Friday, July 27, 2012

Wedding Photography...The Early Years

This probably won't interest anyone but photographers, but since there are more of them than bartenders in Key West, here we go....

I had 2 hobbies in high school...magic and photography. I gave magic shows around my hometown of McKeesport, Pa...usually at church events, or the Moose or Elks, the Y.M.C.A., etc. But in my senior year, a local newspaper man sold me my first professional camera...a 4x5 Speed Graphic press camera.

And he recommended me to his friends to photograph their wedding. It was a Mr. Buck, and a Miss Berry , both in their forties...and it was their first marriage. I remember that they didn't have a car, and asked me to drive them to the church. That's about all that I can remember about the event, but it apparently went well, because I shot a few more in my hometown before going off to college.

    But what I want to talk about is how it's much easier to photograph a wedding (or anything) today, thanks to the digital revolution. When I shoot a wedding today, I put the memory card into my Nikon, attach the strobe to the top of the camera, turn the camera on, and away I go. The computers in the camera and the strobe talk to each other, and when I push the button, the camera automatically focuses, determines the shutter speed and aperture, and bang! have a sharp well exposed  picture. 

But way back then it was a different story.....

    I shot the Buck 'n' Berry wedding with my Speed Graphic. That camera took film holders...there were 2 sheets of 4" x 5" black and white film in each holder, one on each side.

 Here's what I'd do ...
1. I would put the film holder in the back of the camera, pull out the slide that had protected the film from light, and find a place to put it for a moment.
2. I'd set the shutter speed, usually 1/100 of a second.
3. Unlock the focusing scale on the camera bed, then focus on the subject through the Kalart rangefinder that was built on the side of the camera.
4. Lock the focusing scale so it wouldn't move.
5. Look down at the indicator on the scale and see what the distance was to the subject.
6. Since I had done it before, I knew that if it said 12 feet, then the exposure would be best at an aperture setting of F16...(depending which flashbulb I was using, and the film speed)
7. After I set the aperture, I'd put a new flashbulb in the flashgun.
8. Compose the subject through the optical viewer on top of the camera, and say what every photographer says since Louis Daguerre ...1..2..3....
9. Push the button!

    Now to do the next shot, I'd put the slide back in the film  holder...pull out the holder, flip it over, put it back in the camera,pull out the slide, put it somewhere, cock the shutter again, remove the flashbulb, put a new one in, refocus, possibly set the aperture to a new setting, look through the viewer, and fire again. After a bit of practice, I had it down to 30 seconds.

    Now lets say I was shooting 6 bridesmaids and the bride and father coming down the aisle. They usually come racing down, because they're  a little embarrassed by being the center of attention....and often they bunch up, with almost no space between them. How many shots can I  get with it taking  30 seconds to get ready for each picture? Not many...and that's why in those days , after the ceremony,  I would recreate a lot of the event...bridesmaids coming down the aisle one at a time...shooting the exchange of the rings again (no telephotos or zoom lenses on the Speed Graphic in those days), and so on.  

The only thing I miss about those days is the fact that I used to be the only person there with a camera.

Monday, July 23, 2012

My Beatnik Daze

In 1960, during my Beatnik Daze, my girlfriend collected a lot of money from a car accident she had been in, and she flew us from Greenwich Village to San Francisco. Found a place in North Beach (later to be the home of the flower children in '67). I had been a bartender in the Village, so I landed a job doing the same at the Vesuvio bar (which is still there, 52 years later). It was couple of blocks from Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore, and the bar was owned at the time by a nasty Frenchman named Andre, who actually wore a beret. He told me to serve the customers, not socialize with them...and was very strict about that. So I would make martinis for Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and my hero...Jack. It was my reading of Kerouac's On The Road that inspired me, in 1957, to drive from Pennsylvania to Hermosa Beach, California, where I actually sat on the beach playing bongos, sporting a goatee. I look at those photos now, and think,"who IS that?"
But now back to  my serving the literary giants in North Beach at Vesuvio with my speaking role reduced to "what will you have?" and "thank you".I always identified with Kerouac, but didn't know why at that time..but now I do..we were both alcoholics. But I was lucky and stopped..and unfortunately  it stopped him.

