It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Vincent Versace!
Photo by Douglas Dubler
A Tale of Two Photos
Once a year, on the anniversary of Guest Blog Wednesday, Scott affords me the opportunity to share some thoughts. All I can say is that it is a good thing that he gives me a year between these guest blog posts. Once again, thank you, Scott, for your gracious generosity.
Of all of the images I have or will take in my life, I suspect “Paris in Snow” will be by far my most iconic. It is the cover of my book From Oz to Kansas, and Epson uses it as the image on their worldwide packaging of Cold Press Natural paper. So the image has received some airplay.
This image is one of the best examples I have of how to capture “timelessness” in a photograph. There is no way to tell if the image was shot yesterday, one, 10, 50 or 100 years ago. This has to do with an observation I made several years back when photographing New York City: “modern” happens four stories and below, and “timeless” happens four stories and above. The shops at street level come and go, fashions change, cars change, and the banners that get hung for this or that special event all tend to be hung from the floor of the fourth story (or the ceiling of the third if you want to be picky) and below. But the truth of the city and the age of its creation all live four stories (from the floor up) and above. Case in point: in this image, I am nine stories up, and I am shooting down toward the fourth story of the buildings in the foreground.
Note: This is also an ExDR image (Extended Dynamic Range). Not merely an HDR image (High Dynamic Range). For me, HDR images tend to be ones that scream “I AM AN HDR IMAGE!!!” and are an exercise in how to make a photograph look like a Harry Potter set. Just because something looks weird does not make it art. It just means it looks weird. In this image, the dynamic ranges of focus, time, and gesture have been extended. The goal of any technique is that when the image is completed you cannot see the technique in the image.
But I digress…. Back to the tale of this image.
It was February 1, 2010, two months after the year we all wish we could forget—the economic nightmare known as 2009. To say that the previous year had not been kind to many photographers is an understatement, and truth be told, I had been luckier than most. What I remember about February 1, 2010 is looking at my career and seeing that I had no work lined up so far into the future that I could see the word “bleak” stretching to the infinity perspective point. At the time I had no idea that 2010 was to be one of the best years I have ever had as an artist; in early 2010 it just looked like I was going to have to learn to start saying, “Would you like fries with that?” as part of my new job description.
So when I received an email in which I was offered the opportunity to go to Paris to attend a convention—all I had to do was be willing to be asked questions and answer them—and the hotel room was free and all I had to do was get there….
Well, I had nothing better to do, and all I had at the time on my dance card was to bemoan my economic demise and fate. I could do that in L.A. all by myself, or I could just as easily do that in Paris where the food is better. The math here was: 1) all it would cost me is to burn off some of my pile of frequent flyer miles, 2) the room was paid for, and 3) if I ate off of the craft service tables I could eat for free. As you might guess, the decision was a tough one, but off to Paris seemed the best call. The trip started with me being placed in the last row, in a middle seat that required a shoehorn to be fit into it, and I spent the next 19 hours sandwiched between two “seatmates” that had yet to discover soap, were so big that they each had their own zip code, and they each occupied—in addition to their own seat—a third of mine. Well…at least the ticket was free. And free has always been my favorite four-letter word. All I can say is that by the end of the flight I knew what a pimento feels like stuffed into an olive.
The cab ride to the hotel started during rush hour, right at sunset, and ended in complete darkness. Paris in February is nothing but gray—low-hanging gray clouds, leafless trees that look like props for a bad Halloween movie remake, and nasty biting cold. It almost never snows in Paris, maybe a little flurry here and there but nothing beyond that. Upon arrival at the hotel—an old swank place that they just finished remodeling— we entered into the lobby where there was this cardboard cutout, grinning like an idiot man/boy dressed in a 1920s bellhop suit, replete with the round cap, with a word bubble saying in several languages, “Kome Join our Koncierge Klub! Enjoy the benefits of Koncierge Klub Klass!! Why? Because you deserve the best we can offer and best of all it’s FREE!!” I remember thinking, “What’s with changing all of the Cs with Ks? And do I really want be a member of the Parisian version of the KKK?” I am a card-carrying liberal after all—so liberal that there are those who think I will not fly on an airplane unless it has two left wings. But to become a member of the Koncierge Klub Klass cost the right amount—my favorite four-letter word, “FREE”—and that made the decision for me.
