A LENS DIMLY
The first guy he hired was a top notch shooter whom the New Chief had known when he worked on the west coast. He was also a Pulitzer Prize winner. Now that's a hefty credential. The Pulitzer is to newsmen as the Congressional Medal of Honor is to military people. Anyone who has earned that kind of honor is taken seriously. So when he came aboard, the rest of the staff understood it when he got his choice of assignments and was given all the time he needed to complete them and could even work on the prints, himself, to ensure that each photo looked exactly the way he wanted. All of that is a luxury that isn't often afforded to the lesser mortals among us. To tell the truth, though, there was no envy or resentment toward him in that regard. Everyone liked the new man. He was a likeable guy. But, all of this talent and affability came with a price. The man was a total whack case. He talked to God. OK. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But, he told us that God was his mother and father and would also talk to him. I have heard of artists who claim to be divinely inspired, but, this was a bit over the edge.
Most of us thought so. Especially after he was asked to be the keynote speaker at The National Press Photographers Association Region Two Short Course. It was held in Connecticut this particular summer, and a lot of the Newsday Photo staff went up there to attend for a couple of days. News Photographers from all over the northeast attended and the lecture hall was packed with photographers anxious to hear what our Pulitzer Prize winner would have to say.
At the appointed time, the stage curtains swept open. There was our man, sitting atop a huge step ladder at center stage. There was a spotlight illuminating him on the otherwise dark stage. It was a very dramatic moment and none of us knew what to expect from this theatrical display.
He didn't speak for several minutes. He just sat there on his high perch, looking around the audience, who at this point was beginning to wonder what was happening. Finally, he began to address his audience. He started by explaining what he was doing on this huge step ladder. He said that he was up there in order to be closer to God, whom he called Mom and Dad. The audience looked at him in stunned silence. Those of us from Newsday let out a groan. Everyone in the auditorium had come hoping to gain insight into this Pulitzer Prize winner's inner thoughts on photography. Instead, he was blathering on about how he listened to "Mom and Dad" who stimulated him towards better photography. There was nothing about what equipment he used or his techniques in getting great pictures. After twenty minutes of this, people started leaving the auditorium. By the time his hour was up, the only ones left in the room were his associates from Newsday who had stayed out of a sense of loyalty.
I'm sure that the New Chief had some misgivings about hiring him. But, it didn't last long. Shortly after that, we heard that our Pulitzer Prize winner was leaving to explore new avenues of whatever it was that he was exploring. He kind of dropped off the face of the earth after that.
The next man he hired fared even worse. He was reputed to be a hot shot shooter but turned out to be so unreliable because of his drinking problem, that he had to be let go.
The Queen Bee...now she was another story. She was someone that the New Chief knew before and he brought her to Newsday and was immediately assigned to our New York City office. Newsday had just started a New York City edition and this was a coveted spot for all of the new hires who came from out of town. Why would anyone who came from the mid-west or south-west want to work on Long Island and cover Town Board and School Board meetings and nickle and dime crime stories when you could live and work in Manhattan and cover City Hall and Broadway and the glitz and glamour of The Big Apple.
The Queen Bee was also considered a "Special" Photographer. That meant that she got to pick and choose her assignments. That did create some resentments among us lesser mortals. She wasn't a Pulitzer Prize winner. She did have some talent, but most of us felt that she was overrated Non-the-less, she received privileges that were never accorded to the ordinary photographers.
For example, whenever we newspukes covered a fashion show where models strutted up and down the runways before mobs of fashion experts, buyers and media, we needed to shoot, drop the camera, grab a caption card and scribble down a description of the attire. That usually gave us one shot, and only one shot of the fashion that the reporter had asked us to make. An even better pose might have occurred, but it would inevitably have been at the point where we were writing, "smoky grey chiffon blouse with sailor collar above a pleated wool mauve knee-length skirt with a wide taupe leather belt with a silver buckle." Oh, yes, boys and girls. We had to learn to recognize various fashion colors, fabrics and styles and write them out before the next tap on the shoulder came from our reporter associate with a demand to get "this next one" as it strode past our lens. Then, upon returning to the office and developing our film, we would spend hours typing up captions and matching them to the film.
But, not the Queen Bee. First of all, no one told her which fashions to shoot. She chose what she liked and had the luxury of following the model all the way down the runway and back without the urgent need to write down a description. It was up to the Fashion Editor and the writer to write the descriptive captions.
