How to Make a Hero…out of a Truck

Make a Hero
© Brian Fitzgerald

 

How do you make a hero out of a truck?

That was the question I was forced to ponder when I was hired by Pierce Manufacturing to photograph Fire Station One in Cambridge, Massachussetts last year.

The story was simple. The department was taking delivery of a brand-new fire rescue apparatus, built by Pierce, and the company wanted images that captured scenes of daily life at the station and in the surrounding community. They also wanted to showcase the gleaming hulk of steel and chrome on wheels that the department had just purchased.

I contacted the chief, Gerry Reardon, and explained that I wanted to follow his guys around for the better part of a day. Oh—and can I borrow your truck for a couple hours and potentially tie up traffic next to the station?  He mentioned something non-commital like, “we’ll see what we can do,” and we made plans to meet on the appointed day.

Then came the inevitable wrench in the works that always seems to happen when shooting on location. When I arrived, the firehouse was largely empty. The apparatus was nowhere to be found. Later we discovered it was parked across town, turning up just before we were slated to shoot. The chief was amenable to a portrait, but he wasn’t as receptive to portraits or photos of the crew. “They said you just needed photos of the truck,” he pointed out, not unkindly.

Somtimes you need to try a different tack. So I hastily revised my plans and beat a retreat to nearby Harvard campus. I photographed some of the more iconic views around the area and came back to the station just when the light was getting good. Late afternoon.

The crew had appeared, and the chief soon arrived with the new firetruck. Gleaming and gigantic, it looked too large for the small apron of asphalt in front of the station, bordered on both sides by busy roadways. I convinced them to take us to a nearby park for some daylight photos of the truck. When we returned, the sun was on its way to bed and it was time to set up for the shoot. While that was happening, I heard the strains of a bagpipe wafting out above the traffic, floating over Harvard University, located just across the street. It took me a minute to realize that one of the firefighters was upstairs on a balcony, playing to the setting sun. Not waiting to ask permission, I ran upstairs, through the living quarters to the balcony, and got a few frames before he finished.

Make a Hero
© Brian Fitzgerald

Back downstairs, we had time to set up the truck on the entry ramp to the station.  It blocked almost all of the truck bays. With busy roadways full of traffic and bicycles on either side, we set up eleven different lights, in and around the firetruck, and once the sun went down we made that truck look like a hero.

I love the final image of the apparatus, but my favorite shot from the evening was the stolen moment of the firefighter playing bagpipes into the evening. One day, one evening, two heros.

Make a Hero
© Brian Fitzgerald

 

Make a Hero
© Brian Fitzgerald

 

Make a Hero
© Brian Fitzgerald

Client Work: Agri Cycle Website Project

Agri Cycle

I love working with innovative Maine companies that are doing interesting, important work. This week, Agri Cycle launched their re-branded website with some of the work I’ve done for them this year.

Agri Cycle recycles organic waste and turns it into renewable energy using an anaerobic digester facility in Exeter, Maine. They do great business working with other marquee companies from Waterville to Boston, including Whole Foods, Colby College, Hannaford Bros. supermarkets, and others.  They also arguably do important business—not just producing energy from matter that normally would be discarded, but by reducing the amount of organic matter in landfills (meaning: less greenhouse gas emissions).

Agri Cycle

They are so busy, in fact, that one of the biggest challenges to photographing their team and equipment was simpy to pin them down (from their perspective, admittedly, a good problem to have). Another challenge was to create visuals that spoke to the relationships and the needs of Agri Cycle’s clients rather than focusing on the waste itself—which, let’s face it—wouldn’t win any beauty contests. By focusing on their clients, and on Agri Cycle’s processes, we were able to show their reach and their impact without just showing a bunch of bins of discarded vegetables. Because ultimately, it’s not about what they do, but why.

Agri Cycle

Beauty, Revisited

ballerina_portlandco_01_by_brian_fitzgerald
The second in my series, “Beauty in Unexpected Places,” takes us to Building One of the Portland Company’s historic complex in Portland, Maine. Savannah Lee is a dancer with the Portland Ballet Company and is wearing a tutu from a production of the Nutcracker.

