“Hello! I’m Batman.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

As a result of the movie Apocalypse Now where Dennis Hopper, playing a grotty photojournalist during the Vietnam War, eyeglasses hang from a string around my neck. My grandmother used to wear them the same way & I thought she was old fashioned. But on a schizophrenic actor playing a photographer, it was brilliant. Since his scene-snatching characterization I have never had to waste time searching for better eyesight. I have 20/20 vision but, on the road, so much of photography is close up that my sunglasses & bifocals are always attached to me. I hate the inefficiency of looking for which pocket of which coat I last left them. And that got me thinking about how over the years I have adopted more stuff to an ever expanding list I carry on my person all the time.

More & more I resemble the DC Comics book character, Batman, with his utility belt full of gadgets—but without the cape. Traveling, especially, you feel the need to be self sufficient. Therefore I carry a first aid kit, a corkscrew & extra long underwear in case of emergency.


Road warriors build redundancy into their shooting equipment so nothing can prevent them from completing their appointed tasks: extra cameras, extra batteries & aspirin. But I am talking about all the things that have crept into my daily routine so I can be a better traveler/photographer.

Cell Phone: Alexander Graham Bell would roll over in his grave. This single item has become the most important implement next to our cameras. Mine works internationally. You can reach me 24/7/365—anywhere. Consider it a hand-held computer. It is my office on location. During jobs I communicate with my assistants & clients on set, text messages in delicate situations where I cannot talk & post to my Twitter.com account.

A couple of years ago I got a call while photographing in France at sunset. The new client asked if I had time to talk. I replied that although I was shooting in front of Louvre, “but I have a minute...” I had waited a lifetime to say something like that.

Mini Multi-Tool: My godson made a present of this combination tool one Xmas. I have lost & replaced it three or four times but never traveled without one since. Most “Leatherman” type hardware is too big—too macho. But the smallest one is better & smaller than a Swiss Army knife. Sadly you have to hide it in your checked luggage if you fly a lot.

Mini Flashlight: These come in several brands, shapes & forms. You can squeeze, turn or flick them on. They seem like miniature pyrotechnics in cultures where fire is the primary light source. No way to count how many times it has saved my life: in countries where electricity is sparse or nonexistent, to signal or get a subject’s attention, for reading a map at midnight or a menu by candlelight & to change f/stops & apertures in darkened rooms.

Hand Sanitizer: Travel puts you in contact with all sorts of harmful things, germs not being the least of it. In some places the sanitation & water supply are often unreliable. Cleansing chemicals come in ridiculously small bottles or flat, aluminum foil packets. Not only should you use them after handling animals or communal implements but public bathrooms on the very aircraft that gets you there. Contact with anyone or anything can be a source of pernicious diseases. The woman who taught me this trick surreptitiously cleans her eating utensils under the table before she eats.

Pens: The most egregious error a photo assistant can make working with me is to ask for a pen. Makes me crazy. I carry one with me always. I even have a waterproof version so I can write in the shower.

My father used to wear one of those plastic pocket protectors stuffed with too many pencils & pens. I do not walk in his exact footsteps but I hear his voice every time I need to jot down an idea. I note thoughts & details constantly & sketch layouts for clients--otherwise I would forget everything. I make sure I have proper spellings of locations & pertinent information for the metadata.

Fountain pens were my writing instrument of choice until one “exploded’ on a flight. They cannot take the pressure. Now I always have two. One for me & one to lend. One black, one red—for editing manuscripts on the plane.

Of course, I carry the companion notebook too. Before his death, the legendary portrait photographer, Arnold Newman taught me how he numbers & dates his, binds them & organizes them chronologically.

Rubber Bands: I first discovered the miracle of rubber bands when my mentor maliciously sent me into a darkroom to load 4”x5” sheet film—both black/white & color. Amazingly you cannot tell the difference once out in daylight. I was never without rubber bands again. I wear several on my wrist. I have tied broken cameras together in a pinch, opened stubborn soda bottles in war zones, attached loose PC cords & entertained children who surrounded me in villages. One day I will write the book “100 Exotic/Erotic Uses for Rubber Bands.”

