It was 1998 and the American century was blazing bright as we strode, puff chested, toward the odometer flip of time. The internet was blossoming into thousands of fragrant start-up companies, each more audacious and absurd than the one before it. Two, in particular, I remember laughing about. One would search for stuff for you, all over the internet, for free! and the other start up would let you search for and buy books. Then they'd stuff the books onto Fedex vehicles and get them to you. Both seemed pretty silly since Barnes and Noble was just down the street and there were so few websites out there that you could just type in the addresses to find them... And I was booked to go to Lisbon to shoot.
I was booked on a shoot just before this one in Lisbon. Another company, at the time famous for their cellphones and tactical radios, had booked me for a week to cover their conference in Orlando. I rushed home from Florida and dropped my film at the lab and my clothes at the dry cleaner. I read some bed time stories to my small child and kissed my wife and then picked up the needed dry cleaning on the way to the Austin airport two days later.
This would be my last corporate shoot done entirely with film. I packed three cameras. A Nikon F5, a Nikon F100 and a Leica M6 ttl 0.85. For the Nikon I brought along the 80-200mm 2.8, the 24-85mm zoom and the 85mm 1.4AF. For the Leica I brought along the same lenses I always packed, the 35mm Summicron, the 50mm Summilux and the 75mm Summilux. I brought an ample supply of color negative film for the trade show and a special cache of 50 rolls of color transparency film for my person shooting (with the Leica). Of course I packed a Gitzo tripod and two Nikon SB flashes.
The show had originally been scheduled to take place in Istanbul that year but a few terrorist bombings threw a wrench into those plans. It was deemed to be a bit of bad planning to place several thousand of your best clients close to potential mortality.... Lisbon was the city with enough vacant hotels and a mothballed convention center that the omniscient planners were sure could be put back in service in time. I was being hired by the client company but my check would come from the production company that designed and built the stages, signage, pedestals for hundreds of demo products and more.
When I arrived, exhausted from the time changes and time spent in a metal tube at 40,000 feet, I had the immediate and disquieting realization that Portuguese and Spanish were actually.......quite different. Not that my Spanish skills are incredible.... But I was able to make it to the 300 room, 1960's era business hotel on my own steam. I'd booked in two days before the show in order to head into the city to take images for myself. Texas disconnection. In our land we air condition the crap out of every room. Kinda feel like it's our divine right to live well chilled in the face of any heat wave. But we've been spoiled by cheap (to the consumer) energy. In Lisbon, I swear, there's a functionary whose sole duty is to slip into each American's hotel room, minutes after the American leaves it to go out, to find and disable the air conditioner with urgent dispatch. Every day I would leave the tiny unit on, praying to the Texas gods that the room would be under 80 (f) degrees upon my return. But every time I was foiled. Gone down the hall for three minutes? Off. Into the bathroom for a shower? Off. I finally gave up.
One the first day I walked down every street in downtown. On the second day I took the train that runs along the coast and headed in the direction of Porto. I made it as far as Nazare before I turned back in the late evening. By the end of my second day in Lisbon I'd walked probably twenty miles and shot all of my little cache of chrome. And then the show started in earnest.
On the first day most of the Americans in the hotel took taxis or car services to the convention center. Wanting to conserve my per diem I figured out the subway and bus routes and lunged out of the lobby with a big, black canvas Domke bag over one shoulder and a tripod in the opposite hand. I found the subway station two blocks away and even figured out how to pay at one of the machines for a ticket. The final mile was on a city bus. I understand the security of taking a cab or car service but you sure see a lot more of a city and its people when you go on public transportation.....
The first thing a smart corporate photographer should do is to make friends with all the people at the main production company. This includes the people who run the image magnification cameras that record the show and also put up big video feed on giant screens on either side of the stage. They also design, build and rig the lighting for the stages, which can be quite impressive and complex. They do the sound and they direct, speaker by speaker and demo by demo, the unfolding of the show. My desire is more pragmatic: They are a source of free coffee and donuts in the morning and, they have a tasty crew lunch at noon. No lines, no waiting and a chance to eat out of range of the company's show staff who could use you 24/7 for "a PR opportunity".
I got into the hall and got my bearings. Found the production center and figured out where my bag and extra gear would be safe and then I got a camera and a short zoom, a pocket full of color neg film and I went off to do the ritualistic vacuuming of details.... What does that mean? Well, you show up on the main floor of the venue and record stuff that the market team might want to look at and think about later. Signage, especially three story tall signage, is always a popular item. The look of the hall empty and then, full. The stage look with a few different lighting variations and, of course, the exterior signage. I'm there two hours before the show begins because I want the donuts while they're fresh and the freshest of the coffee but I also want to spend a few minutes listening to the show director brief his staff. That way I'll know the show agenda. I'll be ready for "impromptu" demos, "surprise" appearances of tech celebrities and stuff like that. And the donuts. The people in Lisbon do good donuts.
When the "main tent" session kicks off I'm usually in the second or third row, on the aisle. That way I have some freedom of movement and I'm close enough to the stage to get good use out of the 200mm end of the zoom. I shoot each speaker and presenter as tight as I can and then in various compositions as they move about the stage. I'm estimating exposure on the fly. You had enormous amounts of breathing room with color negative film....
As the show progresses I go up into the "nose bleed" seats to catch some overall shots and I shoot from each side of the stage for the "looks-like-you-were-there" point of view. When the session breaks we usually head to lunch and then, in the afternoon, a never ending set of "break out" sessions. This is always intermixed by frantic requests for PR photos of handshakes, contract signing and letter of overwhelming intention by upper level attendees. We go strong until 5:00pm and then, like magic, everyone but the production crew heads back to their hotels to get ready for the "special event / social interaction" part of the program.
