Thursday, August 25, 2011

X-Rite: The Only Way to Look at Color

As a photographer who has made his reputation on shooting color, I bought a Sony Artisan monitor back in the days of CRT's (cathode ray tubes).  Then, one day, I wanted to see my images BIGGER.  And, as Sony was no longer supporting the software and the display was getting darker and greener, I bought a 30" Apple Cinema Display.  The very first time it booted up, I realized just how far off my Artisan had been.

But how far off was my new, out-of-the-box Cinema Display?  I wanted to know, because there is a phenomenon called “chromatic adaptation” which refers to the eye’s ability to automatically compensate for light sources of different color temperature.  Chromatic adaptation allows our eyes to maintain the appearance of objects under different light sources.  So just because an image on the monitor looks OK doesn't mean that the image is being correctly displayed at some predetermined color temperature, brightness and contrast.  In other words, "chromatic adaptation" is great...but not if you're a photographer.

i1 Pro on the left, and its baby brother, the new i1 Display Pro on the right
Enter a company called X-Rite, whose scientific knowledge about color measurement goes back a long way.  I found out that the solution to all my problems was a device called an i1Pro, and that I could get a package of hardware and software that allowed me to not only calibrate my monitor, but to also calibrate my projector when I do lectures, and to make custom paper profiles using the i1Pro's capability to measure reflected light.  You see, the i1Pro is called a "spectrophotometer."  But when I travel, the large size of the i1Pro becomes an issue. And, it needs to be coupled to a large base (see above) to make light measurements when profiling my projector.  

What I hoped for was that X-Rite would make a smaller, lighter calibration device.  If they could do that, I'd accept not being able to also make profiles for paper.  Such a device is referred to as a "colorimeter."  Apparently, a lot of other photographers wanted the same thing.  So as part of their nearly two-year long project to update their profiling software, which resulted in i1 Profiler (currently version 1.1.1), they decided to make a cute little sibling to the i1Pro.  No, they didn't call it "Mini-Me."  Enter the i1 Display Pro—a fantastic, small, lightweight color calibrator that can be used to calibrate monitors, as well as projectors.  But you can't generate paper profiles with it.

i1 Display Pro resting against the LCD screen to take measurements
What is gratifying to me is that the i1 Display Pro is the first calibration device I've ever used that is virtually "plug and play."  OK, I know.  Photographers work, and X-Rite knows that. So they've built an automatic workflow into i1Profiler that  takes you step by step through a predetermined workflow.  Not that you can't change just about any parameter you can think of, including white point, luminance, contrast ratio, and a new one to me—flare correction !
i1Profiler software's workflow is designed for one thing—holding your hand during calibration 
X-Rite has made a clever diffuser that stays in place went you want to measure your viewing area's ambient light. It can also swivel back and lock in place so that the optics can rest against the surface of your LCD.  They've thoughtfully placed a thin layer of foam on the measuring surface, and included a small but effective counterweight which acts to hold the i1Display Pro in place for measurements.
The diffuser remains in place to measure ambient light, or swings away to calibrate your monitor
It is hard for me to imagine any photographer shooting with a professional grade digital camera and not calibrating their monitor.  Even if a monitor was perfectly pre-calibrated from the factory, it might not be calibrated to the settings you need or want. And, it would be subject to all sorts of variables.  And monitor "profiles"—the pieces of "instructional" software that are soul of the calibration process—are only accurate for a very short period of time.  Depending on how critical you are about color, you might want to recalibrate each and every day!
With the i1Display Pro in place, the i1Profiler software begins making a monitor profile

The engineers at X-Rite have thought of the little things.  The i1 Display Pro is threaded on the bottom so it can be mounted on a tabletop tripod or stand while calibrating your projector. Despite its small size and weight, when coupled with the new i1 Profiler software the i1 Display Pro does its job quickly and efficiently, and in my experience makes very accurate profiles.  For the first time I have a very small, lightweight, fast, accurate calibration device that I can unplug from my computer, throw into an attache case, and bring with me to my next lecture. 

