Friday, May 21, 2010
For the past year I have had the pleasure of teaching a few photography classes at "The Art Institute of Las Vegas". This quarter I am teaching the location class, which has been a lot of fun. Every other week, the class meets at a different location for a photo shoot. Last night our little group met out on the dry lake bed on the way to Laughlin, Nevada. The assignment was fashion.
Usually I will plan to do a demo shoot for the students, just to give an idea on lighting and equipment, props, etc. My Idea: Tank Girl© Fashion. (I don't know, it just seemed to make sense with the way I've been feeling about all the stuff happening to our poor Earth lately, being Tank Girl is an post-apocalyptic character......)
As most of you know I am a huge fan of comics, and I just love the Tank Girl© Character created by Jamie Hewlett & Alan Martin. The story of Tank Girl© takes place in a bleak futuristic Australia (click here for a link to more info). So with that in mind, what better jumping off point for a fashion shoot out in a stark, desolate place in the middle of nowhere. Right?
I know that this has been done before , most notably in Vogue magazine, but for me not being a fashion shooter, It seemed like it would be a cool challenge.
Anyway, I managed to talk my friend and model Ashley Angelo into posing for me, Lynn Vacek, one of my best friends, agreed to come out and do the make-up, and my good pals Todd miller and Richard Reffner donated their time as assistants. The big guns were provided my buddy Robert Bowman, and his brother in law John Stoner .
Of course it was crazy windy, but we went for it undeterred. (We will be blowing dirt out of our equipment for the next year!) The shoot lasted for about an hour, until a bit after sunset.
I'm pretty happy with the results, let me know what you think.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
To be honest, I can't for the life of me remember who gave me Alex Toth's phone number, but I do remember that it came with the caveat that he almost never answered his phone, so I should try to call at various times of the day and night until he did. I also remember being told that it most likely would be a waste of time to even call him to ask if he would be a part of my photo project, because he was now a recluse. Pretty much avoiding everyone that he had known or been friends with. It seems like another person may have mentioned in passing that Toth hadn't actually left his house in several years. So of course I was intrigued.
At the time I think I had been working on my project, photographing artists in their studios, for maybe 4 years , still traveling back and forth from Las Vegas to L.A., and other places, to shoot when I could find the time. Now I had seen Alex's art over the years in various comic books, "Zorro", "Creepy" and "Eerie" etc., and had always enjoyed the stark quality of his work. I knew that he had designed Space Ghost for Hanna Barbera, which was cool, but that was about it. I hadn't been a huge fan, and I really didn't know much more than that. But as I did a little research, and began to discuss the possibility of photographing him with some of the people who knew him, it turned out that almost everyone I spoke with loved, loved, loved his work, and that he was considered by his peers and fans alike to be one of the most influential comic book artists and designers in the business. I also heard a few tales of his fabled hot temper. Which made me a little nervous. The story that sticks in my mind is about the time Alex Toth backed a famous editor up to a open window in a very tall building, with the only thing keeping the editor from dropping to his doom was the clutch Toth had on his coat. To be fair, I don't how true that was, as stories that become folk lore tend to grow greater with each telling, but I bet no editors from that point forward ever tried to stiff Toth on a job again!. But again, stories like this just seemed to hone in the reality that he was a genius and a legend in the industry. My job was to find out first whether he was still with us, as a couple of people I had talked to were sure that Alex had passed away because no one had seen him in out in public for a quite a long time.
So, I was a little nervous when I finally decided to make the call, but I remember thinking what's the worst that could happen, he could just say no, right? (I had certainly had that happen more than a few times.) I came up with this plan that I would just call every hour or so for a couple days, just to see if I could even get him to pick up his phone. It turned out that I didn't have to work too hard, as he picked up on the first try. It's funny, but I was so shocked at he actually answered that I almost hung up. I felt like a kid doing a prank call. But instead, I went into my schpeal that I had come up with when making cold calls like these: " Hi my name is Greg Preston and I am a photographer In Las Vegas, and I have been working on this project photographing Comic book artists and Cartoonists..." yada yada yada. My goal was to say this so fast that the person on the other end of the line really didn't have a chance to say no or hang up, kind of like a telemarketer, and by the end of the speech I would always throw in, "and I've got Jack Kirby". That last line would invariably get one of two responses. Either the artist would say "no thanks" and hang up, or as happened more often than not, they would say "Oh yeah, you got Kirby?, and I knew that I had 'em" .
Alex was very casual and at first he wasn't really interested, but as we talked for a few minutes, he finally agreed (to my surprise) to let me come up to the house and take his portrait. What I remember him saying was " bring the cheapest camera that you can find, no lights, don't make a big deal, and I'll just step out on the porch and you can take a shot". The porch? After hanging up, I remember thinking what the heck does that mean "The cheapest camera that you can find"? So I came up with the idea to photograph Alex with one of my then recently acquired "Diana" cameras.
