Epiphany from a Writer

I like to photograph writers. There is always an interesting conversation. When publishers make writers pay for their own photo, I even offer a ‘friendly not Stephen King writer rate.”

So in early spring Ramie Targoff, a professor at Brandeis, contacted me about photographing her for a new book she had in the works. Special writer fee applied. I had taken her picture a few years earlier and I counted the assignment as ‘easy’. She is brilliant, personable, and beautiful. In these situations, I think to myself that I will be fine as long as I keep the lens in focus. For the record, my default mode is to seek the warmth and humanity of a subject. I doubt this would work on Vladimir Putin.

One chilly, sunny afternoon I arrived at her house to take the pictures. We discussed what she wanted, figured out two locations and then started the photography. We talked. I cajoled. She smiled. I left confident that the shoot had gone very well. Two weeks after I delivered the images I was startled to learn that she was disappointed. I agreed to re-shoot.

After thinking that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, I pulled myself together and returned for the new session. And during that experience, I realized that her goal was not to picture her ‘real self’ but to portray herself in a manner more in keeping with the dark and serious nature of the new book. Modern advertising would call it working the Brand. When I did editorial photography it was trying to interpret the writer by the book written. I changed course.

Going  in that direction with the new photography was substantially less challenging than my earlier default mode of seeking a person’s warmth and connection. Here I was primarily concerned with light, composition, posture, head tilts and, of course, keeping the lens in focus. I left somewhat confident, delivered the photos, and heard back that she was thrilled with the photography.

Photography is fundamentally about surface. Photographers make many decisions through lighting, angle, lens choice and direction about how to capture that surface at any one moment. Was the first time around more real? Was the second time about creating a brand and therefore less real? Or are we all multifaceted and photography captures those changing facets, 1/100 of a second at a time? The  second one was the better photograph.


Michael (Moore) and Me


One after another, two messages came in. I had an assignment to photograph filmmaker Michael Moore. Then, a message read that Michael Moore was difficult. I was curious and excited about Michael Moore. He is a terrific filmmaker and his work had a strong influence (Bowling for Columbine) on my now grown son who is a writer. Apparently, however, many stipulations came with his contract to speak at Bunker Hill Community College. Some were rather extreme. Some appeared to contradict his populist message. This did not bode well for the photo I had to take for their Magazine cover.

The shoot day arrived with two bits of good news. First, my son Miles was available to help out. Second, the project had been assigned to a terrific graphic designer, Karen Woo. Miles and I arrived the college two hours before the shoot time to prep. Karen’s plan was to shoot close, have Michael roll his eyes upward and also have him wear a Bunker Hill baseball cap. Good luck with that. Cut line on the cover, "looking for trouble" a riff on  the title of his most recent book Here Comes Trouble.

We werealloted 15 minutes to get the shot. We built the set…white seamless with highly diffused lighting to mimic natural daylight. One version would have Moore peeking from behind a curtain; the other would be against the plain white seamless. We hung the theatre curtain; then we practiced. Miles stood in for Moore. We were ready.

Then we waited. Moore was late. He was coming from New York and was not on a charter airplane as speculated. He was on a train stuck somewhere in eastern Connecticut. Time passed, the speech time got closer. After an hour off nervous waiting we looked out a window and saw a Black SUV pull up. Moore emerged from the truck wearing a sweatshirt and loose dark blue athletic shorts and sneakers. He was dressed for comfort. Soon he made it up to our location. I had no idea how it would go. New allotted shoot time was five minutes.

And what a surprise! He was unfazed. He was generous. I’ve imagined him as a bully, but he presented himself as kind and physically vulnerable. He wore the BHCC hat. He was serious. He smiled, Then when I asked, he rolled his eyes (five times) up and to the side. We had our shot.

After changing into blue jeans, he went on stage and gave a tremendous talk. He read from his anecdotal, funny biography. He took questions. After hearing an official urge attendees to contribute to a scholarship fund, Moore stepped up and offered to match donations that afternoon up to $10,000. He donated the full amount. Read about it at this link.


He may be trouble. He may be difficult to work with. But he is smart, insightful and has a very big heart.


Group Photograph: The Unexpected



In early one August afternoon, my assistant, Danny, and I headed south to Cape Cod to photograph Rick Burnes and his extended family. The photo was for The Boston Foundation’s Annual Report. Rick had thrived in the tech sector, actively worked for Boston Foundation programs and he and his wife, Nonnie, are generous donors. Rick and Nonnie are also role models for how donors can make a difference. I knew there would be 8 people in the photograph at the Burnes ‘camp.’ The Burnes’ have 3 grown children and all of them were visiting with their wives and kids.

