Years ago when I was doing advertising photography for a living, I rented a large studio in Minneapolis with another photographer. In retrospect, it seems odd to have been sharing space with a person who was essentially a competitor of mine, but this sort of thing was happening more and more as the cost of rental space increased.

One day between jobs, we were busy mopping and vacuuming the 3000-square-foot studio and tidying up the place. We were swapping stories and such, and the other guy was lamenting the fact that all this (expensive) space was dedicated to producing things that were largely ephemeral. The pictures we produced for newspaper ads, brochures and the like were all destined to become, as he termed it, “tomorrow’s garbage.”

I understood his sentiment, but pointed out that our work’s short lifespan is what ensured more work for us in the future. Still, it’s true that unless you create a famous, iconic ad photo, most of what you did disappeared from history except for what you saved for your portfolio.

Two decades later, totally out of context, I discovered that one particular photograph I created has achieved a strange sort of immortality. Here’s what happened.

In 1989, I got the assignment to create a photo illustration for a software company. They had some sort of law-enforcement information system and needed a picture for a magazine ad. The ad’s headline was going to be, “We Give Some People A Lot of Time to Think About Modern Technology,” and was to feature a picture of a despondent criminal sitting in a jail cell, presumably captured with the help of this software.

Being that it was 1989, this wasn’t something that could be created using computer-generated imagery. It was also a time when stock photography was far more expensive than it is today, so simply buying a ready-made image wasn’t an option. To create this image, we had to build a fake jail cell in the studio.

The set for this shoot is a great example of how you can create an illusion with minimal construction. The art director’s father, an experienced carpenter, crafted a couple of box-like structures out of plywood and two-by-fours, painted to resemble a plaster wall. A simple bed was created using angle irons and a small mattress. Lengths of electrical conduit (galvanized steel tubes that electricians run wires through) mimic the look of prison bars. A toilet and calendar affixed to a wall that is actually a wide roll of paper complete the illusion.


Art director and model relaxing in studio as set nears completion


Backside of “jail cell” set showing fresnel lights used to create artificial sunlight

To create the effect of sunlight streaming through the barred windows, I rented a couple of huge Hollywood-style spotlights that throw intense beams of focused light. Fill light was created by bouncing lights into large white “flats” positioned to the side of the set. Small spotlights were used as accent lighting and another medium-sized light was positioned outside of the “cell” at ceiling height pointing at the floor; this mimicked the effect of a hall light outside the holding cell.

The resulting photo is nice example of the sort of work that made my old job quite interesting and fun at times. The advertisement turned out well and ran in some law-enforcement-oriented magazines. I moved on to the next assignment and forgot about the whole thing after a while.

Here’s where it gets weird, and you’re going to need some background information.

From 1993 to 1999, the NBC television network aired a police procedural titled Homicide: Life on the Street. This one-hour drama was based on a book by David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper who served as writer and producer. Simon went on to create the acclaimed series “The Wire” for HBO.

Homicide was an excellent show with a strong ensemble cast and great writing. Still, it struggled to get ratings. TV Guide called it “the best show you’re not watching,” and the show was never as good at pulling in a huge audience as it was at gathering awards. It didn’t help that Homicide ran on Friday night, which can be a difficult time slot for any show. I had watched the show off and on during its run but had never seen all the episodes.

Fast forward to 2010 and my Netflix account. I was browsing the Netflix site for something to rent and noticed that Homicide could be ordered on DVD. A decade had passed since the series ended and there were many episodes I had missed, so I decided to watch the series from beginning to end.

One evening I was watching an episode of the show with a scene that took place in the police squad room where the detectives had their desks. In typical fashion, the room was rather messy and the walls were festooned with safety posters, photos, calendars and the like. As the camera panned across the room and fixed on one of the actors, something caught my eye.

I paused the DVD and ran it backwards a bit, then re-ran the scene. I did this a couple of times, ending up sitting on the floor inches away from the television screen. It wasn’t easy to interpret the out-of-focus piece of paper tacked to the wall of this fake police station, but I finally recognized it.

It was the “jail cell” ad I shot in 1989.

Here’s a photo of the paused DVD episode where the ad can be seen on the wall just to the left and slightly above the image of actor Clark Johnson (Yes, I still had a tube television set at the time).


Screenshot of TV episode

I could hardly believe it. Running out to my garage, I retrieved a box filled with old portfolio samples and found the original magazine ad. It matched; the only change is that the set dresser for the TV show had trimmed the bottom third of the full-page ad, removing the body copy. They probably went through dozens of police publications to find various printed items to put on the walls of the squad room set; this was just one of many.


Mounted portfolio sample of the “jail cell” ad

The ad had been on that wall for at least a couple of the show’s seasons and it was fun to watch subsequent episodes and spot it on the wall from time to time. For me, it’s a bit of an inside joke—a picture of a set decorating another (far more elaborate) set.

As far as I know, this is the only photograph I ever produced that made its way to network television. And it’s also a reminder that, in some cases, work doesn’t end up as “tomorrow’s garbage,” and can take on a strange, wonderful new life of its own.

