These last few months I have been engaged in a deeply contemplative mode of photography. For example, I travel to a foreign city for the sole purpose of deep engagement with place, to understand my stance within it, and seek the photographs that emerge from that process. It takes days to start feeling like I am fully present and aware, to where the real work can begin.
Then there’s assignment photography, where the same process has to be compressed to within 30 minutes. The shock can be extreme.
I’m in the middle of an annual report shoot for a local philanthropic organization. Important People are my subjects. The format, delightfully, is black and white panoramic. They chose me because of that contemplative look I bring to a place. My first portrait location—Seattle’s Pike Place Market. On a busy holiday afternoon. There is not an environment in the world (well, maybe Times Square) more different than the deserted Venetian piazzas I had just been contemplatively photographing.
I have an assistant, who is my human light stand. I have various agency personnel for an audience. My site, that I scouted a few days earlier (at the same time of day, so I could see how the sunlight was falling), is five times more crowded now. I can’t see my shot anymore, and I am doubting that I have chosen the best vantage point. Then the technical failures begin. The bright sun, glinting from passing cars, is sending the slaved flash into convulsive, continuous strobing. My PC connection to my infrared trigger has failed. My backup, a direct PC cord, has failed. My next backup, a small strobe on the hotshoe to replace the failed external flash, is not firing. (Now, I tested every one of these connections the day before. Everything was fine.) My subject has arrived. I am losing it, but bottling it in. The crowds press. I focus my concentration, as best I can. I am not very successful. My last fallback to lighting him is a slow shutter speed, ¼ second, where I can open fire the flash manually. The brand new batteries appear to be failing.
My portrait work depends on having an unimpeded, emotional connection with my subject. Unfortunately, it's working. I am nervous (to put it mildly), so therefore my subject is nervous. I can see it in his expressions in the viewfinder.
I agonize until I see the film. The digital captures I took at the same time are uniformly awful. I am certain I have blown it. I fear an upset client, a ruined reputation, professional disbarrment. I try and prepare them for the necessity of a reshoot. The lab is a day late on the processing—I suffer two sleepless nights. There are three proof sheets. Yes, there are a lot of terrible photos. But there is one frame, the first one on the first roll, that is spot on, exactly as I had envisioned it.