The Digital Journalist
Letters from Central America:
Watching A Master At Work

by James Colburn

A while ago I got a call from David Burnett (who I believe I can call a friend of 20 or so years) telling me that he had a Fortune assignment to photograph billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in Lincoln, Neb. The two were going to be answering questions from a group of UNL (that's the University of Nebraska, home of the Cornhuskers, who just kicked Colorado's ass) business school students and David wanted to know if I knew anyone that I could recommend as a assistant for the day.

Photographer David Burnett sets up a portrait of business titans Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for Fortune magazine on the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. Sept. 30, 2005.

© James Colburn
Now it's been many, many years since I worked as an assistant for anyone but given that this would be a chance to watch a master at work, I volunteered for the gig and arranged to meet David in Lincoln on the Saturday. Realizing that this would mean a day of hauling huge cases of lighting equipment up and down stairs I immediately ran to the club and started lifting some free weights (some who know me will realize that that last sentence may be the most deceptive statement since Bush's "Mission Accomplished").

Aside from being one of the world's finest photographers David Burnett is also one of the world's nicest guys. Upon meeting at the hotel he explained what we had to do and the time constraints. My job was, basically, to haul some bags around, keep track of things so they didn't "go astray" and stay out of his way when the shooting began. Now some of you younger assistants may not understand this but Burnett actually carries his share of the gear. I've seen photographers of his stature walk blindly away carrying nothing but a Leica and a grin but David pitched in.

We got to the site early and spent a good bit of time scoping out possible places for a Buffett/Gates portrait. The best one turned out to be weather- and light-dependent so he made sure that there were not one but two possible alternatives. He was going to do the shoot with a '40s Speed Graphic and Aero-Ektar lens on 4X5 film (Dave gets to do that sort of thing) so Polaroids were taken to check on angles and such.

David Burnett photographs Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for Fortune magazine on the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. Sept. 30, 2005.

James Colburn
It's not so much the artistry of the photographs - we can see that all of the time - but the way that he deals with people that's so instructive. He's a calming influence on the oftentimes frazzled PR people. He goes about his business in a dignified way, smiling, cracking a joke here and there, constantly looking for some new angle.

The key thing about David Burnett, after watching him at work, is that it looks as though he's enjoying himself and that's got to be visible to his subjects. If the person taking your picture is having a good time then you're going to be just a little more relaxed and the picture's bound to come out better. Of course David might be faking the whole "enjoying himself" thing but as someone in Hollywood once said, "The most important thing is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made."

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer