question them in precise detail or engage me emotionally as I photograph them.

I treasure these moments, hold them in memory as long as possible and savor them for their simplicity of purpose. For me they are the essence of journalism — written and photographic — the inquiry, the interaction, the engagement.

Meeting Holly Seeler and her family — Tess, Jack and Victor — the other day in Sausalito was one of those moments. Seeler has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that is attacking her ability to walk. Her response to the illness is energetic and forceful, and she has left a career as a creative director to focus on spreading the message of personal change through positive outlook and action.

I spent less than an hour with her. We made pictures. Her husband, a photographer as well, showed me his work. I met the dog, Roxie. Then I left — reluctantly. This was a good house, a good family. They gave me hour out of their lives. I added it to my collection.

See a gallery of pictures of Holly Seeler and her family.

Schwarzenegger’s CEO

Susan KennedyAs much as I don’t like politics, I confess that I do like politicians – in person, at least. One on one, pols of various stripes are among the smartest, most engaging people I’ve met while doing journalism. They’re articulate, their words are pointed, and they share the same off-center sense of humor that is found in most newsrooms.

Susan Kennedy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, belongs in that group. I photographed her in her Fairfax home for a Q&A with Marin Magazine. I have my issues with how she and the Governator are running California, but she’s someone you’d love to sit next to at dinner – intense, unflinching and intellectually persuasive. Plus, she’s twinkly.

When I got to her house the reporter was about 30 minutes into the interview. They were in a small office, big enough for her desk and two chairs. There was window on one side with a bench in it, and I immediately decided to use for a post-interview shot. The rest of the room was dark.

There was no space to set up an umbrella, so I decided to point a couple of snooted Speedlights at her, one from the long end of the office, the other from across her desk. I put one like on a stand, gelled it warm, super-clamped the other to the rim of the desk, and started shooting, squeezing my way around the reporter. (See an overview of the scene.)

About 10 frames in, the clamp popped off the desk and it and the strobe clattered to the floor. The upside was that it loosened us all up; the downside was the $100 repair bill.

I reset another strobe (didn’t you mother tell to always have a back-up?) on a stand, and began again.

I shot for about 10 minutes more, listening to them talk, working the angles. I liked the light. It was strong, but tight. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to getting her by the window for some softer light.

That wasn’t to be, though. Another five minutes and her phone rang (with the caller visible on the video-phone screen on her desk.). She was late for a meeting. By the time I stowed the gear, Kennedy was on the conference call.

The lesson of the day is one I learned early on – both as a photographer and as a reporter: As soon as you enter the room (or the event or the whatever), start working. It may be your only chance.

Tale of Two Publishers

Ever since Dave Mitchell, the curmudgeonly, Pulitzer-winning editor of the Point Reyes Light sold the weekly newspaper in 2005 to Robert Plotkin, a Columbia J-school grad and former deputy D.A., the new publisher has been making news as much as he’s been publishing it.

The big complaint from the locals was that Plotkin was a disengaged auslander more interested in self-aggrandizement than covering the prosaic doings of local news and, more irritating, not publishing letters to the paper as freely as his predecessor.

To make matters worse, Plotkin and Mitchell had a post-sale philosophical falling out that end up in court complete with restraining orders.

In response, the unhappy former readers did what hardly anyone is doing these days – launched a new newspaper, the weekly West Marin Citizen. Its publisher is Joel Hack (above), who had run a smaller paper up the coast in Bolinas (best known for being the scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds).

The two papers look quite different. The Light reflects its ambitions for glory with a more professional design and some high-falutin’ writing by the grad school interns Plotkin entices with dreams of being the next Didion or McPhee. The Citizen is rougher, its pictures more snapshot-like and its writing, well, uneven but still informative.

I got an assignment to photograph both publishers for a local magazine, which was going to print a version of a Columbia Journalism Review story done by Jonathan Rowe, a writer from West Marin.

The two men couldn’t have been more different.

Hack invited me out to go on his weekly rounds of delivery and collection on my first phone call. Plotkin quizzed me repeatedly about the story and about my concept for the photo. “What’s your vision?” he asked. It took several more calls but he agreed to the photograph only if I did it in a location of his choice and not show any other parts of the paper’s newsroom, which he said were under reconstruction. Done.

I met Hack first and he fit the description offered by the writer: “… he looks a little like a Joel Hack.” We talked a bit and as he began pulling papers out of the trunk of his car to deliver to stores around town, I began shooting.

The light was full-on sunshine, but I made some nice images with him sitting on the edge of the trunk surrounded by papers. We walked. I shot, but the shadows were terrible. We did the post office, a grocery story and a book store. In the latter, I got some nice frames of him lit by the front window counting money. I had something we could use, but nothing with pop.

Suddenly, Hack says he’s got to go. We’ve been together about 20 minutes and I had been thinking we’d have an hour. One more shot, I tell him, something out on the street. I tell him to get an armload of papers. Then I grab a light stand and an SB800, put a Pocket Wizard on it and have him stand across from local landmark bar with the sun to his back. I shoot 10 or 12 frames and we’re done. That’s the shot the magazine used (1/250, F10, ISO 100).

Plotkin’s office is down the street, so I pack of up bag of lights and stands. At the paper, he leads me up a steep set of stairs to an attic office with angled ceilings so low there’s no room to raise and umbrella. There is a skylight, but the light in the room is dim and without a strobe I’d have to shoot at 1/30 wide open. I set up a couple of SB800s, one flagged, the other snooted on either side of him and start bouncing the light off things – a wall, a refector, etc.

To complicate things, Plotkin has constructed a “set” he wants to be photographed in front of, an artfully arranged group of artifacts and posters that I suppose he believes conveys who he is. He’s got a good eye, though and I like the way it looks. But after 15 minutes of shooting from various angles (and even squeezing an umbrella in very low), I still can’t get the framing and the light to work together, so I move him around and remove some of the stuff.

I turn off one of the lights, come in tight and tell him to hold still (and tell me not to shake). Then I made the shot (1/60, 5.6 ISO 400). The flash is not doing much more than adding some highlight and warmth to his face.

In the end, I’m pleased with the results. I’m learning to make good shots more quickly, a continual challenge for most of my assignments, for many of which I have no more than 15 or 20 minutes.

Smile — don’t!

David Hobby, the Baltimore Sun shooter turned lighting (and Mountain Dew) guru points to Time Magazine’s cover of Elliot Spitzer by celeb bio-photographer Platon as an example of how to add interest to mugshots. Says David:

“Generally, you do not get much time when shooting celebrities and other famous people. So you have to spend your ammo wisely. You want to get a photo that connects with the viewer, but you don’t have to hold the button down and dupe that look continuously for the whole three minutes you have them captive in front of you. Do you really need that 37th version of a canned smile with eye contact”

If I’m doing a headshot and my natural charisma is not pulling out the expression I want, I’ll use a trick I learned during my early newspapering days in Berkeley from a reporter named Bob Kroll.

After Bob had asked a question during an interview and the subject had answered he would wait, letting silence fill the air until the subject became uncomfortable enough to start talking again. The best stuff, the best quotes always came after the pause. The first response was canned, the second real.

Patience can be the key to a good photo — even when you’re in a hurry.

ALSO: For a great editorial use (and well-placed caption) of a photo shot before a news story broke, see this Elliot Spitzer cover by New York Magazine.