To borrow a line from their hit single “Thrift Shop,” the above headline is what was going through my head while shooting the world tour poster for the hip-hop collaboration Macklemore & Ryan Lewis two weeks ago on a dry lakebed 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Shooting a world-famous hip-hop group in the middle of nowhere with live animals, including a very large, and fortunately very well behaved, tiger. Just another Tuesday, right?
The image references their song lyrics as well as their recent music video for their song “Can’t Hold Us,” which includes shots of their trumpeter Owuor (sounds like “No War”), riding a camel. It was conceived by Macklemore and Ryan and I was stoked when they called on me to execute it. The image is currently being used to promote their upcoming world tour on the heels of the release of their new album, The Heist.
Making the shoot happen was no easy task, and owes a lot to the group’s producers, Nic and Honna, who managed to arrange for the musicians, a live camel, tiger and flamingos, a variety of props including a rare 1980′s Cadillac they found in San Diego, me, my assistant and all of the lighting and grip gear I requested, to be assembled out in the middle of nowhere. Once together, my role was as much photographer as it was director, not only composing and lighting the shot, but communicating with the talent and the numerous animal wranglers (from Hollywood Animals and Gentle Jungle), who were fantastic when it came to getting the animals in the right place at the right time. And if things weren’t already interesting, we had to contend with 30 mph winds that knocked over props, knocked hair out of place and turned the 8-foot octabox on my key light into a giant power kite that at times required the strength of my assistant, two producers and four sandbags to keep it from flying away. Also, as you can imagine, the tiger could not be in the same shot as the camel or flamingos, lest she become a little…hungry. She was, as I said, well behaved, but not so much that she wouldn’t be interested in some tasty pink snacks. So we had to shoot plates of the tiger and flamingoes separately, that were later combined in post.
The group was fun, but was all about business, which made working with them a great experience. What I like best about them is their insistence on going it alone despite offers to join the ranks of numerous labels. (Hard to blame the labels for wanting them considering the “Thrift Shop” video now tops 250 million You Tube views, as well as their recent appearances on SNL, Conan and the MTV Movie Awards.) This means they have creative control over everything they do, which I’m sure is a dream for many creatives with their level of success.
Word is they’ll be in Europe most of the spring and summer and will be returning to tour the U.S. in the fall. You can find out more at www.macklemore.com
Between trips to the desert I’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio lately. A few weeks ago I was in the mood to experiment with some different portrait lighting and invited my friend Nana (right) and her friends Elle (left) and Chuchie to come over to play. Here are a couple favorites from the shoot. This is also a good opportunity to congratulate Nana for her role in the play Phèdre les Oiseaux, an adaptation of the Greek myth Phèdre, which has its opening night on April 26 at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. As the show travels around the world it adapts its setting to whichever city it’s in, this time taking place in Venice Beach. The Venetian muse that she is, Nana was a natural for her part in the chorus. Congrats Nana! To learn more about the play and pick up your tickets go HERE.
Above is a spread from a recently published project I shot on Death Valley National Parks for National Parks Magazine, as well as a gallery showing a wider take of images from the project. The shoot took place over two fantastic trips at the end of 2012. The goal of the assignment was to create a mix of imagery showing not only the stunning landscapes the park has to offer, but also showing people actually using the park. Both turned out to be challenging tasks! I knew from the start that I was going to have to make two trips for this assignment, as I could only go for a few days at a time and knew the park was going to be impossible to cover in only 3 days. Death Valley NP is 3.3 million acres with some destinations taking several hours to reach by off-road vehicle. I committed to the idea that the first trip would primarily be exploratory as I tried to figure out what would be necessary to get the shots I wanted.