       I have about 7 books about Jack, and 1 of his writing (the 57 paperback of On the Road)...and about 6 other books on my other hero, Andy Warhol, who graduated from high school 6 years ahead of me in nearby Pittsburgh.

     I would see Andy and his entourage at Max's Kansas City in N.Y. City in the early 70's when I was drinking there...would nod when he came in but never spoke to him.  Max's had a tank of Piranha behind the bar, and at 5:00 every day several goldfish would meet their fate in that would pack the bar. Every time a goldfish would die, Andy would say, in a resigned voice,.."Oh, my!...Oh, my!"
Then they would all go to the back room, and no one was allowed in there.

       Now I'll jump back in time to '58...when  I was washing dishes at the Cock and Bull coffee house in the Village, a slender  and quiet guy would subway into the Village from Brooklyn, and play guitar and sing ..and I remember he had very few teeth, but a voice that really impressed me. He would pass the hat after a set, then move on to another coffee shop. It was Richie Havens.

      My best job in my life was when I was working  at Birdland for 3 years...'59 - 61 (with 3 months off in Frisco in 1960)...I worked in the darkroom, printing souvenir photos the camera girl would take. It was America's best Jazz club at the time...and every night I'd see the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Count Basie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, etc.

    The camera girl would go from table to table between sets, shoot customer's pictures, and when the band was playing, I'd be in a broom closet sized "darkroom" under the steps developing the film and making 8x10 glossy prints and small match covers from the pictures. The large prints would go in a paper folder with  the Birdland logo on the cover, and the camera girl would try to sell them to the customers. It was a very lucrative business.The photography, cigarette, and checkroom concession was owned by Planetary something or the other, and it was no secret that it was owned and run by people that Tony Soprano would have comfortably fit in with.

I also worked for them at the Copa, Latin Quarter, The 82 Club, the Metropole, and so on. Interesting people frequented  night clubs....Norman Mailer loved Birdland, and I remember being in the checkroom one night and saw the cops coming down the steps, and going into the club.They arrested Norman on a disorderly conduct charge..he had started a fight over a bill that he didn't agree with...I remember it was under ten dollars. He was back a week later, and I handed him his coat as he left...he went home and had a late night party...and stabbed his wife, sending her to the hospital. She must have loved him, because she didn't press charges, and he got away with a slap on the wrist.

The 82 Club was at 82 East 4th street, and was a female impersonators club...the "waiters" were tough lesbians in tuxedos, the show girls were a mixture of drag queens and beautiful lesbians. I think I was the only straight person there, and I had been told to stay in the darkroom, and mind my own business. Good advice...sometimes I'd hear loud shouting coming from the kitchen next to the was Anna Genovese, Vito's wife, who was the manager, yelling at one of the waiters for something or the other. They all lived in fear of her.

    I kept a low profile, especially after I came to work one evening and found police and detectives there...seems one of the drag queens had hung himself from a pipe in the dressing room. And another time, one of the waiters used my darkroom to beat the hell out of  another one, who had made a pass at her girlfriend.

I had been out getting my dinner, and when I came back, I noticed a strange smell in the darkroom. Ever smell hot blood? It was all over the print dryers, which were at the same temperature as a hot  iron.

       And in finishing, for now, my friend LaRue and I were coming out of a coffee shop (The Rienzi) on MacDougal Street in the Village one morning in '60, and a beat looking guy with a guitar came across the street to talk to LaRue, who knew him. I had a Leica around my neck, and the guy shook hands with me and said ,"Hey, you should take a picture of me and put it in Time magazine..I'm gonna be famous". I laughed it off, and went on my way. LaRue told me later it was Bobby Dylan.

Life is filled with missed opportunities.