Coming up with an idea. In the creative world, that is the key that starts the engine. If you are going to make a living in the arts, you had better have the stomach to sit in a room—alone–and search the outer recesses of your brain for something that seems viable, original, and (often most importantly) affordable. I have been engaging in this lonely task since I was in college, and I must admit, it doesn’t get any easier. I don’t care if it’s coming up with an idea for a photograph, a script, a music video, a political cartoon, a song, a book, or a set—it is both the hardest and most rewarding task in my profession.
So what does that process look like? In my case, it often starts with a list. I throw any idea at all on a page in the form of a once sentence description. “Riding a bike through a snowstorm.” “A hollow intensity.” “Surrounded by cats.” I will write anything to get the brain working, and nothing gets rejected in that first round. Or I will make a phone call…maybe I will call a location scout or a set designer and pretend I have some ideas as I am dialing, even though my mind is blank. And sometimes that very exercise in conversation produces an idea. And sometimes, if it is a purely visual idea I am looking for, I sketch. I start with a frame, horizontal or vertical, and I draw something. Before long, I forget my about anxiety over not having an idea, and I instead focus on how I wish I was a better artist. And voila, I will stumble upon an idea. I guess the thing all these approaches have in common is that you have to get your mind active, without expecting results.
I remember the first time I had a visual epiphany. I was in college, studying photography, and my professor Mark Boster had given us a photo illustration assignment. A photo illustration is basically a visual representation of a literal concept. Now, Mark was and is a full time staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times, and he would often give us the very same assignments he received at the newspaper from his editor. So one day he told us to create a photograph to illustrate a story about the fear of AIDS. I procrastinated, stewed, and procrastinated some more, as dozens of ideas tried to get past my inner critical voice. Syringes! People in doctor’s offices! People reading HIV pamphlets! All my ideas seemed not only totally obvious, but completely boring from a visual standpoint. With only two days left to complete the assignment, I realized I had been focusing on the term “AIDS,” and not on the word, “Fear.” And then I had my epiphany. Actually what happened was, I saw a photograph in my head, as complete and clear as if I had already shot and printed it. It was a man, photographed from overhead, lying in a bed, curled up in a fetal position, as his bed burned.
And funny enough, once I saw the picture in my head, it was almost just a formality to go and shoot it. To me, the heavy lifting had already been done. It was just a production problem now. So I enlisted my gullible and loyal friend James, whom I covered in talcum powder (not sure to this day why I insisted on that touch). We went behind a convenience store near his apartment, dragged an old mattress onto the pavement, borrowed a ladder, waited for darkness, and poured gasoline all around the edges of the mattress. James lay down; I lit a match, ran up the ladder, and got about 10 frames off. Two hours later, after the police and fire department finally left, I excitedly went home to develop the film, and James went home to wash what was left of his hair (true story).
When we hung the photographs up in class, I saw many of my rejected ideas on the wall—the syringes, the pamphlets, etc. And at the time my picture stood out like a sore thumb – a (literally) terrified chalk white man trying to make his body small enough to avoid the flames all around him. As Mark went around the room discussing the merits of each picture, conspicuously avoiding mine, I started to believe I had blown the assignment. But he finally got to my image, and the words of praise he heaped upon my effort solidified my belief that I could be a photographer. And another strange thing happened: although my picture was surrounded by images that were much more technically superior to mine- printed better, exposed better, and framed better, my photograph was the one that stood out to my professor. The idea won the day. And I have never forgotten that.
As my career developed, I have had the opportunity to photograph and direct amazing and iconic individuals, but I have also learned that the success of the final image is not up to me alone. I have to find a subject, (like poor James), who is willing to play along. This is what makes Robert Downey Jr. such a fantastic collaborator. I have now photographed him probably a dozen times, and I have never once felt like we are repeating ourselves. He is willing to try any idea I can cook up, and better yet, when I don’t have an idea, he always comes through for me. It is rare to find an actor as comfortable in front of a still camera as they are while playing a character in front of a movie camera, but Downey is that rare breed of actor that is willing to put himself completely in the photographer’s hands. He isn’t afraid to be silly, or to fall on his face, or to exist in the massively uncomfortable silent space that a photographer can sometimes unwittingly create. He will give 100% to an idea, committing completely, but is just as willing to perform as if he is on a stage, challenging the photographer to keep up with him. These spontaneous bursts have resulted in some of my favorite pictures of him—and some of my best all time memories on set. If only every actor could be as fearless and unfettered. During one shoot at a house, he was waiting for us to set up a backdrop, and he sat down at the piano and started playing and singing. I immediately told the assistants to pull down the backdrop, which was blocking the light coming though the windows to where the piano was– afraid I would miss this moment. No problem—Downey played a 45 minute concert that gave me plenty of time to make a series of great pictures, and he enthralled everyone in the room with his performance.
Downey makes me look good. Every time I work with him, I come away with an image that feels original, spontaneous, and new. And as someone that has to spend a great deal of time in that lonely room staring at a blank page, that is a godsend.