I had the pleasure of sitting down with friend and colleague, Jamie Kripke for a conversation about our lives in photography. It’s always surprising when two people from different backgrounds end up not only doing (essentially) the same thing, but how similar our perspectives really are.
If a film screens in front of a live audience, is it “Live”? What if there are live performers and no audience? “Live?” Hmmm, one hand clapping I guess. In any case, two of my films will be screening at the Dance on Camera 2014 Film Festival in front of a live audience at (of course) Lincoln Center. Even better they will be showing on opening night (Friday, January 31st). The films are titled “Crosswalk” and “Dervishes”. “Crosswalk” is performed by Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Jessica Swanson (both are still alive). “Dervishes” is performed by Katherine Helen Fisher and Jaime Verazin (also both still alive). Both films were edited by Sam Chase, and at last check, he too is alive.
So, if you happen to be in New York and around Lincoln Center (and you are in fact alive) come see the films. Kate Fisher will be “live” at the opening, which only complicates the existential question altogether.
Drive south from San Francisco for a few hours and then turn left at “Where in the Hell Am I.” Keep driving a few more hours and go just past “Middle of Nowhere” and you will have arrived at Inyokern, cleverly named by combining the names of Inyo and Kern counties. It’s still in California, though not the California that jumps to the minds of tourists. This is high desert, where shade is at the same premium as water. Just the perfect location to shoot the brochures for Mazda’s 2014 full line of cars – for seven glorious days.
Now, I actually love the desert. There’s something about being able to see 100 miles in any direction that’s a great antidote for city living, but there are a few things about the desert that are easy to forget. There’s Weather (with a capital W) in the desert. The sun can be relentless, so making shade is a priority. Also included in “Weather” would be the 30 mile an hour winds that come up around 4pm almost every day. (Coincidentally, that’s about the time the sun starts moving into position to make some pictures). Of course, the desert has different priorities – like blowing away anything that you could put up to make shade. You get the idea. We were also warned about the Mojave Red Rattlesnake and how it’s the most poisonous rattlesnake in the world. A quick Google search and, check, stay away from those critters. The skies in the desert can be awesome, in the purest sense of the word (see the picture), and I guess that would be Weather too.
The closest city that has lodging would be Ridgecrest. A lovely and flat desert town mostly inhabited by military folk and people attached to military folk and businesses that mostly service military folk. We had concerns that there would be little to do at night and less to eat. We actually did pretty well. We found a restaurant that served sushi and Chinese food. Remarkably good for not being near the sea. It had entertainment too – in the bar (which is quite common in these parts), Stacey, the bartender, needed almost no provocation to illuminate the patrons to the details of her storied, quite dramatic life. Some people can sure pack a lot into their twenties. An E! Network reality show in the making. One night we drove the 14 miles to the eight buildings they call the town of Wells. The specialty of the eatery/brewery we visited was beer, brewed in whiskey casks. It was actually quite good, and necessary to wash down the not so good food. Depending on your point of view, either the high point or the low point was coming across a bottle of Glazed Donut Vodka.
I know it sounds like we didn’t take too many pictures. In fact, we shot every 2014 model Mazda makes, several times (did I mention all the cars were red?). I have to give tremendous credit to our art director, Diana Phillips, for the fact that between all the adventures, we made a lot of work. And without the vision to take advantage of the great things our location had to offer (instead of sticking to what was in the comp), we were able elevate the images beyond where they started. I mean, really, how do you pass on those skies? It didn’t hurt that our crew was highly experienced, professional and came equipped with a great sense of humor. There was even room for “T Rex Trying” jokes (try the link if you need a laugh…) which, for some reason, seemed even more funny in the middle of nowhere.
So, a sincere thank you to Jessica, Mark, Alicia, Josh, Geoffrey, James, and the Mojave Red Rattlesnake, who was no match for our fearless leader Diana.
Last year was the 30th anniversary of Alonzo King LINES Ballet. During one of our photo shoots with the LINES dancers for the upcoming season, the idea of a book to mark the occasion was floated around. The conversation went something like this – Robert Rosenwasser: “Since it is our 30th anniversary season, we were thinking about doing a book.” Alonzo King: “I think it could be really beautiful.” RJ: “It should probably have a lot of pictures…”
Of course, it was more complicated than that but essentially it was the the beginning of the Book Project. We did another photo shoot for the book, and then another. Some pictures were used for the seasons in between and there were one or two more shoots. About 140 pictures later, we have a book (as you can see from the picture above).
