My right index finger turns the wheel. My left hand rotates a barrel of glass and metal. And my voice emerges from my body, shouting words completely unrelated to the technical activity happening beneath my fingertips. It’s another day at a photo shoot—my third this week—and another day where I hope my nervous excitement doesn’t make itself evident by fumbling hands or stuttered words.
To passerby traffic on 11th avenue, I must look ridiculous. At the moment I’m on my knees, in the middle of a pack of barren branches lining the West Side highway, as I try to move far enough away from my subjects to achieve the ideal angle. My jeans are covered in dirt. My thighs are cramping from the tangled position I’m in (sometimes it’s easiest to use a limb as a tripod). And I am elated.
Over the past week I have brainstormed a lot for this shoot, arguably my biggest to date. Not only am I photographing six members of Broadway’s newest revival of West Side Story, but the photos will appear in a multiple page spread in the next issue of Movmnt Magazine, where I have worked as a writer and copy editor for the past year. The images in front of me combine two of my favorite photographic subjects: dancers and the grittier side of New York City, which until now I’ve only photographed when I framed spilled coffee cups or the tops of buildings.
Today is different. I can feel it not only in the energy that hits the front of my lens as rapidly as bugs on a windshield, but also from the collection of people who reside behind me: two stylists, a makeup artist, a hair guru, two photographic assistants and a fellow employee at the magazine, who has helped me coordinate this entire adventure.
Twenty-four hours ago I found this location, a collection of Technicolor garage doors in saturated hues of orange, red, blue, and yellow, at an old Marine building near the water. I walked along this stretch of docks and galleries with music trickling out of my earphones while I did my best to re-envision the classic musical about gang tension, romance and jazz hands against the backdrop of lower Manhattan, an area where glass-front art galleries mingle with brick parking garages and scaffolding. Each block contains one abandoned lot or missing building, a gaping hole in the gentrification of Manhattan, like a rotten tooth in the middle of a Colgate ad. My task was to find the most interesting rotten teeth.
We are at our second location now. It’s my favorite rotten tooth: a fence blocking off a torn down building. There is white and pink graffiti on the brick wall behind the fence, which one of our models is currently climbing over. Getting him over the spikes at the top may be a challenge, but my biggest hurdle is to frame the picture in such a way as to make the beautiful brownstone, whose ornate stairway banister juxtaposes the gritty nature of the lot we are shooting in, disappear from existence.
After our previous set-up—shots containing all six performers jumping in and out of frame—anything seems easy. I’ve found, over the past six months, that I struggle most with group photos taken from a distance. With six people involved, the most important thing in the photo is the people, while the environment acts as a backdrop on which they exist. The fewer people in the photo, the more I am able to use the camera as a tool to highlight the subject’s interaction with its environment; through interesting uses of focus, light and framing. This fence has quickly become my best friend for that very reason. Now the performers not only have something to interact with, but I am able to use this stationary object as the third subject in the photograph, a source of tension, angles, contrast, and much more.
I can be quieter here. I’ve yet to get used to the amount of multi-tasking involved in a shoot like this, an immediate contradiction to my solitary walks around the city, or photographing in the back of the theater, where I trigger the shutter whenever action is presented to me, choreographed by forces in the world or a director on the stage. Here, I must be director and photographer rolled into one. Not only do I have to modify technical problems from frame to frame, but I must give a constant flow of instruction and feedback to the models, as well as bring any hair, make-up or clothing problems to the attention of their respective departments. Each instruction must be a tightly packaged, clear artist’s statement rattled off with the ease and directness usually reserved for informing one’s spouse of the week’s grocery list.
I can sense the performers becoming more comfortable as the day stretches on. They begin trying things without me prompting them, and continue to explore different shapes with their bodies, even as the wind blows a chill over the proceedings. The outfits they wear in are more suited for a spring evening than a winter day, yet despite a few shivers, they don’t seem to mind.
We are fighting the sun; we are winning. One thing that has struck me in the past few days of shooting with a crew is the amount of time allotted to the preparation of the shoot far outweighs the amount of time allotted for shooting. Hours are spent perfecting curly tendrils of hair and contour underneath a man’s chin; when it comes time for me to capture those things through the lens I am expected to do so as quickly as possible. Of course, when you add in a factor like sunset, there isn’t really an option.
The girls have finished, and now all I have left is a group shot with three of the guys. After two hours of shooting in multiple locations, with multiple arrangements of people, my brain is beginning to fail me. I have one shot in mind for this location: a view at pavement level of two Sharks preparing to attack one of the Jets (whose legs I will be framing the image through). Unfortunately, this requires me to get on the ground. I decide to use one of my reflectors, a giant metallic circle that is as round as a jet engine, as a blanket to cover the dirt that resides on the curb.
I get the shot exactly as I want it. We are almost done, but to be safe—meaning to give enough options during the layout of the magazine—we decide to try a few more shots further down the block before we wrap for the day. My energy is flagging (apparent by the fact that I keep choosing to sit on the ground for each angle), and none of the final shots amount to anything worthy of excitement. Fortunately I'm happy with the rest of the day's shots.
I turn around and notice headlights illuminated down the block. The glare of lights in my eyes is replaced within seconds by another glare: my reflector/blanket resting comfortably beneath the tire of the car, whose owner has parked and disappeared within the course of a minute. Our shoot, which we thought was moments away from wrapping, suddenly has one final hurdle to overcome: removing a rented reflector from beneath the weight of a Mustang.
We try everything. We attempt to pull the flexible fabric out from under the tire; we attempt to lift the car using the force of ten adults; we try to push the car down the block; finally we find a jack in the back of the rental van and begin raising a stranger’s car off the pavement of 15th street. The crime portrayed in West Side Story, and reenacted today for the camera, suddenly isn’t impossible to grasp, as anyone pushing their strollers through Chelsea would be right to question the group of brightly clad men desperately trying to remove a shiny object from beneath an even shinier car. Officer Krupke would feel vindicated.
Just as the car begins to raise, inch by inch, underneath the force of the jack, the dirt on which the hinge is resting (the same dirt I was attempting to avoid by placing the reflector on the ground in the first place) shifts and the car collapses, pounding into the pavement and squishing the reflector as effortlessly as a shoe on an ant. For a moment, blinded by exhaustion, I wish I was underneath the car and could just lay down and take a nap while everyone packs the vans full of clothing and equipment.
This is quickly replaced with a new determination to get out of the area as quickly as possible, and a determination to leave no piece of our shoot behind. We all gather at the back bumper of the car and start rocking it forward. With each inch, the reflector starts to slide out from beneath the rubber, until finally I yank it out, sending me stumbling backwards as the car continues moving forward before stopping a few inches ahead of where its owner parked.
The true end of the shoot has come, and despite my exhaustion I feel confident in the power of the photos I took today, and even more confident that I gave the cast some insight into their characters. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll get a credit in the Playbill. Probably not, but I’m happy with a credit in the magazine, and the experience of stepping out of my comfort zone, and out from underneath the tire of aimlessness. This feels like the right place to be.