My friend and creative partner, Charlie Tapper joined me on a recent photo shoot to document what life on the road for photographers was like. This is his story (written by him).
The first thing Paul said to me was, ‘there’s not much room in the battle van for your bag, but don’t worry we’ll find space. Trust me – I’m a professional.’
Baffled, I took his word. I was just along for the ride. It was 11am and we had to hurry to pick up his photographic assistant Julien before driving to Folkestone to make our channel train to France.
The van was full of gear for photographing cars. It was a strange assortment of lights, ladders and petrol generators. Paul needs to carry everything with him. The average job will take him on the road for weeks on end jumping from various exotic european location. Not that he has much time to be a tourist with the long shooting schedules.
After moving a new car jack out of the way I found a spot to shove my overnight bag between his generator and portable batteries.
We picked up Julien who called Paul a ‘fucker’ then gave him a hug. They hadn’t seen each other for awhile, which is rare for them. They probably spend more time with each other than anyone else. ‘Where exactly are we going?’ He asked loading his huge monitor into a space Paul had reserved for him.
These guys travel so often its not uncommon for them forget or just stop keeping track of where they’re going or where they’ve been. They have an aura of a rock band on tour – not having to worry about the boring details.
Brilliant Charlie!! This really does describe the way we feel. Honestly, sometimes I really don’t know which hotel – or city we are heading to. In the case for Jag on this shoot, the hotel and city details change everyday, almost every hour.
The job was simple. A two day shoot for a Lexus concept car. The Toyota public relations team needed press packs for the journalist covering the Geneva car show, where the car was having its European debut. The shoots had been organised by a Belgian producer, so all Paul and Julien had to do was make it to Brussels with the gear.
Once in Brussels we met up with the Producer called PJ. Usually the client hires a producer to put the photoshoot together. What they do is quite fluid, usually it means finding the location, matching the brief to the photographer and organising the logistics. It all depends on the budget and the circumstances. In one anecdotal story, PJ told me he had to stop a violent photographer from attaching passers by who got in front of his camera.
They all hug and call each other ‘fuckers’. They’ve know each other for years. They sit at the hotel bar and laugh at the client’s brief. PR and Marketing teams relish in flowery metaphors and similes. A typical brief will ask a photographer to bring out the ‘keen hunger of the car’s eyes,’ or ‘find diamonds in their eyes.’ They seem to be fixated on the lights of a car. To be fair the headlights are the most analogous part of a car to a human face. Unless you have a model draped over the leather interiors, car photography can appear cold. With this concept car they’ve asked Paul to bring out the organic and dynamic features. This time he got off lightly by the sounds of it.
At dinner Paul spoke about why he likes to works with the same team, ‘you have to have a laugh. We work such long hours why not work with your mates?’
The next day was full day in the studio. They consider studio work the hardest. The guys stressed to me that they had to be really professional in the studio. Its like being an a Las Vegas casino. You don’t see daylight and there are flashing lights dazzling you for hours.
It was an early start. They were shooting at Toyota’s own studio space. The company spend so much time and money developing new cars that its practical to have their own showroom/studio. It was a colossal space with no-access zones for secret projects.
The client responsible, Rachel arrived to oversee the project. She was happy to see Paul and gave him a kiss. She was ultimately responsible for the team getting all the necessary shots for the press kit.
The studio came alive with men in overalls. They were polite and spoke French with the client, Flemish among themselves and English with us. One of the guys described the concept car like it was from space, only a part of space that was sporty.
One of the overalled men asked Rachel if he could get the car out. She nodded yes.
The car made no noise. It only had a tiny electric engine to move it around. It had not real engine and would never be driven on the road. It was in a sense a sketch, a work in progress. The car industry makes concept car all the time. This is a chance for them to show off, like a gorilla chest thumping to show others how wild and cutting edge they are. I must admit the car was worth a chest thump or two. It was futuristic in a cartoon way, with sharp angles, and a blood red paint job. This was the kind of car Batman would love. Everyone in the studio was compelled to surround the car and admired its ‘keen eyes’ and clean lines.