This season of Alonzo King LINES Ballet opens Friday, October 25th in our home town of San Francisco. Coincidentally, there will be a book marking the occasion on sale in the lobby. While I’m sure I’ve answered all of your questions, should you have any more, I’ll be on stage with Alonzo after the Sunday, October 27th performance to answer the one or two that may come up between now and then.
You would think after shooting dancers for so many years, my path would have led me to circus performers long before now. I’ve shot a few dancers that were also circus performers, but it wasn’t until a recent shoot (see below) that I really got familiar with a group of individuals in our local circus scene. Now, as a photographer, you’ve got to think Circus + Pictures has to be a good thing. And you’d be right. You’d also be right that I’m not the first (or the last) to think that. As spectacular as the performances are, I really didn’t want to tread over well traveled ground. But as time and circumstances (again, see below) went by, I increasingly counted this family of circus performers among my friends.
The photographer in me finally overcame my reluctance and the imperative to make some pictures took over. I began to notice a small overlap between the circus world and the world of avant-garde fashion of say, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen, only with a little more contortion and a lot less money. I also wanted these pictures to be more portraits than fashion and more fashion than performance. Truth is, the notion of what they “should” be flew out the window after the first session. I did want to shoot them all on a black background. At least that stayed true to plan.
It started out like any other day. Unlock the studio doors. Turn on the lights. Send in the Circus Girls. Sixteen Circus Girls to be exact. No more, no less. I’m sure you’re asking “Why Circus Girls? Why not models or even dancers?” I guess it depends entirely on how one would answer a simple question – “How would you feel about getting mostly naked, getting painted for 12 hours, climbing all over other mostly naked painted women to make the shape of a car – all so we can take a picture?” If the answer is “Hell yes, sounds fantastic, when do we start?!” then you’re probably talking to a circus performer. Here in San Francisco, we have a small but flourishing circus community. They come at things a little differently than most people. First, these women have mad skills – contortionists, aerialists, trapeze artists, and ten other things I don’t know the names of. All with clear allergies to desk jobs and a slight addiction to adrenaline. Kinda like a deck of cards with 52 Jokers.
So when Dean Oram from The Richards Group called me and asked if I could make a car out of painted muscular women’s bodies for a Fiat ad, I said “Hell yes, sounds fantastic, I know just the people to call, when do we start?!” That leads us back to sending in the Circus Girls. Hot on their heels follows Craig Tracy, our Body Painter imported directly from New Orleans, and his team. Everything’s in place. The painting begins – one body at a time. The hours roll on and I begin to notice a variety of handstand push-ups, ungodly body bends and dancing to music no one can hear. I guess a mostly naked, partially painted circus performer has to spend the time somehow. Wheels begin to become clear, headlights on the sides of faces, logos conspicuously placed on a back, and slowly, a car takes shape. Everyone takes their positions and a test shot is taken. Everyone crowds around the monitor to discuss the changes. Everyone goes back to either painting, being painted, or waiting to be painted. As the hours go by, a new normal sets in. Many trips to the craft service table, lots of bending and lots of over-bending and dozens of finishing paint touch-ups. And then, finally, everyone takes their positions for the last time and we make a picture. Done and done. Champagne, collective laughter, euphoria, and a sublime realization of just how strange and wonderful the day really was.
And just like any other day, I have far too many people to thank for helping make that day, in every sense of the word, fantastic. I will add that these projects don’t come together without a lot of people on the agency side pushing for a good idea and a client (thank you Casey Hurbis) who will champion an idea until it is done. Far easier said than done. Kinda like handstand push-ups.
There’s this thing called TenduTV, and TenduTV has this thing called the “Essential Dance Film” series. Included in the series is one of the films I made with Kate Fisher and Jaime Verazin. It’s called Origami. It was also in a couple of film festivals – Dance Camera West and The San Francisco Dance Film Festival.
