Those of you following my last four editor’s letters are aware I’ve been recounting my early career path as a young photojournalist at the Associated Press and my subsequent disillusion with aspects of that job. You can go back to issue #25 to start the story, or just hop in here.
As I started to realize that maybe I wasn’t going to be a career photojournalist, I began to think about my most creatively rewarding assignments. I knew I liked photographing people, but only if I was an invited and welcome guest in their lives. I didn’t enjoy news gathering per se, but was more interested in my subjects’ stories and in figuring out a way to visually represent their personality. I rarely got to do this at the Associated Press, but occasionally got a taste when I was sent out to make a portrait of an astronaut, or a writer or an athlete. I remember photographing Carl Sagan and realizing when it was all over that our conversation lasted longer than the photo shoot!
The point is I was poised to make a shift in my approach to photography and trying to figure out that next step when Rodney King was beaten senseless by four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. I was assigned to cover the fall of embattled police chief Darryl Gates, which eventually led to the Los Angeles riots sparked by the officers’ acquittal and which turned my city into a violent, fire-ravaged, looted landscape for three days.
I have always believed that luck and timing play a significant part in the success of any creative career, and I can’t deny that these terrible events in Los Angeles led, through a strange series of coincidences, to the next phase of my career. Let’s call it a detour with a purpose. Here’s what happened:
National newsmagazines often picked up photographs from the Associated Press, and occasionally I would see one of my pictures in the pages of Time or Newsweek. In this case, I’d made a picture of Chief Gates surrounded by a scrum of reporters all jostling to get a quote about his handling of the police violence. His expression reads defeat and guilt, and the image put a face on the failings of the L.A.P. D. for the world to see. Vanity Fair decided to run the picture as a two-page spread in their exposé on the situation. And they happened to run it in perhaps their most famous issue of all time – the one featuring a nude and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover, and read by probably everyone in Hollywood.
I got a call early one morning that woke me from sleep, the voice on the other end asking, “Is this Sam Jones?” “Yes…” The voice belonged to Tim Robbins, who explained he’d gotten my number from my girlfriend’s father’s friend, who happened to know that I’d made the picture of Chief Gates that Tim was holding in his hand right now. None of this was making much sense to me, but I sensed this call was important and that interesting things might come of it. Tim said he was directing a mockumentary about a Republican senatorial candidate called Bob Roberts, and that my photograph captured the spirit of the film. Could I please fly to Pittsburgh tomorrow and live there for three months and be the still photographer on the movie?
That’s the convergence of luck and coincidence that started the next phase of my career. It’s the moment I realized there may be a completely new career that involved movie sets and exotic locations and photographs of actors and artists and directors. It was also the first time I had a steady job that came with a normal paycheck. I was, for the moment at least, no longer a freelance photographer. Above all, it was a moment I didn’t have to think twice about. I was in Pittsburgh the very next day.
Let me back up for a second and explain exactly what a movie set photographer does. A still, or unit photographer, as they are sometimes called, is on set every day photographing the movie and finding images that can be used for publicity and marketing. They are also creating a visual diary of the experience, photographing the director and the crew behind the scenes. A great still photographer can elevate this job to high art, and the possibilities for interesting images are limitless – go look at the stills from Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now or Satyricon to see what I am talking about. The opportunity to make these kinds of pictures excited me greatly, and I thought I might be on my way to a new career.
Lake Bell is no stranger to new careers. Though she was typecast early on, in her words, as the hot friend in Miss Match, or the hot girl in Boston Legal, she wasn’t content with just being in front of the camera. She had a closet desire to be a writer and spent time off screen developing projects and honing her storytelling skills. And like many young writers, she got beaten up a bit in the process, seeing projects through to near reality, only to have them never get made. When she finished writing In A World…, she knew she had something special, and made the difficult decision to direct the film herself. Her prep? She put her head back down, wrote a short film that she directed for practice, and won many festival awards along the way. Lake has never taken the easy road, and that dedication to her craft has made her an important and exciting voice in cinema. I trust that whatever she does next is going to be as intriguing and attention-worthy as our subject herself.