Another in an ongoing series about commercial photography in the analog age. See other related posts: Making Waves, Making Tracks and Flipping the Switch.

What would you do if you needed to create a picture of someone standing on a mountaintop or in an arena filled with spectators? Well, you could attempt to actually take the photograph in a real-life setting, but this would likely prove impractical and/or prohibitively expensive. As I outlined in an earlier post, working in the studio affords a level of control that often can’t be obtained in the real world.

The obvious solution today would be to create the illusion using digital technology. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has become the primary tool for creating sophisticated illusions in photography and cinema. The ability to blend “real life” imagery with artificial images has become a hallmark of today’s visual storytelling to the point where such visual magic has become somewhat blasé for a lot of folks.

It was not always so. In the pre-digital age, photographers couldn’t rely on retouching or post-production work to create artificial images. All you could do back then was put together an assemblage of real items in a controlled studio environment and photograph them. This didn’t mean, however, that some of these “real” items couldn’t be fake.

This is the essence of practical effects, where props and specially-created physical environments create illusions that are now often done with CGI. One of the more common practical effects we used back in the day was the painted backdrop. Back then, if you needed a specific background for your photograph, you could go shopping for one.

Years ago there were a number of prop shops, custom painting studios, and similar support businesses in the vicinity of my photography business. Need a six-foot-long fiberglass hot dog? A prop-maker could build one for you. How about fake food that won’t wilt under studio lights? Not a problem, in fact, you could “order” whatever fake side dishes you needed to create the perfect Thanksgiving table setting. For me, there were a couple of assignments where I needed to create the illusion of specific, custom spacial environments.

One of these was a mountaintop scene. The theme of the shot was “Reaching New Heights,” and the art director wanted to depict Dairy Queen business owners standing at the summit of a mountain peak. Not the easiest thing to create in the literal sense.

But we didn’t have to. A couple of blocks away there was a custom painting studio that employed talented artists to create all sorts of backdrop images on huge pieces of fabric. They had an assortment of backdrops for rent, and would also create custom scenes on fabric or on studio or soundstage walls on request. These scenes could range from forest vistas to medieval castles to dinosaurs browsing in primordial swamps—your imagination was limited only by timeline and budget. If you could imagine it, they could paint it.

As it turned out, they had exactly what we needed to create our illusion. We found a perfect painted “skyscape” complete with mountain peaks, along with an impressive array of painted Styrofoam boulders that we could use to complete our set.

Putting the shot together was relatively straightforward. After hanging the large backdrop at the rear of the studio and lighting it, the subject setting was placed a few yards in front of it. This accomplished a couple of things. First, it allowed me to light the subject independently from the background. Second, it meant that the background would be somewhat out of focus, which minimizes the imperfections in the background and enhanced the illusion.

color studio setup shot

Polaroid test shot of mountaintop set constructed in studio

Before the real photo shoot, I tested the setup with my studio assistant, adjusting the lighting on the background and subject and trying different arrangements of “boulders.” Once the tests were complete, it was simply a process of positioning the subjects and trying different poses and facial expressions to get the final image. Voilà, a photo illustration that, strangely, is both completely real and completely fake.

WofDQ mountaintop

Final magazine image

Such imagery could be easily created today using a digital stock photo and some Photoshop work. In video, the process would be done by recording the subjects in front of a green screen and creating the composite in post-production. To a certain extent, these modern methods are easier and can create more convincing illusions. But I have fond memories of the old ways and enjoy the more painterly effects achieved. Plus, it was always fun to see the expression on the faces of bystanders when you casually pulled a four-foot-long boulder out of your truck, hoisted it onto your shoulder, and carried it back into the rental shop.

It’s been a while since my last blog, and even longer since I’ve featured any pictures in this blog, so I thought I’d leave the realm of computers and reminisce about analog photography once more.

You might remember one of my older blogs where I described the operating principles of single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras. These are cameras that use mirrors to direct the incoming image to a viewing screen for composition and focusing. Just before the exposure is made, the mirror flips out of the way, allowing the image to reach the film or digital sensor. The SLR is still considered to be the most ideal system for photographers wanting the most accurate framing and focusing, although the “mirrorless” digital cameras are getting better all the time.

When most people think of an SLR, they usually picture a 35mm film camera such as a Nikon or one of the popular digital SLRs. What many don’t know is that the SLR concept has been used in film cameras for over 120 years, often in enormous instruments that dwarf anything used today. Recently I got the chance to play around with one such camera, a Graflex RB Series B 2¼×3¼. This model was introduced in 1923 and was made through 1951. Judging by the metalwork and factory-coated lens, my example dates from after World War II. The particular specimen I obtained was purchased on eBay from a person who knew little about it. It came in it’s own custom leather case and looked as though it had hardly seen use.


What is it? Steampunk luggage? Goth music box?