I bring all that up because I’ve decided not to write about Origami. I am, in fact, writing about Origami’s sister piece called Dervishes, which we finished a number of months later. I’m feeling a bit defensive now that Dervishes is out. See, I was raised with an older brother, and as you might expect, he got all the attention so I’m quite familiar with that feeling. I mean Dervishes also features the lovely Kate and Jaime. It was shot on the same day, in the same studio, with the same camera, and all I hear is, Origami, Origami, Origami. I know Mom likes Origami best and, yes, I know Origami came out first, but come on, what about Dervishes? Lots of really nice shots of really nice dancing and it’s a whole lot peppier. When is Dervishes getting its day? Really?
Ok, ok, I guess I should probably try entering Dervishes into a few festivals too.
Even though I asked several times about how to pronounce his name, I’m sure I still butchered it the entire time we worked together. Luckily, he was gracious enough to answer to most anything that was even close. His name was Smilde, Berndnaut Smilde. He’s an affable Dutch fellow who just happens to make clouds – indoors. He was in San Francisco at the behest of Meg Shiffler, of the SF Arts Commission, to make some clouds – indoors. I repeated that because, as you can see, it’s quite remarkable. We met the day before to look over the room, talk about how we will proceed, and to try a few more variations on Berndnaut’s name. We were working in the Green Room of the Veterans Building near San Francisco’s Civic Center. The Green Room, I was told, is a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. In the moment, I was impressed, not having been to Versailles. When I got home I looked it up. Let’s just say that if our beloved Green Room has any DNA in common with the Hall of Mirrors, it is only in the minds of the tour guides on the Duck Tours of the Bay. While the Green Room is quite lovely in it’s own right, the resemblance ends there. There was a mirror at each end, and it was indeed a Room, and it was in fact Green. Berndnaut was also gracious about that too. He’s probably been to Versailles, considering it’s only 275 miles from Amsterdam. The good news is that the people who manage the Green Room, unlike Versailles, are willing to have storm clouds made in our version.
The process goes something like this: After everything is is ready with the lights and camera, Berndnaut goes into action. He walks around the area where the cloud is to form in ritualistic fashion, and sprays a mist into the cold air. A machine spits out a burst of another mist and when the two mists mingle, voila – Cloud. I shoot for around 8 seconds until it begins to dissipate and turn into something that is not a cloud. We let the room clear and the process starts over again. During the room clearing phase, there is lots of talk about the merits of the previous cloud and how we might improve the next. Lots of concrete talk about the ephemeral nature of clouds. And so it went. More clouds, and more talk. A few more clouds and a little more talk. I must say here, that the image you see is what was really there. No fancy photoshop tricks – just makin’ pictures of clouds. In the end, the day goes by far too quickly. I don’t really want to stop. Turns out creating the weather is rather exhilarating.
It started out as a pretty normal call. “We’re doing an ad for the new FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio and there’s a shot of the car and, oh yeah, another shot of a Topless Supermodel. Would you be interested?”, asked Andy Coulston, the art director from The Richards Group. Yeah I know, we’ve all heard that a million times, but I thought, “The FIAT is a pretty wicked little car, it might make a great shot – I hope the car is black” so I said “Sure Andy, I think we can do that.” And then Andy made it really interesting, “Oh yeah, we want a scorpion in the shot”. Excellent. “What, like on the steering wheel, driving the car, or on the dash, or hangin’ out across the Abarth scorpion logo?!” “All that would be cool” Andy said, “but I want it crawling on the Topless Supermodel’s hip?” “Sure, OK, that’ll work too – but no scorpion on the car?” I said. Andy replied with an understanding “Nope.”
When I show up on set, the car is already there – yes, black, and the Scorpion-Handler is also there. She had all kinds of scorpions in jars and little cages. Brown ones, black ones, and even an albino white one, all just chillin’, scorpion style. “What do they eat? Do they fight a lot? Can I hold one?” I had a million questions, but we had to get our shots. Catrinel, our Topless-Supermodel was in makeup when we discussed the shoot and introduced her to the Scorpion-Handler (from, appropriately enough, Reptile Rentals) who was holding a rather spunky scorpion. Catrinel didn’t seem warm and fuzzy toward her costar, but no matter, everything was ready. The lights were in place, Mitzi Spallas-Hair-and-Makeup person and Jen Pinkston-Stylist were at the ready and, of course, the sand was perfectly manicured. I showed Catrinel where she needed to be on the set and she nestled into place, just like she’d been to the beach before. Uncanny. Everyone’s eyes were riveted and I could hear the chatter from the crew. “Did you see how easily the top goes down?, Really nice rims, too. I understand she’s fast and sounds amazing.” I had to interrupt “Hey, I’m up here – working on this shot right now – leave the car alone. Focus! Focus!”
