Larry Brown at his home place in Tula Miss.
There are days when it’s good to be a photographer, when the camera puts one in a very special moment.
In April of 1991 I traveled to Oxford Mississippi with talented writer (and great baker) Joe Rada. While there Joe arranged for us to meet with fireman turned novelist, non-fiction and short story writer Larry Brown, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for fiction, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award, the Mississippi’s Governor’s Award For Excellence in the Arts and two-time winner of the Southern Book Award for Fiction. Larry was getting a lot of national press for his gritty Southern literature.
We arranged to meet at Square Books, an fabulous book store on the square in Oxford. When Larry arrived we went upstairs to a porch/balcony, ordered coffee and talked. Larry, who died in 2004, was a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman and a pleasure to hang out with. As we talked people came and went, often saying hello to Larry. It seemed like everyone knew him. Larry invited one young man to join us. He introduced us to John Grisham who’s new book “The Firm” had just come out.
John Grisham at Square Books
Larry Brown and John Grisham at Square Books
Larry wanted to hear about Grisham’s visit to the Today Show, his first national TV appearance. Grisham was very excited about the book and the appearance but was pretty drained by all the sudden celebrity and it’s attendant travel. I sat and listened as Joe, Larry and John talked about words, writing and Southern Literature. Before Grisham left I went downstairs and bought a copy of The Firm to get signed. Glad I did. I also had Larry sign a couple of his for me.
Larry Brown at Square Books
Later in the morning Joe and followed Joe to Tula Mississippi to Larry’s home place and photographed him there. That evening we went to a local watering hole for an after-work beverage and ran into Larry again and continued that special day over a couple beers. Not too bad a day.
Larry Brown in Tula Mississippi
Larry Brown on his porch in Tula Mississippi
We all of us fans knew it was coming but it’s still a lesser world without B.B. King. I was fortunate to photograph him performing half a dozen time and to meet and share a conversation with him a couple times too. He was such a kind and gentle man.
The first couple times I photographed him I left knowing I got nothing that others didn’t get. That third show, in the mid-80’s in Little Rock, I was leaving, feeling disgruntled with the results again. As I was walking out a side door from the stage I looked back and finally saw something a bit different. It’s still one of my favorite concert shots.
I next photographed in Memphis on Beale Street. I was trying to get a portrait of him on the street in front of the great neon sign outside his club. He’d never played there but was doing two shows that night. He was running late and while I waited it started raining. When he arrived he apologized and said whatever you want let’s do it. I told him and he didn’t care about the rain. I said “what about Lucille?”. He just gave a big broad grin and said no worries “I’ve got another Lucille in the back”.
Beale Street at night
That night he played for his friends and family, telling stories of growing up and coming to Memphis with the wear marks of a cotton sack still on his shirt, of being befriended by Rufus Thomas and getting on the radio live for the first time. He told stories between almost every song and identified someone in the audience who played a part in his life. Of the multitude of concerts I photographed it’s still a very real highlight.
Late that night as I was walking down the corridor to my room at the Peabody I heard steps behind me, turned and saw B. B. stopping to enter a room a couple doors down. We gave each other a tired smile.
The next time we met was courtesy of Delta. Sitting in my upgraded seat in First I had my book open and earbuds in waiting on boarding to finish. I was on the aisle and didn’t even pay any attention to my seat mate, looking forward to the down time after a couple long shoot days. A woman came up behind me, tapped my shoulder and apologized for disturbing me before leaning over and telling my seat mate that there was “a problem with the bus in Fort Smith”. B.B. King told her to “call Andy and tell him to wait until we land”. I smiled, closed my book and said hello to him. He couldn’t have been more friendly. I didn’t want to disturb him during his ‘down time’ either but he wanted to talk. We discussed the price of catfish in Indianola and the imported fish from Viet Nam, diabetes treatments, his extended family gatherings at his penthouse apartment in Vegas. We talked about life on the road. I told him I had been doing so many nights a year, year in and year out. He said he was thinking about cutting down himself. He’d once been doing over 300 nights a year but was down to 280 and thinking of cutting it to 220. I felt like such a piker in comparison. As flight attendants served us breakfast we continued to talk. That two hour flight was the shortest two hours ever.
I photographed many celebrities and occasionally met some. None were nicer … more humane … or bigger to me than B.B. King. The King is dead but his music was a gift to generations.
Occasionally my job as a photographer really is what most people imagine. Day-to-day a photographer’s job is like any other. We do paperwork, make phone calls, tackle daily tasks while taking on jobs and assignments to pay the bills. But all the while we’re hoping for that special shoot, that terrific light, that perfect moment or assignment that opens opportunities and challenges us to lift and expand our creativity.