Tonight it's at a historic convent on the edge of Lisbon. The big silver buses (dozens and dozens of them) are disgorging attendees in long streams as one of the officers of Cisco Systems shows off his rock climbing skills on the rock wall of the four hundred year convent.... The talk among techies is the hurtling pace of new technologies that will make the web accessible to all comers. The talk among the sales people in the crowd, and the marketers and money people is about what car they will buy when their company IPO's. The attendees with the special glow are the ones who've been on the receiving end of the first round of IPO's.....and they're talking about cars they already have and houses in Napa that they are either in the process of buying or renovating.
I am on the parapet of the convent listening to the tenth wife say, "Make me look thin!!!" when I look at the horizon and see the most beautiful light I've ever seen. Warm oranges and gold layered with purple painted in broad strokes across the sky, all topped with an azure blue. I'm desperate to have a beautiful person to put into the light so I can "own" a tiny fraction of its magnificence. And I find the hot, young marketing vixen with the long, dark hair and wonderfully engaging eyes and convince her to stand in a certain way and to not smile and, for a few minutes I'm thrilled to see how beautiful the light can be as it pours, in liquid, languid slow motion, over another beauty. And thrilled that I can still recognize it.
The dinner is in the central courtyard of the convent and the environment is magnificent and weathered and filled with stories. The table settings are wonderful and regal. Candles and oil lamps blaze as an amiable ensemble coaxed Mozart melodies out of their violins and cellos. And the crowd is still chattering away about what's happening on the TV show, 90210, and whether Tori Spelling will be back the next season... (of course she will be, her father, Aaron Spelling, owns the show).
As the light fades I switch to flash from available light and I watch my batteries like a hawk. In the medieval times of the late 1990's we used nicads and they were nothing like the miracle metal nickel hydride batteries we have today. 50 or 60 big flashes and we're ready for another set. Believe it or not but flash worked much, much better with film. The cameras measured auto exposures right off the film. And the films had remarkably consistent tones. The sensor would monitor the film and then shut off the light at just the right time. Nikon owned flash. And the Nikon F5 was the Jupiter in the pantheon of flash cameras. I could point and shoot with ease. And the lab would gracefully hide any of my own craft shortcomings.
These were the days before "Strobiosity"(tm, sm) and we made our own modifiers. My favorite was the large size white index card and rubber band combination. We called it, "large white index card and rubber band." I'd bend the top edge a bit into the path of the light. It worked well.
Back in the days of the "dot com boom" the liquor flowed freely, all the wine was good and all was right in the halls of corporate America. Even when it was playing "out of town." We lurched back to town at witching hour on silver bus after silver bus and then the lobby bars of every hotel in town filled up with fun loving young tech people from across Europe and North America who were anxious to have a few drinks and make a few.... connections.
The show photographers who lasted in the business always knew when to beat a hasty retreat. Once ten pm and fifth round of cheer came into view we pretty much knew that nothing good or picturesque would be happening from that point on and we'd get lost. Nothing keeps you from being rehired quicker than a sober marketing director who's pretty sure you might have taken images of her sitting in the wrong lap in the wrong venue from the last go around.
The show went on like this for days. And then the after glow show of the people who stayed on for "meetings" and what not. I packaged up the color negative film and sent it along with a friend in production who needed to head back to Austin early. My assistant picked it up and sent it along to the lab. I stocked up on $15 per roll Fujichrome 100 and headed back to walk the streets for a few more days to investigate the city.
One day I carried just my M6 and a 50mm lens with me as I walked. I came into a large town square. I think it was Placa Dom Pedro VI. It was full of commerce and the light was bright and hazy. I walked around and photographed people shopping and sitting in the cafes that spilled tables out into the walk ways. I was getting ready to leave and the light was changing from bright sun to the more nuanced and color rich light of late afternoon when I turned and saw one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. She couldn't have been more than twenty two or twenty three. She was dressed simply: blue jeans and a white t-shirt. She had her feet tucked into a conservative pair of cordovan colored loafers and she was perfect. Her face was like the angel in the Leonardo Da Vinci painting, the Madonna of the Rocks, but with dark hair that streamed down her back. And bounced when she walked. Her eyes were alive and penetrating.
I pulled my Leica up halfway to my face and adjusted the shutter speed and f-stop, anticipating; hoping that she would stay on her course and that it would take her into the one shaft of warm, gold, magical light. And as she stepped in that column of heavenly illumination and turned her head slightly to look over her shoulder I brought the camera to my eye and clicked the shutter. I don't know what happened to that piece of film. I never found it. But it still doesn't matter since not a day has gone by without me remembering how beautiful and fleeting that one gesture was. The photograph is burned into my memory like a handful of others I've taken in my life that transcend everything else I've done. A conceptual masterpiece, un-shareable except through my woefully inadequate story-telling, and yet a cornerstone in the building of my aesthetic.
And, for the rest of my life I know I'll be looking for a moment like that again. And if I capture it that will be my masterpiece, the sum at the end of this equation that I put together, ultra thin slice by diaphanous layer when I practice my looking each day.
And then I went back to my hotel room to pack up all the spent trappings of a week at work. In the morning I was on the plane for what would turn out to be a very exciting 26 hour flight back to Austin. I knew I should have spent one hundred dollars more and booked through Miami......
I saw an image today I'd shot minutes before shooting the one I lost. It was in my archives and I glanced at it this evening and it triggered this flow of memories in the same way a bittersweet memory triggers the flow of tears. I need to wear blinders as I walk through the office....