I love the look of the space, which contrasts so well with the intricate ballet costume. The challenge was to light enough of Savannah to set her apart from the environment. I also had to light key elements of the large space around her while not over lighting, in order to preserve the character and mood of the environment.

I think the best images happen when you let things happen, to some degree. Definitely a guiding motto is: “Set the stage, but let the pieces fall.” So we planned the lighting and envisioned the scenes, but I encouraged Savannah to move and perform as she felt appropriate. In the end, a great artistic collaboration in a historic part of Portland’s past.

With location shoots there’s always an unexpected wrinkle, and an unexpected gift—the gift that the photo gods give you when you show up, repeatedly, to do the creative work you should be doing. A few days before the shoot, the space was booked by the Portland Fire Dept. to do training drills. We arrived not knowing what portion of the space—if any—we’d be able to use, but were determined to make it work regardless. We showed up and the fire department didn’t, due to a last-minute schedule change (Had they done so, I’m guessing we would have somehow incorporated them into at least one shot). That was the gift. The wrinkle? The cavernous location was very, very cold, with a concrete floor—exactly the opposite of ‘ideal conditions’ for a professional dancer. Thanks, Savannah, for making it look easy and being a great sport. A true pro.

 

beauty revisited

beauty revisited

beauty revisited

beauty revisited

beauty revisited

Ten Things Photojournalism Taught Me

photojournalism
Covering the 737th Transportation Company at Ft. Lewis, Wash. 

I spent most of my professional life as a press-card carrying newspaper photojournalist. Counting the full-time, part-time and stringer periods, it amounts to about 13 years in photojournalism, not including the years I spent freelancing and interning during college.

I know. I’m  experienced.

I completely and absolutely loved it. I look at younger photographers coming up now and I lament for them that the amazing avenue I had available to me—newspapers—is no longer so viable for them. There is no better university than a daily newspaper for developing the chops it takes to succeed as a professional photographer. Newspapers are a place where photographers can truly test themselves through regular exposure to the widest possible mix of environments, people and situations.  For those who are lucky enough to be newspaper staff photographers, the experience is transformative.

Here are a few of the lessons that newspapers taught me that I consider indispensable to my career and success as a photographer now, in no particular order:

The importance of making images, not taking photos.
In the beginning of my career, I ‘took’ photos. I photographed simply what was there. Over time, I began to ‘make’ images. I anticipated. I focused on what was important and left the rest. I discerned. I made choices. I made storytelling images. This is called, developing a point of view.

Resilience.
The time I was on a seven-day hike in the middle of the desert, photographing a wilderness camp for teens, and one of my two camera bodies and my long telephoto lens got smashed and dunked in a river within one hour of the trip starting? Resilience. The time I was up for days straight while embedded in Iraq, writing stories and transmitting photos? Resilience. The four years I spent working on a long-term project on the Yakama Indian Nation, working long hours, getting no-shows? Resilience. Resilience is what gets you through the rough spots when the glamour and ‘fun’ of seeing your name in print wears off.

The value of constant improvement.
In the rush of the daily newspaper, sometimes the images published in the paper aren’t the most exciting or the most dramatic photos possible. Often they are prosaic, not creative and downright boring. The kinds of images I wished I didn’t have to put my name under. On those days, feeling dejected and unworthy of the title “photojournalist,” I might have entertained becoming a “sandwich artist” at Subway. But the beauty of a daily newspaper is that there’s always the next day. A new day, a new opportunity to fight the fight. A new chance to take chances, put yourself on the line and do the type of work that makes you feel great and maybe—possibly—can make a difference in your community. At the paper I learned that every day, it was getting up every day and doing your best.