This past summer I was lucky enough to get one of those assignments. The Department of Tourism for State of Alabama has declared 2015 the Year of Barbecue in Alabama. Among many other fun projects planned they decided to do a book celebrating all the wonderful barbecue across the state. I was fortunate to be assigned to shoot it. A good friend and wonderful writer Annette Thompson traveled the state for months researching the pit masters and the styles looking for the best representation of what Alabama barbecue is. Her task, an enviable one, required her to eat A LOT of barbecue. (Under the heading of ‘someone had to do it’.) Annette’s travels took her to well over 100 ‘joints’. Fortunately for me she was able to narrow it down a bit before I followed up photographically.
I’ve been lucky enough to photograph stories on Texas Barbecue and Memphis Barbecue, barbecue in the Carolina’s and even Kansas City Barbecue. I’m a fan of every one. Are all worthy of their hard-earned reputations. But I discovered Alabama Barbecue is as good and often better than any of those places. It’s my belief that any lack of recognition for Alabama’s barbecue is because it lacks any single style like those other places. If you say Memphis or Carolina barbecue aficionados know exactly what to expect. Alabama has so many styles and is therefore harder to pigeonhole. And that makes it harder for food and media writers to ‘sell’ it in a story.
Last summer as I worked my way across the state, friends asked if I was getting sick of barbecue. The answer was no, not at all. I enjoy it more than ever. It was a hot summer behind the wheel and eating all that barbecue would have been too much. So I didn’t eat a lot but I did taste at almost every place and definitely know my personal favorites. I also gained an education in barbecue tasting and cooking theory. I hope I get to put some of it into practice here at home.
I shot in (or somewhat near) 68 towns and cities. I shot 83 of the 88 places in 10 weeks time. My earliest shoot was 3:30 am. Those pits fire up early! My latest shoots time were just after 9pm. The most photos I shot at one place was 801 and the least was 11. The most locations in one day was 7 and in one week was 18. I shot a Big Bob, two Big Daddy’s and a Fat Boy’s. I shot 12,177 photos and gave the art director 1150 for possible use. I drove just under 5000 miles. There were times I thought the shoots would never end and the book would never get done. But it is done and looks great. Ultimately some 75 places made the pages. And I’m ready to start on Volume II any time.
Alabama barbecue is terrific. Go to your favorite place soon for lunch. Grab a copy of the book and use it as a guide to seek out great places you didn’t know about near home and across the state from Ft Payne to Mobile, from Florence to Dothan. You’ll find top notch pork, chicken, turkey, brisket, sausage and even bologna and cabbage. And don’t forget the banana pudding and even the great fried pecan pie.
Early in May I was lucky to be part of a very cool project. Birmingham and other sites in Alabama are reaching out to UNESCO, the cultural heritage department of the United Nations, for recognition for sites of significance in the struggle for civil rights in Alabama. Part of that ‘application’ process is a book to show the sites. Working with visionary talents at Luckie and Co I was privileged to travel to seven sites and photograph each one. The shots were to be ‘beauty’ or ‘hero’ images showing the sites as they are today. But the challenge was that they also were to replicate as exactly as possible historic photos from the era with the idea of placing the historic shots on a half-page with my matching photo underneath. Working with a great art director and the historic photos he diligently researched from each site we did our best ‘guesstimates’ and recreated the work of great photographers…but without the strife. Trying to match lens and scale exact was a very fun exercise. When the historic shots were created, most back in the early 1960’s, the photographers weren’t creating ‘beauty’ shots of the locations. Often working in frightening situations they were simply trying to capture human moments in the lives of people in conflict. However, that put me in the position of having my camera height, angle and lens (mostly right at 35mm) pre-chosen. And from that I had to make our beauty shot.
Time and those struggles have moved on and many details around each location changed with the rest of the world over the last 50 years. Shockingly bright orange construction barrels and high chain link fencing surrounds one site while streets had been realigned and telephone poles moved at others. Some were in disrepair and others beautified. Like the civil rights stories they tell the sites have moved on. With the great help of the art director and a bit of fudging here and there we were able to get what we needed.
Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to see this story about the UNESCO effort and and footage of one page showing our efforts shared on local TV.
I would encourage anyone who can to visit all the sites and learn the stories they tell.
