In our last issue, I mused about the fact that unlike many Off Camera guests, I had no clear career calling and took many detours in on the way to finding my place in the world. So, I decided to serialize this story over a few issues, and am picking up where I left off –with my move to downtown Los Angeles for my first post-college job as a photojournalist at the Associated Press. If you missed the first part of the tale, you can find it on the Off Camera blog or in issue #25, featuring Jessica Chastain.
It was an exciting time to live and start a career in L.A. Each morning I’d get a call from the photo editor, Herb Hemming, to run down my schedule. A typical day might start at the courthouse to photograph a white collar criminal at 8:00 a.m., then on to the Convention Center to make a feature picture of a trade show. Then I could usually count on an afternoon car crash or press conference before heading off to Dodger Stadium, the Rose Bowl, or the Fabulous Forum to shoot baseball, football, or basketball as the season (and Herb) dictated. I would make it back to my loft by midnight or so, exhausted, and eat some fancy leftovers from Citrus, the restaurant where my roommate Scott worked. Occasionally we’d go see a band at Al’s Bar, or to Gorky’s, a brewery and pub that was the only drinking establishment in the neighborhood open at that hour.
Let me back up a bit. I was amazed that I had this job. Granted, I wasn’t making any money and I was working all the time, but I was well aware of how rare it was for a kid less than a year out of college to find himself in the heart of a major city with a job at the biggest news organization in the world. I was not your archetypical photojournalist; I scorned the khaki vest, Dockers, and sensible shoes worn by most of the staff, and I looked incredibly young. I also had a crazy mane of Muppet-like hair, and I’m sure some of the grizzled staffers thought that my presence was evidence that the bureau was going to the dogs.
But I slowly made some allies among the staff. Bob Galbraith and Herb Hemming were incredibly nice to me, and two other youngsters, Alan Greth and Julie Markes, were also in my corner. The bureau was run by Spencer Jones, who was a bit of a bully. He had no problem dressing people down in public, and poor Alan often incurred his wrath. I figured I was lucky to be in the room, so I expected to get yelled at. And apart from the embarrassment suffered in those moments, I did learn a lot from Spencer, so I guess it was a fair trade.
My biggest and most enduring lesson from that job was that you always had to come back with a picture. The Associated Press was a no-excuse environment; you could not come back to the bureau claiming that the light was bad, your equipment broke, the person you were supposed to photograph didn’t show up or that someone got in front of you at the crucial moment and ruined your frame. You just had to come back with an image that could run in a newspaper the next morning. Beyond the obvious work lessons, the Associated Press made me a better photographer. The AP wasn’t looking for the esoteric, artistic photo essay. They were looking for the single image that told the story in the most newsworthy way possible. And God help you if the Los Angeles Times got a better shot than you did. Spencer Jones would come charging out of his office waving a newspaper wildly, shouting your name. “Where was this picture Sam? What were you doing when this happened? Why does the Times have this image and we don’t? I don’t pay you to miss pictures!” (This was not a good time to mention that he barely paid me at all). I’d just stand there and take it, knowing it was my turn to be publicly eviscerated. And then would swear to myself that next time I would be a better photographer, even if the picture in question was taken from the opposite side of the field from where I was. There was no point in explaining yourself to Spencer. You just had to come back with the picture.
That edict stuck with me. I’ve learned that no matter the circumstances, there is always a picture to be made, and that no one cares about excuses. I’ve been in situations where torrential rain has fallen on the day I planned for a sunny exterior picture and had to scramble and find an indoor location. I have photographed major celebrities while so sick with food poisoning that I had to continually excuse myself to go throw up (sorry Tom Hanks and Sarah Jessica Parker). I once was in the midst of a multiple-exposure picture in the middle of winter in New York City while perched 80 feet up in a condor lift, when I dropped the camera. It shattered on the ground, and I had to remain aloft for three hours, freezing, while a rental was found so I could finish the photo I had started. And I once inadvertently lit my entire set on fire and then had to figure out how to make a picture at night without any lights.
All to say, I cut my teeth very young, at a very serious job, and loved the fast-paced lifestyle and mastery of the city that came along with being a photojournalist. I guess I was at the age where I was happy to have any job, and this one came with courtside seats to L.A. Lakers games.
More on my meandering career path in the next issue. Now I want to talk about Will Ferrell. I have been lucky enough to work with Will many times, and he takes the cake for being the gamest subject I think I’ve ever photographed. I have hung him from a tree, put him in an outdoor bubble bath in January, made him ride a miniature pony, dressed him as Einstein, and yes, photographed him buck naked and crying. He has been so generous with his time and his image, and his enthusiasm is a delight. He is never vain or self-conscious, but always asking himself, “What is the funniest thing I can do?”
Will bounced around a bit after college before finding his way to comedy, but once he got there his life took off like a rocket ship. It takes a special kind of man to roll around on the floor playing with cat toys when he gets his one shot at a Saturday Night Live spot, and that commitment has made his career fascinating and hilarious to follow. I enjoyed our conversation immensely, and I hope you will too.