At first glance, a Graflex SLR folded up for transport looks like some sort of steampunk luggage festooned with odd levers and buttons. Opened up for use, it looks like a box with a “church steeple” focusing hood on top and a lens emerging from a trap door at the front. Viewing is done by looking down into the tall leather hood at a ground glass screen. The image is right-side-up, but laterally reversed, which takes some getting used to. Focusing is adjusted via a knurled knob at the side of the camera which moves the lens fore and aft on its track. A bellows connects the lensboard to the rest of the camera, keeping everything light-tight.


Graflex Revolving-Back (RB) Series B camera.

As with other SLRs, there is a large mirror between the lens and the film that “intercepts” the light and sends it to the viewing screen on top for focusing and composition. When the exposure is made by pressing a lever on the side of the camera, the mirror quickly flips out of the way and trips the shutter, exposing the film. This gives the photographer the revolutionary ability to simultaneously track, compose, and focus on his or her subject matter up to the instant of exposure! Think I’ve gone nuts? Well, you have to keep in mind that when this sort of camera appeared at the turn of the 20th century, there were no other cameras that could effectively do that. If you used a traditional “view camera,” one that sat on a tripod, you generally composed and focused on the ground glass at the back of the camera, then closed the lens and inserted a film holder to make the exposure. During this time, your subject matter could move, spoiling your composition and focus. Cameras such as the famous Speed Graphic press camera of the time could be aimed at the subject matter, but models up to 1938 didn’t have coupled rangefinders, so the user had to focus by estimating the distance to the subject and setting the focusing track using scale markings (such cameras were called “guess boxes” by their operators).

The early Graflex cameras also introduced a shutter design that brought new capabilities to photographers of the day. Consisting of a long ribbon of black, light-tight fabric with slit openings of various widths, the Graflex shutter curtain was wound on rollers above and below the film plane of the camera. When triggered, one of the slits would traverse the film plane from top to bottom, exposing the film. By selecting combinations of slit widths and spring tensions, speeds ranging from 1/10 to 1/1000 of a second could be obtained. This made such cameras the first to be able to capture the action of fast-moving subjects. Locomotives, race horses, and early automobiles were captured in motion by early SLRs, along with sporting events such as football and baseball.


Curtain-aperture shutter of the Graflex. Shown partially-wound, you can see the narrow slit that exposes the film.

The way this shutter works at high speed imposes a striking visual effect on moving subjects. At the highest shutter speeds, only a very thin curtain slit moves past the film from top to bottom. Since cameras form their images upside-down at the focal plane, this means that the bottom of the image is exposed before the top (the slit exposes different places of the picture at different times). A well-known example by the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue is below.


Motion distortion caused by the high-speed Graflex slit-shutter. Speeding car tires lean one way, stationary spectators lean the other. Photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue.

Here, the photographer was swinging his camera (panning) left to right to attempt to follow the speeding race car, but not quite keeping up. As the shutter slit began to expose the film, the bottom of car’s tire was exposed first. By the time the slit got to the top of the tire, the speeding subject had moved a bit to the right, creating the impression of oval tires leaning forward. Illustrations and cartoons of speeding cars often incorporate this visual flourish, an example of our visual literacy being influenced by the effects of imaging technology. In counterpoint, the stationary figures in the background appear to lean in the opposite direction.

Sports and action weren’t the only things early SLRs were used for. The ability to focus and compose one’s picture up to the moment of exposure made them the choice of early photojournalists. Lewis Hine, who documented child-labor practices in the early 20th century, used a mammoth Graflex that shot 5×7-inch plates.

Portrait photographers and those doing artistic “pictorial” photography also used SLRs like the Graflex. Many of Alfred Stieglitz’ most famous photographs were made with a Graflex, and Edward Weston and his son Brett used them extensively.

By the time my particular example was manufactured, the Graflex design was sixty years old and cameras like the newly-introduced Hasselblad SLR were making them seem somewhat old-fashioned and behind the times. Despite this, models continued to be made until 1963.

For fun, I decided to try some photographs with the old camera. Fortunately, my Graflex came with a rollfilm magazine, allowing me to load it with readily-available “120” film (2¼×3¼ cut film is no longer available, and I don’t have the proper film holders anyway). Here’s a selection of shots.

canoe OP

Overturned canoe in woods


Lazy cat snoozing in windowsill

pond scum OP

Broken reeds and pond scum

Compared to using any modern digital camera, taking pictures with the Graflex is a slower, more contemplative process. You have to keep lots of procedural details straight—Did I reset the mirror? Is the shutter wound to the right slit? Did I remember to wind the film, stop the lens down, and make sure the darkslide is removed? In working with the old camera, I gained lots of respect for the folks who used them years ago and were able to make great pictures.

The actual results are quite good, even by modern standards. The 127mm Kodak Ektar lens is excellent, and the large negatives produce images that can be enlarged to a high degree. It’s a fun camera to shoot, too, producing a klunk-fflak sort of noise as the mirror flips up and the curtain traverses the film. If there are people around, you’re likely to attract attention. And if any of these spectators has a fancy modern digital SLR around their neck, you can point out that, in a lot of ways, they’re really just the same.