It’s about the story, not about you.
There’s a great few lines in the great movie The Paper where Bernie, the editor, talks to the managing editor, Alicia, who has just asked for another raise: “The people we cover, we move in their world, but it is their world. You can’t live like them. You’ll never keep up. If you try to make this job about the money…you’ll be nothing but miserable, because we don’t get the money. Never have, never will.”
To me this speaks about being authentic and knowing that I’m part of something bigger. Everything is in service to the story, and the journalist, like the photographer, belongs in the trenches, honing their craft. If we do it well, we get some recognition and we get financial rewards…but those are side products and not the main goal.

Sometimes, you just have to make a decision. It’ll be ok.
I learned at the paper that the quicker you could make a decision, the better. The more decisions you make, the better chance you have that some of them will be good ones. Overthinking things usually leads to paralysis and worse decisions.

Do more than the expected. Be a complete journalist.
I learned quickly that if I came back from an assignment with only one or two visual options, whether from a portrait or a news event, then my editors would not be pleased. Not only that, but I was expected to take boring photos, like building exterior “mug” shots and details that were boring, but gave the page designers more options. I was a print journalism major initially, before I picked up a camera. I’ve always loved to write. I found that providing great images was expected in my job, but writing grammatically-correct, journalistic captions elevated me in the eyes of the print journalists and editors I worked with. They saw me as someone who was a journalist first, and a photographer second. I thus learned that you have to pay attention to all aspects of the job—not just bringing back a pretty picture. In this day and age, that’s expected and it’s just not enough.

Constraints are valuable.
As a photojournalist, I rarely had enough time. I had to go into a situation cold and make something happen. Hopefully something great. At those moments, I usually did quite well. When I was given more time and more options, I found that I wasted time thinking about options and less time actually committing to my subject and the story. Journalism taught me that having less—less time, less resources, less options—made me focus on what I could do with what I had, making me more creative and nimble.

The importance of studying human behavior.
To make it in business, to make it as a journalist, to make it in life, one thing is of critical importance. If you don’t know how to deal with people, work with people and understand people, you have an uphill climb. Photojournalism taught me to be a student of human behavior; to look for non-verbal cues and to watch what people say versus what they do. It’s an endlessly fascinating area of study, and it never ends.

Moments trump the technical every time.
I learned early on that if I got so focused on making an image “perfect” from a technical standpoint that I forgot about the subject and the mood and the “moment”, then I was missing the forest for the trees. When in doubt, capture moments that connect with people emotionally. If you can make it technically perfect, great. But if you have to choose it’s not even a contest. Authentic moments always win.

Meaning matters.
What made the long hours and low pay of a staff photojournalist worth it? It was that it was about something bigger than a camera and getting my pictures in print. It was that my job had meaning. The images I took mattered to someone—maybe just the subject and their friends, but sometimes it could make a difference in a community and the larger world. I had the power with my photographs to make a difference, and that fueled me. I’ve learned that you can’t do things just for money. You have to have a reason “why”. That search for meaning has fueled my career as a photojournalist and it still does as a commercial photographer.

 

Those are a few of the lessons learned as a working photojournalist, shooting everything from Johnny’s first day of kindergarten to Michael Jordan during his short stint as a baseball player with the Birmingham Barons (admittedly, the reality of a newspaper shooter is 99 per cent the former and 1 per cent the latter). I could have learned these lessons and undoubtedly would have, outside of newspapers. Life has a way of rubbing the rough edges off, but I know no other environment but the newspaper that did so in such a short period of time, or so completely. I’ll always be completely thankful for that part of my career.  It gave me much more than I gave it.

 

–30–

Showcasing Recent Work

 

Recent Work

I’m happy this week to release some new images on my site. Typically, these are from shoots I did in the last couple of weeks or month.  Sometimes, they are from assignments completed months ago that I’m only now able to share. This small gallery is just the start, actually.  I’ve got a lot of fun projects in the works that I’ll be revealing over the next couple of months, and this new Recent Moments section of my site is where many of those images will live.