 In group photos, there are many approaches, each posing different technical and editorial challenges. When I can, I like to layer the group. Rather than having everyone on the same plane, I set them atdifferent distances, arrange them, let them sometimes overlap. That was my plan with the Burnes’. I also had to be aware that the photo was destined for a two page spread, with a gutter running down the left side of the right quarter of the image. No people in that space.


We arrived on a beautiful late afternoon. Everyone had recently returned from the beach. There were many children on the scene. I chose the location to give a sense of place and depth. Then while the little kids were playing elsewhere the adults gathered and I began placing them, with Rick and his wife at the center. Finally everyone was in place. The fill lighting was set to go and I started shooting.

What followed were little adjustments of each part of the picture and an ongoing effort to engage everyone in the process. Then the something happened. One of the children was loose, running around the house. Unaware, he zoomed by the light stands toward the set and suddenly realizing his mistake, he stopped in his tracks. He looked at me. I saw the possibility and told him to keep going. He took off and, in the end, he made a good picture much better.

Good photography is about control and technical skill. It also begs for openness and acceptance of theunexpected.


Springtime in Academia

Exeter Sports Opportunities

"Oh My God, we have to get the photography done before classes end.” Spring is supposedly here, thus heralding in an annual panic attack. Yes, it’s time for the annual university, college and independent school sprint to complete publications and projects.


I’ve worked on projects for Wellesley, MIT, UMASS, Yale,  Bunker Hill Community College,Agnes Scott, Wake Forest, Oberlin, Macalester, Hobart and William Smith Colleges and many other institutions. Also, I’ve completed both admissions and development work for independent schools such as Exeter, St. Paul’s, Ethical Culture School (NYC), Durham Academy (NC),  and Miss Hall’s School among others. Check out my website and email or call if my work looks like a good fit with your school sprint this spring!

And don’t worry. Today’s April Fools Day snow will melt. Although I do remember one late April day in Geneva (NY)) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in search of spring, looking at the snow piling up on the somewhat green lawns. It is a process, spring, not a date.

April 1, 20011 (no kidding!)


Meeting the Hurricane (Dr. Carter)

Last week I met  Rubin Carter. Yes, it was "The Hurricane from Bob Dylan's song ( “That's the story of the Hurricane/but it won't be over til he clears his name").  Well, not really. 35 years have passed since the song brought international attention to the plight of boxer Hurricane Carter. And now he is Dr. Rubin Carter after a long arduous journey.

In 1975 I was a photographer working in New York. Bob Dylan had been my idol since high school and to this day I am amazed at the brilliance of his songwriting and the mystery of his persona. Dylan wrote Hurricane while he was traveling with the Rolling Thunder Revue. As good fortune would have it, I was dispatched to Florida to photograph one of their concerts in Sarasota, ostensibly working for Dylan himself. Upon arrival, I was somewhat crestfallen when his manager Louie Kemp told me  that the best way for me to work would be for Dylan not to know that I was anywhere  in the 2000 seat concert hall. So much for  hangin’ with my hero.

Dylan’s song was the portal to my awareness of Hurricane Carter’s struggle and imprisonment for a triple murder he vehemently denied ever committing. When Dylan wrote the song,Carter had already spent eight defiant years in Trenton State Prison, steadfastly proclaiming  his innocence. Through both the public awareness raised by Dylan’s song and the efforts of many others, Carter was able to make a series of appeals. Then, in 1975, due the court's finding of egregious misconduct by the prosecution, Carter’s conviction was overturned, but he was not pardoned.

Then,  like many other people, I then lost track of his struggle. Within a year of his release,he was re-tried and convicted  and spent 9 more years in jail before he was finally freed by the federal courts. He survived those years through his own tough love mindfulness. No stories, no future nor past, the jail did not exist. The help he received from a group of Canadians in winning his ultimate release also led him to life on a commune in Toronto. After three years he left to live independently and he has remained in Canada to this day. He earned a doctorate, worked for a prisoner innocence project, and wrote four books. The publication of his latest book chronicling  his spiritual journey, led him to the event where I met him and took his picture.

Carter was always described as something of a clothes dude and when we met I immediately saw that at least that much had not changed. He arrived in a fitted black suit, shiny black shoes,  a vibrant blue monogrammed shirt and he was  wearing a Stetson hat. I asked if we could do some photos with the hat on and some with it off and he said, “The hat is always on” and indeed it was on all day.

With someone whose story is so public, whose path was so tortuous and contradictory it is hard to know where to start the conversation. What was clear was that at 73 Dr. Carter was no longer the volatile, angry Hurricane he was said to be 45 years ago. He was affable, kind and patient.  I simply sat close, tried to help him and the camera with little physical adjustments and soon we were done. Later he gave a lecture, held up his boxing championship belt, signed books and went on his way, He declared that he would not have changed anything because he believed each moment was necessary and connected to the next moment and it was great that to be where he was this day meeting people, telling his story and, of course, making money doing it.  And then, off he went into the cold New England night.