THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
"GET ME A FLOATER"
"Get me a floater."
I had just finished covering a local press conference and had called the Photo Desk to see what else I had. It was 10 AM and my next scheduled assignment wasn't until my 1 PM Business Page head shot. Photo Editors don't like their schedules showing their staffers doing nothing for long periods of time. It reflects poorly on them. So, to fill the gaps on the schedule and possible gaps in the next day's paper (God forbid that we shouldn't have enough news or photos to fill a news hole) we get to go out and look for floaters.
Now floaters mean different things to different people. To a New York City cop, a floater is a body bobbing in the East River that could be a suicide, an accidental drowning or maybe a mob hit.
You are being asked to be creative on a moment's notice. I don't know about you, but my creativity isn't turned on or off like a light. I need something to work with. Give me a simple headshot and I light the crap out of it and make it look like a Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), the renown Canadian Portraitist. OK, that's a bit of an ego trip, but I usually did a pretty good job on head shots. I should have; I shot enough of them in 42 years on the job.
Wayne was a nice guy, and he was pretty new in his current job as Day Photo Editor at Newsday. His family hadn't joined him, yet, so one night I took him out to dinner. I tried to explain the facts of life about floaters to him. At least, the facts as they pertained to Long Island.
"Wayne," I said to him as soon as our drinks arrived at the table. "Wayne, floaters are an anathema to the staff. It's tough to find something with any relevance when the kids are in school and there are no long shadows and you tell us that we can't shoot ducks, geese or gulls. Ducks, geese and gulls are relevant to Long Island. You can't walk across a schoolyard around here without stepping in goose shit."
I thought that I had spelled it out pretty cleverly. Wayne wasn't convinced.
"People read Newsday, Dick. Not ducks, geese and gulls," he said. We need pictures of people doing things beside stepping in goose shit."
spelled it out pretty cleverly.
"Where you have sidewalks, you have people. No sidewalks, no people. People with sidewalks use them instead of cars; especially in cities. People will come out of their homes and walk to the corner to pick up a newspaper, or to a deli for coffee and a bagel, a six pack or a ham on rye. On the way, they'll meet someone they know and will lean against a lamp post and gossip. Voila! You have a floater. On Long Island, people go into their attached garage, hit the remote to open the garage door and drive to the town or village to do the same thing. They park in the parking lot next to the deli, or whatever, go in and make their purchase and drive home putting their car back in the garage and you never see them. You rarely see people on the streets on Long Island."
Wayne looked beaten. "People," he said. "No more ducks, geese or gulls. Ya gotta get people."
"OK, Wayne," I said. But, I knew that nothing would change. So did he. He didn't stay around much longer. He got an offer of a job someplace that had sidewalks and he took it. I liked Wayne. At least you could talk to him.
After decades of publishing a daily paper for Long Island readers, Newsday decided to expand its coverage and its circulation base into Queens. Although it is geographically situated on Long Island, Queens County is politically part of New York City. The same holds for Kings County, which is known as Brooklyn. Complicated and confusing? Welcome to New York.
we opened an office in Kew Gardens, Queens and staffed it with
a few editors and writers. For the first year or so, the photographers
were assigned from our main offices in Suffolk County. We weren't
happy to get a Queens assignment. It was, as they say in the
country, a hoot and a holler and in some of the worst traffic
in the country.
At least there were a couple of benefits attached to Queens Floaters. First of all, Queens had sidewalks so it was easy to find people doing something on the streets. Secondly, the Queens Desk was so desperate to fill the Queens paper with Queens stories and pictures, they would use anything that you turned in. And, I mean anything.
After awhile we had used up all the good places that yielded decent shots. It was getting more and more difficult trying to come up with something of which you could be proud. So, we ended up shooting anything that moved. And often, things that didn't move. A bunch of garbage cans standing at the curb became a floater. A male dog lifting his leg to pee on a fire hydrant made a floater. And, damned if they didn't appear in the paper the next day. Once, we held a contest to see who could get the worst, most mundane and ridiculous picture in the Queens paper. We decided that if we were going to be driven to such extremes, we might as well have some fun doing it.
Queens is a large territory and we would split it up so that we all weren't covering the same mundanity. (That's a word. I looked it up.) But, we worked out a code so that we could meet at a location in central Queens and have coffee together. One of us would call in on the office radio. The Photo Desk monitored all our calls, so we couldn't just say, "Hey, Newsday shooters in Queens, meet me at the Main Street Diner for coffee." We knew better than that. Instead, one of us would announce, "Hey, Newsday shooters in Queens! Be aware that they are doing construction at Horace Harding Blvd and 139th Street and traffic is a mess." Oddly enough, there was no construction and no traffic jam. But, there was a diner at that intersection and soon, we were all sitting around in a booth having coffee and a donut and bitching about the mundaneness of our Queens floaters.
God, I miss those days.
some floaters from my collection.
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