Throughout the course of my career I have traveled a bit, and I belong to every frequent flyer, frequent sleeper, and frequent diner program I can sign up for. So sign up I did, and the next thing I know I am now “Koncierge Klub Klass” staying on the “Koncierge Klub Klass Level.” I have a “Koncierge Klub Key” that gives me access “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and Sundays too!!” Who knew that Sunday was a day in addition to the seven days in a week? But I now have, with my free Koncierge Klub Key, access to the “Koncierge Klub Klass Klubroom,” whatever the hell that means. All I know is it’s free and it has its own level. Membership has its privileges.
Next thing I know I’m all checked in and my bags are on a cart (or would it be Kart?) and the bellman who looks nothing like the grinning idiot on the cardboard sign is asking me for both my room and Koncierge Klub Keys. He then puts the KK Key into a nondescript slot and a set of elevator doors open, and wooosh we go up to the Koncierge Klub Klass Level. As the elevator door opens, directly in front of me is the Koncierge Klub Klass Klubroom. Easily a quarter of the Koncierge Klub Klass Level floor. It had a beautiful Carnelian marble counter with a super swoopy high-tech espresso machine that grinds every cup of espresso, café Americano, and cappuccino you might want to order, complete with a self-frothing frother. There is also a Champagne refrigerator filled with multiple bottles of several upper-end Champagnes, a cheese board with a selection of cheeses that looks like all of the cows, sheep and goats in France contributed to it, all sorts of grilled meats and smoked fish, yards of savory tarts, sweet pastries, fresh fruits, macaroons, and bread (fresh made in the hotel daily). Lots of different types of freshly baked bread. Now, I am a to-the-core-San–Franciscan, and there are three things we believe we invented: fog, great bread, and great coffee. After spending time in Paris, only two inventions are true—SF invented fog and great coffee. While visions of sugar-plummed tarts, macaroons, cheeses, coffee, champagne, and freshly baked bread danced through my head, I could not wait to be nestled all snug in my Koncierge Klub Klass room’s bed…. If this was the Kommunal Klubroom, the rooms have to be Krazy Kool!
The revelry of the quality of my French free lunch was broken by the bellman (flesh not cardboard) clearing his throat and saying, “May I take you to your room, monsieur?” Which was an immediate turn to the left down a hallway off of the elevator. I’m thinking “Score! Private hallway! Big-ass room!!” I should have known this was too good to be true when I noticed, as we walked down this separate hallway, that the room number placard was smaller than the slightly discolored larger rectangle that was in the center of door, and that the room was so close to the elevator that if it were any closer it would be in the elevator shaft. Next to my hotel room’s door was a grey metal door with an industrial black and white sign with “Salle des machines d’ascenseur” engraved in the plastic. As the bellman opened the door, it hit the bed. The closet was so small that half of all of the clothes hangers were hanging outside of the closet. The shower, toilet, and sink were all in one. Convenient, I guess…if you wanted to brush your teeth while sitting on the toilet while taking a shower. Bottom line: this room was so small that you could not change your mind in it. Then there was the view. There was an amazing view of a three-story tall steaming heating/cooling exchange unit that eclipsed the entire window. The window was completely fogged over, but from the outside.
The bellman then asked, “Monsieur, where shall I place your bags?” Well, I thought, at this moment his guess was as good as mine, considering I was standing on the bed so he and I could fit in the room. I said, “I don’t know. You tell me?” Whereupon my luggage wound up on top of a desk that the bed was also the chair for, under the bed, and a piece or two in the combination toilet-sink-shower room to be moved to a place to be found later.
After handing him a few Euro, he asked if I would need any ear plugs. I said, “No, I don’t see why,” to which as he was leaving I thought I heard, “You will,” and he left. So after getting to the airport two hours before the flight, 19 hours in the last row, non-reclining middle seat playing the part of pimento, going through French customs with enough camera gear to start my own store, being interrogated as to why I was here with this much gear for an hour and a half, followed by a two-hour cab ride in Parisian rush hour traffic I had not slept for 32 plus hours…. I was tired. I fell back onto the bed looking up at the ceiling light, thinking maybe it will turn itself off as I started to finally drift off to sleep. No sooner had he left, and I started to pass out, when I heard the faint ding of the elevator doors opening, and then it felt as if the room was about to shake from the foundations of the hotel and become one with the steaming heating/cooling exchange unit just outside the window. Loud whining sounds were swirling around the room. It was in that moment I discovered what Salle des machines d’ascenseur means. It is French for “elevator motor room.”
