I swam naked in a quarry with REM. Well, not Stipe, he was too shy. The rest of us all skinny dipped. And while that might have seemed like the hippest afternoon ever, the real jolt came later that evening, when I jammed with my favorite band. I just about fainted when Peter Buck dropped a big red Rickenbacker into my hands and plugged it in to their monster amp setup. And then, I was actually playing with a major rock band, deploying every one of the three chords I knew. That shoot in Athens comprised an entire weekend of hanging out, having fun, playing music, and taking pictures, and was pretty much the coolest moment in this young photographer’s career. Not sure whether it was the band, the long, leisurely shoot-interspersed-with-hanging-out vibe or the fact that it resulted in my first national magazine cover, but it will forever remain a zenith in a career filled with lovely moments.
As a sort of coda, I photographed REM some years later, at the Chateau Marmont in LA. Our careers had progressed commensurately, and the band was doing a press day, moving around the hotel doing shoot after shoot for widely varying clients. They got to me, and due to the limited time alotted (“Five minutes, not a minute more!”) I got right to work. After a couple of rolls, Stipe holds up his hand, closes his eyes and asks me to fire off a few frames. “You’ve shot us before!” he intones, and I remind him of our long relaxed weekend in Athens years prior. Of course he remembers that (apparently they didn’t swim naked with that many photographers), but what triggered his memory was the sound of my camera’s shutter. To not only remember such a thing, but pick it out from among ten or fifteen shoots that day was staggering to me. Of course he’s a great singer, songwriter, and musician, but that moment showed me just how differently tuned artists can be. Then, of course we all got to chatting and my “five minute” shoot became an hour, to the utter befuddlement of the publicists and suits.
Of course, the time Two Live Crew threatened to kill me served as counterbalance. Or the apiring two year old Nickelodeon model who burst into laughter right before peeing all over the set causing his apiring mother of a cover boy to burst into tears of her own, well, that put things into perspective as well.
Making images with people whose livelihood depends on it proved to be a lifelong adventure. I asked Steven Tyler to yell at me a foot from my face, tried in vain to prevent Peter Gabriel from helping move heavy lighting gear, and sold Paula Abdul the hip dining room chairs right off the set. My favorite thing to hear, is “these are the best pictures of me I’ve ever seen!” I’ve heard it from everyone from Pauline Kael to Rosanne Cash to my daughters. Well, alright, you caught me, my daughters never do more than tolerate sitting for me, but hey, small victories can be the sweetest.
Collaborating to create beautiful images floats my boat. I get together with someone and hear their story, which we tell together. Sometimes it’s as simple as beautiful light and a relaxed and thoughtful model. Othertimes we work harder, but I always endeavor to catch that spark in my subject’s eye. Of course, that old party trick for engaging people by asking them about themselves works wonders. Having the ripples in the backround radiation explained to you by the guy that found them (Dr. George Smoot) or told why the CEO of VeriPhone finds it worthwhile to fly to Calcutta just to take a client to lunch are both swell. Engaging a shy and recalcitrant eleven-year-old by allowing her to wield the camera and boss around the rest of her family can be even more rewarding.
I run summer photo camps for kids and teens. Some of the most satisfying moments often come years later, when I run into a parent at a cocktail party and they tell me how shocked visitors are when they learn that those amazing photos on the living room wall were taken by kids. Better still: “My teacher Chris taught me to fill the frame with my subject. The photographer can do anything she wants.” Teaching kids to create compelling imagery is fabulous, giving them the confidence to do so is even better.
I shoot for high-end editorial and advertising clients, often spend lots of money on locations and shoots and talent. Yet when it comes down to it, it’s just me, a camera, and someone with an interesting story to tell. In recent years I’ve started making films, which enable me to explore people’s stories with more depth and nuance. But I always return to my first love, the portrait. Two of us do a dance and make the most beautiful portrait the subject has ever seen; that’s beauty.
Do you have a story to tell me?