When 'Readers Digest' Comes Calling

August 21, 2013

Fifteen years ago, in 1998, Ed Koren wrote a marvelous piece about serving with the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department. It ran in the New York Times, and was subsequently picked up by Reader’s Digest which, at Ed’s request, asked me to provide a photograph to accompany it.

Though Reader’s Digest now publishes over 5 million copies monthly, it’s a shadow of its former self. Back before digital technologies changed the face of communication, RD published over 23 million. I can safely say this photograph is the most widely circulated of my images; it subsequently appeared in The Herald, as well.

To this day I’m grateful to Ed for getting me the assignment. The magazine was set on sending up one of their pros from New York City for the shoot, but Ed would have none of it. He wanted a local photographer, told them I would do a great job, and had the chutzpah to make his voice matter to the suits down in Chappaqua.

For Herald photography I have relied almost exclusively on Nikon 35mm equipment for over 25 years, but for this magazine shoot I elected to use a medium format camera. These shots were taken with slide film, and with my Mamiya RB  I could proof the shots with a Polaroid back, which was replaced with a film back for the final imaging.

Reader’s Digest gave me very little guidance for the shoot, other than to say they wanted a portrait of Ed with other members of the Brookfield department. In a situation like this, it’s important to provide many different looks, as there’s no telling what the art directors will want.

One huge help with this assignment was the fact that the volunteers were thrilled with Koren’s story and were committed to getting a good portrait. I asked them to set aside at least two hours on a Saturday morning, and to be prepared for shooting in a variety of locations.

We began right outside the station with everyone suited up, a pumper and a portion of the firehouse in the shot. It was a bright sunny day. While it’s often thought bright sun is wonderful light for imaging, this isn’t necessarily so. The shadows are deeper and the range between the highlights is so great it’s easy to overexpose portions of the print. Photographers will often use flash in these situations, which puzzles those not familiar with the process. Why would one need to add more light when there is so much bright light to begin with?

The flash is used to  “fill” the shadowed portions of the scene with light. In this case, I used it to insure proper lighting in the shadowed side of the faces.

From the station we headed up the hill to Pond Village, setting the pumper in the center of town with the Green Trails Inn in the background. It was a nice setting, particularly with Jim Sardonis’s sculpted sign at the back, and Brookfield’s signature unpaved main street in the foreground.

It was during this session that I began to realize I wasn’t working with professional models. The fellows were willing to give the project everything they could, but with all the preparations I was making to have the pose seem casual, it was coming out forced, wooden.

Sometimes when taking a portrait, the subject gives you their very best material in the first minutes of the session. On other occasions, the first half hour of the shoot is like a battle of wills, with the subject unconsciously sabotaging imaging every step of the way. I say “unconsciously” because I don’t think anyone tries to make a bad portrait. It’s true, however, that many of us have had negative experiences with picture taking, especially with “pushy” professional photographers. Sometimes you have to work through the initial antipathy until the subject either begins to trust you or, in some circumstances, simply “gives up” and lets you take an honest, unforced image. This latter situation seemed to be the case with the Brookfield crew. They wanted to have a good image, but were at a loss when it came to knowing how best to provide it. Everyone looked stiff and somewhat uncomfortable.

Well, perhaps another location will prove the charm, I thought, and asked the crew to move the truck a hundred yards or so over to the edge of Sunset Pond at the entrance to the floating bridge. One immediate gift of this new site was a shift in the atmosphere. A morning fog seemed to emerge from nowhere, shielding the scene from the sun’s brightest rays. Far down the lake I could see the very first colors of autumn beginning to appear on the shoreline. This was the spot, I thought, as I set my tripod in the bed of a pickup so that I could shoot over the crew to the lake rippling in the background.

Now needing no fill flash I exposed two more rolls of film. This was the shot I was looking for. The men seemed to relax along with me, and we took some images that were quite fine.

After about ten minutes of shooting I proclaimed the project complete. I was confident Reader’s Digest would be happy with at least one of my many offerings from our morning’s work.

But then, just when I’d told the guys they were off the hook, something extraordinary happened. Some took off their jackets, revealing brightly colored suspenders, until now hidden from view. One walked over the picket fence in the back of the scene to look down the lake. Suddenly, almost magically, the entire group relaxed into the look, the pose I had been searching for, but had been unable to find.

Unfortunately, my film backs were empty. “Stop!” I yelled in great excitement, asking all to remain still as I quickly reloaded, explaining that one or two more images were needed. To my great relief, the crew put up with me for just a few moments more and, in a good natured way, lingered for three final images.

I sent 7 rolls of film off to Reader’s Digest from the 10  shot that morning, never once doubting they would pick an image from those last three. That they did, liking it so much it was splashed across two full pages in a marvelous linking of image and text.

Sometimes the image we are looking for is outside our field of view. Sometimes we simply aren’t at the right place at the right time for the image we really want and settle for something less. On one blessed day in Brookfield, however, I was privileged to capture in my lens that wonderful band of brothers in the right time and place.

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