I had been shooting little editorial jobs for Texas Monthly Magazine for a couple of years when I got a call from a person named Cathy Casey Hale who was working in their book publishing company. It was around 1983. Texas Monthly Press was doing a book on Mexican food and they needed a photographer to illustrate some of the food on various locations around Texas. Would I be interested? Flash a book deal in front of a relatively new photographer and I guarantee you'll get a quick, "Yes!!!!"
The book's author, Anne Lindsay Greer, was a big deal in the food community in Dallas. She consulted for a number of hotels and restaurants and she was amazingly well connected in the food industry. I was a struggling photographer with a small bag of older Canon cameras and three lenses. I also owned a light meter, a small novatron flash system that coughed out about 200 watt seconds and a Vivitar 283 flash equipped with an optical slave. That's it. You just got the whole inventory. No medium format camera. We Polaroided with an old Polaroid camera that had one shutter speed and a fixed aperture. You set the distance on the plastic lens by lining up the arrow with pictograms of mountains or a group of people or one person. Then you prayed for good exposure.
Now, back then the industry generally used big cameras to shoot food but I explained to the editor that these cameras were all I had. Several cool, New York food shooters were experimenting with 35mm cameras and food and I read everything I could find magazines and Time/Life books about shooting food with smaller cameras. No web research existed back then....
The publisher was okay with the idea of shooting with 35mm as long as I used Kodachrome slide film. We were doing images at ten restaurants around the state. I bought 12 rolls of 36 exposure film so I'd have two rolls in reserve....for back-up.
One evening I got a fax of the agenda and I started packing. It didn't take long. I didn't have much to pack. Into the bag went a Canon F1 (original, with lots of mileage) and it's back-up camera, the weathered and tired FTB. Both of them synced with flash at 1/60th of a second. I put my entire collection of Canon lenses in the bag as well. That would be: a 24mm 2.8, a 50mm Macro and a 135mm 2.8 (which never saw daylight on this project). I packed the two Novatron plastic heads and the little gray metal box that powered them. I judiciously added about five sync cords because they had high mortality rates and only trust-funder photographers and big studios had (primitive) radio slaves back then. I had two 44 inch, shoot through umbrellas and two light stands. The final bit of gear packing was my really battered, Leitz Tiltall tripod.
All of this amazing camera bounty (all purchased used from Capitol Camera, which is long since gone) fit nicely into a weathered, canvas bag that a more established photographer had cast off in my direction. All the lighting gear fit in one of the blue milk crates that restaurants use to hold milk that is delivered in plastic bags. I also packed some Levi's with no holes and some clean shirts. I didn't pack too much because all of our trips were conceived as "out and backs." There was no budget for hotels or motels for the photographer.
At the time I was driving a unique and highly collectible (ha. ha.) car, a 1969 Volkswagen bug. It had never been graced with air conditioning and sometimes (randomly) the latch would fail on the driver's side door and, while executing an agressive right hand turn the centrifugal force would cause the door to swing open. Since there was no trunk to speak of all the gear rested easily on the back seat.
Of course the book project occurred in the most auspicious month for Texas-based projects, August.
We shot in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio but my most memorable day was the one in Dallas.
My first destination (the writer lived in Dallas and would never be caught dead in an un-air conditioned, ancient VW Beetle with a restless door...) was the citadel of snobbism in Dallas, the Mansion on Turtle Creek. An elegant restaurant. The kind that kids like me had read about in Texas Monthly Magazine while eating fifty cent tacos at the original Taco Cabaña on Hildebrand in San Antonio. (24 hour service and bar for the Trinity University students).
I pulled up out in front of the Hotel of the demigods and crawled out of my stuffy VW into the already sweltering heat of a humid August morning and started to unload my milk crate when the valet parking people came literally running to my car. "Could I please park it around back in the employee parking lot?" Aesthetic conflict.
I brought my meager gear in through the kitchen and met the food and beverage director. My Greer and my editor would be late. Would I care to have coffee in the lobby? Yes. I had a decent cup of coffee and a petit pain au chocolat (served on bone china with a superfluous doily) and pretended to be interested in the proffered Wall Street Journal. When my party finally arrived the Hotel discreetly presented me with a bill for my repast. $16 in 1983 for a cup of Columbia's finest and a smallish chocolate crescent roll. There went most of my allocated food budget for the entire day....
Tortilla Soup at The Mansion on Turtle Creek.
