An Exhibition

Frances Alexander and her daughter Earlyne both worked in Tower 1 on different floors. It wasn't until that evening that they found each other.

FACES of HOPE, my portraits of survivors of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Towers’ attacks is opening as an exhibition in Manhattan this week. Mounting a show is almost as challenging as taking photographs so I thought I would share my experiences – the obstacles and eventual triumph – that went into putting this show together.

The photos were originally shot for the National Geographic Magazine to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11. My picture editor and I thought that portraits of the people who made it out of the twin towers on that horrific day would show something positive about the event, as these courageous individuals have now moved on with their lives. And when the writer Luna Shyr interviewed them, we also found how luck and serendipity made the difference between life and death on that day. Faced with such compelling stories and images, I thought that in addition to the National Geographic’s story, an exhibition was a perfect venue for the work. Originally I wanted to mount an outdoor exhibit so it would be more available to the public. My thought was to place large format (6 feet x 3 feet) weatherproof prints in a great, natural setting. I found space at the southern tip of Manhattan, Battery Park with the assistance of The Battery Conservancy. I was able to raise money from a corporate sponsor which I thought would cover the costs of mounting the exhibit. But I was wrong in calculating the costs. Although I had enough money for the printing, I did not have enough to cover the custom built, metal stanchions which were necessary to hold the large prints. These supports were three times the cost of the printing.

My outdoor show, to which I had devoted a great deal of time, energy, and hard work evaporated. After recovering from this disappointment, I decided to hang a private show for my corporate sponsor and their employees. I did the exhibit at no charge, as the corporation covered the costs of prints and mounting. The prints were made in New York by Gotham Imaging, a small but very careful and concerned lab. If I couldn’t make the prints myself, Gotham was the next best thing. I was able to look at the test prints with the printer and to go over all the small details; this lab has no counter person who takes your order and passes it on to some unknown printer in the back.

The images were face mounted on plexiglass which looks great but is very costly. Gotham suggested a high gloss paper so the prints would adhere to the plexi without bubbles. But since I am not a fan of high gloss paper at exhibits, we used a ‘lustre’, non glare plexi glass to bring the gloss down to a more traditional looking surface. The corporate show, although internal was a huge success. The prints were returned to me when the corporate sponsor finished their exhibit.

Now, I needed a venue where the public could view the images. Traditional galleries were out of the question. They are in business to make money and to cover their expenses and I didn’t feel I could sell my images and make a profit from the September 11 event. I got very lucky when Fred Blake at Fotocare Rentals offered me space. He said that they had done one show in the past and were looking to do more.

When I hung the corporate show, the prints were sized for their space. At Fotocare, we had to arrange the space to fit the images. This worked well because the Fotocare space is open and there is a lot of flexibility. I also decided to include four additional images in the show, current scenes depicting the rebirth of Ground Zero that would add impact to and set the stage for the FACES of HOPE. The show will run from October 19 – November 10.

My next issue concerns the ultimate fate of these photographs. Living in New York City limits my storage space but more than that, I don’t want these images hidden away. Perhaps I’ll donate them to a museum. I welcome suggestions.

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Ten Years Later

I have been involved in photographing the horrific aftermath of September 11, 2001 since that mind numbing day. I was in New York that morning, having breakfast with my friend David Harvey when the first plane struck. We were in Chelsea, less than two miles from the attack but the overwhelming chaos prevented us from getting close to the site. We were able, however to get close enough to shoot a few frames with a long lens. A few months later I was assigned by the National Geographic to do a small story on the cleanup-up and rebuilding of the area near ground zero. That story was published in September 2002, on the first anniversary.

In 2009 the magazine assigned me to photograph some of the artifacts that were found among the debris at the site. These objects were donated to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. I also did some photography at Hangar 17 at JFK International Airport where the large steel beams from the demolished Trade Towers and the partially destroyed, first responder vehicles were being housed. The magazine ran a collage of some of these images in September , 2010. The Washington Post has many of those photos on its website here.

As a National Geographic Photographer I have developed a specialty in lighting objects, whether from a museum, a tomb, or even underwater treasure. I was not prepared, however for the emotional impact that taking pictures of the personal effects left by the victims would have on me. The eyeglasses, shoes, and billfold were too recent and too personal for me to feel removed. Last year, the National Geographic again asked me to be involved in another 9-11 story. Susan Welchman, a friend and photo editor at the magazine and I wanted to create some kind of positive look for the 10th anniversary. We decided that portraits of the people who escaped the devastation, along with their personal stories of survival and how they have now moved on with their lives would honor the resilience of the human spirit. It wasn’t very easy to find people, but with the help of our writer Luna Shyr we were able to get together a representative group. If I didn’t believe in luck and serendipity before I met these incredible people, I do now. The difference between life and death that day was measured in split second decisions.

The portraits were all shot in a studio using a medium format, Mamyia Camera and 33 megapixel back. I spent a lot of time creating the appropriate lighting style. My friend Cliff Hausner from the MAC GROUP showed me how to best use a sports reflector to obtain the type of catch light I desired in their eyes. It was very important to me to capture the finest detail and feeling from the faces of these survivors.

The photos can be viewed on the National Geographic website here. This was a collaborative effort amongst a lot of people at the National Geographic, friends, and the survivors that took the time to spend with me. It was not a usual assignment and I feel privileged to be a part of it.