In Birmingham-16th Street Baptist Church and Bethel Baptist Church
In Tuscaloosa-Foster Auditorium
In Montgomery-The State Capitol and Dexter Baptist
In Selma-Brown Chapel and the Edmund Pettis Bridge
In Mid-March I received a very welcome note from Jeanne Clayton who was my photo editor at Southern Living. After I left Jeanne, now Director of Photography, was entering staff-produced photographs in the 30th American Photography competition and she entered one of mine. There were 9644 photo submitted by 873 photographers, publications, schools and agencies. Only 357 were selected to appear in the AP30 hardcover book. Only 226 were chosen to appear online, 211 professional and 15 student entries. My ‘entry’ was a ‘chosen’ image.
here’s a link to the image, one of my favorites. http://www.ai-ap.com/slideshow/AP/30/?status=chosen#154
Thanks Jeanne and thank you American Photography for including me.
Recently I was looking for a way to use large flash equipment outside while at high shutter speeds…like 1000th of a second or 2000 or even faster. Really can’t find a way. But in my search I heard about a newer mirrorless camera that might allow it. Turns out it didn’t but in researching I learned a lot about mirrorless cameras. For some time I’ve also considered buying a tele-extender, either the Canon 1.4X or 2X but just didn’t want to lose the aperture ‘speed’. I ended up looking at mirrorless cameras again. I didn’t want to invest in a new system. I couldn’t be happier with my Canon gear.
I saw the Canon EOS-M mirrorless as a way to keep a ‘pocket’ camera with me all the time and, if needed, press into service to ‘extend’ the length of a few fast lenses without giving up the wide aperture. Of course every photographer loves his toys and maybe the whole argument is just justification for a new toy. The camera cost less than the extenders…or did until I bought the lens adaptor too. Ended up a wash but I got a sweet small ‘everywhere’ camera as well. I’ve been playing with it since I got it this week. I still have a lot of the menus to figure out but it’s pretty easy. Good 18 meg chip and moderately low noise. Here’s a sample shot of Annie in the window. I shot it with my 100 2.8 macro. ISO 160 @ 160th sec at 2.8
And here’s one of Ellie with the same lens at 50th sec at 6400. It’s cropped to about half the frame. A little noisy and shaky at that shutter speed.
Here’s the camera with a 50mm 1.2 on it and one with the 5D Mk III by it’s side. It’s kind of like shooting with a lens and almost no body. It’ll take some getting used to. It looks like a toy and my hands are struggling to get comfy with it but it’s hardly a ‘toy’. At 18 megs it really looks great and has a solid feel. The only real drawback for me so far is my eyes. I find myself holding it at arms length to be able to focus on the big 3″ screen on back. The 22mm lens it came with is a very crisp 35mm equivalent. My 50 becomes an 80 F1.2 and that macro became a 160mm 2.8 macro. The final shot is one I tried at macro. Needed a tripod for that. The lens adaptor has a mount. If and when I try it my 70-200 2.8 will become a 112-320 2.8. But I’d probably get laughed off any sideline where I pulled it out.
Photographers specialize. There are food shooters and interior specialists, sports shooters and portrait talents. Those that specialize develop deeper and richer talents and knowledge in their chosen area and are worth every penny it takes to hire. Don’t hire a food shooter to do a wedding or a wedding photographer to shoot the super bowl.
I know and have had the pleasure of working with some amazing talented shooters who knew food or gardens, architecture and sports, music or interiors as good as anyone. I have also known some wonderful photographers who, like me, are specialist at being generalists…shooters like my friend Gary Clark and the great Joe McNally.
So yes, I think of myself as a generalist. Most travel photographers become very solid at portraits and architecture, gardens and interiors and food and drink and lifestyle activities and so much more.
When I began my freelance career a year ago after shooting travel for almost 25 years I wasn’t sure where my work would come from going forward. I initially guessed from the travel arena. But being off the road for the first time in so long has left me more content being home than I would have guessed. I expected after a few weeks at home I’d get a ‘jones’ to travel. It hasn’t happened. Not that I would object to a good travel assignment, just that I’m enjoying a more stationary way of living.
But if I’m shooting mostly near the home what work is there? So far this year has been busy. I’m blessed to have so many good friends and contacts who’ve put their faith in me. My goal when I started freelance was to build up the number of days a week I was working. I started with every other week and finally got to where I had a shoot every week. Lately it’s been two or three a week and I’m very happy about it. And the variety has been exciting too, playing to my versatility.
In the last few weeks I’ve shot:
- bankers for a business magazine
- A country store
- A BBQ restaurant for a book
- A Doctor doing medical research into concussions
- A magazine ad for a stationary company
- A Beard Award winning chef, his restaurants and food
- A nursery plant collection for print advertising
And before this week is out I’ll have added
- architectural shots for an engineering company
- an attorney for a business magazine
- an indie movie set
- a story on repairing a marriage for a women’s magazine
And I’ve committed to teaching a week-long workshop on Travel in Charleston, spoken to a graphic design class at a college and started shooting a book on BBQ.
I’m trying to keep all the plates spinning and I’m having fun.