Ivan Greene on a climbing wall at New York’s Chelsea Piers Sports Center.
As someone who has labored in the vineyards of editorial assignment photography for more years than I care to recall, the one definite truism I’ve observed over time is that the operative law of assignment photography is the one written by Murphy ("Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong"). To that nugget, I’d like to add Krist’s Corollary: The simpler the job sounds at first, the more difficult it will become.
Take the accompanying portrait of extreme rock climber Ivan Greene, for instance. It started out as a straightforward outdoor photography assignment. Fellow OP contributor Kevin Spreekmeester was coordinating the photography for a coffee-table book entitled Goose People, about the myriad of personalities—from Antarctic explorers to rock stars to movie directors—all over the world who wear Canadian Goose arctic wear. He asked if I’d like to shoot several interesting people who wear the gear for a charity fundraising project that would mark the company’s 50th anniversary. All proceeds from the book would be donated to Polar Bears International—a great cause and an intriguing assignment if ever there was one—and, of course, I jumped at it.
Among the most interesting of my subjects was extreme rock climber Ivan Greene. He has an urban edge, lives in Manhattan, not Moab, and plays guitar in a rock band to boot. Sometimes a well-known, media-savvy subject can prove to be difficult or demanding to work with and can make the job a bit touchy. But Ivan was enthusiastic and cooperative from the get-go, so that was one big hurdle cleared.
My next concern was the fact that, although Ivan is a world-class climber, I’m not. I explained my need for a location where I might be able to get above him and shoot down as he climbed, without me having to climb up first. In other words, I needed a place to which I could walk, drive or scramble up to get an overhead view.
Not a problem! Ivan had several favorite rock-climbing locations about an hour from New York City that offered just that kind of setup. I could drive up to the top on an upper road and hang over the cliff to shoot down on him as he went through his paces. Man, this was going smoothly, and it was going to be fun—and easy, too!
Now, all we had to do was set a date and shoot. It was January, but the Northeast was experiencing an extremely mild winter, with temperatures in the 50s and even 60s F, and it looked like it was going to stay that way for a few weeks.
But here’s where Murphy the Lawgiver raised his ugly head. It turned out that neither Ivan nor I would be around at the same time in January because of previous commitments. All that lovely weather and all those great locations were going to have to wait until February and, of course, that’s when real winter decided to set in—ice storms, frigid temperatures, snow—you name it! If we were going to get this shot done by the deadline, we’d either have to do it somewhere else in a warmer part of the country or do it indoors.
Traveling south was out due to budget considerations. But Ivan has great connections at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers Sports Center, and they have one of the largest climbing walls in the country: a 46-foot-high by 100-foot-wide main wall, plus an adjacent 10-foot-high by 73-foot-wide bouldering wall—well over 10,000 square feet of sculpted, three-dimensional imprint climbing surface. It was the perfect solution, except for the lighting.
Not surprisingly, it was dark, and what light he had was provided by mercury-vapor lamps—a limited-spectrum light source that produces ghastly color and contrast. So photographically speaking, we’d be shooting this environmental action portrait in a giant, light-sucking cavern!
"What happened to the fun and easy part?" I thought to myself as I worked out arrangements with the gym’s management. Because of Ivan’s standing in the climbing world and his long association with the Center, they would allow us to get into the area during off hours and wouldn’t charge a usage fee. Insurance regulations, however, required that I provide a $2-million liability certificate indemnifying the facility from any mishaps that might occur during the shoot.
This is business as usual for location work, and a few phone calls to the company that carries my business insurance took care of this bit of red tape. Now, all I had to do was light the place, get Ivan up on the wall and take a picture!
Although I’ve been doing mostly travel work for the last 15 years or so, I had another life as a corporate and location photographer in the '80s and early '90s. I now travel with a minimal kit of Nikon SB800 strobes for my work, but in the old days, I'd travel with four or five cases of AC strobe equipment with 500- and 1000-watt/second Dyna-Lite packs and heads, and a couple of Dyna-Lite 400-watt/second monolights. Sentimental as I am, I was unable to part with these great units when I went more for travel and kept them around just for the four or five assignments a year I still get that require major lighting.