The bottom of the i1Display Pro is threaded so it can be mounted on a stand
If I have one small complaint, it's that I wish X-Rite had figured out a way to make the USB cord fully detachable so it's user-replaceable.  After months of use, it may break, and for now that would mean sending it back to the factory.  But at less than $250 it's the least expensive investment you can make in the peace of mind that comes with knowing the colors you are looking at are as accurate as the current state of the art.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Trip to Another World

                                                                                                             © Eric Meola 2011

Late one November morning in 1992 as I stood in my studio in lower Manhattan, a thought kept nagging at me—I had always wanted to photograph polar bears.  The evening before I had convinced myself that the time wasn't right.  The workshop to photograph polar bears had just a couple of openings, but as much as I tried to convince myself, I couldn't make up my mind.  Heads I go, tails I don't.  That morning, though, I kept asking myself "If now's not right, when is?"

Within minutes I changed my mind, got on the phone, called United Airlines, threw some clothes into a bag, along with film and batteries, and grabbed a taxi just outside the building.  And then I hit a wall of midday traffic like I had never seen before.  I was on my way to Churchill, Manitoba—a day, an overnight, and several connections from JFK airport.

I had just returned from Hawaii, I was exhausted, I had a huge assignment in less than a week, I was poorly packed, and...well, I just kept thinking about all the negatives.  It was the first time I would be photographing with a group, and not just any group.  Several world class nature photographers would be on board the "tundra buggy".  What would it be like to travel in a group, in close quarters, seeing the same things everyone else was seeing, photographing the same polar bears in the same landscapes?  

Two days later, as the buggy made its way across the ice and snow to Hudson Bay, and everyone was shooting out the side windows, I opening the back door and stepped out onto a platform to get my thoughts together.  Christ, it was cold!  Then, far in the distance, I spotted three polar bears crossing the deep blue ice drifts, and behind them a veil of fog and mist rising off the bay was lit up with the golden glow of sunrise.  I shot an entire roll as the bears slowly approached, getting closer and closer.  It was a special moment in a spectacular landscape, and now I had my answer: it was possible to travel in a large group and yet be in your own world, to see the same things but do your own thing, to be alone but talk the talk and to make my own images while enjoying this other-worldly place together.
                                                                                       Arctic fox on the ice © Eric Meola 2011

In September of 2012, I will be returning to the Arctic along with Arthur Meyerson, as a team of photographer-instructors.  The workshop leaders for this 2012 Arctic Voyage, will be photographers John Paul Caponigro and Seth Resnick.  This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to join us in two weeks of photographing and exploring some of the most remote and majestic areas of the far North, from Spitsbergen to Greenland, with our final destination in Reykjavik, Iceland.  Two weeks with great instructors, photographing fjords, polar bears, icebergs and puffins.  Two weeks of exploring some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth along with some of the most unique creatures on Earth, and two weeks of having fun while learning first hand from people who love to teach and who love to make your photographic dreams come true.  

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Learning to See

One bleak November morning in 1968, I woke up very early and took the R train in Manhattan up to 57th Street and Seventh Avenue.  I walked a couple of blocks south and crossed over to the east side of the street and tried to ignore the lingerie mannequins in the window as I walked up to the building at 853 Seventh Avenue and started to ring the buzzer for Ernst Haas.  Just before doing so, I checked my watch. It was 5:55 A.M. I hesitated, deciding to wait five minutes before finally reaching out and nervously placing my finger on the button.  The night before, after talking briefly with Haas, I had made an appointment to see him "at six," and as I hung up the phone, I realized I had no idea whether he meant A.M. or P.M.  On a hunch, I went with my gut, but...what if I was wrong?  No sooner did I hear the buzzer go off with a disconcertingly loud and annoying sound, than I heard a European voice through the the intercom telling me to come up.

Forty-three years later, I walked into a gift shop one day and after wading through the isles of stationery, chocolate and dolls, I came upon a woman sitting at an easel while painting.  Behind her were some of her paintings—bucolic and sedate oils of scenery along with some portraits.  Through a partition, I could see something far more interesting to me and, as I stood in the doorway, I asked her about the wall of abstract colors.  "Oh...that?" she said, in a voice both filled with amusement and dripping with disdain.  Then she added "That's where I clean my brushes and test my colors.  And to emphasize how little she thought of it, she added "We'll be painting over that wall next week!"

Untitled Abstract                                                                  © Eric Meola 2011
I asked her if I could photograph the wall, and no sooner had she said "yes, sure, go ahead. Knock yourself out" than I began cropping sections of it in my mind and in the camera.  One hundred frames later I thanked her, and as I walked out my mind raced back to that day in 1968 and to what Haas had asked me.

