A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


A Penguin In The Arctic
Friday, December 04, 2009

In the early 50s Bert Stern, 17, was working in the mailroom of Look Magazine. Delivering letters to the art director of the magazine’s promotion department he looked at a layout and blurted, “There’s a better way to do that.”

“Okay,” the amused art director told the upstart boy with no college, no designing training, “so do it.” Stern had found a teacher. The man’s name was Hershel Bramson. He hauled Stern up from his mailroom work to work as his assistant. Often the two would shut Bramson’s door to talk over a Coke and a handful of Oreo cookies; listening, cutting and pasting, Stern absorbed the elements of design that he now brings to every picture. “If you are going to put something on a very nice piece of clean paper,” Bramson used to tell him, “improve it. Don’t schlock it up.”

In 1955 under contract with Smirnoff Vodka Stern took an idea to the ad agency L.C. Gumbiner on how to convey the driest of martinis.

“What!”the president exclaimed. “Egypt? We don’t want to pay for your vacation.”

“Believe me, “Stern said, “in the middle of summer, Egypt is no vacation.”

“Why don’t you just build a pyramid here in a studio?”

“I don’t know how,” Stern said. “Besides, people will remember the ad if they hear I went all the way to Egypt for it. On top of that, they have an instinct that tells them when something is fake. We all know that pyramid.”

Petersen’s Masters of Contemporary Photography
Bert Stern: How To Turn Ideas Into Images


Since the late 70s when I first purchased the above book about Bert Stern, I have been inspired by all of Stern’s principles for conceptualizing ideas in his head that lead to memorable images.

But I also worry about Stern’s belief in people having an instinct for what is real and for what is fake. Stern’s shot of the ultimate dry martini had the impact that could only happen in a "pre-special effects/Photoshop" era. Now just about anybody can seamlessly place a penguin in the arctic and a polar bear in the Antarctic. Nothing is seen as impossible anymore.

While I never went to Egypt and spent 2 weeks and 140 degree heat on the dessert sand I have my own photograph that today would certainly not be conceived and achieved in the same way.

It was sometime in the late 80s that Vancouver Magazine editor Malcolm Parry told me (it was a precise and startling mouthful), “Alex I want you to photograph a Porsche Carrera 4 and a Nissan 300ZX together and moving. I want you to use that Norman flash of yours. I want the cars to be red and I want you to be in one of the cars. I will drive the other.”

I thought Parry was crazy. Why the flash? Was there any purpose in it except to make my task that much more difficult? The startling glow of the resulting picture says something about Parry's talent for pre-visualization.

The first thing I did was to inspect both cars. It was our luck that the dealers had a red Porsche and a red Nissan. The 300ZX’s front end was all plastic. But the Porsche’s had a metal hook for towing it. I could design some sort of clamp that would hold a motorized Nikon FM-2 and Norman 200B light head and battery pack. I needed an extension to make the motor drive cord from the Nikon extend all the way to the interior of the car where I would be riding shotgun. I told Mac that the only way I could get the shot was to buy an expensive (I found a cheaper used one) Nikon fisheye lens.

For close to an hour we went up and down Georgia and the Cambie Street Bridge. We had problems with drivers that would position their cars so as to block my shooting angle. Sometime in the end of the day we had one of those dramatic skies and I got my shot.

Both the shots you see here have no manipulation except the manipulation of neurons in the mind. What will replace that, now that we can put penguins in the arctic and polar bears in the Antarctic?


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