Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Artificial Light: Flash Photography in the Twentieth Century. Diverse examples of flash Photography

Through August 3rd, 2014 at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

I’ve always tried to avoid the use of flash as a key light in my photography. It has a flattening effect on a subject that looks artificial. It results in the opposite of “modeling”, it destroys separation between foreground and background. In the work of Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, or Lisette Model, it just struck me as a necessary evil and I tried to look beyond it in their work.

The show currently at the Philadelphia Art Museum caught me off guard. It might be that putting together a collection of photographs that celebrates the use of flash caused me to check my prejudices at the door. At any rate, it’s a fine selection of pictures by artists whose work I already admired, but by concentrating on how each individual used flash, I began to understand the the aesthetics of this type of lighting and how it might be chosen as a way of expression rather than as a last resort.

I’m still not completely sold on most flash photography. I toiled too many years as a gaffer trying to keep the key light as far away from the lens as I could to not have a knee-jerk reaction when confronted with the flat lighting that results from simply affixing a light to the top of a camera.

But in many of the pictures in this show flash was used to isolate subjects from their backgrounds and extraneous elements around them. In the best examples the lighting did not have a flattening effect. Dimensionality, in fact, was enhanced. It accomplished what the best compositions do, it directed the viewer’s eye.

Unfortunately the show in Philadelphia does not explain how technique differs from photographer to photographer and between pictures. A well-curated show which uses a technical conceit as the unifying element is expected to at least mention something of the formal aspects of its examples. This curator does not. Information regarding what types of flash units were used, the placement of lights, and theories about lighting by the photographers would have made this show so much more relevant to the expectations its title set up. 

But the curator did do a good job of selecting photographers and introduced me to somebody new: Larry Fink. I am now a disciple of his. It’s funny how a name or term you’ve never heard of will then pop up again shortly after that first time, sometimes more than once. This happened when I opened a marketing email from the Aperture Foundation announcing a new book by Larry Fink: Larry Fink on Compositionand Improvisation. It is part of a trio of books by various photographers making up something called The Photography Workshop Series

So I bought Fink’s book. It is excellent. Fine printing of his photographs with short descriptions of what should have been in the Philadelphia show. He speaks of how he uses flash lighting, his philosophy of art, how he thinks as a photographer, and has inspiring advice for anyone that wants to improve his or her work.

I’ll speak more of his lighting in a later post, but for now I just want to add that what sets Fink apart from many of his contemporaries is his consistent off-center use of a flash unit. Either through the use of a cable or remote device, the light falling on his subjects is at least an arm’s length away from the camera lens. This is just enough to model faces and bodies and to get lighting variation on different individuals in his pictures. Also, he is evidently using a telephoto setting on his flash unit that is not as wide as the lens on his camera. This creates an irising effect on his photographs that further differentiates his work from most other photographers.

The book is marvelous, both educational and beautiful to look at.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Bruce Barnbaum, "I have come to recognize a very surprising fact: subject matter ultimately becomes secondary to the artist's seeing, vision, and overall philosophy of life and of photography.  There is a one-to-one equality between the artist and his art. A photographer's way of seeing is a reflection of his entire life's attitude, no matter what the subject matter may be." -- (The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression)

This is something I have felt about photography for some time but was expecting my beliefs to be universal.  I prefer Barnbaum's view which personalized this belief to fit each photographer uniquely.

For me, in my photography,  the most important thing,  above the subject even, is the light. The most compelling subject will not make a good photograph if it isn't lit in a way that enhances the attitude and meaning of the photograph.

What defines your way of seeing photography?

Friday, May 24, 2013

It Looks Just Like a Painting (2)

The things we initially respond to in a painting and a photograph are pretty similar.  Subject matter might be what most people notice first.  Next the color palette or black and white tones, then the composition or style or genre.  All these reactions are fairly immediate and hard to list in a particular order of when they occur, but one more thing we respond to fairly quickly is the artist's or photographer's techniques and level of expertise. 

I think that it's this that James was referring to in his critique of Sargent's "Lady With a Rose."  A painter's abilities with her medium develop slowly over years.  It might be harder to judge an abstract or primitive artist's expertise, but it could probably be appreciated by comparing her early works with those she makes later in a long career. 

