Twitter: coreyrich

Story Behind the Image: Syncing Up with Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, and Kelly Slater

24-70mm lens / ISO 100 / 250th second  / f/5.6

 

When I was in college, I got an assignment to shoot a magazine cover and story featuring Jack Johnson, Kelly Slater, and Ben Harper. I knew of Ben Harper and liked his music. Jack Johnson was still an up and coming artist, and I’m not sure if I had ever even heard one of his tracks at that point. The only thing I knew about Kelly Slater, beyond the fact that he was a badass surfer, was that he had just broken up with Pamela Anderson.

I had no idea why these people were going to appear together in a magazine; nevertheless, I was humbled, honored, and psyched for the opportunity to photograph them.

The shoot was for a mag called Hooked on the Outdoors. If this were a shoot for Vanity Fair, there were 1,000 other more qualified photographers to call first. But this was Hooked on the Outdoors, so they called me.

The story was that Jack, Ben, and Kelly were all buddies who played music together, surfed together, and were going to save the world together. Though these details were technically true, the feature was largely ginned up by a PR firm seeking to promote a new album and tour.

This gig was outside of my wheelhouse at the time, to be honest. I was going to have to travel to the Hollywood Bowl, a large outdoor concert arena, set up a studio in an underground parking garage, and, within just 20 minutes, capture a bunch of portraits of the three subjects together, alone, and in various couplings.

The night of the shoot, Ben Harper was headlining a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Jack Johnson was opening for him. Kelly Slater was going to be an audience member in the concert. This explains the short amount of time I would be given.

I didn’t consider myself a portrait photographer and had very little experience working in a studio environment with lights. I’d much rather be 2,000 feet up El Capitan, hanging from a 10mm static rope any day. Still, I was excited about the opportunity to explore new creative terrain and potentially even rise to the occasion. Just so long as I didn’t totally botch it, I knew this job would lead to other opportunities. That’s what I love about this career.

Prior to any big assignment, I’ve noticed that we photographers are quick to justify splurging on shiny, new gear. There is a tendency, for better or worse, to spend our paychecks before we’ve even earned them.

For this shoot, I talked myself into purchasing a high-end SLR film camera. I already owned a very early digital camera but, at the time, digital files weren’t large or high-quality enough to hold a two-page spread.

Also, I really wanted a new camera.

I hired Max Becherer, a fellow photojournalism student and college buddy, to be my lighting assistant. On the day of the concert, we caught the first flight to Los Angeles. We rolled into the Hollywood Bowl at 8 a.m. and were struck by the arena’s grandeur. In the distance, I could see the iconic Hollywood Sign gleaming brilliantly atop Mount Lee in the rosy morning sun. It dawned on me that this was kind of a big deal, and my excitement grew.

We met the team of PR handlers that had arranged the shoot. They directed me and Max into a dark corner of a parking garage directly beneath the stadium.

“You guys can set up here,” the PR person said, pointing to a patch of asphalt littered in cigarette butts and dried gum. “The talent will be here at 4 p.m. sharp. You’ll have to be fast because we only have 20 minutes with them. That time is non-negotiable.”

“That’s why we got here so early,” I said eagerly. “We want to be sure that we’re ready so that we can be super efficient with our time.”

“Fantastic!” the PR person said. “After that, you are free to enjoy the concert. Here are some tickets for you guys. I’ll be back here at 3:30. See you soon. Good luck.”

Max and I went to work setting up our white seamless backdrop and strobes. We were finished with set-up by 9:45.

“I guess we just hang out now and wait?” Max asked rhetorically.

“Maybe we should figure out what the fuck we’re doing with these strobes,” I said, laughing nervously.

“Don’t worry,” Max said. “This is freshman level stuff.”

Max was as solid as they come. Methodical, smart, and fearless, Max was never afraid to charge the battlefield, metaphorically or otherwise, to get a shot. Years later, he became a freelance war photographer whose work ended up everywhere from Time magazine to the New York Times. This was the exact kind of person you’d want running your lighting op. I didn’t question him for a second.

While waiting, Max and I dreamed up different poses our models could assume during the shoot. We captured test frames using my digital camera. This was a common tactic at the time, and actually one useful application of this early digital technology. We were surprised by how good the lighting looked.

“This is going to be sick!” Max said.

The stadium was filling with workers who were running around and setting up for the concert, which was slated to begin at 7 p.m.

As 4 p.m. neared, I started getting nervous. A crowd had gathered around our little mock studio set-up in the parking garage, including Mark Anders, a friend and the journalist who was going to write the story for Hooked on the Outdoors. There were agents, PR handlers, and the magazine publisher. I showed the publisher my test frames on the back of my digital camera, and she was blown away.

“Amazing!” she said. She launched into a litany of suggestions and questions, which I had no interest in answering.

“Oh, hey, there’s Kelly Slater!” I said, and ducked away from the publisher mid-sentence.

Conversation with Kelly was nonchalant and easy. Turns out, there’s a lot of cultural crossover between climbing and surfing, so we instantly hit it off. He struck me as an intelligent, curious guy who wanted to know all about my world. I returned the favor and asked him about his thoughts about big-wave competitions and the ethics behind turning a dangerous sport into a spectacle.

“Thanks for asking about that,” he said. “Most people I talk to just want to know how Pamela Anderson is in the sack!”

We laughed, and before I could ask a follow-up—“Well … since you brought it up …”—Kelly ran off to find some water.

An outdoorsy-looking guy in a Patagonia hat, who wasn’t much taller than me, appeared. We started making small talk. Turned out we knew some of the same folks who worked at Patagonia. I was half-engaged in our conversation because I was running through mental checklists and keeping my eyes out for the arrival of Jack Johnson and Ben Harper.

