Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Closer

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

A hot, rough wind blew in from the sea, bending the Miami Beach palm trees and rattling the half-open windows of the Fifth Street Gym. I was in a place suspended in time, a monument built on sweat and rum bottles filled with water for the swigging. Muhammad Ali was standing in the ring, leaning on the ropes, catching his breath and looking out at 80 or 90 people who had paid $1 each to see him train.


It was my second day on a journey that ultimately would lead to the center of Madison Square Garden. Ali would face Joe Frazier in a slugfest that had been billed as the ‘Fight of the Century.’


Ali, the ultimate showman, seemed removed from the frenzy of the gym that day. He had boxed eight rounds, but they were not impressive. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, always said Ali was the worst gym fighter he ever saw, and that day was no exception. Then, as if struck by lightning, the athlete danced to the center of the ring and his hands moved so fast they became almost invisible; his stunned sparing partner stood helpless against the ropes. The bell sounded and the round was over.


Sonny Liston once said fighting Ali was like running through a fire wearing a gasoline raincoat. Like all great artists, Ali’s many moods directed his fight plan; it seemed to come from somewhere deep inside – a place that only he could see. He would lose his first fight against Frazier, but he would win the next two. After the series, neither man would ever be the same.

When I work on a picture story or when I write a story, the first thing I try to confront is how the story will start and how the story will end. In a picture story we call it the opener and the closer. The opening picture has to be one that will stop the reader and make them want to read the story. The closing picture is one that ties the story together. It’s the last thing that people see and the picture often that’s most remembered. In my story for Life magazine I cover the training camps of both fighters as they prepared for the big fight. The pictures I made at the training camps were strong but I need an image that would tie it all together. The story would run before the fight so photographing the winner was not an option. My time was running out I had two days left to finish my story.

As luck would have it on my last day at Frazier’s Philadelphia camp Ali who lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at that time, came to visit the Frazier camp. In typical Ali fashion he taunted Joe from outside a window. Frazier spotted him and walked to the window making a fist. I had my closer.


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Thursday, August 6, 2009



Attica Prison 1972


Attica always had the potential for tragedy. Its 30-foot walls held some of the toughest convicts in New York State. Most of the 2,254 inmates, like a majority of the U.S. prison population, were black or Hispanic, street-hardened products of city ghettos. The revolt, slowly fueled by harsh treatment inmates received inside Attica’s cold walls, could have come at any time, but the match that ignited it was the California killing of Black Panther leader George Jackson in what authorities claimed was an attempted prison escape.


When the violence erupted after breakfast and before work detail on a Thursday morning, inmates used shovels, bats and sheer numbers to take 38 hostages and possession of a large part of the prison.  In the dramatic days of face-to-face negotiating that followed, prison officials consented to nearly all inmates’ demands, but on Saturday a guard who had been injured in the first outbreak died. After that, neither Russell Oswald, New York’s Commissioner of Corrections, nor his boss, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, would yield to the prisoners’ demand for total amnesty. 


It rained the Monday morning of the state assault. It had been four sleepless days since my arrival at the prison, and I had worked my way inside Cell Block D. I was standing next to inmates and hostages alike. Twenty hours had passed and I was down to my last 15 rolls of film. Suddenly, the sound of helicopters shook the ground and a voice rang out over the prison PA telling the inmates to put down their weapons and set the hostages free. The prisoners didn’t respond.


Moments later a fine mist of CS gas rained down from the circling helicopters, filling the prison courtyard and making it difficult to see more that five or six feet in any direction. Then the shooting started. The horror in the eyes of inmates and hostages when state police snipers opened fire is still with me, locked in a psychic file that even I cannot delete. In all, 41 men were killed – nine of them hostages.


The image that I feel captures the sprit of Attica best is the image I made of the officer’s helmet. That one image sums up all the things that I saw and felt, the loss of life, the inmate’s frustrations, the inaction of the state. In taking pictures it is often important to find a way to make your images symbols that tell a larger story. The thing to keep in mind is that visual symbols are always simple, devoid of distracting elements. They are pictures that can be read from a distance. Think stop sign. Now go shoot some. You might not make truly symbolic images at first but the exercise of simplifying your pictures will make them stronger.


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Monday, August 3, 2009

A make shift tripod


For the past 20 years my wife, Marianne, and I have spent part of every summer on the Cape Cod.  For me the Cape has been a place to recharge my batteries, read summer mysteries and watch my children grow up. Making summer pictures has also been a big part of vacationing for me. As I have said, it’s all about light.  My summer ritual has been to wake before sunrise, my eyes still full of sleep— coffee in hand—and find that perfect spot for an early morning picture.

 Many summer mornings, however, I have gone out and waited and the wonderful early light never arrived. It might have been because of rain or too much fog. It might have been because, at that perfect moment, a cloud covered the sun or the moon. There is a Zen to sunrise shooting; it’s hard to know what to expect. And remember, being a weatherman is the only job in the nation where you can be wrong 50% of the time and still have a job. 

Provincetown, with its beautiful light, is a common destination for my camera. For 20 years a series of small cottages just outside of town that the locals call the flower houses were the subject of camera journeys. At sunset the light is often breathtaking but the little cottages lost their quiet, understated charm under a mask of cars and people milling about, beer in hand. No, these small houses had to be photographed at sunrise or earlier at moonset when the locals were tucked in their beds. For years I tried and failed to make the image that was in my head. For one reason or the other, the weather or the light conspired against me.

I use Nikon cameras and for the most part a tripod is a heavy piece of equipment that I often leave in the trunk of my car. As it happened that morning, I didn’t have my tripod. As my wife and I approached the flower houses we saw the moonset of a lifetime.  The moon was so large that it seemed to fill the western sky while from the east the sun rose like a phoenix from the sea. It was the image I’d been waiting 20 years to make and I didn’t have a tripod to steady my camera for the long exposure. With quick thinking on my wife’s part, she offered to let me use her shoulder as a make shift tripod and the result is the Moonset picture. Twenty years in the making.

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