Friday, February 08, 2008

Glad I Could Help

Master of DistractionWhen first I launched this flimsy site, it was nearly upended by a tidal wave of praise. Cohorts, strangers and an ocean of new cyber-friends clicked on my drivel, leaving a rippling pool of congratulations. Already drenched in cynicism and leery of success, I shrugged off my newfound status to all inquirers. But deep down inside my crusty photog heart, I was borderline euphoric - for if nothing else, the clamor over my dispatches proved something I kind of always knew: I can write. Not in a Heming-way, mind you but certainly a notch or two above that of your average cat-blogger. As epiphanies go, it was well-timed. I was wrestling with the idea of leaving the business altogether when I stumbled into punditry. Soon I was spending every evening hour hunched in my upper lair, where I pounded out years of professional frustration into an endless series of bad snapshots and observational smarm.

Trouble was, I bought into the hype. Equating the raves of a half dozen readers with that of professional reviewers, I began to believe I might have a higher calling than chasing county commissioners and crackheads for a daily wage. So I redoubled my efforts, a nightly move which sometimes caused my wife to question what I was really doing on the computer after she went to bed. It wasn’t Donkey Kong. Instead I wrote endless posts, sold a couple of magazine articles and even attracted the attention of a benefactor or two. Then things got sticky. I found that as much as I love to babble on-line, the arduous task of re-writing was something I had little time for. Between the job, wife, kids, house and blog, assembling some grand masterwork feels beyond my reach. I haven’t given up on that dream yet, but I’ve pulled back a bit, lest it make me crazy. I may still lay down the lens one day, but for now I’m semi-content with being a TV news photog and a pretty good blogger.

Still, my literary aspirations weren’t all for naught, as evidenced by this e-mail I received yesterday...
Lenslinger, I recently found your blog. Great job. You missed your calling in life I think. Your efforts made me pick up the pen again…well actually a keyboard and write a few op/ed pieces. I submitted them to my local paper and they offered me a real job as a reporter and columnist! This after 15 years of tv news video. Thanks for the career "do over" button! TV news has become a cesspool with corporate ownership and I’m getting out while I can, although I will miss those fragrant news units with the sticky floor mats and soft drinks splashed all over the dashboards. Keep up the writing, I will keep tuning in to see what’s happening behind the lens.
I’ll be in my room if you need me.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Kitchen Confidential

Lucky 32 Live ShotWhen the telephone rings at four in the morning, most people worry about distant relatives. Not me. When my bedside phone splinters the darkness, I think of camera batteries. Did I put them on the charger? Will I have enough power to fuel my fancycam through whatever misadventure I’m about to be sent on? Okay, so mostly I just stumble around my bedroom and curse, but deep down inside I’m reviewing logistics. That way I’ll be ready when I’m dispatched to the edge of a violent storm, a heated police stand-off or the kitchen of a fancy restaurant. That’s right: I got ripped out of bed to shoot a cooking segment. Seems a co-worker’s kid had a medical emergency and since I was foolish enough to pick up the phone, I got to play galloping gourmet. At least that’s my version of how I came to hover over a sizzling curry chicken dish before the sun ever rose this morning. Beats the shoulder of an interstate, I guess.

Lucky 32 butter padsLucky 32 was dark when I banged on the side door. Soon enough though, Chef Jay Pierce appeared through the glass and let me in. Time didn’t allow for niceties. Instead, I brushed past the dude in the checkered pants, pulling my heavy cable into the very heart of his upscale kitchen. After a half dozen trips back and forth, I had his grill bathed in agreeable light, my camera perched precisely over the prep area and a twisting umbilical cord of video and audio snaking out of the kitchen, through the bar, down the steps and into the back of the rolling billboard I’d brought along just for fun. All the while, Chef Jay dropped enough comebacks and zingers to choke a road comic. On four hours of sleep, I wasn’t the best audience. See, ever since the rise of the Food Network, the majority of high-dollar chefs have developed stand-up routines to flesh out their act. I’m all for levity, but not when I got two dozen gizmos to plug together. Besides, I got my share of apron humor back in August - when I crashed the rather skeevy line of cooks auditioning for Season Whatever of Hell’s Kitchen.

