Category On Location

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

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

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

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”.

Faces of Portland: Sam Smith

Faces of Portland

The thing I most love about Portland is definitely the diverse, interesting people that it attracts. Creatives, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, free spirits.

Faces of PortlandI recently photographed Sam Smith, a blacksmith who operates the Portland Forge out of the old Portland Company complex on Fore Street.  All of the adjectives—creative, entrepreneur, craftsman, free spirit—apply.

Sam has a well-deserved reputation as an artist and a craftsman. When he’s not operating a portable anvil out of his van somewhere in Maine, or teaching workshops in Europe, he’s hammering steel in the dark corner of a former train locomotive foundry that dates back more than 150 years. By the way, that space, and much of the complex itself, will soon be part of Portland’s past. The city’s master plan proposes a 10-acre complex of condominiums and retail shops to occupy the space that these red brick, charmingly dilapidated buildings now occupy.

For now, Sam continues to work a forge that he created himself, in a small corner of Portland that—for now, thankfully—remains firmly rooted in the past.  Thanks, Sam, for letting me and my camera into your world for a little while.

Faces of Portland

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
Maine Game Warden Pete Herring, photographed on the shore of Lake Arrowhead near Waterboro, ME.

For the first time, I’m publishing a few images from a project on Maine’s Peace Officers that I’ve been working on for over a year with the working title, Arrested:  Stories Behind the Badge.

Arrested’ is a series of portraits of law enforcement officers from across the state of Maine, photographed at the actual locations where they experienced a life-altering incident on the job.

The diversity of situations the officers I’ve interviewed have been incredible: some have been shot; others have had to use their weapons. Some have been injured, some have saved lives. All have had to react in situations that required skill, judgement and humanity.

Nationally, the idea that cops are dangerous and out of control, and are to be feared–this is an additional burden on officers in Maine, many of whom police the same communities they and their families live in. When a difficult incident occurs, they are reminded of it every time they pass the spot where it occurred.

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
Photographing at the scene of a house fire rescue, Old Orchard Beach, ME.

This project is an attempt to convey the reality of the difficult work officers do every day. I’m thankful to the officers who have participated. I’d like to say that it’s been a good experience for them to share their stories, but I also know it’s not been easy for people who tend to avoid the spotlight.

It’s been an incredible experience for me as well and I hope to share the complete project, as well as the many stories, soon.

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
York County Sheriff’s Deputy, Sgt. Steven Thistlewood.

Showcase: Take your Millennial to Work Day, Dispatch Magazine

I’ve worked with Down East Magazine in the past, but this month my work was published in Dispatch Magazine for the first time (which shares some operations with Down East Enterprise, Inc.)  Dispatch targets a readership interested in nightlife, events and food in Maine’s largest city.  When Visuals Director Mark Fleming called me, asking if I’d take on concept of “Take your millenial to work day”,  I was interested. It sounded like a challenge—not the least because it had to be set up and shot within the following three days.

I spent time with both subjects–Chelsea, a millennial working at a local bookshop,  and Bill, a Boomer-generation copy machine salesman, as they visited each other’s places of work, and photographed them in a variety of scenarios both posed and unposed. The magazine ended up using a couple scenarios, but here on the blog I get to share a few more that I liked as well. Keep in mind the goal was to be a little over the top, with a wink and a nod to stereotypes about both generations.  You can read more about the story, which I recommend, at Dispatch Magazine.  Enjoy!

 

Boomer_Millenial_01_Fitzgerald

 

Boomer_Millenial_02_Fitzgerald

 

Boomer_Millenial_03_Fitzgerald

 

Boomer_Millenial_04_Fitzgerald

 

Boomer_Millenial_05_Fitzgerald

 

 

 

No, I was not attacked in Iraq

[rev_slider iraqslider]

 Note:  the above images are mostly outtakes from my time embedded with troops from the 737th Transportation Company from January-March 2004.  All images © Yakima Herald-Republic.

CORRECTION:  I mentioned “bulletproof” vests in my article.  The troops at the time had fragmentary resistant vests, later upgraded to the type of vest I wore–a ballistic vest with ceramic plates in the front and back.    Also, a soldier with the 737th pointed out that he had never heard a mortar ‘whistle’.  While the sound is clear in my memory, I’d have to describe it more accurately as a loud hissing noise, increasing in intensity to a roar.  In any case, terrifying. 

Like many of my journalist friends I’ve followed with fascination the controversy over NBC anchor Brian Williams’ misrepresentation of his role during an incident in Iraq in 2003.  As someone who spent 16 years as a photojournalist and photo editor, I’m particularly sensitive to the topic. Just a few months after Williams’ incident, I was also an embedded journalist, living with and reporting on troops in Kuwait and Iraq.