The challenges were constant. Imagine shooting ISO 25 film and trying to keep everything in focus while also doing an exposure for the interior with two underpowered flashes while also trying to keep the sunlight on the plants outside the window from burning out. All with a camera with a max sync speed of 1/60th. Somehow I pulled it off but at the time I had no real way of knowing if I'd been successful or not. I would have to wait until I drove back to Austin, dropped my Kodachrome at the lab and waited while it made a round trip to a Kodak lab in some other state. I know I lit the table from the the "11 o'clock" position while I stood at the six o'clock position because I can see the vague shadows from the condiment bowls. I can see a second shadow from my offset fill light.
I lived with the constant fear, back then, that nothing would come out when the film came back from the lab. Or, that my meager bracket of exposures would have been misguided.
Later in the day we headed to the Loew's Anatole Hotel where we photographed the Mexican pizza and carmel ice creams that would be the cover shot. I used my two Novatron heads into shoot through umbrellas for the food but it was even obvious to me that I'd have to light up the back wall to keep the rear of the room from plunging into darkness so the Vivitar 283 was pressed into service. Not to sound like we walked uphill for miles in the snow to school but....we didn't have very good batteries back then. No NiMh. We had Ni-Cads and they were good for about 35 to 45 full power flashes in a 283. So we used up a bunch of juice getting everything right. We were going strictly by the meter so I fudged a lot on both sides of the indicated ambient and flash exposures. Again, I would have no idea of what would finally turn out until days later...
When we wrapped our last restaurant in Dallas I loaded up the VW and headed, at rush hour, back to Austin. And promptly got stuck on one of Dallas' satanic freeways. In 105 degree heat. Surrounded by giant Suburbans, each radiating their own heat profiles in 360 degrees. I was sooo toasty. But my big concern was for the film. Heat and twitchy slide film are not a good combination. The next day we headed to Fonda San Miguel and we photographed in their atrium. The light was gorgous. I helped it along (or screwed it up a bit) with some of my own light, more for show than anything else.
Fonda San Miguel, Austin, Texas
Over the course of the project I had hotel bellboys holding king size sheets over tables of ice sculptures baking in the San Antonio sun desperately trying to get the light all balanced before the giant ice canaries became small ice slush. We pulled that off by the skin of our teeth, surrounded by several dozen curious tourists, some of whom were eventually pressed into service holding another king size sheet up as a giant bounce fill....
We scrubbed decades of dirt off the wall of a restaurant in Houston just to make a reasonable shot and we got to El Mirador restaurant in San Antonio at 7:00 am on a Saturday morning so we'd have a fighting chance of getting enough soup to shoot before the rabid fans of the place descended from as far away as Aspen for a bowl of incredible stuff.
On the way back from Houston my fan belt disintegrated. Can't drive a VW far without one. I couldn't find an exact replacement but I found a bigger one that could be used in a figure eight configuration and still turn all the right stuff. It was still on the car when I sold it months later.
Finally, nervously, I handed in two sheets of images. Forty frames in all. A few months later I had a small stack of cookbooks to show for my days of work. That, and a check that would barely make a basic day rate today. The book? It did well. The went through five editions and then the publishing company's assets got sold to Gulf Coast Publishing in some sort of high finance deal and they also printed editions of the book. I did the whole project on a one time fee basis. I learned so many lessons. Royalties? Good. Nicads? Bad. Cookbook authors? Kinda crazy. Cash advance? The very next time...
You are probably laughing and thinking I should have waited until I was as equipped as a medium sized photo store before I took on a project like this but I would refer you to books or articles about a "failure to launch." You have to jump in somewhere. And if you don't have the balls to take a chance you probably aren't going to make it in this crazy business anyway.
Back then most of the photographers I knew were no where near as "gear obsessed" as everyone is today. We got hired because they figured we were smart enough to figure it out. And if we got stuck, we'd improvise. Because we knew our basics. We knew the theory. We could make enormous light sources with a couple of white bedsheets and some interested bystanders. We could also make it into an adventure.
Something happens when you come in with every contingency covered and all the details double nailed down. The adrenaline goes right out of the mix. There's something about fear and courage and craziness that makes a shoot or a project something a little special.
Those were early days for me. And boy, did I learn a lot. Just thought I'd share one from the good ole days.
Thought about it as I went on location this morning with multi-deluxe cameras, many lenses and a bag full of monolights with another bag of "back up" monolights. More gear, less magic. Best lesson I've learned. Now if I can just let go of the fear of failure and practice what my inner photographer already knows.......it's not about the gear.