Lucky 32 TightNot to lump Chef jay in with those derelicts. No, our host was nothing less than gracious as Shannon Smith and I invaded his domain, crowding his oven area and sticking lenses inches away from his favorite soufflé. In the course of conversation, Chef Jay and I bonded over the distilled wit of Anthony Bourdain. Jay scored extra points for having actually read Kitchen Confidential and I perhaps elevated his opinion of early morning photogs by at least knowing what a sous-chef does. But we didn’t have all morning to chit-chat; there was cooking to get to! Not just any dishes either, but the favorite recipes of area dee-JAYS. You got it: I lost precious sleep so some wacky Morning Drive guy could pimp his roomies bean-dip. Knowing my place on the food-chain, I slogged my way through five live shots - cutesy intro’s, feigned excitement and simmering close-ups blurring into one long overly-spicy remote.

Here‘s the kicker. An hour after our live shot, I turned on the radio and heard Two Guys Named Chris (the official wacky morning zoo of Viewfinder BLUES) discussing the very segment I’d just finished shooting. Inspired by the synergy, I called into the show, got on-air and floated a few one-liners of my own. Can’t get that laying in bed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Talismans and Knick-Knacks

Old Studio CamA recent phone conversation with a friend in the business got me to thinking about the TV debris I’ve collected over the years. Mine’s no pristine menagerie, mind you - just rather a smattering of dusty broadcast relics the bride knows better than to throw out. At the center of this detritus is The Camera. Given to me by an local telescope junkie, this antique Ampex never ever blinks as it stares out across the carpeted expanse of my upper lair. Were I not so damn slack, I’d research its lineage, but I suspect it spent much of its life pointed toward a conveyor belt filled with taped-together news scripts. When I consider all the clichés that must have passed through its glass, I get a little dizzy.

Boba Fett Mic FlagLuckily, I got a place to sit. From my creaky throne, I can easily survey my miscellany trinkets. There’s the desktop NBC chimes, the Hard Copy ballcap, the battered microphone flag featuring a weaponless Boba Fett and easily a half dozen heavily logo’d coffee mugs. Sure, I don’t take very good care of my schwag and much of it could better enrich my life by way of eBay - but it’s my STUFF. Besides, every TV news photog has a similar salmagundi, in much the same way those boring banker guys display their most pompous golf balls on overpriced, green felt shelves - the better for their pastel-clad admirers to Ooh and Ah on-cue. No accounting for good taste, I suppose.

70's era WITN license plateTruly though, there’s only one broadcast bauble I care anything for and you’re looking at it. It’s a WITN TV license plate, circa 1972. The blue “7” and the old school “N” are signposts from my youth, for I spent many a dreamy afternoon watching the local news geeks radiate under that very logo. Little did I know back then, I’d once (dis)grace the very halls of that TeeVee Temple down the road. Little did I know I’d lay awake in bed plotting my escape from the building with the lucky number out front. But I did. In fact, the day I finally tunneled out of that dump, I carried my beloved plate between my clenched and chiseled but-TOCKS. Today it hangs over the door to my sanctum, where I stare at it often and recall the day I smuggled us both to freedom.

Damn thing’s sharp, too.

Great White Fire

When the rock band Great White took the stage of that Rhode Island nightclub, Brian Butler had a front row seat. Actually, the WPRI news photog was standing as he shot video for a story on safety in public buildings. When the band’s pyrotechnics ignited the club’s foam-covered ceiling seconds later, the young television station employee did what many others did; he got out. But he didn’t just leave, he backed out slowly, lens-up, camera recording. Other occupants crowded past him, as those who could think straight fled the sudden inferno. When he got outside, Butler appears to have wandered around the premises, shooting video of dazed patrons, including some who were jammed in a human pile-up at a side door. Needless to say, the resulting footage is difficult to watch.

Now, five years later, Butler’s employer WPRI-TV has agreed to pay $30 million to the victims of that fire, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200 more. The settlement rests on the allegation that Butler paused in an exit to film the chaos as patrons were trying to escape thus adding to the death toll. Butler and WPRI vehemently deny this and point to the footage for proof that no club patron was endangered by the photojournalist’s actions or lack thereof. Still, the station’s insurance company chose to settle the suit that names Butler personally responsible for “deaths of and severe personal injuries to plaintiffs.”