As I sat down in his apartment, he asked if I would like some tea.  I sat there with my portfolio on my knees, wondering what to say and what not to say; then he looked straight at me and asked "Do you paint?"   I was thrown off guard, and disappointed.  I was a photographer and I did not want to talk about painting.  I wanted advice.  I wanted to hear one of my heroes talk about making images.  The last thing I wanted to talk about was painting.

There was a long, awkward silence, and then I said "No."  Haas didn't hesitate one bit as he continued to probe.  "Why not?" he asked.  I told him I didn't know how to paint.  And then, with a twinkle in his eye, and a smile that somehow cut me in half while consoling me, he firmly said "You don't need to know how to paint to paint."  Half an hour later I walked out into the day's gloom wondering just what he meant and what he was trying to tell me.
           Untitled abstract #2                                                              © Eric Meola 2011

1968 was a good time—just how good, I had little idea.  Across the Hudson, a young man named Clarence Clemons was working as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children in Newark.  It would be three years before he would meet Bruce Springsteen and another four years before they would walk into my studio in lower Manhattan.  Stan Kanney and Larry Fried had yet to start a company called The Image Bank, and there was no "photo district."  Nor was there the "Black Book" of self promotion.  Sean Callahan, an editor at Life, would not begin to publish American Photographer magazine for another decade.  Hiro, Avedon, Art Kane, Jay Maisel, and Pete Turner were all making great images, and the magazines were filled with a kaleidoscope of dazzling photographs.  It was a time when you could stand outside the Time-Life building and see Alfred Eisenstaedt—"Eisie"—stride in after walking several miles from his apartment.  Marty Forscher, the genius of camera repair and modification, had yet to see his first auto-focus camera come into his shop at 37 West 47th Street.  And Nikon had yet to declare that "We take the world's greatest pictures."  

What Haas was telling me in those seemingly prehistoric times was to open my eyes, to learn how to see, to to slow down, to open my mind, to see the world in a grain of sand, to dream, to walk the streets, to watch the light, and to feel the wind on my face.  The trinity formed by Haas, Pete Turner and Jay Maisel, gave birth to a gallery called "The Space," in Carnegie Hall.  I had my first exhibit there in 1970.  I was still learning to walk; I was still learning to see.  These were  the mentors for my generation, who showed us the road map for where photography could and would go.  They took a staid and tired craft and made it their own.  They inspired us, they taught us, and they made us dream.
     Untitled Abstract # 3                                                                    © Eric Meola

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Days of Heaven

In 1976, Terrence Malick began production on his second film, Days of Heaven.  Filming each day in the last twenty minutes of daylight, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, along with Malick, produced a masterpiece that is so visually compelling that even on repeated viewings it is difficult to comprehend how it was made.  Although they filmed in Alberta, Canada, the Palouse region of southeastern Washington State is nearly as haunting a landscape.  I have returned there several times over the past few decades. Its softly undulating hills, wheat fields, abandoned prairie houses, and the last remnants of an iconic America I grew up with, are unmatched by anything I have ever seen.  It is hard to believe that it exists, let alone in an era of iPads and debt ceilings.
          Shadows on the land                                                           © Eric Meola 2011

This is a place in America without billboards or street signs, a place where unmarked dirt and gravel roads meet the horizon.  A place where God's light strikes the land at oblique angles, and a place where other than at harvest time you are unlikely to see anyone outdoors. The cafes and old movie theaters in the few small towns are mostly gone.  The landscapes are so sinuous and so sensual that it is easy to be mesmerized by the chiaroscuro of dappled light and shadow that rakes across the hills. 
Field of wheat, day's end                                                            © Eric Meola 2011

Long winters give way to an early spring rush, and by May the seed is in the ground.  Then, in late July, the green fields of wheat begin their transformation, turning gold in a wave that generally moves from south to north, bringing with it a frenzied rush of special combines built to work along the slopes of the hills.  This is where I took my first ride in a biplane, 30 years ago.  One day, just east of Pullman, Washington, I saw a plane suddenly drop from the sky and taxi to a stop in a wheat field.
Tattered shade, abandoned farmhouse                                         © Eric Meola 2011