Like I said, I am a San Franciscan, and when a room shakes like that you find a doorway real quick “’cuz it might be the big one.” So as I was shooting upright the room stopped moving and I found myself once again standing on the bed staring at the door. In every room of every hotel on the back of the door, or right next to the door frame, is a framed diagram of the floor you are on. It is ussally the same age of the hotel and never gets changed, even after a remodel. This diagram shows where the emergency exits are located, the room numbers (26 on this floor), as well as all of the functions of the non-guest rooms. Why this caught my attention—in addition to the room next to mine being titled “Salle des machines d’ascenseur,” the room I was standing on the bed of was the only other room on the Koncierge Klub Level floor that did not have a number. The room I was in was labeled “Stockage Linge.” French for “Linen closet.”
Stockage Linge?!?! I have just had my heart kick-started by the elevator motors moving the earth, and now I find out my room is a linen closet!?!? I squeeze myself against the wall to open the door of my “room,” and I walk down the hall to the elevator. I am so tired I actually fall asleep standing up, and a bellman wakes me up as the doors open. I stumble to the front desk to what I hope would be a sympathetic ear. I asked to speak to the hotel night manager about my room. As I discussed my plight about being put in the linen closet next to the elevator machine room, I was greeted with, “No, monsieur, we would never put anyone in a linen closet, and no, monsieur, there are no more rooms.” When I asked again to speak to the Hotel General Manager, I was told, “Monsieur, he is gone for the night, you can try to speak to him in the morning. He will be in at 7 a.m. but there are no more rooms. All he will tell you is what I have said. Would you like ear plugs?”
So back it was into the Koncierge Klub-o-vator I went.
On the way back up to my closet of a room all I could think of was the beautiful Carnelian marble counter and all sorts of the wondrous French food treats I was going to eat. I’ll just grab a little snack, well, maybe a lot of snack, and that will take the edge off. After all, I am a professional photographer, and my understanding is that “professional photographer” is actually pronounced “eat as much free food as possible.” All the letters are actually silent. As the elevator door opens, I am greeted by the same cardboard cutout grinning like an idiot 1920s bellhop suit, replete with the round cap with a word bubble saying in several languages, “The Koncierge Klub Klubroom buffet is now closed for the evening. It will open again at 7:30 a.m. Please feel free to enjoy as many cups of coffee as you like! Till then…ENJOY!” It is now 11:30 p.m. Who knows what time it is for my biological clock. What happened to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and Sundays too?
So back in the Klub-o-vator, down to the lobby, back to the front desk, back to the night manager who says, “Food service stops at 11:00 p.m. Coffee service is 24 hours.” So back in the Klub-o-vator, back the Koncierge Klub Level, back down the hall and into my closet that also doubles as an Earthquake simulator.
It is now just before 7 a.m. the next morning. I have not yet slept going on 40-plus hours. Time does not fly when you have not slept. The only thing I have accomplished is to change into a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt. Every time I started to drift off, every time, my room shook me awake. I get up, stand on the bed, open the door, go back down the hallway, back in the Klub-o-vator, down to the lobby, back to the front desk. In front of me is the back of a shaved headed man, and in a voice tempered with the steel of 40 hours of exhaustion I say, “I would like to speak to the Hotel General Manager now.” He slowly turns and looks at me and with more attitude than I would get from a room full of ex-girlfriends he says, “ I am the Hotel General Manager.” At this moment I notice that his tie in the stripes has “Versace. Versace. Versace.” as part of the pattern. On each of the arms of his eyeglasses—again, “Versace.” His belt buckle? Yep, “Versace.” In that moment all I could think was, “I own you.” Keep in mind that standing in front of this walking billboard for haut couture is a bloodshot, disheveled, barefoot man in sweats and a tee shirt who has not slept going on two days. As we both engage in a death stare, I say to him without breaking eye contact, “I cannot believe that you would put me in a linen closet.”
“Monsieur, I can assure you, none of our rooms are now linen closets. Besides I have no more rooms and I am sure you have the class of room you paid for.” He said.
“Really…” I said.
“Yes, really.” He said. “What is your room number?”
So I told him the room number. As he typed it in again, he said “There is nothing I can do. We are completely boo….” At that moment, before he could say the “ked” part of “booked,” my last name came up on the screen. His eyes got the size of saucers. He slowly looks up from the screen. He starts to sputter, “Monsieur Versace I had no Idea tha…tha…that….”
At which point, I figure, in for an ounce, in for a pound, so I decided to just go for it. I put up my hand and say, “I don’t want to hear. I am going to breakfast. Fix it.”
“Monsieur Versace I will take care of this, breakfast of course is on us, I will move all of your belongings, I will have your key to your new room brought to you. I am sooo sorr….”
