Before the internet there were several ways a photographer could advertise his work. He or she could have cards, or in some cases a brochure, printed up to be mailed to art directors at ad agencies and magazines. There were “source books”, such as The Black Book and American Showcase that allowed you to design a page or a spread with samples of your photographs. Those books were then sent to art directors all over the country. You were also given 1000 copies of your page to use as leave behinds or you could mail them to people. In either case, printing cards to mail or buying pages in source books was a calculated investment. If the right client saw your work and gave you an order you could make a great return on your investment.
As one of my assistants once put it: “Instead of buying equipment, I’d rather rent it and put my money into advertising”. No matter how you approached it, you had to advertise. The most direct way was to make appointments with art directors and meet them face to face.
There came a time when I felt ready to invest in a source book page with a company I hadn’t tried before. Their rep came over to my studio and asked to see my portfolio. I had some of my black and white landscape prints hanging on the wall and after looking at my still life book she said: ”You know, I think you should wait. When your still lifes start to look like your landscapes you will be ready to advertise with us.”
When I got over the initial shock of (and anger over) what she said I tried to figure out what she meant. There was heart in my landscapes. I shot them for myself and I always looked for scenes which moved me. I realized that my still life work was done to please and impress some unknown art director “out there” in the world of ad agencies, someone who I hoped would give me jobs. That work was one step removed from my heart. I was always trying to guess what others might want to see.
It was a scary transition to cast my fate to the wind and forget “the market” in order to remember my heart. I had to find it within a still life setting, but I wasn’t sure where to look. How was I going to forget the world of clients, when I so desperately needed them?
That’s what I gave myself licence to do. Like Captain Horatio Hornblower I walked the deck. I thought about I what I really wanted to shoot. It began a period of forgetting about commercial concepts to shoot whatever I wanted, only I still wasn’t sure what that was. I made sketches of still life sets I had in mind. I bought a small notebook for the subway and began jotting down ideas whenever they came up.
Gradually the thought of hand made papers surfaced in the 8 Ball of my mind. I would use them as backgrounds, shoot flat and straight down on my sets. I shopped. I looked for the most interesting and beautiful hand made papers I could find. I looked for crazy props to put on top of them and started to have fun.
Marbles: Tiny Set, Big Camera
I decided the theme for one of the first photographs in my new series was going to be marbles on a handmade paper. Light going through the marbles would add another dimension to the photograph. I’d also add props found in my search around the city.
The “live” area of the photograph was perhaps 11” x 14” and my paper background was on top of a board, which was on top of a metal milk box turned upside down. I had to keep the set low because I was shooting straight down and didn’t want the camera (or my head) to hit the ceiling.
The camera of choice was an 8” x 10” supported by 9 foot studio stand. The stand was a giant tripod in theory, but in reality it was just a tall column with a heavy base. Imagine a big tree right in the middle of my studio.
To shoot a close up with a view camera was tricky. The closer you got to the object you were photographing, the farther the lens had to be from the film plane. The bellows of my camera in this case was racked out to 30”. That was a long way for light to travel from the lens to the film (reciprocity) so I would need more light than usual to get a correct exposure.
I began by arranging the bird, car, plane, flag and flowers where I wanted them, and had the cyclist head toward the light as a symbol of aspiration. Then I walked up the steps of my 7ft ladder and put my head under a focusing cloth to check the composition. The image was upside down, because that’s the way view cameras are. Some people think it helps you to compose your image and they may be right, but you don’t have much choice. With view cameras the image is upside down no matter what.
I made this particular image by myself. I had no assistants, which meant if I made a change on the set I would have to go back up the ladder to see if I liked what I did. I made a lot of trips up and down that ladder.
Then there was lighting. I think I had one main light on the set behind a large picture frame with diffusion material stapled to it. There were fill cards and tiny mirrors stuck to wood blocks with Funtak. I took polaroids to check exposure and most probably underexposed slightly so I could push the film development for more contrast and pop.
Taking the Picture
It was after sunset and my studio was pitch dark. I used strobes to light my set and when I felt all the objects were in their right places I climbed my ladder and pulled the slide covering the film in the film holder. I then went down to sit on a chair next to the powerpack generator of my strobes, turned off the modeling lights, grabbed the cable release of my camera lens and opened the shutter. I then pressed the button on the powerpack to “pop” the strobes. When a buzzer sounded I knew the strobe generator had recharged and I popped it again. I did this 30 times in the dark with my eyes closed. The strobe light was blindingly bright so you had to keep your eyes shut. The trick for me was keeping count of the number of times I did this. There was a great tendency to space out in the dark with your eyes closed. When I finished I closed the shutter with the cable release, turned the modeling lights on and went up the ladder to prepare the next sheet of film.
I then went into my darkroom to put the exposed film in a box and walked over to my lab to drop the film off. From there I went home. The next day I got the film to check exposure and the placement of my props. At one point I moved everything on my set, shot more film and realized I liked the first arrangement better. I put everything back the way it was the first time -as best I could- and shot it all over again…30 pops of the strobe in the dark for each exposure. The set and lights were left in place for several days.
That was the way I began to find my still life heart and a style which had more meaning for me.