I drove up a short, steep dirt road and got out of the car.  Suddenly, an old man named "Siggie" jumped from the plane, yelling at me that the car's catalytic converter might start the field on fire.  Somewhat chastened, I watched as he walked to one of his barns, sliding open a giant wooden door to reveal a row of colorful biplanes parked neatly side by side!  Then, turning to me, with a twinkle in his eye, he said "Want to go up?"
Contrasting fields of fallow and planted land                               © Eric Meola 2011

Rolling hills of light and shadow                                                  © Eric Meola 2011

Fields of new wheat follow the curve of the land                         © Eric Meola 2011

I looked at him for several seconds, and all I could think about was that he was probably more than 80 years old.  He looked at the camera I was holding and I caught his eye, as I heard myself saying a not too convincing "sure."  Within two minutes we were in the air, and I began photographing the patchwork quilt of fallow and planted green and yellow fields.  As I was shooting, Siggie kept spiraling higher and higher.  Distracted, I heard him say over the noise of the engine "Anything you wanna see closer?" 

Farmhouse nestled in trees for protection from the wind                © Eric Meola 2011
I will never forget the way he said it, nor my response, as I pointed down at a patch of light and shadow far below.  No sooner had my finger moved, than Siggie thrust the throttle straight forward with a demonic grin, pointing the nose of the plane perfectly perpendicular to the ground.  As I saw the ground rushing up I had no chance of holding the camera in my hands as the small biplane, despite its deceptive look of fragility, began to test its "G-force" limit along with my stomach's inability to maintain equilibrium.  As we reached what I guessed was two hundrd feet above the ground, Siggie made an abrupt vertical U-turn and climbed straight up.  We leveled off and he looked over at me and, in his unique rasp of a voice, said "Wanna go up to Alaska with me?"

American flag painted on the side of a barn                                  © Eric Meola 2011

This past month, as I drove past Pullman, I learned that Siggie had passed away.  Peacefully.  As I walked along the streets of one small town, I came across a recently renovated old theater. So old that the Empire Theater's ancient projectors did not use bulbs, but instead used a series of lenses to focus the light from a burning strip of superheated zinc. Out of the top of the projector, a series of angled stovepipes directed the toxic vapors up and out the roof.  For a moment I wondered when the last movie had been shown there.  What year, and which movie?  And the company that made those zinc strips...when did they go out of business?  I walked next door and bought a huckleberry ice cream cone for two dollars, fully expecting Buddy Holly to walk in at any moment.
Rivers of wild grass blowing in the wind                                       © Eric Meola 2011

The Palouse is all about texture—the textures of the land, the textures of the barns, the textures of the fields of wheat and wild grasses that move in the wind.  I came across a huge field of grass one afternoon, and watched for more than an hour as the tall, wispy strands of grass caught the wind, undulating like the green waves of an ocean, creating an illusion of liquid that was hypnotic, as if the land had been flooded by some great sea. In the tranquil twilight of evening, as long shadows roll a blanket across the hills and stars fall from the sky, the hauntingly beautiful light brings thoughts of the strange world we have created for ourselves.  How long will this place be here?  What force will bring its demise?  And why are we always seeking something new we think is better?
Harvest tracks in the day's last rays of light                                © Eric Meola 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Deconstructing the Cover of "Born to Run"

“Ever conscious of iconography, especially on Born to Run, the album that was to be his unabashed, arduously recorded attempt at rock greatness, Mr. Springsteen didn’t lightly choose its cover image. It shows him leaning on a shoulder that, when the album is unfolded, belongs to Mr. Clemons. (Mr. Springsteen was standing on something, since Mr. Clemons was a head taller.)"   - Jon Pareles, writer, N.Y. Times

“When you look at just the cover of Born to Run, you see a charming photo, a good album cover, but when you open it up and see Clarence and me together, the album begins to work its magic.” – Bruce Springsteen in the foreword to Clarence Clemons’s book Big Man

“I’m on the back”  -  Clarence Clemons in his book Big Man

The recent passing of Clarence Clemons has resulted in a number of articles, eulogies and appreciations which have touched not only on his musicianship, but on his relationship with Bruce Springsteen.  Many of the articles have referenced the cover photograph on the album Born to Run as a summation and a symbol of their friendship.  I have received so many inquiries about the photo session for the cover and there have been so many misconceptions about it that I felt compelled to address them.  Thirty-six years have passed, but if there is one day in my life I remember clearly, it is that one.

