I remember 5-day photo shoots that felt like a month. Every minute of every work day, you worry about the shot your working on, while trying to figure out what you're going to do for the next shot. The photographer and assistants stand around looking at you, waiting for you to tell them what you want to do next. If something goes wrong, you've got to ultimately solve the problem.
Before you begin a shot, you announce your plan. Invariably, someone on-set tells you why your plan won't work. You listen. You deliberate. If you ignore their advice, you hope against hope that your plan works so you'll be proven right. If your plan fails, you feel humbled. You've just wasted everyone's time and money because of your own stubborness. But there's no time to dwell on it. You've got to quickly rally to regain your confidence, or else you'll lose control of the shoot.
You construct sets using paper and cinder blocks. You order the young studio assistant to stand on a ladder to hold a peacock feather precisely in the upper right hand corner of the frame so we can get the perfect shot. You send someone to Home Depot to buy 10 bags of sand. Hurry!
You crouch low into the set, rotating something slightly counter-clockwise so to better face the camera. You back up off the set, still in a crouch, to peek into the camera to see if the shot looks better. If it does, great. If it doesn't, you crawl back into the shot and adjust things yet again. You hope you don't hit your head on the huge Fuzzylamp, but you will at least once a day, guaranteed.
When you finally think you've got the shot ready, you ask the photographer to shoot a Polaroid. He shoots a test shot, then rips out the Polaroid print. You wait for 90 seconds for the shot to develop. You make small talk. You stare at your shoes. He waves the Polaroid like a fan, as if to will the chemical process to develop the film faster.
Finally, he peels apart the Polaroid and you look at the shot. If you're lucky, you're ready to shoot a real color transparency on real film. If you're not lucky, you repeat all the steps until you get it right.
You might repeat this process 90 times a day. If you don't get a certain number of shots done each day, you look bad, and you waste money. A lot of money.
Photo shoots could become all-consuming. At night, I'd think about the shots we'd done earlier that day. During the actual photo shoot, I'd think about the shots we need to do tomorrow. Or I'd worry that I'd made the photographer mad because I'd changed my mind and asked for completely different lighting. Or I'd get mad at the photographer for questioning my shot.
You lift things. You bend, you move. You steal a few moments away alone in the prop room, away from the photographer's "what are you thinking for this next shot?" expression. We'd listen to whatever music I wanted to play. We talked about interesting things. We got to be best friends, because we spent so much time together under so much pressure.
Now, of course, the pressure has diminished, thanks to digital photography. No more waiting 90 seconds for polaroids. If the background looks too dark, no problem, we'll fix it in Photoshop. Is there a piece of masking tape showing? Don't worry, we'll erase it on the computer. While I love digital photography, I do confess to sometimes feeling wistful for the old days.
That's why I appreciated the remarks of Taiwanese cameraman Mark Lee Ping-bing. He recently complained that digital photography diminishes the artistry of traditional film photography:
"Film is unknown, uncertain. It's a chemical reaction. To be frank, it's a little bit like painting. So if your technical skills and experience aren't up to part, you'll think that HD (high-definition digital video) is very easy to use," Lee said in the book.
"But HD is different. There is a monitor. It shows what you have shot. You'll know if it's a little dark in one part and you need to add a bit of light. Everything is on the monitor. Everything is OK if you have the monitor. All the expectation and the texture is gone," he said.
Lee also denounced the practice of covering up visual flaws on computers.
"Maybe there is a kid who knows about how to play computer games, or is sensitive to color – they can get the job done. But if everything can be changed by computer, then this is not a form of art," he said.
He's wrong, of course. Digital photography is indeed a form of art. But I've got to admire his crustiness.