Am I sounding like a cranky old man filled with sour grapes? You bet your ass! Things like that really un-level the playing field. You might just as well issue someone like the Queen Bee with the finest Hasselblad while the rest of us are forced to shoot with Kodak Brownie Cameras of the 1930's. Most of the staff were pissed. But, we weren't as resentful of the Queen Bee as we were of the New Chief for once again being able to get away with shoving our noses in the dirt.
Sometimes she worked on long term projects that took months of her time, but never appeared in the paper. Like I said, she wasn't a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. Sometimes she got decent pictures but mediocrity seemed to be more her style. But, the New Chief loved her work and praised her for all to hear. I guess that the editors of other sections decided that if the New Chief Photo Editor liked her work, then she must be good. And many of them sang her praises and requested her special talents for their pages. It was like that famous fable, about "The Emperor's New Clothes." No one wanted to admit that they couldn't see any art in her art, but they were too ashamed to be the one to admit it. In truth, just as it was in the fable, the Queen Bee was naked. Or, naked, at least, of any talent
Oh, I am fully aware of how bitter and resentful this sounds. But, you really had to be there to appreciate how most of the staff felt as we toiled away the hours trying to make silk head shots out of sow's purses. Or whatever. And the New Chief's Queen Bee did whatever she did and all the sycophants paid homage.
One day I received a message from the New Chief. I was requested to attend a meeting with him and several editors and art directors in the Photo Studio on the second floor to discuss a major photographic project that the paper was planning. Hmmm. The New Chief wanted me to be part of a major photo project? What could that possibly mean? Perhaps I was going to be assigned to shoot a head shot of everyone on Long Island. That would get me out of his hair until I retired or died; whichever came first.
At the appointed time, I presented myself to the meeting in the Photo Studio. Chairs had been set out. There was a pot of fresh coffee and several trays of donuts. This was big time. Our New Chief was there, along with a newly named Assistant Managing Editor for Special Projects and an Art Director. Also joining me were three other photographers; Kathy Kmonicek, who was a good, all-around photographer, Joe Dombroski, whom I always considered one of Newsday's top shooters. Joe was a great features photographer who excelled at fashion, food, home interiors and studio photography. Plus, he could more than hold his own as a news shooter. I made up one of the four photographers who were invited. And, the fourth was...you guessed it, the Queen Bee. I don't need to add anything to her accomplishments beyond what I have already described.
The New Chief invited everyone to help themselves to coffee and donuts and after we were seated, he introduced everyone and went into his talk, describing this project.
We had all been selected to participate in a fantastic assignment which would have us scouring Long Island during the course of a full year in order to come up with the best possible photos of scenic Long Island which would then be published as a full color calendar.
While we wouldn't be taken off of our normal assignments, we would be given ample opportunity to photograph our favorite scenic places over the four seasons of the year.
Long Island has a wealth of scenic beauty. Being an island, it certainly has beaches of every description. The beaches on the North Shore were carved out by ice age glaciers and most have rocky shores with huge boulders dotting the coastline which are backed up by steep cliffs. The South Shore is the result of the glacial run-off which deposited some of the finest sand beaches this side of Rio. The northern beaches are the shore of Long Island Sound which can be as tranquil as a lake, while the southern beaches are fronting the wild and woolly North Atlantic with waves that draw surfers from all over the region. There are bustling cities and quiet villages; industrial plants and pastoral farms, and ponds and woodlands. Most of Long Island is as flat as a billiard table and some of it has gentle, rolling hills. It is about 118 miles long, from where it almost bumps into Manhattan in the west to Montauk Point at the far east end. And it is 1,377 square miles in area.
Now it was up to the four of us to come up with the best that Long Island has to offer. Whenever there was a lull in our schedules, we could ask the Day Photo Editor for some time to scout around for some locations. When we found something, we would make some shots right then and there. But, often, we would determine when the best time of day would be and we would come back to the spot when the lighting might be better. There were times when we would come across some really great shot as we were driving to a regular assignment. OK, so we might be a little late getting to our assigned job, but, what the Hell. If it was only another head shot, who would give a damn if we were a little late.