In 2005, writer Daniel Wolff interviewed art director John Berg about the creation of the cover for Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run.  Berg related that he had to convince Springsteen not to go with a “serious artist” look.  Although Berg does not recall which image appealed to Bruce, it wasn’t the image that finally appeared on the album.

The "serious artist" look?                                                                                                      © Eric Meola

When I first heard about the album it was called Between Flesh and Fantasy.  Recently discovered notes from one of Bruce’s notebooks, owned by Springsteen archivist and collector Michael Crane, outline one possible idea for the cover:

Cover-  Flesh- city street in day
           Fantasy on golf bench in back of
           Madam Maries with big moon
           over the ocean + clarence in
Detail of a page from a Springsteen notebook outlining a cover idea for Born to Run
reproduced courtesy of Michael Crane

So at least one of Bruce’s ideas involved the duality of “flesh and fantasy,” and the contrast between day and night—a theme echoed in the first lines of the song “Born to Run”:
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream,
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…

The image that was finally chosen for the cover also emphasized a duality, but one far removed from benches, moonlight and Asbury Park fortuneteller Madam Marie.  Importantly, Bruce indicated in the notes that he envisioned “clarence in background.”  These notes were written at a point where drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter and pianist David Sancious had just left the band, and they would soon be followed by violinist Suki Lahav.  Bruce was writing the lyrics and the music for Born to Run, holding auditions for a drummer and pianist, playing gigs, as well as making notes about ideas for the album’s cover.

But part of the cover design for Born to Run was the result of a decision that Bruce made with regard to his second album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.  On September 11, 1973, a few days before his 24th birthday, it was released.  A sprawling tone poem that echoes Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, it is one of his most romantic albums, and it moves Springsteen’s world back and forth from the New Jersey shore to New York’s streets, in songs as varied as “4th of July, Asbury Park,” and “Incident on 57th Street.”  Yet for the small group of fans that was beginning to form, and who were captivated by Bruce’s every word, it contained a glaring omission—none of the lyrics were reproduced on the album’s jacket as they were on his first album Greetings from Asbury Park.

Recently, I ran into Bruce’s first manager, Mike Appel, and I took the opportunity to query him about the omission of lyrics. Appel stated that “That was Bruce’s decision, that was what he wanted.”  I later queried Bruce about whose decision it was to leave the lyrics off the second album, and he answered “It was mine and it was an experiment.”  But was it deliberate?  “Yes.”  

The last time I asked Bruce about the lyrics for The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, was on August 3, 1974—thirty-seven years earlier.  It was also the first time I met him.  We ran into each other on the steps of the Plaza Hotel, as he was about do a concert in Central Park.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t hear or understand some of the lyrics, as Mike Appel had to mimeograph them for the press.

In contrast, one thing was certain about the album design for Born to Run—the lyrics would be included, as this was a set of words that Bruce had labored over for more than a year.  As well, to the credit of Columbia and Bruce, nearly every single person who had any major part in the album’s creation was given credit on the album’s jacket.  This included departing band members who were on some of the tracks, along with the new band members, and session musicians such as the Brecker brothers, Dave Sanborn and Wayne Andre, Springsteen’s manager and producers (Appel and Jon Landau), art directors John Berg and Andy Engel, and myself, among others.  The need to include the lyrics and a lot of credits was something foremost in my mind when I chose to shoot against a white background.
The opened cover of Born to Run, front and back                                                                © Eric Meola

Jon Pareles was right when he wrote in the New York Times that Bruce was very conscious of iconography, and he was right when he mentions that Bruce was standing on a box.  Bruce had prepared for the shoot, and brought along his ripped T-shirt and various props and talismans—an Elvis button, a pair of sneakers, his then-signature newsboy cap, and a radio.  The black leather jacket he is wearing in the photograph was given to him by Mike Appel.  I had also prepared, going so far as to scout an outdoor setting—a fire escape on the corner of Sixth Avenue near my studio—as I wanted to give John Berg as many alternates as possible.

