Contrary to what you may have gleaned from The Bridges of Madison County, life as a freelance photographer isn’t all that fascinating. In order to keep film in the camera and gas in the tank, you’ve got to take on assignments that are somewhat less than romantic. For example, documenting award ceremonies—what cameramen call “grip ‘n’ grins.” I’ve shot hundreds of them—so many that I can’t even remember what’s going on in this one. Some guy in a Navy uniform is shaking hands with what I presume is his superior officer. In his other hand, he’s accepting a piece of paper of some sort–either a commission or a commendation—but who knows? It’s not necessary for the photographer to know what’s being exchanged, be it a diploma, trophy, certificate or check. The important thing is the handshake, or grip, and the obligatory grin.
One can earn a fair living off grip ‘n’ grins, but there’s more money to be had in shooting group shots, then charging each person in the picture for a print. There are photographers who are very skilled at shooting group shots, but I’m not one of them. Notice, for example, how the girls in the upper branches of the so-called Singing Christmas Tree are out of focus.. Proud parents aren’t likely to fork over the cash for a fuzzy 8×10 glossy of their kid.
I only got the assignment at the behest of a woman who was in charge of publicizing Girl Scout events in Utah. Earlier, I had wormed my way into her Rolodex by breaking a story about a rabbit destined to become stew at a Girl Scout camp in far Eastern Utah. Said rabbit, of course, had been spared, and by the time I showed up, the campers were fighting over which of them would take the cute bunny home. Strangely, it was my SECOND story involving a rescued rabbit—the first being a rabbit named Oscar, who was supposed to have become a meal for a group of Green Berets undergoing survival training in the West Desert. Late one night under cover of darkness, two trainees in full camouflage had delivered Oscar to an elderly couple living in Gold Hill.
“Don’t tell anyone where you got him,” they ordered.
Moral: If you’re a rabbit, have no fear of grown men and young girls in uniform.
Forensic photography, as far as I can figure, entails no talent for composition whatsoever. You just point the camera and shoot. People in your pictures don’t have to smile; in fact, it’s better if they don’t. Such was the case back when I photographed clients for a personal injury attorney named Whiplash Thurber. My job was to take pictures of accident victims wearing neck braces. “Ready? Set? DON’T smile!”
By far my least exciting assignment ever entailed a dead horse whose owner was pursuing a wrongful death suit. My job was to drive to a rendering plant in Ogden, where the dead horse was lying in state—quite a sorry state, actually. Poor unfortunate creature was lying near the base of a pyramid of animal carcasses that reached almost to the ceiling. Taking care not to touch or step in anything, I unholstered my beloved Bronica S2A, which at the time was my proudest possession. As I did so, a worker wearing blood and gore stained overalls looked on bemused.
“I’ll bet when you bought that fancy camera, you figured you’d be taking pictures of Raquel Welch,” he said.
I laughed, bitterly. “Ready, Set, DON’T smile!”