On my first trip the weather was gorgeous - topping out in the 80s when it was supposed to still be in the high-90s – but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, leaving me mostly with a palate of tan earth and stark blue skies to work with outside of the hours surrounding sunrise and sunset. The scenery was still magnificent, and having a few stark photos would work, but I really wanted more color. Photographing people also proved to be challenging since despite there being a fair amount of them visiting the park, most were doing the same thing. That is, driving to their destination, hopping out of the car to take a photo with their point-and-shoot or cell phone, and then getting back into the car. You can make a photo from this – one made it into the spread in fact – but not a very interesting one. In addition there were very few kids in the park as school was still in session. I knew one of my best bets was to join a tour, so headed up to Scotty’s Castle to join one of the only tours available at that time of year. (Rather than go into detail here about the history of the seemingly out-of-place Scotty’s Castle, follow the link at the end of this entry to read the online article by Scott Kirkwood.) Finally, after a couple days of wandering around looking for anyone doing anything active in the park beyond taking photographs I came across a group of graduate students as they piled out of a van at the Mesquite Dunes, a popular attraction located in the center of the park. The group was at the park doing geological studies for a course at UT Austin and had arrived at the dunes to blow off some steam before heading back to Las Vegas to catch a flight home. To my delight, they were in a playful mood and started jumping from the low dunes, doing handstands and tossing a football around. They weren’t the rugged hiker photos I’d envisioned, but it yielded some fun photographs that I thought could be part of the final piece. That night I left the park happy with what I’d shot, but knowing I’d be back in a couple months. Fortunately, the magazine had given me a 3-month window to complete the assignment! A rare luxury.
In December I returned with my girlfriend Erinn to keep me company and possibly stand in as a model should I need a body in a far-off location. As a trained journalist only comfortable staging photos when shooting portraits and commercial work, this felt weird. But this was a travel piece, not straight journalism, and the editor was all for whatever made the best images. Mostly out of pride of being able to find photos where none seemingly exist, I made up my mind that I would shoot what I could find first and only resort to photographing her as a last resort. Two photos of her made it into the magazine. We arrived in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Both holidays are apparently peak tourist season, but there’s a deep lull in between. So, even more than my last trip, we had the park to ourselves. The weather, however, was a bit more cooperative. There were clouds! This added some much-needed drama and color to my shots, particularly one early morning, where from atop Dante’s View, overlooking the entire Death Valley, the clouds turned into magnificent tufts of pastel-colored cotton candy. On this trip we also rented a Jeep from Farabee’s, located in the center of the park by the Furnace Creek Inn, in order to make the 27-mile, bone rattling, off-road trek to the famous Racetrack, known for it’s mysterious sliding rocks. This is probably the most amazing spot in the park and well worth the Jeep rental and the three-hour trek! The Racetrack is a dry lakebed surrounded by mountains that has a perfectly flat surface of lightly colored, cracked mud. The cracks form nearly identically-sized shapes across the entire 3-mile long surface. We arrived at sunrise – which required waking up at 3:45 a.m. – and were the only ones there for the first two hours of the day. Only here and in White Sands, New Mexico, have I ever felt like I was on another planet. In the far right corner of the lakebed is where you’ll find the rocks, slowly creeping away from the crumbling hillside they have fallen from, leaving long trails behind them in the dried mud. The biggest shame was coming across a number of trails in the mud that had no rocks at the end of them. Some wonderful people apparently think these rocks, which take many years to move across the mud, make great souvenirs. It’s apparently common enough that the park service has adhered metal plates to some of the rocks reminding people to leave them be. Fortunately, there are a lot of rocks still in place for those who care to make the trek.
In the end I was satisfied with what I’d been able to shoot over the course of both trips and am happy to finally see it in print. There were still missed opportunities though, so I’m actually heading back to the park again next week to keep shooting. I’m hoping to see some spring blooms and just to enjoy the park one more time before it gets too hot! I’ll be sure to post some favorites after my return.
An article recently ran featuring work I did for Der Spiegel last summer. The story focuses on the slow economic decline of the city of San Bernardino – home of the original McDonald’s restaurant – as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, which it officially filed for less than a month after our visit. We – myself, the writer and a videographer – spent a long, hot, winding day in the depressed town of 213,000 that took us from the site of the restaurant, which is now an independently operated museum, to a number of agencies, a brief visit with firefighters at risk of losing their jobs and finally to a city council meeting where the council discussed possible austerity measures that would be required to eventually dig out of this mess. Something that at this point seems a long way away. The article’s an interesting read. Check it out here.
