Over the past 20-plus years with BASS PLAYER, Art Director and photographer Paul Haggard has accumulated a shelf full of broken cameras and some dusty memories. He will recount some over the next few columns until either he can't remember any more, or they fail to be interesting— whichever comes first.
BACK IN THE DAYS OF PRE-DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, WHEN there was still a modicum of craft involved in the creation of images, photographers used a beautiful medium called film (what?) and labored intensively to measure light and calculate all kinds of crazy stuff like fill ratios, exposure values, shadow density, and depth-of-field , and then—unlike with the immediate feedback afforded by digital cameras—took a leap of faith that their calculations would turn out to be correct. If the photo called for glorious detail, one used really big film, called sheet film, loaded one piece at a time. When it was imperative that the image be absolutely perfect, we would expose a piece of Polaroid film prior to the real thing to make sure exposure and composition were on track. Polaroid film took two minutes to self develop, and then you or the client could have some rough preview of the quality of the final. In this case the client was Les Claypool, and the image was the album cover for Sailing the Seas of Cheese.
Some shoots take 20 minutes, and some take much longer, like, 11 hours longer. The set for Sailing was in a dark stage at Colossal Studios in San Francisco, an enormous dim room with just our little work space in the center. Film director Mark Kohr had made a diorama on an eight-foot sheet of plywood with several clay sculptures, a sailing ship model, and a painted sky scrim, and all of it had to be in focus, so we would be shooting at f/32. We spend a couple of hours positioning the figures and manipulating the surface so it looks like melted Velveeta, and finally, with everything in place and lit up, I shoot a Polaroid and Les and I look at it. “Too dark.” Les says.
I add a light. Another Polaroid. “Nope. Still too dark.”
Another light. I add more power overall, another Polaroid. Les looks at it: “It’s not happening. It needs to be brighter.” Dinner break.
I futz with the lighting more, starting from scratch. (It’s always a desperate move to tear down and rethink a lighting scheme after five hours.) Many more Polaroids.
An hour or so later, I had maxxed out all the power packs and every light head I had. I produce another Polaroid and show it to Les.
“I dunno, man, this is still not right.”
Frustrated, I move Les and Mark into the really bright studio office and show them the same Polaroid. To either my chagrin or delight—I can’t remember which—Les says, “Oh yeah, man, this looks a lot different now. This is great!”
I guess the old saying should be amended for photographers: Position is nine-tenths of the law.