A Cooler Full of Strobes

Pack and spare battery in the hotel

Keeping warm in the snow

In an earlier blog, I mentioned a trip to the Arctic that ultimately had to be postponed due to adverse weather conditions. I needed snow but in November and December it rained. In January I was traveling to the bottom of the globe in Antarctica but now in April, I am finally shooting outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut in the northernmost reaches of Canada. The temperature has been hovering around -22C with winds blowing at 20-30 kph. Although keeping personally warm is paramount, my bigger concern is keeping my battery operated gear from freezing. Fortunately my Canon 5D Mark IIs have been operating really well, although I do warm a few extra batteries with my body heat inside of my coat, in the event I need to change them. My biggest concern however has been my battery operated strobes, essential pieces of equipment that I need for the photo I am here to shoot.

I am using the Profoto Acute Bs, a six hundred watt second pack that has always been reliable. But in this extreme climate I worry that the cold may quickly drain the batteries. Fortunately I brought along Alex Stricker, my friend and fellow photographer to lend a hand. Dragging Alex from the warmth of Phoenix to the cold of the Arctic took some creative coaxing and it was well worth it. Besides his photographic abilities Alex is incredibly talented when it comes to building and prepping anything needed for a complicated shot. In this case, we needed to find a way to keep the Profoto batteries warm and Alex as usually came up with a creative solution.

We bought a midsized, styrofoam cooler (rather ironic for our geographical location) and lined the insides with the eight hour, hand warmer packets I had brought from New York. We placed the strobe unit and two spare batteries inside of the cooler, notched out a hole on the lid, and ran the cable through it to the strobe head. To provide additional insulation, we lined the bottom of the cooler with a silver, space blanket. Before I took the cooler into the cold I walked fifty feet down my hotel corridor with my pocket wizard radio tripper to ensure the strobe would fire. It did.

We felt like we were setting up for a tailgate party when we finally brought the cooler outside only instead of fall football weather, it was -23 C, dog sledging weather. But our heated cooler worked great. We were able to get approximately 150 full power shots off each battery and when we finished shooting, the inside of the cooler was still nice and warm; a lot warmer in fact than either Alex or I.

Preparation is the Key to a Successful Shoot

What to take and how to pack it

Some of the followers of my recent blog on rolling camera cases were curious about the equipment I had packed into my Temba Universal, shown in the blog’s photograph. They wanted to know how I decide on what equipment I might need, how I organize my shoots and what kind of pre production is required before heading out.
Obviously, every assignment is different but my basic preparation is always the same. Research is essential, whether it’s the location, subject matter, availability of gear, or local customs and requirements. The following is typical of how I approach an assignment.

I happen to be on my way to the Florida Keys to do a portrait of a scientist for an upcoming National Geographic project. Although my subject lives in coastal California, I need to photograph him standing in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida is warmer than Long Island and the waters along the Keys are calm, with little surf and easy to access. Islamorada looked like a good location and it’s not too far from Miami. Besides, shooting in Florida gets me away from the frigid winter in New York.
From past experience, I knew that a permit is usually required by a park commission, county, state or city for photo shoots on beaches. A couple of weeks prior to leaving New York, I contacted the information officer with the Florida Film Commission who set me up with their film liaison person for the Florida Keys. She agreed that Islamorada had some nice beaches and quiet waters. Google gave me satellite views of a good looking, public beach controlled by the city of Islamorada and a private beach in front of the Islander Resort that also had potential. I talked with the people from the city and the hotel and explained that I needed to do a still photo that would include me, my lighting assistant and my subject. I told them that I would be setting up a couple of light stands and a tripod. There would be no need for a generator since my lights would be battery operated. I wanted to distinguish what I was doing from a large motion picture shoot, or a big fashion production with mobile homes, generators, stylists and large crews. Both the city and the resort needed a certificate of my insurance naming them as coinsured for the time I was shooting. This was an easy process, accomplished via email between me and my insurance carrier.
Once the location logistics were under control, I could focus on the equipment I would need to make the picture work. I decided to bring two Profoto 600B battery strobe units that put out 600 watt seconds of power and two flash heads. I also brought extra batteries, though I don’t anticipate needing them. My battery strobe units are very efficient, but it’s always better to be on the safe side. The lighting look I am going for requires a small Octabank and a small Chimera light box, both of which give a nice, broad soft source of light. Once I get to the location I’ll decide which one will be my main light source, as each has its own nuances. I don’t want a light bank that’s too large and will spread out on the water; I want the light focused on my subject. To further control the mood, I packed ‘eggcrates’, a grid that goes in front of the boxes to help focus my light. My other light will have a standard reflector or a Profoto sports reflector which produces a narrow beam of hard light. This head and reflector will be positioned right by the camera, and will control contrast from the light of the softbox which will be off to the side of the subject. The lights will be triggered using pocket wizards.

Since Miami has a lot of camera stores and rental houses, I don’t have to be as careful about what I bring as I would if I were going to a remote location. I plan on renting my light stands and some grip equipment. Carrying large C-stands on an airplane is a nightmare and expensive. I already told the rental house that since one of the stands may be in the water, I would rent one that was pretty beat up. Though I could probably rent everything I needed in Miami, I feel more comfortable using my own equipment whenever possible.
The strobes, heads, and extension cables fit nicely into a large, rolling Pellican case that weighs 60 pounds –the airlines aren’t so friendly with anything greater than 70 pounds. My extra batteries (which are heavy), reflectors, pocket wizards and some grip equipment fit into a medium sized Pelican case. My tripod, Octabank and Chimera, along with a boom pole that breaks down into three pieces fit nicely into the bottom of the duffle bag that holds my clothing. I was able to eliminate the need for an additional, lightstand type case and to pack everything into three checked cases – very efficient packing.
My cameras, of course are on the plane with me in the new Tenba rolling bag I discussed in the last blog. As I was going through security at La Guardia airport, I was asked to put my new rolling bag in the test template – it fit with room to spare.