Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Child's Power to Heal

Sunday night I received an email from a friend. His mother passed away that weekend. I wrote him this note:

"I'm very sorry Steve. I haven't lost a parent yet, so I can't really understand what you're going through. But I imagine it must be very difficult. Please let me know if you need anything."

The following morning my phone rang. It was my mother. I was busy and didn't answer. She called back a few more times. Finally I picked up. A police officer was on the line instead.

"I am sorry to inform you that your mother passed away. She was discovered today in her apartment."

The unexpected death of a parent brings a sudden and unrelenting pain. A quote has been haunting me-

If you had one phone call to make, who would you call and what would you say? Why aren't you making that call?

I wish I had remembered that quote last week.

Monday was a long, raw day. I was feeling alone and exhausted. I came home in the evening, and went directly to my studio to hide out. My 5-year-old son sauntered in, right before his bedtime.

"Throw me some pitches Dad."

"I'm a little worn out tonight. I'm pretty sad."


"My mommy died today."


"I don't know yet."

"Come on, just a few pitches."


We headed outside. Before he even picked up his bat, he had a better idea.

"Let's go to the baseball field."

"The baseball field?? It's your bedtime."

"Come on, just for a minute. Puh-leeeeeeease"


We spent an hour playing baseball together as the sunset. Then we went to a local bar, ate pasta and watched the Yankee game. We talked baseball strategy and voted on our favorite commercials. He made me laugh. Finally he curled up in my lap, hours after his bedtime. I stroked his hair and felt truly fortunate. For a few hours, the unrelenting pain had relented.

I began the day as a devastated son, alone in the world, and ended it as a grateful father. I hope one day my son's child will give him the same comfort. There is no greater gift.

Hudson with his grandmother, 2007

Monday, May 16, 2011

No Time. No Budget. No Permission - How I Shot My First Book Cover In 15 Minutes

My literary agent, Barney Karpfinger, called me a few weeks ago with an urgent request. A client of his, Leah Hager Cohen, had written a beautiful book about a family dealing with the loss of a child. The publisher was having a difficult time finding appropriate cover art, a deadline was quickly approaching, and they might have to settle on a cover that nobody was crazy about. In contrast to the heavy tone present in the book's title, The Grief of Others, he wanted a cover that offered some hope yet also retained a sense of mystery. He asked me to create a cover photo with two essential elements- home and light. I suggested the first image that came to me-a house at dusk with light pouring out of the windows, and a happy family scene inside. The mother would be alone representing the family's grieving, in juxtaposition to the joyful scene in the next room. It was a long shot, but we decided to give it a try.

I had to implement this concept immediately. It is unheard of for an author or agent to submit their own cover art. The publisher did not know Barney had contacted me, so we had to ensure to get them an exciting image before they finalized the cover later in the week. Cover art typically involves weeks of pre-production, days of shooting, and weeks of post-production. I had 48 hours. And I've never done it before.

First, I needed to find the home. My wife suggested a stunning yellow Victorian, and I approached the owner- "Are you home tomorrow? Want a nice photo of your house?". Then I needed to find the right mix of family members- kids had to be the right age, parents under 40 and attractive. I combined two sets of friends to obtain the perfect mix. We all met and waited for sunset. I had not done any location scouting nor did I bring any lighting, and proceeded with trust that it would work out. We turned on all the house lights, and as the skies darkened I shouted out directions from across the street. I took 100 photos in 15 minutes, and then it became night.

I sent a few images to the publisher and hoped for the best.

(Click images to enlarge for detail)

A week later I received an email attachment with this mock-up.

They loved it! However, they also thought the mom in the window was a bit creepy and Psycho-esque. Did I have any other options? ...Nope. (I had not mentioned I only was able to shoot for 15 minutes!). Could I reshoot the mom again, so they could combine the photos in Photoshop? Oh, and could I do it tonight?

The mother I had recruited is an artist and friend, and the home owner is very proud of her home. I asked the mother to walk up the stairs towards her family, and sent this photo over the next day:

Yesterday I received this final cover from my agent, with effusive notes of gratitude. Everyone was happy.

My first book cover! Next stop- romance novels. Those must be fun to shoot.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dinner with Bill Irwin

Monday night I shared a burger with Bill Irwin. We watched the Mets lose again, and we talked for hours about topics which mostly began with one of us saying "Between you and me…". I am therefore sworn to silence. However, one topic is definitely available for public consumption- Bill is writing a book about practical thoughts on the craft of acting, which will include his anecdotes from the trade. He briefly touched on a few of these thoughts and anecdotes, and it is very clear this will be a fascinating book.

For those of you who are not familiar with Bill's work (is there anyone who is not?), he is a Tony Award winning actor, dancer, performance artist, producer, director, writer, choreographer, and the greatest vaudeville clown of his generation. He has starred on Broadway, in films and on television for decades. Other than that, he hasn't really done much.

I photographed Bill last year when he graciously agreed to pose for my Dancers Among Us series. We shot in a mall, and he improvised vaudeville dance while listening to headphones in a music store. After, he felt like clowning around (cheesy pun intended), so he threw on his clown suit and we went for a walk.