We were issued rolls of Kodachrome for this assignment. Normally we shot everything for the paper on color negative film. The film was scanned and inputted into the computer as a color positive. If a shot needed to be used in black and white, the computer would accomplish that format without any trouble. But, this project had to be a really high quality production since it was to be printed by a commercial print shop in high quality color. Of course, we couldn't process Kodachrome film so we had to drop our stuff off at a commercial photo finisher who would give us back mounted slides. Once a month, The Chief would gather the other editors and art directors for the project for a "Show and Tell" session in the photo studio. Each shooter would have culled out the less desirable of his/her slides and would present the cream of our crop. The editors and art directors didn't actually do any editing at these slide show sessions. That would come at the end of our shooting. For now, all they wanted was an overview of what we were doing and they were supposed to offer suggestions, if they had any ideas.
We started shooting this project in the summer and we would shoot until the next Spring in order to show Long Island beauty through all four seasons. Once a month we gathered in the Photo Studio where there was a pot of coffee and a tray of donuts along with a screen and a slide projector as well as some folding chairs for our critics. Each of us would load our selections into a slide carousel and the lights would be dimmed and the show would begin.
Kathy would lead off and her slides would flash on the screen. Kathy had a good eye and good camera technique and her take was always a pleasure to see. She lived on the North Shore and she showed the rugged, rocky North Shore beaches. She had some lovely sweeping panoramas and closeup shots of rocks jutting out of the waters of Long Island Sound. She had shots of children romping in the water as well as playing in some of our lovely parks. When she was done, there were murmurs of appreciation from our panel of critics.
"Nice job, Kathy."
"Oh, yes. Quite lovely."
Then it would be my turn. I love shooting nature and scenics. It's such a pleasant departure from the usual "headshots and real estate." My summer shots included some of the pastoral beauty of Long Island's east end. There were bucolic scenes of the rural nature of that part of the island. Horses and split rail fences; farmers on tractors plowing the fields; sportsmen fly fishing on sun dappled streams. If I saw a potential for a good shot, I would often return at dusk, when "magic light" bathed the scene with a soft, shadowless illumination. When my show was over, there were a few "Nice job," comments.
Joe was next. Joe was an artist with a camera. No matter what he shot, whether it be spot news, feature or sports, Joe had a flair that was the envy of photographers everywhere. He was very careful about what was presented in his viewfinder and he didn't waste time pushing the shutter button until he was sure that he had what he wanted. Joe's summer shots shouted out, "It's summer on Long Island, so enjoy it, dammit!"
I could hardly believe what a great job we had all done. Our photos were magnificent. Joe also was rewarded with a few "atta boy's."
The Queen Bee was always last among the presenters. Her slides lit up the screen and while she did have a number of lovely photos, I had a silent thought that there was a lot of mediocrity among them. I felt that she might have fared better had she taken the time to edit out the weaker shots and just show her best. But, you'd never know it from the response of the editors and art directors. When the screen went dark after her final slide, they stood up and applauded. At first I thought that it was for all four of us. How foolish of me to think so. They were calling out her name and exclaiming what an artist she was.
"Magnificent, me dear. You have truly captured what we are looking for."
OK, I thought. Perhaps she had something that I didn't see. I don't purport to be the world's foremost critic on what is art and what is not. But, it's obvious that the rest of us will have to try harder if we are to get any of our selections used.
So, when we started shooting for the Autumn season, I really worked to make sure that the brilliance of Autumn's colors were the main focus of my efforts. I shot orange, yellow and red hued trees lining the streets of our picturesque villages. I showed them mirrored in the still waters of a country pond. I passed a field filled with pumpkins on my way to an assignment and on the way back, I stopped there and I waited for the late afternoon sun to pick up the yellow and orange in the pumpkins and I shot them back-lit to get a dramatic effect. I was more than pleased when my slides were returned to me from the lab
And, when it was "Show and Tell" time again, Kathy, Joe and I had knock your socks off shots.
And, again, we were rewarded with, "Uh, huh," "That's nice," "Yeah, ok."
It was obvious to us that they were just biding their time for the Queen Bee.
And, it was just as obvious that she had spent the entire month basically shooting the same scene. I mean, there was just one scene. It was a photo; rather a series of photos of an old, weathered barn. It looked like it was all shot.on the same day. Quite frankly, there was nothing unique about any of the photos. They were all shot with the same lens from the same eye level vantage point. The only thing that was different was that all the shots were extremely grainy. They were all shot in daylight, so the grain couldn't have been caused by the need to shoot grainy high speed film.