I’ve watched Butler’s footage repeatedly and still can’t say what - if anything - I’d have done differently. How could I? How could anyone? Until you’re put in that horrific situation, it’s impossible to know how you’ll react. The tape of course shows how Butler reacted. Thirty seconds into the show, Butler begins backing away from the stage. One minute later he is outside. No matter how many times I watch it, I cannot detect any discernable pause at the door. More disturbing is the shot of patrons struggling to escape the side door a few seconds later. Would I have rather Butler put down the camera and started pulling people out of the pile? Sure, but real life rarely resembles the closing act of a Hollywood blockbuster and I cannot honestly say what I might have done in a similar situation.

One thing I’m pretty sure of though: I would have kept rolling. After all, it’s what I (and Butler) do. To expect someone who looks at life through a glass tube not to do so when calamity suddenly strikes isn’t just disingenuous, it’s unrealistic. While no amount of footage is worth a human life, it should be noted the sights and (haunting) sounds recorded by Butler provided key evidence as to just what happened when Great White took the stage. Perhaps I’d feel different if a loved one of mine perished in the blaze, but to lay this tragedy on the sore shoulders of a single news shooter seems almost criminal. Others escaped that night to wander around the club’s parking lot in disbelief. Had Brian Butler not been carrying a TV camera with him at the time, he wouldn’t be facing this scorn and we wouldn’t know exactly what happened inside The Station. Litigate if you will, but leave Brian Butler alone. My guess is he doesn’t need to look at the footage he shot to relive that terrible night.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

El Ocho's Finest

Okay, so it's only about half of us, but the impromptu photo shoot on the occasion of a certain Canadian's last day is historic if for only this: rarely do you see so many of us gathered in one spot - withOUT lots of hastily parked cop cars in the background. Sure, there was that one time, but until we bring home another medium market trophy, you're not likely to see this many lenslingers with the same logo lingering in one locale. Unless of course, a free buffet is involved. Then you can't get rid of us. Especially the guy who looks like Fidel Castro. Sa-lute!

King of All Media

"You have neither ethics, scruples, decency or conscience!" an editor roared at Walter. "Let others have those things," the famed columnist replied. "I've got the readers."

Did he. In the 1940s his blistering column ran in more than 2,000 daily newspapers. Fifty-five million people listened to his radio show every Sunday night. Having escaped childhood poverty by way of the Vaudeville stage, he went on to star in two Hollywood films. Yes, decades before Howard Stern built an empire on dick jokes, Walter Winchell truly was the King of All Media. In his time at the top, he added to the American lexicon with a new urban slang, influenced houswewives and movie stars, chased gangsters, curried the favors of world leaders and never missed a chance to smite his many enemies - be they far-off despots or crosstown competitors. A libelous scribe with a penchant for revenge, Winchell was easily the most powerful journalist of his day, but he left the Fourth Estate a far more fetid place than when he first crashed its gates.

When Winchell first began filling his dispatches with the tawdry habits of Broadway stars, he quite literally invented the gossip column. Journalism purists wrung their hands over this latest atrocity, but the public ate it up. Almost overnight, Winchell became a household name, ruling the new Cafe Society from his swanky station at the Stork Club in New York. But Walter Winchell stayed at the table too long. In Neal Gabler's epic biography, he recounts the Godfather of Gossip's spectacular downward spiral. A workaholic who ignored his family, Winchell consider his ascendency to be a new law of nature. But the longer he hogged the spotlight, the more he revealed himself to be a petty soul and shameless demagogue. When, late in his career, he threw in with Joseph McCarthy's Communist witchhunt, even his fans deserted him. At his funeral in 1972, a single mourner attended, a daughter he'd treated with abject cruelty.

Today, Walter Winchell's legacy thrives among the pack of dirtbags chasing Britney Spears. Staffers of E!, bloggers like Perez Hilton and the stalkers of TMZ are among those still spending the bulk of his inheritance. But Walter Winchell the man is largely forgotten. In my informal survey of El OCho's denizens, only those with a little gray around the temples had any idea who he even was. This would not set well with the man who thrived on the staccato bark of his own voice. In the 30's, 40's and 50's, he wasn't just Above the Law; he was Above the News. In 2008 however, his is a cautionary tale. Other than the damage he did to the world of Journalism he proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be a master communicator and still be a pompous ass. Sadly, others have practiced that tactic ever since. But unlike Winchell, I won't call them out by name. Yet.