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Story Behind the Photos: Ann and Jesse

February 1, 2010

DATELINE AUSTIN TEXAS

I was “working” at The Daily Texan, serving my time as a staff photographer. I think they had a staff. There were so many people rotating in and out it was hard to tell.

There were two ways of working at The Texan. First, one of the PJ classes required you work there, and the second was to just head into the underground hovel that held the offices and say you wanted to work there. I did both.

As part of the class assignment, I won “Photographer of the Semester,” which I think I won solely because I was standing there when the photo editor realized he needed to, once again, hand out this meaningless award.

What I remember most of this particular day was the fact I ended up having to shoot an assignment near the section of campus that was covered with birds. Birds by the tens of thousands would camp out at this place and crap all over. I was wearing a black shirt, got crapped on, but didn’t realize it.

So my camera strap spread the white bird crap all over my back, shoulder, neck, etc, Some guy pointed it out with a look of disgust, “Dude, you got nuked.”

So anyway, back to these images.

Ann Richards(She might have already been in town) and Jesse Jackson came to town and I got the assignment.

Now at this point in my “career” I had little idea what I was doing. Some would argue the same is true today, but I say I at least THINK I know what I’m doing now.

I had my trusty Nikon FM2, wide angle and Vivitar 283 in hand, ready to bust this assignment in the gut. Only problem was, I had to get there first.

The Texan had a car. Kinda. I think it was a white Chevy Chevette. OLD. VERY OLD. In short, this car was a total deathtrap. Nothing worked, especially the air conditioning.

This car sounded bad, looked bad, drove bad and was a rolling black eye for the General Motors Corporation. I drew the short straw and fired up the beast.

It was Austin. It was summer. You could say it was a little hot. I baked in the Chevette.

Getting close to folks like these took a little time, so by the time I got close, things were ramping up and the power couple was doing their thing, moving around, shaking hands, holding kids, etc..

“Don’t screw this up,” was my typical mentality going into an assignment during those days. I emerged from the Chevette dripping sweat and covered in bird dung.

“Coming through,” I yelled trying to cut through the horde of onlookers. “Big shot, coming through, photographer, got an assignment people, deadline, very important, clear out.”

You have to remember I’m using manual cameras, manual focus lenses and a manual flash. I’m shooting a woman wearing white and an African American man, and I’m going from bright, direct sunlight to indoor conditions. This wasn’t easy. You had to know your system(I had a vague idea). Today you could do this in your sleep, and I’m convinced most people do.

So I start outside, blasting away, then the duo moves inside. With lightning reflexes I dart in front of them, but not TOO fast to make the guards think I’m a threat. Now I’m really sweating, and I’m sure the bird dung doesn’t help my status with the crowd.

Backpedaling I create my mental map. “Okay, if I’m roughly 8 feet away, and I’m at 1/15th of a second, then that puts me at f/8, so I should use the green mode on the flash.” “Or is it the white mode?” “Or yellow?”

“Ah, sir, you have bird crap all over you.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about lady.”


“The white mode or the yellow mode?”

“Ah screw it.”

BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM.

Like monsoon lightning strikes my flash vaporizes the entire room. Each blast followed by the high-pitch whine of a battery trying to recycle. A full pop each time. A sound I would learn to fear.

As the couple hit the end of the hallway the crowd faced a bottleneck and I had to turn my back on my subjects. I had nowhere to go.

Suddenly, I felt a hand on my back. It stuck like it was covered in glue.

I slowly turned and found myself facing Ann Richards. This Ann Richards had a look of alarm on her face as she slowly unstuck her hand from my back. There we were, toe to toe, both of us with looks of alarm.

“I think I just sweaty bird crapped Gov. Ann Richards,” I thought to myself. And she had the look of “Dude, I think you just sweaty bird crapped my hand.”

But Ann was a trooper. Ann wasn’t afraid of getting dirty. Ann was a hunting, fishing, Texas gal, and although there was a moment of dread in those eyes, it quickly disappeared and she shook it off, literally, like a pro, and moved on.

I actually shot the second image AFTER the sweaty bird crap moment. Jesse wisely avoided me.

I knew I had what I needed, so I raced back to the mighty Chevette and in a cloud of oil smoke and whining fan belts I careened back toward the office.

Into the darkroom.

Rolling film.

Processing film.

Drying film.

Editing film.

A full pop on the flash. Uh oh.

My negatives were like dominoes. Black and white. Nuked again.

Negative in the enlarger. Lens wide open. I began my complicated prayer method of salvaging film.

The first print. Garbage. Way too light.