But, her fan club was ecstatic.
"Oh, my God. Those pictures are classic works of art."
"I can't believe what you manage to do with a camera and a roll of film."
"You are truly an artist. However did you get that rough effect?"
The Queen Bee smiled modestly throughout the adulation. She answered the question.
"Oh, I underexposed each shot on the highest speed Kodachrome they make and then I had the lab push the film 3 stops to get the grain. I wanted the pictures to have a "painterly" effect.
"Painterly?" Did she say "painterly?" Is that a word? I guess it is because I just looked it up and got this result.
painterly adjective of or appropriate to a painter; artistic : she has a painterly eye. • (of a painting or its style) characterized by qualities of color, stroke, and texture rather than of line.
OK. So it is a word. But, I had never heard of it. I was curious, so after the session broke up, I took her aside and asked her about it. She repeated her technique and seemed quite proud of how she was able to achieve her "painterly" look by underexposing and overdeveloping her film to get such monstrous grain.
"Interesting," I said. "Kodak has spent years of research and a fortune in funds to come up with films that minimize grain structure. And, in one fell swoop, you have set the film industry back 50 years."
That really wasn't very charitable of me, I admit. But, I said it with a smile on my face so she might have thought that I was being funny. I wasn't, bastard that I am.
It went downhill from there. Winter settled in and Long Island in the winter isn't such fun. While inland locations and neighboring New England can be quite beautiful, garbed in fresh coats of fluffy white snow, Long Island juts out into the North Atlantic and it's friggin cold and damp and the damned wind chill factor can numb your shutter finger to the point of frost bite. Sometimes we can go an entire winter without any measurable snowfall. A lot of the time we may get a dusting which turns to a solid coating of ice thanks to the dampness and the wind. That doesn't make for pretty pictures. Other times, we can get a blizzard with one or two or even more of snow. That makes pretty pictures if you can manage to get around in it on the first day or so. Because, after that, you get dirty snow with yellow spots where the dogs have been.
We worked at it. The bays froze over and that made some pretty shots as the lobster fishermen and clammers tried to hack their boats out of the ice so they could go out and earn a living. Long Island is as flat as a pool table. As a result, there isn't much in the way of winter sports. Kids will find any slope they can to go sledding, including the exit ramps on the parkways. There were some shots to be made, and some good ones if you really worked at it.
We did, and again, I felt that we had a nice take when it came time for our slide show. The three of us got the usual response.
The Queen Bee showed her slides and was immediately showered with "Oooohhhs," and "Aaaaahhhhs."
I couldn't make out what she was showing. There were traceries of lines crisscrossing each frame like thick spider webs. They weren't spider webs, but what they were I had no idea. Whatever it was, it drove our critics wild. Each slide looked almost like the one before and the editors and art directors were running out of laudatory expressions.
Finally, one of them asked the question that was on my lips since she started.
"Those pictures are so great. What are they of?"
AHA! I wasn't the only one in the dark. But, how could they heap so much praise on something that they couldn't even identify? And, where was the context to them? How did they fit in to a winter theme? This was truly the parable of "The Emperor’s New Clothes."
The Queen Bee cleared up the mystery. "Those are winter bare tree branches reflected in school bus windows."
I was a beaten man. There was no hope that any of my pictures would ever see the light of day in this calendar.
Actually, the project died on the vine. The effort was called off and the calendar never came to be. What a colossal waste of time and effort, once again. At least I got some pretty photos to blow up and hang on my walls.
When Newsday shut down our New York City paper, they had to let go of a lot of talent. The Queen Bee didn't have enough seniority and her talents were lost to us forever.
The New Chief Photo Editor managed to hang in for several more years, much to everyone's astonishment. But, recently he was advised to look for employment elsewhere. There's another new Chief running the Photo Department now. He was the Old Chief's deputy and I liked the cut of his jib. He was, and is, an intelligent man who knows good pictures and appreciates good photographers. I might not have retired had he taken over while I was still employed. It will take him some time to repair the damage inflicted on the department and the paper by the Old New Chief. But, I am sure that he will restore Newsday's Photo Department to the glory it once knew.
I wish you Godspeed, Jeff.
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