by Susan Markisz
"Did I travel 8,000 miles to see THAT?" admonished P.F.Bentley, referring to my first vox pops assignment during the Platypus workshop held last month in New York City.
"That was TERRRRIBLE," he continued his well meaning critique, overemphasizing the word terrible for comic effect, and grinning mischievously, but only half joking, as I momentarily wished I could crawl under a chair. With those remonstrations by P.F. Bentley, one of the Platypus faculty and taskmaster extraordinaire, I wondered what had possessed me to take a video workshop in which I had no previous experience whatsoever, and no idea of how I would utilize video skills in my future assignments.
I did not admit defeat as a Platypus that first night, but instead went on to finish one of the most intense and creative workshops of my career, my early crash and burn notwithstanding. It was a week filled with lots of laughter and the pitfalls of assuming that being reasonably good at one thing would instantly translate into expertise in another.
It's a humbling experience to sit in front of one's colleagues and start over. In some ways the workshop was reminiscent of my first photography class back in 1987. I had few expectations of photography becoming a career back then. But those days and nights spent in a dank darkroom, the air laden with the wonderfully malodorous smells of hypo and stop bath, were magical esoteric moments, with the potential of visions and dreams yielding before our very eyes, in trays of D-76.
I admit that my learning curve improved somewhat over the next few days of the Platypus workshop, and the experience taught me the value of looking at something from an entirely new perspective.
What I've been feeling the last few years has been a vague sense of discontent about many of my assignments, a feeling that the visual soundbites I derive from an hour's assignment, hardly scratch the surface of the story I am trying to tell. The lack of storytelling in photojournalism is a thread that has been echoed by still photographers throughout the country. As newspaper writers conjure up the real thing in their witty and pithy narratives, photographers are reduced to being witnesses after the fact, an environmental portrait the illustration du jour, the default picture worth a thousand words.
Still photography seems to be engaged in diminishing returns, and visual literacy has been reduced to the environmental portrait. So what to do?
Enter the Platypus.
Dirck Halstead, TIME Magazine's Senior White House photographer and Platypus father, believes that still photographers, frustrated with the constraints of their medium and the media organizations that employ them, can learn an entirely new set of skills to tell their stories using digital video cameras.
They can continue to shoot stills with their film/digital cameras, but add video to the mix, learning how to edit and present a finished product to television, and new media like the web. No longer dependent on traditional news outlets like newspapers and magazines, photographers can once again exercise some editorial control over the stories they work on.
So, last month, I went down a road never traveled, at least by me. I figured with my still skills, it would certainly be within the realm of possibility to make that transition...until, that is, the first assignment. That's when I considered asking for a refund. Ever do a vox pops assignment? Piece of cake in stills, right? I learned quickly, but not quick enough to fend off my first stinging critique, that there are no verticals in TV land. Human heads, to my way of thinking, are not really cut out for video; they are kind of vertical, even if they are round. To make matters worse for my debut video, I had done some "artistic" wide angle shots, you know, the kind of wide angles revered by some newspapers. They don't quite cut it in video, unless of course you've got the correct ratio of face to frame. Adding insult to injury, the perspective from which I was shooting, on almost all of my vox pops, was looking up. In other words, all of my subjects seemed to resemble tourists looking up at the Empire State Building. The interviewer was standing eye to eye with the subjects and the cameraperson, me, appeared to be way off to the left or right and practically on the ground. I don't know what possessed me to shoot from ground zero, but P.F.'s questions: "Aren't you TALL? What were your subjects doing way up there?" quickly put me on notice, that this was not the time for a nouveau artistic rendering of vox pops.
By the last day, I had begun to feel more comfortable with the camera. If I wasn't exactly getting gigs on Nightline or 20/20, I had at least crossed the threshold where sitting in the hot seat didn't give me heart palpitations anymore.
We worked in teams. My partner, Andrew, was an eminently patient guy. On the day of our final exercise, he called me at 5 am and we discussed our story ideas. He lives in Manhattan, and was certain that there were 8 million stories in the naked city, probably within walking distance. I, on the other hand, was thinking about a story I'd previously worked on, back in my "still days," which unfortunately for him, required him to get on a train around 6 a.m. to "da Bronx."