The role of lucky accident is much greater in photography than in painting. Just like a novice could beat an old pro at backgammon because of the role of chance, so too a snapshot taken by Uncle Bob on vacation at Lake Arrowhead might hang in a show at MOMA one day.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

It Looks Just Like A Painting

Among the first Sargents that Henry James ever saw was Lady With A Rose. Of it and the artist he said,  "it offers the slightly 'uncanny' spectacle of a talent which on the threshold of its career has nothing more to learn. It is not simply precisely in the guise of maturity--a phenomenon we very often meet, which deceives us only for an hour; it is the freshness of youth combined with the artistic experience, really felt and assimilated, of generations. .." (The Painter's Eye). Reading this in Ratcliff's book on Sargent it made me wonder what photographers something like this has ever been said of. 

The notion of a photographer maturing, of a critic of James's stature even noticing a young  photographer's work struck me as rare.

What is it that non-photographers look at when they look at a photograph? 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dustin McNeil / Roberto Quezada-Dardon Phantasm Interview

Dustin McNeil is a writer working on a book of the making of Phantasm and various other Don Coscarelli movies called "Phantasm Exhumed"  He interviewed me via email and I replied on February 9, 2009. The book was recently published and available through Amazon.

DM: I was told a funny story by someone recently about you and a sign messing up a shot in the original Phantasm infront of the mausoleum gates. Ring any bells?

RQD: The “mausoleum gates” was a location I found up at the very top of Lake Ave. in Pasadena. It is the entrance to a property once owned by one of the Marx Bros. and before them, a guy who in his youth was the founder of the U.S. Air Force during the Civil War, named Lowe. In high school we used the place at night to drink and try to get to third base with girls we managed to lure up there.

It was a perfect location for the entrance to the Mausoleum ( the main building exists up in Oakland, CA so that’s one hell of a long driveway!) except for this pesky sign warning drivers of a 90 degree curve that occurs a few yards down the road. We were all so enamored of the site that no one realized this bright yellow sign was right in the middle of the frame.

That night, the actors were on set and we were pretty much ready to shoot when Coscarelli, in his inimitable last minute way mentioned the problem of the sign-in-the-shot to me (since I was the one who found the goddamn place). His way of bringing up stuff like this was to get Socratic on me with a question like, “Uhm, what did you think we were going to do about that sign in the middle of the shot?”

I was pretty stressed out just from doing the lighting because the frame was so wide and covered so much area. There were no big lights used on Phantasm that I can remember (I think 5,000 watts was as big as we got) so it meant a hundred little lights had to be set before cranking the camera on a big set up like this one. So, I was stressing and all of a sudden I had this location manager problem laid on me.

So I hopped in the grip van, asked Pepperman to guide me backwards so I wouldn’t hit anything except what I was aiming at, and proceeded to run the offending yellow sign over. It snapped off at the base, we through it in the bushes, and got the shot. Pepperman had a conscience (or a good sense of a lawsuit waiting to happen) and kind of leaned the sign back up against a tree by the side of the road last thing the next morning after we all left for home.

DM: Was there a pressure to keep Phantasm II a secret during production? I understand several codenames were used such as Morningside and American Gothic.

RQD: There is a pressure to keep any Coscarelli project under a code name. But if I told you why it would jeopardize the lives of loved ones – yours and mine. But those two working titles do sound familiar.

DM: I've been told another funny story about the "gasoline" rushing toward the fire after the 'Cuda stunt. Bring back any memories?

It does bring back a memory, but not as vivid as the memories of other really stupid things we did with effects on all these movies. I don’t know why this one is so vague. All these types of memories end similarly, with a bunch of idiots frantically trying to undo some line of dominoes heading towards disaster. Like when we shot the ‘Cuda doing 50 mph and Jody standing up out of the sun roof with a shotgun in order to blast the hearst off of his and Mike’s tail. The plan was to take the hood of the trunk off so Don and I could sit back there with a huge camera to film the action. We were about to go when we remembered that Jody nearly set fire to himself when he shot a Colt .45 loaded with blanks towards himself a few inches from his face to blast a dwarf off his back in the basement of the mausoleum. This was years before the tragedy on another movie (The Crow?) where an actor accidentally killed himself by shooting a blank in the direction of his head. Not too different from what we asked Jody to do in the throes of battling a hooded dummy on his back. Anyway, the burn holes in the dwarf’s costume after we got it off of Jody gave us the bright idea of gaffer-taping a cushion to the side of Coscarelli’s head so that when Jody fired the shot gun over our heads in this scene on the ‘Cuda, we would spare Don’s face from being permanently disfigured. So now we’re ready to go. Except we realize that we only have enough blanks (full loads to get nice big flares out of the barrels) to do one take. No matter what, we’re not yelling cut until Jody’s emptied the shotgun. We hop in the trunk of the car, take off way down the road, and Don yells action. I’m sitting right next to him to steady the camera and make sure that we’re passing under the lights correctly (did I mention this is a night scene?). Okay, let’s break it down:

1. Jody throwing off the glass of the sun roof nearly takes our heads off. I’m not kidding. Do you have any idea what the G-force of a pane of plexi is at fifty miles an hour? Neither did we.

