From “Tomorrow’s Garbage” to Hollywood


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.


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