The Rachel commented to me that the journalist in Detroit had referred to the car as having a mouth like the Predator’s from that 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
The car was rolled into the studio. The space was large enough to hold a double decker bus. The white walls were curved to create a space with no edges. Paul and Julien began to set up. Paul was using his new camera – a Phase 1 camera back. Julien hadn’t seen it yet and he poured over it like a drunk salesman at a strip-club. ‘This is one serious piece,’ he said.
It must have taken them over an hour to set up.
The car’s handlers had be very careful not to leave any marks on the car. They never touched it with bare hands and were constantly cleaning it. The car was due to be at the car show in 5 days and it would probably be painted two more times before then.
Because the images were needed in such a rush they had flown a photo retoucher in from the UK. Nick was from Nottingham and he told me he had worked with Paul and Julien for years. He’d brought his iMac and would work onsite to clean-up the images. Its seems bonkers that they’d resort to flying him in, but it was a necessity. It was a tight deadline and the size of the images meant it could take up to eight hours to transfer online. This was the fastest way of processing them.
After about two hours Paul was ready to start shooting. Studio work is very long-winded. He needs to take pictures of just about every angle of the car, and that means moving the lighting, moving the light defuser and moving all the equipment around. If the image isn’t working, everything and everyone has to move. Every delay means staying longer. Its not even 9am yet and the crew knows we’ll be here until 6pm at the best.
I asked Paul if he worries about getting the right shot. ‘If you have the right people around you, you don’t have to worry.’ They pick up the pace and we break for lunch.
The lunch was a smorgasbord of Dauphinoise Potatoes and some sort of Flemish stew of green beans, chicken and carrots. Then everyone eats a creme caramel. I realised it would be easy to get fat in this industry.
By about 18.30 they’re still not done. Nick is waiting for the final images to be shot and Paul is stuck inside the car trying to get a driver point-of-view shot. He’s too big to fit and he’s cursing. ‘Why don’t we just chop the roof off.’ Everyone laughs, but also want him to hurry up. No body wants to stay here all night because he can’t get the shot.
Still they team has picked up the pace. Apparently this is a natural law for photoshoots. Every hour past 3pm you double the amount of images you shoot. So before Paul, got stuck they were getting eight shots an hour.
By 19.00 Paul gets the image and calls it a day.
That night we all go out to eat Ribs in a Faux American diner.
‘My Chakra’s out whack,’ a friend of theirs says after eating his second plate. ‘Shall we have another round of beers?’
Paul and Julien mumble about needing to be professional and call it a night. Tomorrow is another early start!
The next day was the location shoot. Paul and the team are much happier being outside the confides of a studio. The location is at a massive goods warehouse built in the early 1900s near the centre of Brussels, called Tour & Taxis. They’re shooting inside the gargantuan and dilapidated good yards.
Inside its freezing. PJ and his team have set up some electric heaters running on generators. Nick sets up his iMac and Paul and Julien case the enormous building for possible angles. The place is as long as three football pitches end to end. Its so big that there is not only a circus big top in one end but a shanty town for homeless people.
It takes Paul and Julien about two hours to set up. PJ and his assistant have set up a coffee machine and they feed every one non-stop espressos. The only problem is the lack of toilets. The place is so huge and vast that you have to walk 20 minutes just to find somewhere private, unless you want to knock on the shanty town doors.
Today the guys were averaging about one photo every two hours. These shots were much more fitting the car – moody and grand.
It was a long day and we bounced on our feet to stay warm. Most shots involved Paul and Julien moving equipment around the car while the rest of us watched. All us onlookers were more like a cheer squad then anything functional. The burden was all on Paul and Julien’s shoulders. And it was getting colder.
We got lucky. They finished early by photographer standards… before 5pm. It may have taken two hours to set up, but cleaning up took all of ten minutes. Everyone was keen to go. They all hugged and kissed and Paul bundled us in his van to race back to the UK. ‘I have a new born son to play with.’
We drove back in silence until we got service station about half hour from Calais. We all needed a coffee and the toilet. It was one of the places were they have a coffee machine with all sorts of different coffee options. I pushed the button for cappuccino but they’d run out of chocolate sprinkle.
‘Damn.’ I said as Paul walked past.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘They’re out of chocolate for my cappuccino.’
‘Oh don’t worry I have some in my van.’
I must have looked stunned because Paul laughed and said, ‘Of course I have chocolate sprinkles.’
‘Because I’m a professional.’