This fall I’ve been taking my book around to show clients and others, and the experience has been incredible. It’s unfortunately rare for me to have a sit-down, face-to-face discussion with clients about creative approach, personal work and how to provide better value, all without any specific project or assignment on the line. It’s rare because I get so busy doing my day-to-day work that I lose perspective and lose touch.   These meetings are good opportunities for me to share work that speaks to me and shows how I’m evolving as a creative who specializes in portrait and location moments.   I hope you enjoy!

Portrait Moments

Portrait Moments

I live for location work.  Put me in a random environment, with changing variables and I’m in my element: solving problems as they occur.  Capturing the flavor of the location in a true way.   The person in the photo matters, but they are playing a duet with the background, each of them heroes in the final image. 

What happens if you can’t rely on a cool and interesting environment?   If you force yourself to strip out your background and all context, what are you left with? 

Portrait moments, that’s what.  Take out all of the other stuff that clutters the eye and what remains is mood and moment.   The choice of lighting accentuates these moments, expressed subtly by eyes, lips, and posture.   Here the subject is truly the hero of the image, and every subtle gesture speaks volumes. 

Pretty lofty words, I know.  But capturing the moment—that certain look in the eye, that lift to the chin—that’s the good stuff that keeps photographers going.  That’s authentic truth, even in the middle of electronic flash mumbo-jumbo. 

Case in point: this image of actress Liz Freeman that I’m publishing for the first time.   It dates back more than a year, when Liz posed as a model during the Maine Light Workshop I was teaching on the creative use of off-camera flash.

I’ve been lucky to photograph Liz many times before this, but what made this situation different was that the shoot felt more like a hectic location shoot: constantly setting up gear and continually on the move.  In situations like that, I have a loose ten-frame rule: if it doesn’t look good in ten clicks of the shutter, then it’s time to move on.  

What struck me, going through the images, is just how present and serene Liz is in the middle of all of the activity going on around her (but not visible to the camera).  I love this kind of quiet look:  subtle,  but an undeniably powerful, spontaneous moment.   

Great job, Liz.

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

A unifying theme of my work can be boiled down to, “people who work”.  The people in front of my lens tend to do interesting things for a living, and my job often is to show them going about their duties.    In the course of a week I might find myself in the cab of a delivery truck, perched on a platform above a factory floor, or scrunched into a corner of a conference room, camera in hand.

ecomaine is a waste management non-profit  in Portland that generates power from the stuff the rest of us throw away.  I’ve photographed their people for years and I absolutely love working there.  As a location, it’s often dirty (they process and burn garbage, remember), the lighting can be an extreme challenge and the environment tends to be either freezing cold or stiflingly hot.  But….on the other hand, they have cool smokestacks, pipes, walkways and big pieces of colorful moving machinery.   Sign me up! 

Recently they had me document and photograph many of their people at work and I wanted to show some of the results of that ongoing project.  Produced completely in black and white, the images look timeless and give a human dimension to the industrial facility.  Instead of the more intensive scenario-based images I might create in other settings, these are ‘quick-hit’ portraits done in work areas all over the plant and buildings, with minimal lighting.  Basically, I have a lot of fun and get a workout at the same time. 

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

Finding Beauty in Unexpected Places

Finding Beauty

As a photographer, I’m fascinated by juxtapositions and contrasts.  I dig the unexpected (as a newspaper photographer I lived for moments like these and these). I like finding beauty where it’s least expected.

That’s the idea behind this photo shoot involving Portland Ballet Company dancer Kelsey Harrison.  She’s the ‘beauty’ in this scenario.

The space?  That’s the ‘unexpected’ part:  a cavernous, dirty, dusty, rough space with unpainted walls, exposed subfloors and 15-foot ceilings. The kind of space that photographers dream of but also tend to be challenged by, too.  Plenty of space for Kelsey to move around in and do her moves. Plenty of space to position lighting on all sides of her, creating an envelope of light.  The goal was to use extremely fast flash duration—up to 1/13,500th of a second—to freeze Kelsey’s movements as she did her thing.

With enough portable batteries,  lighting was the easy part.  Too much and I’d kill the mood and drama of the place.   Too little, and there goes the ‘beauty’.  So I directed and shaped the light onto Kelsey and enough of the background to separate her from the environment.