When Ben Harper, whom I instantly recognized, arrived, I promptly ended the conversation with the guy in the Patagonia hat.

“Hey, man, it was great to talk to you,”I said, “but I’m actually doing a photo shoot with Ben Harper and Jack Johnson, and Ben just arrived, so now we’re just waiting for Jack Johnson to show up and then I need to get to work.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. But, um, I’m actually Jack Johnson,” the guy in the Patagonia hat said.

Ouch! There wasn’t a big enough shoehorn in all of Hollywood that could’ve pried my foot out of my mouth. I felt like a complete douche! Fortunately, Jack was really cool about it. He laughed and told me not to worry about it. It ended up being a great ice breaker and we all laughed.

Strangely, that fumble didn’t throw me off my game. In both athletics and the creative world, top performers talk about entering a flow state. I felt as if I’d entered that flow state during the shoot. Perhaps it was because, with just 20 minutes to execute, the pressure was on. Or maybe it was because of that initial icebreaker allowed me to loosen up—indeed, all of us to loosen up—and feel comfortable and free.

I also made a smart decision to show Jack, Kelly, and Ben our test frames on the back of the digital camera, which fired them up. In part, it was because they had probably never seen a digital camera before, but they also got to see firsthand how good the frames were going to look. This motivated them to put in the effort, and they started coming up their own clever or funny ideas for photos.

We were surrounded by around 100 people who were watching us work to create these pictures. The strobes were firing, the energy was high, and it all felt somewhat glamorous, though in a very down-to-earth way. I was fully engaged in the moment. I had a clear vision of what I wanted to shoot, and I was able to block out all of the other voices and people. It was just about me and my subjects creating the best imagery possible.

An agent tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Corey, it’s been 20 minutes. Are you done?”

And I said, “Yeah, we got it! That’s a wrap!” Everyone clapped. We high-fived. Beers came out. It was a pretty festive moment. The publisher shook my hand and said I did a brilliant job. I was on top of the world.

That’s when I looked over at Max, who appeared to be frantically turning through the pages of my brand new camera’s manual. His face was tomato-red.

I casually made my way over to Max. “What’s up, Max?” I said in a whisper.

“It’s 1/180th of a second,” Max said, pointing to the page describing my the film camera’s sync speed. “It’s not 1/320th!”

He didn’t need to say anything more. I knew. We’d just fucked the entire shoot.

The digital camera we had used to test our set-up had a sync speed of 1/320th. We hadn’t thought to check if our film camera’s sync speed was different. This was bad.

I had no other choice but to play it cool. I smiled, raised my beer, and clinked bottles with the publisher. Inside, I was utterly panicked.

My mind ran through the scenarios. When you shoot at the wrong sync speed, that means that your shutter curtain will cast a shadow across part of the frame—meaning there would likely be a big, ugly black stripe running down or across part of the frame, depending on how the shutter opens. The worst-case scenario would be if the big, black stripe landed right across my subject’s faces.

Max and I devised a plan. I would go to the concert with the publisher and agents and pretend to have a good time. Max would hang back and shoot a test roll of film using the wrong shutter sync speed. Then he’d find the nearest film lab to rush process the roll. This way, we would at least know if the black stripe was going to land in the middle of the frame (worst-case scenario), or at the edges (not ideal, but not catastrophic either).

I didn’t enjoy one second of the show, even though there was a big, fake smile on my face. I was panicked, silently considering crazier and crazier options. If Max told me that the black stripe was down the center frame, I decided that I would have no choice but to hire someone to steal my car—which held the entire shoot—light it on fire, and drive it into the river because there was no way I would own up to the fact that I had screwed up that badly.

As Ben Harper sang songs of peace and love, I sweated.

Finally, my first-gen cell phone, which was the size of a brick, rang. I picked up then immediately hung up. This was our signal that I’d call him back, as this, of course, was before text messaging.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I told the publisher, who was rocking out with a big smile on her face.

Due to the concert, it was really loud in the bathroom. I called Max back.

“What’s the verdict?” I shouted. All I heard was:

“… We’re … totally … fucked!”

“WHAT?” I yelled back into the phone.

“THE GOOD NEWS IS, WE ARE NOT TOTALLY FUCKED!” Max shouted. “THE BLACK STREAK IS DOWN THE LEFT SIDE!”

“THE BLACK STREAK IS DOWN THE LEFT SIDE!” I screamed. People in the bathroom must have been very confused by hearing me yell this, but oh well. At least I didn’t need to pay someone to light my car on fire.

In the end, the magazine salvaged a usable cover by compositing two portraits into one cover. And thanks to some cropping and Photoshop work, they eked out a full feature using the rest of my photographs, including this lead image of Jack and Kelly behind a guitar and surfboard, respectively, which was my favorite portrait from the shoot.

At some point in the aftermath, I spoke to the photo editor on the phone and just straight up lied through my teeth when he asked me about the black streaks. I blamed the new camera for everything even though it was totally my fault. I had even thought that he had bought it, too. Years later, though, during another random interaction, this editor made a point of calling me out by casually asking, “Hey, you ever figure out that sync speed issue on your camera?” That floored me. He had known all along.

In Hollywood, the name of the game is “fake it till you make it.” I would really hate for that to be the lesson of this essay. Remember: we were in college, spending our weekends actually doing the careers we were preparing for. Maybe that should cut us some slack.

I will say this: don’t be afraid to go for it because you will learn a lot more from your mistakes than you will from your successes. It’s a lesson I’m constantly reminded of every time I happen to hear Ben Harper or Jack Johnson on the radio.

 

 

Comments

  1. This is so well written Corey. Thank for sharing this epic story! Man, I think I would have shit my pants. Like, no joke. Cool you held it together. The shots are great!

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