I suddenly realize, “I’m hosed.” So I just turned the enlarger on and left it on. Ann’s hair became my enemy. “That hair, that hair, that hair.” I can’t burn it down. Nothing worked. I took off the filter. I poured straight dektol on the paper. I tried hot dektol. I painted it on.

The darkness became my tomb.

Through a series of magic potions, scalding hot chemical baths, luck, anger and many loud shouts, I got a “workable” print.

I dried the print.

I typed my caption.

I casually strolled over to the editors desk and tossed the print in the “ready” basket. “Piece of cake,” I uttered, smiling sheepishly while slowing backing away.

I manage to move toward the exit then sprint off toward my dingy apartment. This is pre-cellphone people. Once you left that office you might as well have been in Afghanistan. There was NO WAY to communicate.

I probably should have read the flash manual, but I don’t think I did. The next morning the paper came out, and the image looked okay. It was newsprint people. Think toilet paper.

I went back to the paper, picked up my assignments and headed off, all the while looking up, trying to avoid those damn birds.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 7:30 pm

    C’mon Dan — photographer … writer … photographer … writer; which is it? I love reading your stories and the images make it even more worthwhile! Thanks!

    • February 1, 2010 7:36 pm

      I’m starting to think writer might be a fun way to go, but I would need a full time team of editors, just for my grammer, spelling and punctuation. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, blog in midst of total overhaul.

  2. February 1, 2010 7:33 pm

    There is a saying that when a bird poops on you it’s good luck. I have no idea where I heard that but I guess from someone who got pooped on…

    • February 1, 2010 7:36 pm

      It has happened more than once, but I’m not sure the luck is rubbing off.

  3. David Wissinger permalink
    February 2, 2010 6:43 pm

    This was fun to read! I’ll say it again: you need a reality show about how you get you pictures!

    As I read I was imagining how this story would go today with digital cameras and Photoshop. I just can’t feel any drama there. I mean, what’s the digital version of “hot Dektol”?

    • February 2, 2010 7:44 pm

      Well, in some ways, digital has made it a lot easier. But with that ease comes other things that may or may not be good for the photography. There is little mystery left, that is for sure, but with news imagery, most people don’t seem to want mystery. When the new gear came out, the idea was it would allow photographers to stay longer in the field, but what I saw was more late minute shoots and far more assignments, which translated to less time taking pictures. With an assignment like this, I probably would have shot far less and would have begun sending images right away.

  4. February 2, 2010 6:58 pm

    Sometimes, I bet you wish you were still back there doing that kind of stuff. It is the past stuff that measures what you are doing today. Hold it tight like a treasure. It is in all your pictures since then whether you know it or not. Wisdom from mom.

    • February 2, 2010 7:45 pm

      Well, yes and no. I don’t want to work on deadline if I can help it, but the subject matter was fun.

  5. February 2, 2010 8:05 pm

    Awesome. Shoot for the shadows and print for the highlights. Apparently, the birds were thinking the same thing with that black shirt.

    • February 2, 2010 10:55 pm

      Everything I do is awesome right? My mom thinks so! Thanks for readin!

  6. February 4, 2010 6:25 pm

    Thank God for Tri-X :-)

  7. Eric Labastida permalink
    February 4, 2010 8:37 pm

    Man, What a cluster****. I remember those days vividly. Worrying about guide numbers, or just trying to get the shot to begin with. OY! And on top of everything, looking and probably smelling like you ran under a seagull convention. But you know, photography should be at least a little difficult, otherwise, why bother.
    Love the part about “May as well be in Afghanistan”. So true.

  8. Reiner permalink
    April 20, 2010 9:11 pm

    Hi Daniel,

    you just made my day,

    reading Jesse and Ann,

    makes my life look like such a crap,

    a good thing I can take my own pics,

    B&W,

    put in the container,

    put it in the enlarger,

    put it in the tray,

    and

    smile.

    Happy again.

    You just made my day.

    Thanks (1000times)

    • April 21, 2010 3:16 am

      Reiner,

      wow, thank you, glad I could make someone’s day. Thanks for reading. major overhaul in the works, on the blog that is. stay tuned.

  9. May 30, 2010 5:54 am

    Great read! I folllowed Coretta Scott King around for a day back in the 80′s when I was a student photographer at BYU. I wish I had access to those images. Loved cookin’ the Tri’X. We shot in a dark cave of a high school gym where we cranked the film up to 25,000 ASA, as it was known back then. D-76 91 degrees for 17 minutes. Rocked the newsprint. Grain is artsy now days, right?

    • May 30, 2010 6:29 pm

      Oh ya, hot developer, golf ball grain, marathon burn sessions and the air filled with chemicals. I miss it all. Grain ain’t artsy but sharpened noise sure is. Or something.

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