To which I again put my hand up and say, “I expect nothing less.” I turn around, take two steps, then turn back to face the now sputtering out-of-control Hotel General Manager and say, “Nice tie,” and then walk to the restaurant.
The restaurant was this beautifully elegant room with carpet so luxurious you sink to your ankles in it. I know because I still have no shoes on. The buffet was everything that the Koncierge Klub Klass Klubroom buffet promised to be but by a factor of a bazillion. In the time it took for me to walk from the front desk down the stairs to the breakfast room there was a table for six with one place setting with a placard with my name on it. The table was surrounded by waiters. Fresh breads from the bakery on the table.
Chair pulled out, napkin in my lap, asked what I wanted from the buffet, café Americano order taken and brought, glass of Veuve Clicquot champagne poured. On about my fourth glass of champagne the hotel concierge (with a “C” not a “K”) appears at my table to give me my new room key and tells me all of my things have been moved and the room is ready whenever I am. Every now and again life deals you a momentary lapse of reason that must be savored. Here I am sitting at a table for six by myself, barefoot in sweat pants and a tee shirt, surrounded by a gaggle of waiters with the hotel concierge bringing me my new room key. From nightmare to daydream in as fast as it takes to say, “Nice tie.” So I say to the concierge, “I am ready,” and he says, “This way Monsieur Versace,” snaps his fingers at my dining room team, points to some of the items of my dining carnage, and then gestures to follow him.
In the elevator we go. He slides my key in a slot with “Niveau Exécutif” engraved on a brass placard, and he presses the button for the ninth floor. Whereas on the Koncierge Klub Klass Level there were 26 doors, on this floor there are only 10. Five on each side of the hallway. We walk all the way to the end of the hall and the concierge says to me, “We are so sorry for the grave inconvenience we caused. Please enjoy your stay. Whatever you need please contact me directly.” He slides the key into the slot, opens the door, hands me my key and his personal business card, and leaves.
I find myself standing in the foyer of a corner two-bedroom suite with a wraparound balcony with a view of the Eiffel tower. All of my clothes hung up in the master bedroom and my camera bag and tripod in the middle of the living room room.
It is at this moment it starts to snow. Not a flurry. But a serious heavy snow.
I quickly move to my camera bag to get my gear out. Before I can get the bag unzipped I am interrupted by a knock on the door. I open it to find one of my waiters from breakfast with a tray. “We saw that you liked café Americano and our fresh bread. This just came out of the ovens.” He hands me the tray and leaves. No sooner had I closed the door and put down the tray, but I have another knock on the door. “Here is a bottle of the champagne you like at breakfast.” I take the bottle, shut the door, and go back to my camera bag. The snow has stepped up from heavy to blizzard. I grab my tripod, set up the camera, connect the cable release, and go to the balcony. I frame the shot and close the sliding door. It was cold outside…. As I come back into the warmth again someone is knocking at the door. I open it and there is another of the waiters. “Monsieur Versace, here are some of the macaroons you like so much!” I thank him, take tray, grab a few of them, break off a piece of bread (still warm from the oven), grab my cup of coffee, sit in a chair, grab the cable release, and start take pictures. At which point there is yet another knock at the door….
I was up and out 0-Dark 30 to catch the sunrise at Bryce Canyon. As is always the case in these moments, I am finding myself questioning my intelligence as to why I gave up the comfy studio life of being a humble Hollywood Headshot photographer for the glamorous life of fine art landscape photography. Which for me is the experience of my interpretation of what it feels like to be a Popsicle. I had a runny nose, and said precipitate from my nostrils has frozen into a snot-sicle at the tip. The upside to this is even though I am running a 102-degree fever I am just frozen, not frozen solid. All I know is that it’s freezing it’s really dark, it’s freezing, I can’t feel my toes or feet, it’s freezing, I look like the unholy offspring of the Stay Puff marshmallow man and the Michelin Man, and all that there was to be had in the form of caffeine was 7-11 coffee, which now has a layer of ice at the top and my gloved hands can’t take the lid off to break the ice with out spilling coffee all over me. (I know this to be true because I have frozen coffee all over my down jacket.) Also, did I mention that it is really dark and really, really cold?
So here I am walking back and forth down these switchbacks, miserable. I am in the dark carrying a carbon fiber tripod, a metric butt-ton of camera gear and a gear bag with all of the useless crap that if I don’t carry I will inevitably need, so to ward of the evil spirits I carry it. (Duct tape, Q-tips, shower caps, extra back caps, a multi-tool that I have no idea what it really does, that stuff.) My cup of now solid iced coffee—the acid flavor one—frozen to my gloved hand that even if I wanted to I can’t drink, and which I am wearing half of, wondering if the stuff works in the same way the blood from the creatures in the move Alien works.
