I shoot for the New York Times fairly regularly, and I always take every assignment from them very seriously, regardless of the particular section of the newspaper I'm shooting for, but when Jose Lopez calls, I know I have to be on my A-game. Jose is the photo editor for the business desk in New York, and he knows the difference between good photography, bad photography, and just downright lazy photography. I found that out the hard way.
The first time I shot for the business section back in April of 2011, Jose called with an assignment on unemployment featuring two couples from here in Arkansas. He told me to spend some time with the assignment and really get to know the couples being featured. For this story, I spent two full days shooting (one day with each couple) and I got tons of photographs that I thought were fantastic. The following day I sat down at the computer and got going on the edit. At that point I wasn't sure how many photos the Times wanted to see, and I figured they would rather see more than less, so I sent in around 100 shots for them to review. Within minutes of sending the files, I got an email from Jose that said:
"Thats's a lot of pictures that you sent me and we need to talk. The most important thing I can convey to you is that ALL of your photos look washed out to us. DO NOT RESEND ANYTHING until we have had a chance to talk."
Holy shit. That's pretty much the worst possible email you can receive from a client, and when your client is the New York Times, you just want to throw your camera in the trash and get a job at Starbucks after that. My heart stops a little even now reading that email over two years later.
Jose and I talked and he had a pretty scathing review of my work on the assignment. He wasn't being rude, he was just doing his job. He's a photo editor for the New York Times. Not an easy conversation. I realized pretty quickly in the conversation that I had two options: I could get pissed and tell him to go to hell, or I could suck up my ego, learn something new, and hopefully not lose a good client. After the call he sent me another email with one of my photos that he had edited himself to show me what he was looking for. Seeing the photographs from his perspective was incredibly helpful and I've used his advice on every job I've shot since. I re-approached the gallery and sent back around 20 newly edited images and prayed that he would be happier with my second try. Once the files had finished uploading I got another email from Jose:
"Jacob. This is excellent. Difference of night and day. Your images have contrast and they leap off the monitor. Well done. Thank you for taking the direction that I offered. I will keep you in mind for future assignments in that area. Remember, the way one becomes a master is by doing. Get out and shoot everyday with every lens in your bag. Know what you can and what you can't do with your digital camera. Never be afraid to push the envelope by shooting available light. The image might be grainy and a little underexposed, but if its “the moment,” then you have done your job."
Wow. That's exactly what I needed to hear. Such great encouragement from a guy that I truly respect in the industry. So glad he didn't throw me out and find someone else to fix my mistake. Here's the unemployment story that ran in April of 2011.
So when Jose called last week with an assignment to photograph Acxiom CEO Scott Howe here in Little Rock, I knew I had to crush it. He asked for several photos of Scott demonstrating this new software they've developed and a few extra portraits to supplement the story. He told me to "have fun with it" which is both terrifyingly ambiguous and yet completely exhilarating at the same time. I knew I would have only 30 minutes with the CEO, so I started coming up with a mental shot list before I even arrived for the shoot.
When I arrived at the Acxiom building, Mr. Howe was in the middle of giving the writer, Natasha Singer, a tour of the Executive Briefing Center on the top floor of the building, which looks over downtown Little Rock. I tagged along for the start of the tour and found a good spot to get a simple portrait of Scott on the balcony (he asked me to call him Scott). I quickly set up a light and snapped a few frames. The shots below were lit with a 22 inch beauty dish off to camera left.
I knew these shots weren't going to be anything truly special, but I was happy with the light balance and the sky and city in the background. Scott was super nice and easy to talk to, which makes everything so much easier. There's nothing worse than photographing a subject that doesn't want to be photographed.
Next, we went inside the conference room and Scott began demonstrating the software, which was the whole point of the story. Acxiom collects extensive data on pretty much every single adult in the United States, and they are releasing this new software that allows consumers to see literally everything Acxiom has on them, so the general theme of the story was "transparency" - I knew I had to get a creative shot illustrating transparency, and I had a few ideas of how to pull it off. But first, I had to knock out the software demo.
The conference room had a big flatscreen television displaying how the software works, and I asked Scott to stand right in front of it for a few photos. I lit these shots with a shoot-through umbrella close to Scott and off to camera right. The conference room table was huge and I couldn't get the light right where I wanted it, but I think it worked in the end.
The data on the screen was Scott Howe's personal data file, which hinted at the concept of transparency, but I still didn't feel like I had what I needed. By the time he was done with the software demo, we were well over our 30 minute shoot time, so I knew I was running out of time to get something really cool. Scott was making small talk with the writer and I was trying to figure out a way to drag him into just one more shot. I quickly moved my shoot-through umbrella over by the big conference room windows and asked Scott if I could have just a few more minutes of his time. He graciously obliged and I asked him to stand at the window looking out.
I set the light on half power, moved it close to him on the right side, and stepped outside to shoot through the window from the balcony. I knew I had to overpower the sun which would be hitting him right in the face that close to the window, and I needed to draw some detail out of the clouds in the reflected background, so I stopped down to something like f/11 which worked well with my light power. I was hoping I would end up with a strange reflection on the glass where I could see both the sky and the interior of the conference room with Scott standing well-lit but slightly mysterious in the center of the frame. I snapped a few images and the composition looked great but I wasn't loving his pose. I wanted more "CEO" from him. I motioned to him through the glass to step right up to the window frame and put his hands on the sill. Three of four frames later I knew I had the image I was going for.
The Great and Powerful Oz comes out from behind the curtain to reveal that he's just as scary in real life. This guy knows everything about you. Perched high above the city with an army of worker bees in the building plugging away at their desks combing the internet for anything and everything they can find out about you. I love the dark tones and the expression on his face in this image. I love the combination of the clouds and the conference room ceiling. I love the clarity in his hands and his face and I love how his shoulders evaporate into the sky. It makes him seem slightly ethereal, or even omni-present, which if you think about it, he kinda is.
The funny thing is that Scott Howe is about as down to Earth as they come. He's just a regular guy who cracks jokes and laughs a lot. He also happens to run one of the biggest data mining companies in the world. He was a gracious host and when I was packing up to leave he offered to help carry some gear for me, to which I politely said no, and to which he happily said "Oh, come on" and grabbed a bag and walked it out to the truck with me. Nice guy.
A day or so later when I sent the images in to Jose, I was anxiously driving around town waiting to hear back from him when I got a call. I'll probably never get used to seeing "New York Times" pop up on my caller ID. It was Jose. He started off by saying "Jacob, I'm embarrassed to say..."
"...that I love the pictures you sent in. They are exactly what I was looking for. Great job. I'm embarrassed though because in my excitement, I accidentally deleted all of them. Can you resend?"
Man. What a way to start a call. My heart just about jumped out of my chest and hit the ceiling. I was so glad to hear that he was happy with my work and when the story ran I was even more thrilled to see that they had published my favorite shot from the series - the one with Scott looking out the window at me. Read the full story here.
Funny side note: If you look closely at the window shot, you can actually see me in the reflection too - I'm wearing a green plaid shirt. So in a way, this is also the story of how I snuck a picture of myself into the New York Times.
You never know what you can get away with until you try :)