Business Cards: When I first started traveling to Japan to photograph, I was shooting by a hotel pool. A Japanese man swam up to me & introduced himself. After some conversation about what I was doing, he pulled a waterproof business card from his bathing trunks & asked for mine. I did not have one. That action may be a little obsessive/compulsive but right after that encounter I remedied my oversight. In some societies it is an absolute must. It is polite etiquette & just good business.

Jewelers Loupe: This is a holdover from days when I carried a photographer’s loupe to closely inspect the Polaroids we shot to check our lighting. Once in a while an assistant (always blame the assistant) would misplace the magnifier. It was crucial. Still is. Just for other things.

Wrist Watch: Several days into an assignment in a remote part of Crete, I lost two days. Amidst a lot of sturm und drang, I could not account for them anyhow. Missed my flight. Since I thought of myself as an iconoclast/rebel I never wore a watch. (This was a long time ago.) Photographers need correct time to know sunrise/sunset, compass directions & appointment times.

On top of all that add money (hidden in a moneybelt), credit cards (distributed in several different places), keys (attached to a belt loop) & the perennial passport & you can appear pretty lumpy. That dilemma instigates the eternal search for all things small. Now if they could just make the wait for your airplane smaller civilization could make real progress.

2 comments:

Jason Landry September 15, 2009 at 12:22 PM  

I always thought that you looked like a photographic stormtrooper in that B&W image, but if you want to be a photographic superhero, that's OK too!

Charles Matter,  October 11, 2009 at 4:54 PM  

BATMAN: I've been hating how each generation of digital body/lens gets heavier and bigger (not to mention complex) At least my Nikons have a familiar shape, left over from film days. I have a very tactile relationship with my equipment. So my Hasselblad H3DII-39 took a little time to get that familiar with... it was so different. At least I no longer have to bother with sync cords, finally. Shooting for myself with my Leica M2's is really a vacation. I'm so familiar with how those cameras feel and work. Almost like my fingers have worn (imaginary) grooves into the brass.
WATCHES: 5 or 6 of them sitting in a box on a dresser. My cellphones get the time off the satellite. Much more accurate, even if less elegant. I do keep a small wind-up powered analoge alarm clock in a bag, though
CELLPHONES: Part of my lifeblood. I have no landlines any more. Even my high speed 'net access comes thru my Sptint mobile broadband card. A USB model that can travel with me in my laptop, or nestle in my studio LAN router .. to power everything. I text incessantly; yet steadfastly refuse to use the phone for e-mail. I keep extra phone chargers in several bags, too.
PEN (and paper): This used to be a necessity. Now it's a discipline. Like it keeps a certain part of my brain alive and sharp. The slight extra time writing notes takes (rather than a PDA) forces me to remain deliberate, and patient. My pens are carefully chosen instruments, too. A trusty companion MontBlanc fountain pen, and MoleSkin notebooks. later, like my Leica Tri-X negatives, I convert this to bits and pixels.
NOTEBOOK(S): A habit I learned from Phil Levine to keep a thick spiral 8.5x11 notebook around. All my phone conversations, thoughts, doodles, sometimes venom
ROLEDEX: Simply a habit, along with it's companion flat book for travel. Cellphone gradually replacing that. I've never liked (or really trusted) "Outlook"
BOOKS: I create them, from concept, to design, to layout, to ink on paper and binding considerations. I have way too many of them. But, I can't help it... they make my mouth water.
HAND SANITIZER: Yes, of course
BUSINESS CARDS: Less and less; but I still always have them around, in some form. I like to think that there might be a certain elegance to writing it on a napkin, too. ???.
LOUPE(s): These are a habit, as is the magnifying glass I used on contact sheets. I collect them... in a way
TOOLS: An absolute habit. I have several kit bags with carefully chosen different tools. They are always with me on location.. small wrenches, screwdrivers, battery and circuit testers, small wrenches, pliers.. and now.. little computer specialty tools, like the grounding strap, weird socket wrenches
Even when I'm in my studio, or at home... when I'm working; I'm traveloing.

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.