Steve Martin, Los Angeles, 2009 Archival Pigment Print

Steve Martin, Los Angeles, 2009 Archival Pigment Print

Archival Pigment Print

Signed and Numbered by the artist

Edition of 50

16x20", 20x24" or 30x36"

     Coming up with an idea for a photograph is a strange, ever changing process. Sometimes you can struggle for days, weeks even, and not come up with anything that seems vaguely original. And other times an idea appears fully formed in your mind with so little effort, that you couldn’t believe you thought of it at all.
     This is one of my favorite photographs, and I will tell you why: everything stems from one idea, and the idea so perfectly fits my take of who Steve Martin is. The idea came to me out of the ether, as if it was sent by invisible carrier pigeon and was dropped into my brain. I love when an idea makes sense. Too often in photography we see images that are visually arresting, but give us no greater context about who the person in the photograph is. When you can say something visually about your subject that creates a window into their personality, career path, or philosophy, you are really harnessing the power of photography. It doesn’t happen often, but in portrait photography, that should always be the goal.
     In this case, the whole thing crystalized at once. The visual, the headline, and the way I feel about Steve Martin, his career, and his comedic philosophy. I’ve always thought of Steve as an incredibly varied and nuanced artist. He was the probably the first comic to employ absurdist performance art into stand up. He invented the flash mob when he took his entire audience out of the theater and into a McDonalds across the street. He used pop culture subversively as he branched out of straight comedy to songwriting and movie roles. He became a serious novelist, a playwright, and a serious bluegrass musician. While many other comics from his generation faded into the sunset with outdated jokes and residencies in Las Vegas and Reno, Steve Martin continued to find new avenues for his unique worldview. He never caught on fire, ended up in rehab, or sold out to a watered down TV sitcom version of himself. He has literally avoided the cliché’s of comedy his entire career. He has literally Avoided The Cliché’s of Comedy  his entire career, and that became my headline, and my stepping off point for ideas.
     I started thinking of all the classic comedy set-ups: slipping on a banana peel, the Keystone Cops chase scenes, your classic pie fight, etc. I immediately envisioned a street covered in banana peels and Steve walking obliviously through them, head up, whistling a tune. I also pictured a saloon filled with people covered in pie debris: whip cream, filling and crust, dressed in early Hollywood costumes, while Steve stands among them, with nary a spot of pie on his immaculate clothing.
   This is my favorite part of the process: when I have a solid idea, and I get to figure out how to turn it into a photograph, I become like a dog with a bone. I won’t take no for an answer, and if the idea is something I am really excited about, I will go to great lengths, including cajoling the talent, negotiating with the magazine, and throwing my own money into getting it produced. I also enjoy the scientist part—figuring out how to solve the puzzle of turning a quick sketch into a practical environment.
     Every job has it’s parameters, limits, and particulars. This shoot had to be scheduled between 12 noon and 2 pm, because of Steve’s schedule. Also, it was summer, and it was hot that week. The first thing I did was go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of bananas. I learned a few things right off the bat: 1) Bananas left out in the hot sun at noon turn brown very fast. 2) A banana peel looks best if you peel it into 4 or 5 petals, but when most of us eat a banana we only peel it into two or three petals. 3) If you leave a 2-3 inch chunk of banana in the bottom of the peel it helps the banana to stand up, and the peel will stay yellow longer. 4) I was going to need a lot of bananas.
     I wanted to make this image in camera, rather than with Photoshop – and believe me, many people tried to convince me to just “do it in post.” Now, I am not against doing things in post if that is the best solution for the picture, but it would have been disastrous to fake this particular idea. Each banana not only looks slightly different from one another (they are like snowflakes, I think) but the spacing and placement and light hitting them could never look real if I had done it in post. Not to mention the perspective-the bananas naturally look smaller the further they get away from the camera, and there is no way to accurately do that on a computer. And anyway – where is the fun in telling Steve Martin, “Just skip across this street and pretend you are dancing through a bunch of banana peels.”
     The shoot day was so much fun. I chose Universal Studios as my location, because the street there has an Americana feel and also seems too perfect to be real. I hired my good old friend Scott Maginnis to head up the banana peeling and placing operation, and he brought 5 or 6 people along and they set up shop in one of the houses on the street, placing fans around the rooms to keep the house cool. They started peeling at 10:30 am, because we had determined that the bananas would last no more than 2 or 3 hours. However, once they got into the sun, they only lasted about 45 minutes. At 11:30 we started placing the banana peels. By 12:30 Steve was ready, and we had 1800 banana peels on the ground.  I climbed up a short ladder, called action, and Steve, just like in my original idea, strode through the minefield of banana peels as if he had not a care in the world, and I got my picture in about 5 or 10 minutes.
     And yes, we did the pie picture too. We took advantage of Universal’s Western Street, where they have a great old saloon (if you want to see it, watch Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). We dressed up 10 extras in 1920’s clothing and had a good old-fashioned pie fight, making use of about 200 pies. Once every extra was covered in cream and crust, Steve stepped in with a bemused expression, and we made some more pictures.
     As I said earlier, this is one of my favorite images. It’s not often that a picture works so well, from idea, to connecting with the talent, to execution. This picture will always bring a smile to my face, because I got to be an absurdist performance artist for a day, and work with one of my comic heroes.

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