Everyone remembers incidents differently over time.  Ask a cop whether eyewitness accounts are reliable.   Williams’ account isn’t the first time that someone with an incidental role in a major event ends up over time recasting themselves closer and closer to the action.   But I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when a professional journalist of such stature—someone paid to bear witness and to tell truth—has so been accused.
It’s not just his dramatic retelling that happened in the years since the episode. For me, it’s interesting that in the report Williams aired immediately after the incident, he reported that the chopper ahead of his had taken fire and was forced to land.  It implied that he witnessed the scene as part of the convoy rather than on a ‘following’ chopper arriving later at the scene.      I suspect that Williams’ error has less to do with some moral failing and a lot to do with the nature of TV news.     The emphasis is for TV journalists to be in the picture, part of the scene, and encourages them to imply an immediacy that may be misleading.    It’s a desire to be part of the story, and is in contrast to the type of journalism practiced by print and photo-journalists whose emphasis is should be on the subject and never on themselves (with some exceptions, I’m sure).
I witnessed both approaches during the time I spent embedded with troops of the 737th Transportation Company back in 2004.   I was one of two journalists from Eastern Washington state given the opportunity to document the lives of some 160 Army Reservists whose unit had been last called to active duty during the Vietnam War.      The goal was to tell the story not of the war, but  of the men and women from my community who put their lives on hold for a year (or more) to go to war far from home.   My sacred mission was to keep the focus on them and not on me.   Looking back, it was easier for me as a newspaper journalist to do that—to stay behind the scenes, watching, reporting, photographing.    For a TV journalist it’s not so simple.   Embedded with me was Patrick Preston, a reporter from KXLY-TV in Spokane, Washington.    Both of us were doing double-duty:  I was photographing and writing stories and he was filing reports on air and handling his video camera and gear.   After looking at his bags of gear, I realized that I had the better end of the bargain.  Even with my RBGAN satellite data phone, my voice satellite phone, two cameras, lenses, laptop and backup drives,  I was 10 times more mobile than Patrick (see his picture, above).    I also could ‘embed’ easier, hanging out the soldiers, photographing them as they went about their business.  Patrick had to do a lot of stand-up interviews, usually at 5 am each morning in time for the Spokane broadcast.  He also had to be in front of the camera, essentially narrating and shaping each broadcast while I had the luxury of letting my photos tell the story with a little help from a caption or two.
This gave me a distinct advantage, and allowed me to grow closer to the troops.  For Patrick, his broadcast time restraints and his heavy gear all made it tougher for him to just be one of the guys.  During a convoy escort mission into Iraq, Patrick and I were given space in separate Humvees.  The reason was simple:  a journalist doesn’t have a weapon, and so you spread them out so that you’re only missing one rifle in each gun truck, rather than two.     The First Sergeant told us in no uncertain terms to stay awake.  His theory was, if a hostile is looking for a weak spot in a line of trucks, they’ll go with the one that has one less rifle–especially if they see a civilian not paying attention.   Because Patrick had to do daily early-morning stand-up reports, he tended to pass out after hours in the Humvee.   Eventually, the First Sergeant got so frustrated that he came to my Humvee, pulled out a solider and traded spots with him.  He was worried that Patrick’s Humvee would be hit, and he didn’t want to tempt fate.
Through it all, I think Patrick did a great job with very little resources or sleep.   I had the easier time.   But having gone through that experience, I can understand some of the context around Brian Williams’ faulty memory.  To me, it’s really not about a faulty memory.  It’s about an emphasis in TV news about being on screen instead of behind it;  about being part of the story instead of simply reporting it.
Patrick and I spent about five weeks with the 737th, living with them at Ft. Lewis, Washington and deploying with them overseas to Kuwait.  We actually feared that we wouldn’t make it to Iraq at all, given the fact that the mission changed, and changed again after our arrival.    The last week of my embed—the very end of February, 2004—we were given the mission to escort a convoy into Iraq.   We were nervous, excited, but happy to be given a chance to show the folks back home what the Iraq experience might be like for their loved ones.
We spent five days in Iraq.   During that time, we ate a lot of dust, saw a lot of destruction and saw the troops perform admirably.   We were subject to two incidents: one in which unknown persons hurled a large rock from an overpass in Baghdad, hitting the windshield of a Humvee (not mine, nor his), and another in which two mortars were lobbed indiscriminately from beyond the perimeter and landed among our lines of trucks at the motor pool at operating base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq.    In that incident, we were relaxing and awaiting departure when we heard the whistle of incoming mortars.  We were unprepared.   Many soldiers were missing their Kevlar helmets and others (probably me among them) had taken off our uncomfortable bulletproof vests.   There were casualties with minor injuries, as the rockets landed a hundred yards away between lines of fuel tankers.  It could have been much, much worse.
We were lucky, and neither I nor Patrick ever ‘conflated’ our role in either incident to one of prominence.   After all, it was about the troops and not about us.   Whatever happens to Brian Williams, I hope the incident isn’t cast as a simple failing of an egotistical TV personality.  It should be a reminder for all journalists, TV or otherwise, of something my ASU journalism professor Bruce Itule always told us:  “It ain’t about you.”
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