Some years ago, I had done a feature story about Mike's Deli on Arthur Avenue, in an area known as Little Italy, not far from where I live. Owner Michele Greco emigrated from Italy 50 years ago and set up shop in the Bronx in an indoor European-style market with nearby butcher shops that have whole animals hanging from the ceilings. Mike's Deli is a place that looks more European than American and has a cast of characters that is tailor made for video.
The first time I met Mike, as he likes to be called, back in 1995, I spent much of the morning photographing him and his dozen or so employees in the deli, making mozzarella, sweet peppers and making Italian sausages. I spent the afternoon tasting voluminous portions of prosciutto, homemade mozzarella, mortadella and sweet peppers, and some of the hundreds of the other cheeses in his shop; later on, I had coffee with him in a café across the street as he told me the story of his life. Mike is nothing, if not affable.
A few weeks later, I returned to Mike's deli to bring some goodies home for lunch. "Ah, Susana," he said in his still thickly Italian accented English, "I'm so happy to see you. I loved the picture you took of me for the newspaper," he added. The picture had run in color, on the cover of a special food section, an environmental portrait of him (of course!) behind the counter, and more pictures inside. "Oh," he exclaimed excitedly, "have you seen the t-shirts? They're selling like my parmesano romano. Look behind you," he said.
There, displayed on a 200 pound provolone, or rather fitted ON the provolone, was a T-shirt, emblazoned with my photograph of Michele Greco.
How he had gotten a copy of the photograph so he could reproduce it on untold numbers of T-shirts, is still baffling to me. Someone from the newspaper had probably made him an inter-negative of my original transparency. I never found out exactly how it had happened, but it was so humorous that rather than negotiate a reproduction fee (how do you decide, anyway, how much to charge for a picture on a provolone?), I decided to take my repro fees in t-shirts and food.
The last time I saw Mike was last March when I brought a friend of mine who was visiting from Italy, to meet him. We had lunch and visited together for over an hour. Mike told us about his son Marco, a playwright in L.A., who was writing a screen play based on his father's life called: "Behind the Counter with Mussolini."
I knew that if Mike were not back in Italy visiting family, he'd probably be happy to be our guinea pig for our video. Besides, I wanted to know how the screenplay was going. With a gut feeling and a prayer that Andrew's trip to the Bronx would not be in vain, we approached the market shortly before 7 a.m. and there was the man himself, Mike Greco, opening his shop, and preparing his counter for the day's business.
We rolled tape as Mike stirred a vat of large steaming homemade mozzarella. We did close-ups of Mike as he sliced an enormous prosciutto, sharing pieces of the ham with his employees and with us. We did extreme close-ups of him slicing his favorite cheeses. We rolled as Mike sang to us in Italian and interacted with his son David and other employees. And we got 'A' roll. Although our little story was not seamless and we did not win an Academy Award for our film, Mike provided us with more than a few "box office bits" for our final assignment. He could not have been more generous with his time, or more patient with his novice video journalists. We learned about his love for his family, and for the deli business that has been his life. And we found out that there are some producers interested in his son's screenplay.
What this means in the larger scheme of things for still photographers, I'm not sure. The bottom line, as always with independent photo projects, is finding a market for one's stories, whether still photography or video.While a still photograph still reigns as the defining moment, digital video and the ability to edit one's own work, for the first time, levels the playing field, and expands the concept of the still photograph, giving still photographers the opportunity to tell stories in another format. Again, the endgame is still about marketing and finding a niche for one's work.
As for me, the Platypus workshop was the
jumpstart that I needed. As a freelance photographer, I still haven't
made the transition to a digital still camera because most of my clients
are still running film and requesting transparencies or prints. But
I expect I will not be able to resist making the investment much longer.
At this point it is hard to justify the purchase of a DV camera and all
the required hardware and software, for a market
After I'd had a chance to digest the workshop,
I began to consume TV programs with an eagle eye for technical detail.
I'd say to my husband: "Hey Bob, did you see that? There's
the establishing shot," dropping know-it-all TV terms to my husband, who
didn't much care about the play-by-play. "Ah HAH," I'd exclaim exultantly,
"There's the extreme close-up oh, and look, that cameraperson pivoted
on axis and now she's doing the opposite angle shot," and "what a nice
transition, great camera work! That cameraperson must have gone to
the Platypus workshop, but jeez," I thought, suddenly becoming a Platypus
expert, "she's got a lot an awful lot to learn about lighting!"
Susan B. Markisz
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