Archival Pigment Print
Signed and Numbered by the artist
Edition of 50
11x14", 16x20", 20x24" or 30x36"
It was July 1997 and I was in a rut. I hadn’t shot anything I was excited about in months, and wasn’t feeling inspired. I was living in LA’s Fairfax district in a neighborhood dominated by low rent homes for the elderly; and let me tell you, if you are feeling that your career is stalled, the last thing you want to hear at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning is the sound of creaky metal walkers scraping down the sidewalk. It’s the sound of life literally grinding to a halt, and it underscored my malaise.
The life of a photographer can be a lonely one at times, and that July was especially bleak for me. If there is a photographer’s version of writers block, I had it. Then the phone rang. It was Susan White at Vanity Fair, offering me a chance to shoot Chris Rock for a ‘Spotlight’ section in the magazine. Was I interested?
The budget wasn’t great. I started thinking about all the things I could do with Chris to make an interesting picture, but every idea I had was going to cost far more than the magazine was willing to pay. I kept trying to reverse-engineer a good idea into a tight budget, and it just wasn’t working out. A bit of history here: I had thus far done only about six pictures for Vanity Fair, all of them ‘Vanities Openers’ – simple, one-page portraits. A ‘Spotlight’ was a bigger deal, and I was determined to get the magazine’s attention with something great. But what? The other issue was that I would have to get approval from Rock’s publicist for any idea I came up with. I am very conscious that any portrait I make of someone is a collaboration, so I feel an obligation not only to come up with a great idea, but an idea that the talent loves as well.
I often get in my car and drive when I feel stuck. Sitting at a desk staring at the computer rarely yields any lightbulb moments, but moving, listening to the radio, and seeing people on the streets around me somehow gets my brain going. So I turned the problem over in my head for a few miles. “What if I didn’t consider the budget at all? And what if I didn’t have to worry about whether or not Chris would like the idea or not? What kind of picture would I make then?” I tried to remove all of the obstacles and just imagine the picture I wanted to make, with no limitations.
And all of a sudden it came to me. Chris Rock, 20 feet in the air, propelled up by a powerful stream from a fire hose. Now that would be cool. I allowed myself to follow that idea down the road a bit…I would need a location on a hill so that the background could be just sky. I would need a fire truck, and some way to hang Chris in the air. I would need traffic control, a stunt coordinator, and a permit for the fire hydrant tap. And of course, I would need a Dalmatian.
The idea came from a book called Hoaxes, Humbugs, and Spectacles by Mark Sloan. It was a collection of photographs of contortionists, smelt wrestlers, human projectiles, giant hailstones, and even a fake sea monster. And in it was a grainy old picture of a fireman who could shoot himself up a little ways into the air by pointing a high-pressure fire hose at the ground. I’m sure the instant after the picture was snapped he was slammed flat on his back, but it was a compelling photograph, and I thought I could make an interesting image from the idea.
But god, it would cost a fortune, and he would never do it. Would he? And then I had an epiphany of sorts (I know that phrase is thrown around a lot, but seeing where my career has progressed from that day, I think it works here). As I was driving down the road, I decided I was just going to do it. I didn’t care what it cost, and I’d just have to make Chris and his publicist acquiesce. I wouldn’t take no for an answer—this picture would be made.
That shoot represents a big career moment for me because I learned a valuable lesson that has stuck with me ever since: Sometimes you have to take control of the narrative and do whatever it takes to see an idea through. The shoot ended up costing $10,000 more than Vanity Fair agreed to pay, and I wrote that check myself, which was not easy. As painful as that was at the time, with hindsight it makes total sense.
And as for Chris and his publicist? That wasn’t so easy either. Chris was on tour, and I finally got in touch with him a day before the shoot. I insisted on explaining the idea to him, and not to his publicist, because I didn’t want my one shot at convincing him done by proxy. He sounded less than enthusiastic on the phone, and very tired. We hung up, and I realized I didn’t really get a definitive yes or no out of him. He sort of left it open that he would see on the day of the shoot whether he felt like doing it. By then I had found a location just above Los Feliz Boulelvard near Griffith Park – you can make out the skyline of downtown Los Angeles in the hazy blue background of the final image. I’d also hired the stunt crew, obtained a street permit, posted no parking signs, and gotten signatures from all the homeowners on the street agreeing to let me shoot at 7:00 a.m., when the light was best. To this day, I am amazed Chris showed up on time and ready to shoot.
But that’s just what happened. Chris showed up, strapped on the painful harness under his clothes, and agreed to let the crane operator lift him up into the air. When the water pressure first surged through the hose, it spun Chris around, and he sprayed all of us and scared the hell out of the Dalmatian (aren’t they supposed to like fire hoses?). At that moment, he wanted down, and out of the situation – now. Somehow I convinced him to stay up there. We adjusted the water pressure and I got the picture I imagined.
I am very pleased to share this image, because it represents such a watershed moment in my career. Since that shoot, I have worked hard on developing and believing in my ideas. I worry less about what anyone else will think, and try to make a picture that I want to look at. Isn’t that why we all became photographers in the first place?
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