Then I see the briefest glimmer of light!!!! The light at the end of the Bryce-sicle maker of photographers tunnel…. I set up my tripod…. Boom! The sun comes up! With the sudden sunrise also comes this monster thermal inversion and a hurricane—no, make that typhoon-force blast of wind (maybe I am exaggerating a little…but not much) shoots up from the canyon floor. I proceed to watch my camera and tripod levitate, and the next thing I know: “Houston we have lift-off.” Like a rocket, the camera and tripod are over my head and rocketing off the cliff down to the switchback about 40 feet below me. As we all know the first law of photographic physics is “all falling cameras are attracted to the largest rocks”. Next I hear…SMASH, BAM, THUD thud. (Insert your personal list of colorful expletives and epitaphs if this were you).
One does not really run in a down suit made from the mating of the Stay Puff marshmallow and Michelin Man. I get to the camera and there is a hole punctured through the pentaprism housing. The word Nikon has been so scraped so that all it says is, “Nik.” I look at that and think, “Well that is a bit of an understatement,” more like “DENT.” Also, one of the carbon fiber tripod legs is snapped and the lens can no longer manually focus. But the auto focus is on line, and when I put my finger over the hole in the pentaprism housing the meter works and the camera still focuses. Then I remember in the stuff-that-I-will-never-use-but-must-bring-because-if-I-don’t-I-will-need-it part of my camera bag is duct tape! If you are unfamiliar with the powers of duct tape, just know…duct tape is like the force. It has a light side a dark side, and it holds the universe together.
First, I tape the prism housing—problem #1 solved. Second, tape (seriously tape) the tripod leg together so it holds, set the camera up, and take the shot. Right next to where the forces of nature felt was a better place for me to shoot than the place I had originally chosen was a bronze trail placard. It reads as follows: “When Ebeneezer Bryce was asked about his discovery of what is now called Bryce Canyon he replied, ‘Well…it was a hell of a place to loose a cow.’” All I can say in response to Ebeneezer’s observation is, “Ay-yep.”
If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.
There is no way I could pre-visualize these two images. There is no way that I could ever know that the complexities of a series of events that led up to these two decisive moments in my life would conspire to create the moments in time that took me to take these two images. At best, what I pre-visualize is to prepare to be amazed.
Complexities are made up of many simple things. A photograph speaks a thousand words, but not even a thousand words can ever define what it is we see and feel when we look at a well-executed photograph. Every image we create has a story that is often different than the story it tells. In other words, the journey we go on is the destination, and we will not know what the destination was until after we have been there. All the while we are in the moment of that journey, we have no clue if we have arrived or not. For, me the photographs I create are nothing more than the postcards of the journey of the vacation that is my life. They are also nothing less. They are the reflections of the best times of my life. They are always more for me than for anyone else.
Unfortunately, today we find ourselves frequently dazzled by the technology in this new world of digital photography. We are in a world where the default settings of the cameras we shoot with and the post-processing software we use can quickly replicate what it took years to master in the analog darkroom. Is all of this stuff amazing? Yes it is. Is it seductive if we are not careful? Again, yes it is. We find ourselves in a place where we are willing to accept that just good enough is good enough.
But no matter how amazing the tech is, it will never be a replacement for the dazzling beauty of the human artistic voice, the sprit of the moment that takes us to want to commit the image to print. Techniques and technology only exist so that the voice does not need to shout to be heard. But when the fault of our work becomes not seeking out the best way, but to default to the path of least effort, we go from finding the simplest possible way of making things to trying to make things simpler than possible.
Approach photography, or any creative pursuit, as being the one thing that inspires you. Don’t make your pursuit of art a journey of looking for courses of action, but rather make it a journey of looking for causes to act. No matter how many missed shots you make or how slow you feel your learning is going, you are still light years ahead of everyone else who is not trying.
To paraphrase the great improvisational acting teacher Viola Spolin, the point at which we say it does not matter is the point at which we say the image does not matter. Everything matters; we just do not know what is significant until we make the fat pixel sing. Not squeal or scream. But simply sing.
Every artist has an instrument, every artist has a voice, every artist has within them the capability to manifest an act of creation on the level of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Pietà or Paul Caponigro’s Running White Deer. All we need to do is slow down to the speed of life, and allow the amazing to take us. The Cherokee Indians believe that there are two wolves within us. One is evil—it is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority, and ego. The other is good—it is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth. The wolf that wins? The one you feed.