During our dinner, I told Bill a story about my son. He had just won the game ball in his T-ball league (proud dad moment- click here to check out my son's awesome swing!). As I looked at the ball later that night, I got teary. I felt the sentiment I know will be attached to that ball in the years to come. I fear the loss of his innocence and the loss of this magical time of his life. This began a discussion about the content in Bill's book. He considers a sense of loss as an essential element in understanding a character. In an overall sense, he feels the actor's job is telling the story of loss.

We continued our discussion through email, and this struck me:

"What is any character's sense of loss? Loss is -- paradoxically -- often a more useful story to an audience than joy or satisfaction (though they're important, too, and maybe harder to play). Useful, but it can also trip us up as actors -- the wrong kind of preoccupation with the idea of loss. How to keep from letting it do that...."

I used to be an actor, so I can appreciate the complexity of this approach. I worked with gifted actors and directors at Circle in the Square, where I studied acting intensively for two years and was never exposed to an approach like his. For any actor (or publisher, for that matter) reading this blog, know that Bill's book will be invaluable.

If you only know Bill as a clown, you've just scratched the surface of his talents. Start by renting Rachel Getting Married, and you'll see an actor dealing with a character's sense of loss. His performance blew my mind.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rye High School Students Explore Photography

Recently I was invited to speak at Rye High School in Westchester, NY. I visited students from AP Photography, and we discussed the nuts and bolts of a photographer's life. The head of the department, Tony Campbell, had seen Dancers Among Us and used it to inspire their creativity. He gave them this assignment- Bring a friend to model in a location where either what they are doing or wearing juxtaposes the environment. Sound familiar?

I really enjoyed meeting them. They seemed interested and passionate, and several plan to pursue professional careers as photographers. My main point of emphasis was, to quote Nike, just do it! Every day each of them will have a choice- to grab their camera and go make photographs, or not to. It's really that simple. The ones who say yes every day will probably have exciting careers, and the ones who say no should find something else to do.

Below are the results of their assignment. They all headed into NYC on a cold Saturday and walked around with their cameras (which is basically my job description every day). And they took some cool photos. Just imagine how much they'd learn if they did that every weekend!

I made this offer to them, and I'd like to extend it to any young, passionate kids interested in photography. Come to my studio, watch the process, join me on a shoot, pick my brain. I'm convinced I have the greatest job on earth. Spend some time with me and you'll be convinced too.

Image by Cat Raynor

Image by Eleni Speal

Image by Katie Geogehegan

Image by Kelly Bonaventura

Image by Kelly Bonaventura

Image by Kelly O'Neill

Photo by Will Florio

Monday, May 2, 2011

Uncovered: Photographing the Way You're Supposed to Look

When I was working on Uncovered, the BBC flew in from the UK to do a feature on me. They asked me to set up a few shoots, and I preferred women who hadn't participated in the project already because their reactions to being shirtless in public would be more dramatic. However, there was one exception. I knew I had to recruit Kim, who is quite possibly the most inspiring person I have ever photographed. I wanted Europe to hear what she had to say.

I called Kim. She had tragically just lost her fiance in a drowning accident. She was devastated, but chose to join me anyway - she was trying to move on with her life. I told the BBC producer, Betsy, about the accident, and when she met Kim, she offered her support. "I'm part of an online support group - I lost my sister in a drowning accident." Kim said, "Betsy? Betsy from England?" Betsy's mouth dropped open. "Oh my God, Kim from Brooklyn." They had been communicating every day for weeks.

Take a look at the BBC feature by clicking on the image below-

Below are two passages from Uncovered. She has much more to say, but I have to hold something back so you'll buy the book.

“I’m very comfortable with my body and I know that everybody is not supposed to look the same. My grandfather always said to me, ‘We’re not all the same. And you’re not meant to look like Gretchen who lives down the road; you’re meant to look like Kimberly. That’s who you are.’ He was telling me this because I developed breasts at a very young age — I was a size 34D at age 11. The kids used to tease me and I would cry because I felt like a freak. But he said, ‘Don’t feel that way. You look the way you’re supposed to look.’ So growing up, I knew this. And I know that no matter how much weight I lose, I will never look like Tyra Banks, so why not be the best Kim I can be?"

When I was invited on to the Tyra Banks Show to discuss Uncovered, I brought Kim with me. She told Tyra about this quote, and Tyra got a big kick out of it. To take a look, click on the image below.

“I asked my 11-year-old son, ‘How would you feel if Mommy took her shirt off in public and people saw?’ And he said, ‘Well, Mom, I’m 11 so I’d be embarrassed . . . but they were my food at one point, and that’s fine.’ So I showed him my picture. And he looked for a long time, and finally he said, ‘You know, that’s right! You are beautiful. You should stand up.’ My son doesn’t care about the size of a woman’s breasts. He says he’s much more concerned about her being happy with who she is. He says, ‘If she doesn’t like herself, what good is that going to do me?’”