We’d have four hours in the gym. I figured two hours to set up, one hour with Ivan and an hour to break down. I hired an assistant, and we drove up to Manhattan with a carload of strobes, stands, umbrellas, clamps, PocketWizard Radio Remotes and several hundred feet of extension cords.
My basic plan was to flood the area with light. Opposite the climbing wall was a 12-foot-high ledge on which I could set up lights. Murphy must have been catching a nap, because above the ledge was the light gray outside wall of a series of handball courts—a huge, neutral-colored bounce surface right where I needed it! In each of the far corners, I set up a 400-watt/second monolight at full power with no reflector. The bare-tube effect of the light spreads out in a 360-degree arc. In the middle, I set up two 500-watt/second packs with one head each on a 12-foot stand and bounced them off the big wall to fill in the shadows cast by the bare tubes.
A quick test shot showed that this arrangement was doing a great job of providing a fairly soft, overall light that was still directional. There was a little alcove in the background that was still dark, and since we had used up all of the hundreds of feet of extension cords we brought, I set up a battery-operated Nikon SB800 on a stand in that alcove.
Ivan was due any minute, and I had yet to figure out how I was going to get up to shoot from a high vantage point.
The climbing wall staff didn’t look enthusiastic about the prospect of harnessing and hoisting me up and I didn’t blame them, since at six feet, two inches and 240 pounds, I'm about twice as heavy as any self-respecting rock climber should be!
I inquired about what the maintenance staff used to get up there, and we located the facility’s scissor lift. Perfect! I was congratulating myself on this bit of ingenuity when the report came crackling over the staff walkie-talkie that they couldn’t get the thing started and thought the battery was dead.
I threw myself at the mercy of the climbing wall staff and they kindly agreed to the hoist option. I had just about squeezed into the tiny harness when another report came over the radio that a different switch had been thrown and the scissor lift was operational! It looked like the tide might be shifting in the great, universal struggle between good karma and Murphy’s Law.
Ivan arrived and changed and was up the wall in an instant, moving about with an unbelievable grace and agility while hanging 50 feet above the ground by his fingertips. The staff maneuvered the scissor lift right next to him, and I took another test exposure and noticed some annoying shadows on his face. So I set up another SB800 on a stand right on the scissor lift and shot it through a little umbrella and that opened up those shadows. The final stroke was to ask my assistant to step into the shot and look up from ground level way in the background. He was the necessary scale element to show just how high Ivan was hanging above the ground.
As Ivan climbed about, I photographed him with my Nikon D200 and a 12-24mm Nikkor zoom. I was shooting at ISO 200 at 1/125 sec. at ƒ/6.7, triggering the big AC strobes via radio signal from the PocketWizard transmitter in my hot-shoe to the receivers on the strobes. The lights were allowing almost instant recycling, so I was able to shoot a frame every 1.5 seconds or so, getting a good variety of postures and positions.
It was all over in about 10 minutes! Ivan headed off to lunch, and my assistant and I began the arduous process of packing up all the stuff we had carted in there. We had finished the shooting a half hour early, and the staff was happy because they now had a fighting chance of getting their climbing wall back in time for the afternoon open session.
As I was "chimping" my LCD screen during the packing-up project, the words of the editor of a famous magazine who said, "We publish pictures, not excuses! "were ringing in my ears. I heaved a big sigh of relief when I saw several keepers on the screen and said a silent "thank you" to the photo gods because, in this case, good karma (and good planning) had kept Murphy’s Law at bay for yet another assignment, and no excuses would be needed! OP
For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the Teach and Talk heading. To order Goose People, a limited-edition, 200-page hardcover book featuring the stories and portraits of 50 extraordinary people, you can drop an e-mail to email@example.com.