Around 10 or 11AM on June 20th, 1975, Bruce and Clarence walked into my studio on the fourth floor at 134 Fifth Avenue, carrying their instruments and a few changes of clothing.  I had the Rolling Stones album December’s Children playing.  The strobe lights were set up.  It was just us—no stylist, no hair and makeup, no assistant.  There was a six to seven inch difference in their height, depending on what statistics you reference, and Clarence wore a tall black fedora during much of the shoot.  I kept several wooden boxes around the studio to adjust for height discrepancies, though for much of the shooting I did not use them.  As Clarence riffed on several sequences of notes, I began shooting.  We made quick changes of clothing and in the space of an hour and a half I shot almost 600 images (I shot another few rolls under the aforementioned fire escape.) As we walked back to the studio, I glanced at my watch.  It had been just two hours.
Under a fire escape NYC June 20, 1975                                                                           © Eric Meola

I did not have an assistant and because I processed the film immediately after the shoot, the sequence in which the rolls were shot has been lost; the sequence within a roll still remains, however, and from that it is obvious that the interaction between Bruce and Clarence which resulted in the cover image lasted for about half a roll, or 18 frames. Of these, there are only two where his face is turned to Clarence and he is grinning in only one of them.  Clearly, it was an instinctual moment, and one which was brought on as much by practicality, as intent.  Standing on a box, he was suddenly several inches taller; Clarence’s crouch hides this and makes the height difference disappear.
  Alternate sequence #1                                                                                                        © Eric Meola

After a number of images in which they stood back to back and a few in which Bruce leaned on Clarence’s shoulder looking out at the camera, for perhaps 3 seconds he looked beatifically straight at Clarence as I shot two frames.  Other than his standing on the box, there was no “setup” for this, no premeditation—and, his guitar was not plugged in.  We were shooting fast, and if Bruce was after a particular image, he placed a lot of faith in me that in those few brief seconds I had captured the one that became famous.  It happened as much because of the moment, as whatever chord progression Clarence was playing that caught Bruce’s attention.
Alternate sequence #2                                                                                                        © Eric Meola

Springsteen biographers and hagiographers as diverse as Dave Marsh and Louis P. Masur have made much of that moment and proclaimed that the cover signals an epic journey, even comparing it to Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.
Clarence & Bruce "outtake" from the Born to Run cover session                                          © Eric Meola

The mysteries of the Born to Run cover have assumed a mythical status that did not, of course, exist at the moment the album first appeared.  The initial misspelling of Jon Landau’s name, the alternate cover with its sepia blacks and jagged type, the mystery of where Bruce obtained a membership-only Elvis button, and the herculean effort on Bruce’s part in the studio have long since magnified a sense that every last aspect of the album and its design were planned from the very beginning. My photograph of him on the album jacket, leaning on Clarence Clemons’ shoulder, would forever become part of the vernacular of American pop culture, and over the years the pose was imitated by other recording artists, including Sesame Street’s “Muppets” and  NPR’s “Car Talk”  hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

When I delivered a large stack of prints and contacts to John Berg at Columbia, I did not envision what he saw instantly—in Berg’s eyes, the most important part of the image was the space between their two faces, because it provided the perfect place to split the image.  Folded open so that both the front and back show, Clarence becomes the center of a riveting line of body movement along with the line-of-sight of Bruce’s magnetic gaze.  Yes, Clarence was right, he is on the back; but for Berg he provided the link to the album’s front.  He then extended the white space to the left to accommodate the long list of credits.  In its original incarnation, as 288 square inches of area, it is as much a greeting card as an announcement, as much a billboard as an album cover.
The full frame shot delivered to Columbia art director John Berg                                      © Eric Meola

Is it, as so many writers have stated, a declaration of the friendship and camaraderie between the two men?  Yes. Was it a deliberate, premeditated statement by Bruce about race relations?  Probably not.  Yet it became that, and by including Clarence from the beginning, Bruce chose not only the one remaining band member he most identified with, but the one who happened to be black.  In an album of saxophone solos, from “Thunder Road” to “Jungleland,” it seems an obvious choice. And, a brilliant one which came to symbolize far more than any of us could have envisioned.  
An "outtake" from the Born to Run shoot                                                                            © Eric Meola

Bruce and Clarence walked into my studio that morning, exhausted from marathon around-the-clock recording sessions at The Record Plant studios in New York. The number of frames where they are yawning attests to that. Bruce had put some very serious thought and preparation into those two hours.  Yet as he took his hat and jacket off and held the radio to his ear, and as I moved from close-ups to full torso shots of the two of them, the operative word of the day was “shoot.” Shoot lots of variations, change poses, try different things.  