Kelsey was a trouper.  If you’ve ever walked around all day on a hard surface with no padding and no ‘give’, you feel it the next day. Kelsey spent an hour leaping and jumping, all in the name of art, and didn’t complain once. She made it look easy….but ‘easy’ it isn’t.  A true pro and a joy to work with.

Finding beauty in unexpected places, indeed.

 

Finding Beauty

 

Finding Beauty

 

Finding Beauty

A Tale of Two (or More) Portfolios

Fitzgerald Photo Portfolio

The reality of being a photographer is that you need to have portfolios—online, of course, but also a body of work (in physical or digital form) that you can show to people who might want to hire you.

It’s not a fun process for me.  I used to be a photo editor and love editing work.  But my own?  I’d rather insert bamboo slivers under my fingernails.   I start with the best of intentions and end staring at all of my images, rocking back and forth, and muttering something about pursuing another career in cosmetology.  Nothing looks good.  All I see are the flaws instead of the patterns.

In short, when I look at my work, I’m not an editor, but just another neurotic, perfectionist photographer scratching his head.

This year I embarked on a project to rebuild my body of work and my physical portfolio—a process now largely done, but of course—never fully complete.  I worked with a consultant and shot a lot of new work. I worked with Scott Mullenberg to create an additional folio to accompany the unique books he’d already created for me.
In the end, it was a process that even changed the way I approach my daily assignment work.

At my showings so far, the feedback has been so helpful that I swear I should be paying them for the insight I’m getting.

Based on my experience, I’d venture that most photographers (and other creatives) would benefit from a regular portfolio tear-down-and-rebuild.  Here’s why:

1.  It gives you perspective.  You get to take stock of where you’ve been and where you’d like to be.
2. It can change the way you view not just your work, but how you approach your assignments with current clients.
3. It gets you “out there”, giving you the opportunity to show your work to others and to really talk about your value and their goals.

So take a look at some of my new work at Fitzgerald Photo.  There’s more on the way.
Fitzgerald Photo Portfolio

Inspired Mainers: Pat Gallant-Charette

Inspiring Mainer
Pat Gallant-Charette wears the names of two of her now-deceased brothers on her arm for every swim.

This week I published an Inspire Maine issue featuring Pat Gallant-Charette, a 65-year-old grandmother from Westbrook, ME. Some would say being a rockstar grandmother is inspiring enough—one that’s written her own children’s book, no less.

But that’s not the inspiring part. Gallant-Charette recently returned from the U.K., where she became the oldest person to successfully swim the North Channel. That’s the 21-mile stretch of freezing cold North Atlantic brine that separates Ireland from Scotland. At 65, Gallant-Charette was the oldest person to ever do the swim, by 13 years.

And that isn’t even the amazing part. This is one of five swims she’s completed as part of the “Oceans Seven”(No, that’s not a buddy movie).  It’s seven channels of water, from Japan to Hawaii to California…and the British Isles. To boot, Gallant-Charette finished the Strait of Gibraltar swim faster than any American woman since 1928.

To her grandkids, she’s just grandma who travels a lot. But trust me, she’s amazing and a nice person, too. I photographed her at Kettle Cove in September and we had a great time despite the windy, chilly day. I loved the images but even more, I loved getting to meet with Pat. So do yourself a favor and check out her full interview over at Inspire Maine. You’ll be glad you did.

Inspired Mainer
Pat Gallant-Charette, photographed at Kettle Cove in Maine. Being a Mainer helped her train for her marathon swimming success. “This is the best training ground outside of the North Channel and the English Channel,” she says.

 

Inspiring Maine
One of my favorite outtakes from the shoot, which I think looks best in black and white. I can imagine Pat swimming alone in the dark and the cold, but fueled by her bright, optimistic nature.

 

Inspiring Maine
The wind—constant on the Maine Coast—was buffeting us on the water, which meant we had to keep lighting simple. Fortunately, simple often means “dramatic”.