2. Immediately, in fact, instantly, after the first shot out of the gun (I think there are three or four) Don and I each quietly realize to ourselves that we forgot our ear plugs. The sound of a full load 3 feet from your head is – well, let me put it this way: Going deaf was the least of our immediate concerns. It fucking hurt. There were three more shots to go and we didn’t even have a bullet between us to bite down on.

3. But we nailed the scene, did a victory lap around the set, hopped out of the trunk, and promptly noticed that the cushion that we had so permanently taped to Coscarelli’s head was on fire. I’m talking engulfed. I mean flames two feet off the top of the cushion. Half the crew is burning their fingers trying to find the untabbed ends of the tape to get the cushion off Don’s head. The other half is beating the shit out of Don’s head to put out the flames. In retrospect, Don wished it was a more padded cushion.

So in comparison to Jody nearly killing or disfiguring himself, or a couple of morons being decapitated, or someone setting his head on fire, rolling a car over in preparation for a scene up on a hill and not noticing that there’s a stream of gasoline gushing out of it and cascading towards a car we blew up and set on fire in a previous scene at the bottom of said hill isn’t such a big deal, is it? Again, half the crew is frantically trying to blow out the fire on the car at the bottom of the hill, while the other half is clawing at dirt with their fingernails to try to divert the course of a flammable river that is also invisible because it’s so dark (did I mention this is a night scene?).

DM: What was it like having to stay on top of sphere effects, makeup effects, car stunts and weapons effects for the film? It seems like an enormous bunch of tasks to juggle.

RQD: I’d say very typical on a Don Coscarelli film. This was something Pepperman pretty much handled all by himself on Phantasm. By that I mean, he built the effects, manipulated them just outside of the camera’s view while they were being shot, and coordinated when everything was going to be completed and shot and so forth. As a producer I was lucky to have a good budget and phenomenal special effects guys like Shostrum, Nicotero, and xxxx on Phantasm II so that all I had to do was make sure everything worked and on schedule to show up on the day we had to shoot.

The main work on P2 was in the weeks and weeks of planning and meetings Don had with each of us describing what he wanted, the special effects guys coming up with other far out ideas for what Don would like, and them all figuring out how they would deliver what was planned and promised. As I said in a previous interview, Don is an extremely difficult taskmaster. An important part of his talent is his ability to motivate people to walk through fire to do the best they possibly can for his movies. I just needed to make sure they did it on time.

DM: Do you recall working with fan Kristen Deem at all during the making of Phantasm II? What was your impression of her?

RQD: Of course I do. Impressions? Let’s see. Professional. Sweet. Pretty. Tireless. Enthusiastic. Inspiring. And her mom was really cute too.

DM: What's your favorite scene from any of the Phantasm films and why?

RQD: Blowing up Mike’s house in Phantasm II because of the logistics involved and the effectiveness of the finished scene.

Little factoids that come to mind:

The location was on a flight pattern to LAX and we had to get clearance from Washington DC on the phone and then only had like a 5 minute window when we could blow the house up (between planes landing). Just getting a normal shot off under circumstances like that would traumatize anybody, but we had three units with actors that had to act on two of them and one unit in a moving car that had to get a clear shot of the damned thing.

We had one camera in a car driving up to the house witnessing the explosion; we had one camera on Reggie and Michael escaping through a back window of the house just before it blows up; and we had one camera (mine) as the Tall Man walks away from the explosion looking as if he's just walked away from hell going up in flames. All three shots were successful on all counts.

The safety fireman assigned to us by the city to keep the size of the blast down turned out to be a Phantasm fan and “turned his head” after telling our pyro fx guy to "blow the shit out of it!" (the house).

Although my camera was a good hundred and fifty feet away from the explosion, I remember my face feeling sunburned for about a minute after the explosion. I can’t believe the blast didn’t affect Angus’s performance in that shot. Study his face. That guy is a pro to the marrow .