When he finally heard the mastered version of Born to Run, Springsteen's reaction was that it was "The worst piece of garbage I'd ever heard."  Eventually, he came to embrace it the way we all did.  And the cover?

At one point Bruce stood on a four inch tall box, back-to-back with Clarence.  Then, he leaned on Clarence and looked soulfully at the man with the golden horn.  If it was a pose, he held it for a few brief seconds and two frames, and at the time I think Clarence, Bruce and I realized instinctively that there was something magical about that moment.

So would much of the rest of the world.   Blessings, Big Man.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The God of Color

The voice was loud, insistent and authoritative; and though I don't understand Hindi, I knew at once that we were in trouble.  As I turned to see who had ordered us to stop, I became painfully aware of the long, sinuous bale of concertina wire that stretched along the shoreline.  Bhim looked down at the sand and whispered to me to keep walking, but our meek attempt to ignore the order was met with an even louder barking retort which was impossible to disobey.

I had met Bhim in Delhi just a few days earlier, and he was assigned to drive me to Mathura to photograph Holi, the "festival of colors."  I had only one morning to photograph the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra, but the Yamuna river was very low, and the places I had previously photographed it from were a marshy wasteland of scrub brush and debris.  

While viewing one of those sites, I noticed a group of boys across the river, on the north side, and they appeared to be playing soccer.  The sun had already risen, but we drove to the other side and were faced with what looked like a bale of barbed wire, that seemingly had collected every wind-blown shard of paper and plastic the world could throw its way.  Then, Bhim found a small rabbit-hole in it that, if we were careful, we might be able to squirrel our way through.  He went first, and just made it, his left leg fully outstretched as he hurtled down the embankment.  There was a loud "twang," but the thin, rusted wire held.  I followed, and neither of us gave any thought as to why the wire was there, nor did we realize we had just breached the perimeter security along the river, for the Taj.

As we rounded the bank of the river, a scene unfolded that I will never forget.  In the warm, soft, hazy mist of the afterglow of sunrise, a small group of boys were kicking a soccer ball back and forth, as they did every day, with the Taj as their backdrop.  I shot exactly 7 frames, and on the last one, a boy on the left side of the frame kicked the ball into the air, and then...

Apparently we had been spotted from a tower, and now, I listened with no small amusement to the argument going back and forth between Bhim and the guards.  I knew where this was going, and turned my back, as I watched Bhim pull out his wallet to give them his guide card.   After 5 more minutes we we told to leave, and I looked back one last time at a view of the Taj I had never seen before and never would, again.  Of all the images I have made in India, it remains my favorite.

Boys playing soccer in front of the Taj Mahal

Just a few days before, I had collapsed in a chair, exhausted from an afternoon of photographing Indians and foreigners in the throes of exuberant joy, throwing colored powder at each other, and laughing at the fun of having themselves doused with one color after another until they themselves were walking canvases of modern art.  Now, as I took  off my I.C.P. hat hat and threw it on the ground, I had some sense of how I must look. I had been the target of several children and adults, all them them gleefully pouring handful after handful of powder on me, until my eyes, my ears, my nose, my hands, my mouth, and every other part of my body had some spectral value assigned to it.

My I.C.P. hat, post "Holi"

I was only one of several photographers drawn to Holi who subjected themselves and their equipment to a daily ritual of wrapping camera gear in various layers of protective plastic, some jury rigged and some far more elaborate.  Yet no matter how carefully the gear was protected, a number of cameras and lenses fell victim to the onslaught of giggling children with plastic water "cannons," and adults who might be under under the influence of "Bhang".  Along with the revelers, I was one of those who received a direct hit to my eyes, of a handful of color; and it would later take hours, and several showers, to begin to wash the color off my skin.

Victim of a Holi color dust storm tries to get it out of her eyes

Imagine being thrown into a mammoth blender, along with several tons of colored talcum powder, and the switch is thrown to "high." Even the silvery steps leading up to Lord Krishna's throne were spattered with color, and the more you got with the program ("Happy Holi !"), the more you were accepted as a bona fide colorista.  