I had been experimenting with taking photographs with toy cameras then, and I had recently been able to find a couple of original "Dianas" at our local camera repair shop. The "Diana" was a very cheaply produced novelty camera that had been made in the 1960's, originally pricing out at $1.99. It was like a plastic pinhole camera, and more recently it had emerged as a sort of an art camera. The images from a "Diana" have a very appealing soft, grainy, dreamlike quality due to the plastic lens, and you would sometimes get an amazing shot if you were lucky. At the same time it had a few problems, the worst being that it leaked light like a sieve and had to be taped all over with black gaffers tape so as not to expose and ruin the film. Also you couldn't exactly tell where the frame started by looking through the view finder so you might occasionally crop off your subjects head; little things like that. So my brilliant idea was to show up at his house, pull out my cheap little camera, have a few laughs about it, and then run back to the car and get the real camera and do the shoot. In hind-sight this was probably not one of my best ideas.
Alex lived in Hollywood in a rambling Craftsman style house, up behind the Hollywood Bowl.. We had arranged to meet at 9:00 am. on a Saturday morning. I remember he met me at the front door. He was dressed in a crumpled blue shirt and khaki pants, no shoes. He was a big bear of a guy, but not really menacing; he kind of reminded me of Ernest Hemingway in that he had a sort of cool sense about him. He stepped out on the porch and said, "Lets do this". Just like that, no discussion, no laughs, nothing. So, luckily I had loaded some really fast film in the Diana (3200 ISO rated at 12,800 ISO) and started shooting. It was kind of dark where we were standing, but it had a northern exposure so the light had a nice quality. I shot about 30 frames when Alex turned and said "Ya got it?" I had no idea, but said "yeah, I got it". I mean it was so quick. As I started to step off the porch, he asked, "Would you like some iced tea?". Then he did something I hadn't expected: he invited me in.
The inside of the house was cluttered with magazines, stacks of video tapes, art books, lots of stuff. He mentioned that he didn't go out of the house anymore since his wife had passed away several years before. He just didn't see a reason; that made me a little sad. I asked how he got his food and he told me that a friend sent him a package of food every couple of weeks by mail. After chatting for about 40 minutes, I finally built up the courage to ask if I could photograph him in his studio. He told me the studio was upstairs, but that he didn't go up there any more either. We talked a little about cameras, and he mentioned that he would like to get a hold of an old manual Nikon (a few years later I had the pleasure of sending him a FM2 that I had found at a yard sale.) He gave me a copy of the book written about him, "Alex Toth" by Manual Auad, and graciously signed it to me. After a few more minutes we said our goodbyes, as I had planned another shoot for that afternoon, and had to get going. He mentioned that he wanted to see the proofs, and to keep in touch. I left feeling pretty positive about the shoot, and we had gotten along well enough that I thought that I might have another chance if the whole idea of shooting with a toy camera turned out to be a dicey choice.
Two days later I was back at the studio, and eager to get the film processed. I have to be honest, I was disappointed when I first looked at the proofs. I didn't think that I had gotten the shot I was hoping for. However, My wife, Sharon took one look at the proofs and said, "I think this is the best shot you've done so far!" At the time I just figured she was being supportive. I sent Alex the proofs, but because I wasn't convinced I had a great shot, I did try to call Alex and set up another shoot. He promptly said, "No thanks, I don't want to talk to you again" and hung up. Really depressed about the opportunity I had most certainly missed, I put the negatives in a drawer, and forgot about it for 6 months. It was Sharon who found the envelope of negatives while searching my messy desk for some lost paperwork. She went into the darkroom and made a print of one of the negatives. It looked much better than I had remembered. Even though I didn't get to photograph Alex in his actual studio, this shot for me really does encompass the person I met and the experience that I'd had. I have come to love this shot.
In the years since I have had quite a few people say that this image is their favorite from the book as well.
Let me know what you think.
The Book "The Artist Within" published by Dark Horse has 101 photographs of your favorite artists and is great for collecting sketches and autographs at conventions. It is available through Amazon, for cheap, and makes a great gift.
Here are a few out takes from the session.
Alex Toth Passed away in 2006.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
We are always excited when the new magazine from St Rose Dominican Hospitals pops out from our mailbox. We have been very fortunate to have been the primary photographer for The "Womens Care" Magazine since it's inception over 11 years ago. And with just a couple of exceptions, we've shot them all. What a great experience! A big thanks to Shauna Walch , Tammy Kline, Liz Hefner, Andy North and the whole crew at ST. Rose. We are grateful!
Thursday, April 22, 2010
It's hard to believe it's been almost a year since our last blog. Time is just flying by. Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to it. It's been on my mind for what seems like forever, so here goes...
