The Photos That ‘Ended My Career’

Back in the early 1970s I saw a student film called “Hot Dogs for Gauguin,” written and directed by Martin Brest, who went on to have a notable film career.  He directed such memorable hits as Midnight Run, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Scent of a Woman before becoming a Hollywood persona-non-grata for directing a fiasco called Gigli in 2003; Marty’s IMDB bio ends there.

Oh, the humanity!

Hot Dogs for Gauguin” is about a photographer – played by a then-unknown actor named Danny DeVito – who wants to replicate the kind of acclaim that he thinks befell the photographer who shot the Hindenberg disaster (Oh, the humanity!).  DeVito’s character figures to achieve similar acclaim by blowing up the Statue of Liberty – and being on-hand to capture the moment with his camera. Suffice it to say it doesn’t end well…

This is a story about my own “Hot Dogs for Gauguin” moment.”

Or maybe it was more of a “Gigli” moment, if not quite on the same scale.

There was a period a couple of years ago when I was making a concerted attempt to market myself as a photographer, in particular of music-related subjects.

With some coaching, I’d set up a program at thejoyofmakingmusic.com (it’s still there) and created a couple of ‘packages’ for shooting stills during studio recording sessions.

Not long after I set all that up I was invited into a studio by an A-List, first-call musician, a side-player to the stars, who was recording her own album for an indie label, and had called on some of the town’s top A-List players in support.  I did not know most of the names, nor of the many-arms-lengths lists of credits they all carried.  I was a bit of a fish out of water.  They all knew each other, and I only barely knew the woman who’d invited me to the session (I’d met her when we worked together on another project).

I will mention just one actual name, because it was the effort to capture his thousand-watt smile that got me in trouble (I think).

His name is Willie Weeks, and his credits are longer than the Mississippi River.  Here are the names in his Wikipedia entry:

Gregg Allman, David Bowie, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Roy Buchanan, Jimmy Buffett, Kevin Chalfant, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Hank Crawford, Robert Cray, Pino Daniele, Bo Diddley, The Doobie Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Vince Gill, Isaac Hayes, George Harrison, Donny Hathaway, Etta James, Billy Joel, Rickie Lee Jones, Wynonna Judd, Chaka Khan, B.B. King, Lyle Lovett, Gail Davies, David Lee Roth, Michael McDonald, Don McLean, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Bette Midler, Randy Newman, Pino Palladino, John Scofield, Carly Simon, Soulive, Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Richard and Linda Thompson, Joe Walsh, Bobby Womack, Leon Russell, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, Ronnie Wood, and Eikichi Yazawa.

Recognize any of those names?

Like said… A-List.

So here’s world-renowned (except to me) bassist Willie Weeks flashing this thousand-watt smile, and there’s me, trying to catch it. But my timing is a little off.  Between my reaction time and the shutter delay on the camera I’m using, I keep missing the moment of ‘peak radiance.’  So I keep shooting, and even though I’ve got the shutter on ‘quiet’ it’s not exactly silent – so the subject (target?) knows I’m firing a lot of frames.  I know I’m shooting too much but, dammit…. I’m on a mission here!

And then all of a sudden Mr. Weeks, says, “I think that’s enough pictures…”

Insert sound of a balloon deflating (or a dirigible exploding…).

I have no way of knowing for sure, but in my mind, that’s the moment the whole experience unwound.  I don’t know what else to think. Because I never heard from the client again.

Right after the session, I compiled the best stuff – over 100 frames – and put it in a portfolio for the client to view online.  I sent her the link.

And then I never heard from her again.

She’d paid me but I still owed her another hour or two for a follow up session.  She never scheduled it.

And she never replied to my emails.

She went on an released her album to considerable acclaim, but never used any of the photos I’d shot for…well, anything.  Not in the CD insert, not in the promo.  Nada. Nothing.  Good work but I’m the only one who has ever seen it – except for those two photos I’m showing here.  Because, dammit, I love those photos,

I dunno, maybe I’m making all this up, maybe it was something else that alienated the client.  I just keep coming back to this one moment and wondering… WTF?

It’s been almost four years since all this happened… and it still weighs on me still.

I’m not sure why I’m posting about this now. For some reason I just started thinking about all this this morning. Maybe I just need to finally purge my conscience of this so that I can get on with things (after shooting for the first time in months last Monday and coming away thinking a) I like doing this and b) I’m good at it.)

So I went back and looked at all the photos from that shoot and… damn, I think they’re pretty good.  Interesting angles, lots of intensity, making the best of the low-light situations.  I do good work.  Too bad nobody will ever see anything other than the two frames featured here.

I must have thought this one gig was gonna be a breakthrough of sorts. I figured if these photos went out with this particular release, other “A-List” players would see them and invite me into their sessions.  Instead it was a breakdown, a denouement. I don’t think I’ve shot a recording session since.

It’s too easy to say “because this gig blew up I never got any others.”  But it’s not that simple.  That’s blaming external factors.  What I realized when as I finished the first draft of this post is that these “external” factors provided convenient cover for what are more importantly “internal” factors.

Because this event rattled my confidence.  It fundamentally made me doubt myself.  And it’s hard to market yourself from a platform of self-doubt.

Suddenly I realize – even as I write this – the extent to which unwavering self-confidence is key ingredient if you’re going to be successful at anything “creative.”

Especially in a “live fire” situation like a photo shoot, you have to have some kind of confidence that you’re going to come up with some ideas.

You also have some kind of confidence that you’ve got the technical skills to execute the ideas.

And then you go into a situation where you think you’re doing great work and… all you know is that you must have pissed somebody off something fierce, because the client won’t even return your emails or look at the results.

And just like that, self-confidence vanishes.  Cue the Hindenberg.

One irony here is: since that session, I have replaced both of my cameras with newer models that can be set to a completely silent shutter.  If I’d had those cameras with me that day, Willie would have had no idea how many frames I’d fired.  <*sigh*>.

I realize that even mentioning this “in public” like this is a bit of a pity party, but… so what?  I really like those photos of Willie Weeks.  I figure it’s about time somebody besides me saw them.

And Willie, if you ever see this, I hope you like the photos.  They’re at least as good as any that turned up when I did a Google Images search of your name.



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Paul Schatzkin