Lord Krishna's staircase

The conditions for making images could not have been worse—it was very hot, and the temple courtyards were filled with relentless, raw, mid-day sunlight. Add to that the constant dust clouds of colored powder, children squirting powerful jets of colored water, add in constant, loud, raucous music, and it was impossible to imagine making any images, let along finding places to shoot. Yet if one looked, there were many images to be made, and I found a haven underneath the walkways which surrounded the temple courtyard.  I was not the only one trying to escape the onslaught to my senses, and it was here that it was possible to make some startling portraits, and abstract close-ups of color spattered shirts and faces.  What I found interesting was not the spectacle, but the way in which Holi became a manifestation of "man as art," in which the human body became a canvas.  When I went to India in 2007 to make photographs for my book INDIA: In Word and Image, I made my first images of Holi, and became aware that Lord Krishna is India's "God of Color."
Colored water cannons for sale on the streets of Mathura

Likenesses of Lord Krishna for sale in a stall, Mathura

Portrait #1, Holi

Portrait #2, Holi

Shirt #1

Shirt #2

Back of Black Blouse

The crowd filling the temple in anticipation

Yet Holi, and the celebration of color, was a world apart from the man I had photographed just the day before at the Jama Masjid—India's largest mosque—in the old part of Delhi. Quietly, in the large, open prayer hall, the man cupped his hands to Allah, the only sound the echo of my camera's shutter off the sandstone walls.

Praying to Allah, in the Jama Masjid, Delhi

Day after day of photographing Holi took its toll on my gear as well as my lungs.  By the end of the third day I was coughing spontaneously, in a deep, uncontrolled need to get the dust out of my lungs.  I spent hours each night using Q-Tips to clean my cameras, and rewrapped each camera in a clear plastic bag that I tied tightly around the lens, which had a high quality UV filter on it.  I was drained—from the dust, from the ritual of cleaning the cameras, and from the need to take 3 showers each night before all the color was washed off.  So we drove to Agra and Jaipur to "recharge my batteries, and went to places I hadn't been to before, such as Sikandra, near Agra.  

Woman in red sari walking in hallway, Sikandra  (near Agra)

Marble detail, Sikandra 

The last time I had been in Jaipur, the Palace of the Winds was in scaffolding, and the lake surrounding the Jal Mahal was completely dried up.  Fortunately, the scaffolding had been taken down, and heavy rains had filled the lake.  I also went to the City Palace, and spent an amusing twenty minutes watching tourist after tourist bend down and photograph the courtyard from an intricately carved arch above the entrance.
Tourist with point-and-shoot camera, City Palace (Jaipur)

Detail of Peacock, City Palace (Jaipur)

Palace of the Winds (Hal Mahal), Jaipur

The Jal Mahal, on the outskirts of Jaipur

On the outskirts of Jaipur, I photographed large, hanging bolts of freshly dyed cloth.  And on the banks of the Yamuna, I found hundreds of freshly washed saris drying in the sun.
Freshly dyed cloth drying in the sun

Washed saris, drying by the side of the Yamuna river

At my hotel in Agra, I photographed this large, intricately engraved brass door, as well as the large, open vases of fresh rose petals that were placed everywhere.  And little by little, I absorbed the tranquility.  I needed it, because India can be overwhelming, and the celebration of Holi is an opportunity for Indians to abandon all restraint.
Detail, Brass door

Rose petals floating in hotel vase

Detail of cloth adorning an elephant, Jaipur

Star Spangled Blue Elephant, Jaipur

I went back to Mathura for one last day, but this time I photographed on the streets—from a rickshaw, and on foot.  A man standing in a doorway, with magnificent light bouncing off his cheeks. Another man asleep in the shadows of an archway. Marigolds and rose petals sprinkled on a floor.  And, in the late evening light, a man that everyone seemed to know, the "cloak room" man—who called out to everyone and, in his easy banter, seemed to be everything that India is about.  

It was getting time to head back to Delhi, to get on a plane for a fifteen hour flight to JFK.  Yet I couldn't stop thinking about those boys playing soccer in front of the Taj, and the serendipity I had in finding that place, and in making that image. I wanted to be there right now.  I wanted to see it all, again. I looked at Bhim, coughed, got in the car, and we started on the long ride back to Delhi.

The Man in the Doorway, Mathura

Man sleeping in shadows, Mathura

Marigold and rose petals on a floor, Mathura

The "Cloak Room" Man, Mathura