This last Friday I had the chance to have lunch with my old friend Dan McElhattan, designer extraordinaire, and at some point during a really nice lunch at BJs Brewery here in Vegas, we ended up talking about my book, "The Artist Within". Somewhere in the conversation Dan mentioned that he had always thought it would be cool if I'd write down some of my memories and thoughts. Maybe a bit of background about some of the shoots -how they came about, show some out-takes and just relate my experience of actually being in the different studios. So, I guess I'll give it a try, I'm not sure how this is going to go - so please bare with me. I'd love to hear what you think.
As most of you probably know, the genesis of my project,"The Artist Within" actually came from a conversation that I had with my friend, Cartoonist Scott Shaw! Back then I had been working on a personal quest photographing portraits of science fiction and fantasy authors at book signings. I would travel from my home in Vegas down to L.A. to do some portraits, (better book signings in L.A.), and would stay with Scott and his wife, Judy. It was on one of these trips that I showed Scott my portfolio of these Author's photo's. Up till that point I had photographed maybe 30 authors including:
William Gibson (Neuromancer)
Clive Barker,( Weave World, The Thief of always)
Victor Koman (The Jehovah Contract),
James Ellroy,(Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential)
Stephen R.Donaldson, ( The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever)
Robert Bloch (Psycho),
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro,(Hotel Transylvania)
Neil Gaimen (American Gods)
Brian Lumley, (The Necroscope Saga)
and quite a few more. Anyway to keep a long story short, Scott, after really liking the shots, suggested that I should think about doing a project photographing Comic Book Artists and Cartoonists in their studios. So we discussed it back and forth for a couple of months, and finally got started on it. Scott knew a lot of Artists in the business and actually drove me out to the first several studios that I photographed. That first weekend I did three portraits: Rick Detorie, Sergio Aragones and Jack Kirby.
Thoughts on the shoot with Sergio Aragones:
I remember driving with Scott out to Ojai, California where Sergio lived. Ojai is a picturesque town in the hills about an hour north of Los Angeles, with beautiful little shops, restaurants and boutiques. I remember being really excited to be photographing one of the best and most well known cartoonists in the world. Of course,I had met Sergio before at several conventions, but for me being able to visit him in his studio was huge! We arrived at his place about 10 am.The studio itself was in a little 2 story shopping mall, with shops on the first floor and offices on the second floor. I know that he has moved since then but I remember it was right above the Radio Shack, which seemed funny at the time. We went up stairs, and were greeted by the man himself. Upon entering, I was just amazed at how much stuff was everywhere. Just piles and piles of collectibles, comics, toys, art pages, 3 ft. high stacks wherever you looked; a collectors dream room, really. There were little aisles through the stacks to get from room to room. I was blown away at how cool it was to be there. The hard part I remember was trying to pick a shot that would encompass the feeling of the studio. It seemed like there were about three or four rooms just chock full of amazing stuff. After lugging my gear up and in, I went from room to room trying to frame a shot, finally settling on the last area. I think that was his actual work room. When shooting like this , what I like to think of as the 20 minute portrait, I usually try to frame one great shot and then shoot maybe 24-36 shots. The goal being not to be too much of a bother, get out quick before I'm thrown out.
It seemed like we shot for about a hour actually, trying different props and a few different angles. I felt like I had the shot almost instantly, but kept trying a few different things anyway. Sergio was a great subject.
I really love the shot that I settled on, It is one of my favorites. Some of the cool things to note in the shot:
On the left side of the frame, as you look at it is a giant gray ball made from used gum erasers. At the time Sergio mentioned that over the years he had made several of these, and I think I remember he said that when they got too heavy to move that he would start another one. I also remember him saying that he even auctioned one off for charity. Next to that, the little sculpture of Groo's dog was a one of a kind, a handmade gift from a fan. The little figure of Bart Simpson was in there because as Sergio put it, "I just love this character, is it O.K. if I put it in the shot?" What could I say?. Behind Sergio on the shelf is one of the best Donald Duck collections I think I've ever seen. One other memory that just makes me smile is how many fans just knocked on the door to get autographs from Sergio during our shoot. Each time Sergio would answer the door with a kind smile, talk for a few minutes, sign several autographs and shake hands before coming back to our shoot. I think what sticks in my head more than anything, though, was that this is a guy with an absolute joyful spirit, has a wicked sense of humor, and is one of the best conversationalists I've ever encountered. The cherry on the cake was walking to a great little Mexican cafe after the shoot, and even getting to know this guy even better. This day was so cool, that it became the true jumping off point for me. I was officially hooked.
So, comic book fans, let me know what you think, and if you like, I can write more.
Greg Preston- April 2010
The Book "The Artist Within" published by Dark Horse has 101 photographs of your favorite artists from comics and animation and is great for collecting sketches and autographs at conventions. It is available through Amazon, for cheap, and makes a great gift.