Cue the scorpion. Brown? Black? Stinger capped or bare? Decisions, decisions, decisions. We went with the black scorpion and uncapped stinger. Catrinel was not terribly amused at our choices (maybe she preferred brown scorpions over black) but the shots were looking just as we envisioned. Catrinel looking at the scorpion like a beloved cuddly pet, a “familiar” if you will, self satisfied with her command over the wicked little creature. We were shooting away, the scorpion was crawling around, whipping it’s tail everywhere as scorpions will. I felt like we already got our shot but wanted to make sure we were covered, so I kept shooting. Over time Catrinel, while very professional, seemed to be losing her “excitement”. In a number of the shots, that sense of calm and pet-like control of the scorpion just wasn’t there in her eyes. I mean, what’s up? It’s not everyday you get to play with a predatory arthropod. Awesome, right?
I asked our Scorpion-Handler if the glycerin we sprayed on Catrinel might be bothering the scorpion. She replied with a short “we’ll see”. Somehow that was not the answer Catrinel was looking for. I’m not sure if it was fear I was sensing, or maybe she was just getting bored. After all, just the day before, they shot the TV ad with the scorpion crawling up Catrinel-soon-to-be-Topless-Supermodel’s back (ya gotta see the ad…). I gave the Scorpion Handler a “whats’ up?” look and she said that “during the TV, Catrinel couldn’t actually see the scorpion because it was on her back. Now she has to watch it crawl all over her hip. Maybe that’s a problem?” Catrinel’s eye’s lit up as if to say “Bingo” (or whatever that is in Italian). So I asked her, “Are you having a problem with the scorpion today? Does it bother you to see the scorpion crawling on your bare hip?” She paused in that oh so Topless-Supermodel way and said, in quite clear English, “I don’t want to die.”
And that, my friends, would be a wrap.
Today, January 22, 2013 is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision we now know simply as Roe v. Wade. I was a freshman in college in 1973 and I remember the groundswell of cultural emotion the news inspired. I also remember, while it was a loud bell in the social structure of the time, it didn’t seem to last too long. Yes, it was seen as a major victory for the Women’s Movement, but that struggle was far from over. The Civil Rights movement was also well under way, and oh yeah, there was also a war going on.
Forty years later, fresh off a brutal election, there still seems to be a “War on Women”, and minority voting rights are once again (still) under attack. Now, even more than before, Roe V. Wade is one of the biggest lightning rods in our culture, and oh yeah, there is also a war going on. The more things change…
What has remained the same is the battles that were fought in the past are constantly being re-fought, and any victories are ephemeral. It seems if we want to hold the social high ground, we must keep each generation engaged in the causes we thought were settled.
About a month ago, I was contacted to participate in a project called “40” – 40 Faces. 40 Photographers. 40 Years of Choice, which serves to launch the “Choice Out Loud” campaign. The project launched today to mark the anniversary, 40 years on, of Roe v. Wade. The idea was simple, ask forty photographers to make images of forty women. The implications are much greater. These women represent the next wave of stakeholders in the struggle to keep the rights they already have. Within the diversity of their faces and images, they can remind and engage people that the fight for a woman’s right to choose what she does or doesn’t do with her body is up to her and her alone.
Please take a look at the website, consider the project and what it stands for. I am proud to be included. As for me, the years have made me realize that I have fewer and fewer absolutes in my viewpoints. This is one of them – absolutely.
I would like to thank Bunny Zlotnik, who was my gracious and willing subject, and Renee Rael who did the hair and make up. I don’t really know how they both felt about the larger subject of women’s rights, but I will say, when I asked them to participate, I didn’t have to ask them twice.
This is the trailer for the film. By the way, that’s my shot of Bunny in the opening sequence. To see the entire film go to “Choice Out Loud”