Arnold Newman said that photography is 1 percent talent and 99 percent moving furniture. I think about that sometimes when we’re on location and we’ve moved the set-the stage, the lights, the backdrop, sandbags, fans. And moved them again. And again. I just have to close my eyes to everything that’s being done. The manual labor is daunting.
It didn’t start out that way. In the beginning, I traveled alone. I carried my equipment, and if I used a light, I would set it up myself. Some people took the results as a style. A writer for American Photographer once said that the umbrella and strobe reflected in the mirror in my portrait of Jimmy Carter was a “skillfully implemented device.” As I recall, I walked into the room holding the light and set it down and plugged it in and started taking pictures. I didn’t think about it.
My first camera was a Minolta SR-T 101. It came with a 55mm lens. Working with that lens was a good learning experience. Many of the other students at the San Francisco Art Institute used 35mm lenses. You can be a little sloppy with a wide-angle lens. The 55mm made me very aware of what I was putting in the frame. When I decided I was serious about photography, I reluctantly sold the Minolta and bought a Nikon F with a 35mm lens.
In the early days, Rolling Stone was printed on cheap paper in an 11×17-inch format and distributed folded over. The cover image was an 8½x11-inch vertical. The format of the magazine became squarer after 1978, and I decided to try a Hasselblad for the covers. Most of the pictures for the inside were still shot with a Nikon because the Hasselblad seemed unrealistically sharp. The bigger negative made for a handsomer image, but you couldn’t convey the sense that you were simply in a room taking a picture. Combined with my over-lighting, the work got further away from natural. Most of the early conceptual pictures were taken with the Hasselblad.
In the mid-1980s I began using a Mamiya RZ67, which I handled like a 35mm camera. When I began shooting digitally, I put a digital back on my Mamiya. This was not ideal, since you couldn’t use the full frame. And the camera body and back were hard to handle. The camera’s processing time made shooting very slow. I experimented with a digital SLR, a Canon, when I photographed Mary J Blige for the Gap and wanted to shoot her singing. There was going to be a lot of movement, and I needed a camera with a faster shooting speed. When I looked at the files and realized they were perfectly usable, I decided, What the heck, and stopped using the medium-format camera for the time being.
Helmut Newton used to tell me that I should throw away my strobes. Helmut was a master of natural light. He’s the only photographer I’ve known who could shoot in twelve-noon light. He used it to his advantage-those hard shadows, the contrast.
Natural light is the greatest teacher. You place the strobe so that it follows the direction of the natural light. Adding strobe to the natural light outside makes a daylight studio. When you’re working inside, you try to remember what natural light looks like and see if you can re-create it. I’ve never been able to make strobe light look as beautiful as natural light.
My key light is most often a single strobe. A single umbrella. I like the simplicity of that. The strobe emphasizes the direction of the light and illuminates the subject’s face. The rest of the picture can be lit with natural light. But you have to be prepared to use a backup fill light, which comes from the direction of the camera.
With digital cameras, you can shoot at higher ISOs, and you use less light. I’ve pared down the list of things we take on a shoot. I can go out with two battery packs and two small Profoto umbrellas.
A light meter is only a guide. It shouldn’t be used literally. When I toned down the strobe, we made it even with the natural light rather than being a stop over. Then we went a stop or two under the natural light. I liked the way things looked when they were barely lit. The darker pictures seemed refined, mysterious.
The original tripod is my two legs. Being able to move, to go up and down, is an important part of my work. When the camera is put on a tripod, it looks different than when the camera is held in your hands. My assistants will set up a tripod right next to me, and I won’t use it. With a tripod, you have a tendency to straighten everything out. With your body, you unconsciously tilt yourself in. You’re not coming straight-on.