A couple days ago I had a random encounter with a man named Mark Francis while having coffee just off the boardwalk with some future photo subjects. When I was in college cigarettes were a great way to start a conversation with someone. Later it was a camera. Turns out having a dog works really great as well. Mark spotted my friend’s dog and couldn’t help but to come over and talk. Turns out he’s a former LA resident and founding member of a late 80s-early 90s post-punk band Francis X & the Bushmen, named after the late Francis X Bushman, a famous actor from the early 1900s who later donated his land to Sid Grauman, upon which he erected his famous Chinese Theater. Francis is now living in Mendocino, occasionally returning to LA to check out the music scene. The conversation ranged from dog breeds to Shamanism to his days in Venice Beach in the mid-70s. Cool guy and a nice break in the day. It’s great never knowing who you’re going to meet around here!
Last month I photographed the Rev. Cecil Murray in his old stomping grounds near the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, where he was pastor for 27 years. The shoot was for a cover story for California Health Report about his recent endeavors, at the age of 83, as leader of the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, a part of USC’s Center for Religion & Civic Culture. It was a fascinating afternoon spent talking with him about his years in the ministry and the rich history of his neighborhood. He is perhaps best known outside the community for his role advocating a return to rational behavior during the Rodney King riots in the early 90′s, but certainly had a much broader influence over the years. Outside the church is a roundabout with with a well-tended garden named in his honor, along with a placard featuring his likeness and a bio touting his accomplishments. On the quiet afternoon of the shoot we were stopped by no less than 3 different people who were overjoyed to see him back in the neighborhood. Between rounds of adoration we were able to take a few photos showing him overlooking the community he has done so much for. Read the article
Rainy but delightful days between the holidays were spent in Pismo Beach and the Santa Ynez/Santa Maria valleys tasting wines and then tasting some more at the area’s numerous vineyards with Erinn and her visiting parents. Between tastes and downpours I managed to bring out the camera to capture the abundant, beautiful landscapes the region has to offer. As they say, bad weather makes great photos! I was recently reminded of this when I took two separate trips to Death Valley National Park to work on an ongoing magazine assignment that will run in the spring. The first trip had beautiful, cloudless blue skies and I came back with some rather boring landscapes. The second trip was partly overcast, adding instant drama to the shots and yielding much better results. These aren’t so dramatic, but the skies definitely lend a quiet, wintry mood that I like. Bring on the clouds!
These are some a couple of my favorite portraits from recent sessions with Los Angeles artist Aaron Axelrod. I first met Aaron through my girlfriend, who works with his cousin. I came across him again several months later while he was doing an live painting at Google, who were hosting the Venice Art Walk at their new offices in Venice. When I came across him he was covered in colorful paint splatter and standing in front of a wall he was painting in his signature dripping style, (seen in his Pot, Sex & Acid series on his website), as well as on buildings around the city and in a recent commission for Apple. If I had my camera on me at the time I would have shot him right then, but – oops – I didn’t. It was cool though, because what I was really envisioning was a lit shoot that would really make the color pop. I later contacted him through Erinn to express my interest in doing this and, fortunately, he was down. We met in person a few days before shooting and came up with the idea to sandwich him between a mural in his studio and a piece of plexiglass that he could paint on as we shot. The effect I was hoping for was that he would appear to be a part of his own painting. The bunny ears were entirely his idea, and I did not object! He had recently worn them during a successful live painting show at the Vortex Dome called Melting Rainbows, in which he dripped paint on a spherical projector, making it appear as though colors were melting down the wall. The shoot was fantastic and yielded tons of great images, none of which are repeatable. Since the paints are water-based, he was able to simply wipe the surface clean and start again.
At that time he was also working on a commissioned piece comprised of two life-sized reindeer, which he heavily spray-painted and adorned with giant neon antlers. The pieces were just installed in front of the Westfield headquarters on Avenue of the Stars in Century City. I hung out for an afternoon shooting him as he painted them in his garage and then came back a week later to shoot the portrait above. The deer are surreal and I can’t wait to see them in their intended space. You should go check them out too!
Here’s one from a recent shoot with hip-hop artist Ice the Villain. The shoot was a collaboration with a stylist friend, Sunshine Harding, that we submitted to the music and fashion blog Style & Hip-Hop. For the shoot we found a great graffiti wall in the Crenshaw neighborhood that provided countless backgrounds and textures to work with. Check out more here.
I am a Los Angeles photographer specializing in portraits and documentary storytelling. I am available for assignment worldwide. For inquiries or bookings please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-745-9854.