My most terrifying assignment
Updated: Mar 27, 2019
Most everyone's got one. If you're around for awhile, you may have some great stories or a few crazy or scary assignments, but this one's not what you might think. Oh, I've had some interesting gigs, for sure, but most of my work was in my studio and not at all scary (with the exception of melted ice cream). I'll save those stories for another time. No, this phone call was about another kind of scary altogether. Thirty years of top work and my confidence went out the window within sixty seconds of answering the phone. Actually the entire call lasted less than sixty seconds.
One February afternoon I'm cleaning up the studio and planning to run for the 4:40 train from NYC to Greenwich, my biggest worry is whether I'll grab a cab or get soaked. The phone rings. Tony, the creative director of J. Walter Thompson was on the phone, and that's either the bad news of a problem or good news with a new assignment. My work with J.W.T. was generally studio stuff - liquor, Burger King, Pizza or something that at least sits still and doesn't talk back. And pays well. In New York in those days I was a busy still-life shooter with a name in studio photography. I prided myself on my lighting and composition sparkling personality, cool studio, and a large hi-fi, all of which I'd banked on for several decades. 'I've an interesting assignment, if you're up for it'. Well of fucking COURSE I'm up for it, we both know that! but instead I said 'Sure, what's up?' Mr. Casual here...
He must've been been smiling to himself when he broke it so casually: 'Would you like to shoot for Kodak? It's a new campaign. You'd choose one of the four films we're advertising, like Kodacolor II, Hi-Speed Ektachrome, Ektachrome and Kodachrome II. It'd be your choice, you choose and show off the benefits of one, like Hi-Speed for candle light maybe, or Kodacolor II for saturated daytime... ' 'I'll take Kodacolor', just put right out there. Dibs. Bright colors and sunshine, mine. Fate sealed, challenge accepted. Next? Layouts? Budget issues? Unreal deadline? Instead, Tony said simply 'OK, let me know when you're done'. Just like that.
And there it was. 'LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU'RE DONE!' Shit, now he's just playin' with me. This was starting to scare me. 'Wait - tell me more. What about...' He ignored that and said 'Just have fun, do something great, as usual, remember bright colors, call me when you're done'. I tried again. 'No worries, no layout, budget is great, I'll talk to Bill (my rep) about it, but it's pretty unlimited. Gotta run, have fun'.
Complete panic. I realized it was all on the line now - could I do this? Thirty years of building a reputation, and now no excuses, no art director, no layout, just deliver greatness to the creative director of New York's top ad agency or crash badly. And for Kodak, no less. Shit - at that time the name of my sailboat was actually 'Kodachrome' though it was in winter storage at the moment. I needed sunshine. I poured a healthy Scotch, then scrambled to call Bill. He reaffirmed that I could go anywhere, do anything, spend any amount, but just come up with something great within maybe two weeks. No help at all.
In those days my usual film was 8x10 Ektacolor (with a Polaroid tossed in). I almost always shot in studio and always with a layout and I always brought the assignment. Roll film? I'd shoot a roll or two maybe once a year and I still owned a Nikon, if I could remember where it was...
I went home and on the way grabbed a brick of film, new batteries for the Nikon, packed up the wife and kid and headed for California sunshine. It'd be sunny, with parks, boats, zoos, and even hot air balloons seemed a safe bet (and I wanted safe). When I arrived, that idea crashed - I found that they don't fly balloons when it's rainy (and it was very rainy). No bright colors and sunshine.
So I learned something: Sometimes dropped into chaos, you'll probably stretch a bit. You can relax and trust yourself. So, it was raining, but I also did happen to have a great model with me. I decided to just relax and let it come. And it did. I found a kiddies store on Union Street with a yellow 'So'Wester hat and yellow raincoat. Perfect Kodak color, actually.
A few weeks later Tony called. They couldn't pick one shot. My heart began to sink. Then he said that this shoot changed their entire advertising campaign, and they decided to run with a contact sheet when they couldn't pick just one image. He loved it. Kodak loved it. It ran in a number of national magazines, influenced their future advertising, and it was my all-time favorite shoot. Greatest model ever, Lauren Molly Bartone, age 3.