Thursday, April 30, 2015

My "Favorite Picture"

I'd guess there aren't too many professional photographers who who have not been asked this question at least once. "What is your favorite picture that you've taken?"

Professionals with long careers make thousands and thousands of images in their lifetime. It can be a tricky question to answer. Photography is subjective. The answer might be some award winning spot news photo, a feature photo that captures a slice of life. Wildlife, nature... the possibilities are limitless.

I became very interested in making photojournalism my career choice at the age of 14. My dad had just died. I was too young to take over the hardware store. I had always been interested in photography, and my Aunt Betty Kriegshauser worked at my hometown paper, The Pike Press, in Pittsfield, IL. I was fascinated with the whole process of taking pictures, developing film, then watching prints "magically" come to life in the darkroom.

Dad and I were supposed to attend the Indianapolis 500 in May of 1973. He died May 9th. Aunt Betty, with her sense of adventure, stepped in to get me there. The 1973 event was a year of rain and accidents. It was postponed at least twice. By the time the race finally took place, many had given up their great seats and had gone back to work. Aunt Betty and I seized the opportunity and upgraded to the Paddock, directly across from the scoring tower, pits, and start/finish line.

I loved sports. I studied the photos in Sports Illustrated. I was no good at playing sports. I had little experience with a camera. But as Aunt Betty and I sat in those Paddock seats, I was not only taken by the cars and action. But by the ACCESS the photographers were getting to the cars and action.

In late May of 1973, at the Indianapolis 500, the "light bulb went on" in my brain, and my career path was launched. "If I can't race cars or play for the Dallas Cowboys, by gosh a camera will at least get me a front row seat to it," I thought.

Indy became a staple in my yearly routine. For awhile as a fan. Then I became a professional photographer in 1983, and by May of 1984 I was going over and covering the first weekend of qualifications. Interest in the 500 was big, crowds were huge, and many legendary drivers such as the Unser brothers, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti were active and favorites to win the race.

By 1988 I was working for The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, IL. I asked for, and was granted permission to go to Indy to cover opening weekend qualifications that year. There was a semi-local connection to the paper's circulation area. The Newman/Haas racing team was headquartered in nearby Lincolnshire. Carl Haas was the exclusive U.S. distributor of the Lola chassis, a popular racing frame at the time. Newman was a guy named Paul Newman who was involved in racing most of his adult life. This included some driving. But Newman had a second job. He was an actor. Yes, THAT Paul Newman! The team driver was Mario Andretti.

Very late in the afternoon of the first day of qualifying, I decided I would take one final walk up pit row, to the north and turn four. I'd been on my feet and walking around the pits and garage area all day, making dozens of photos. Activity on the track had all but come to a stop and the window for cars to qualify was down to about half an hour. It was relatively quiet. Few cars, scattered spectators, and little media left.

I began walking from where Gasoline Alley meets pit row. I'd probably walked a couple hundred yards, mostly with with my head down, not really looking too far ahead of myself.

I glanced up.

My brain screamed, "Holy shit! That's Paul Newman and Mario Andretti!"

There they were. The two of them leaning against the wall, chatting, perhaps having a de-briefing about the day. I froze in my tracks about 15 feet from them. Acting like a hunter who doesn't want to frighten away the prey. There may have been a crewman or two nearby, still working. But there was no one else. And no other photographers or media!

I looked to them and thought, "Please guys, don't move a muscle and don't disperse." They looked at me, maybe wondering what my next move would be. Not a word was exchanged. But there was a "vibe" between the three of us.

They didn't move. I seem to recall changing a lens. I'm pretty sure I put my 105mm Nikkor on one body. I didn't move closer. My shoes were like they were glued in place. I didn't think about the aperture setting. I did have sense enough to make some quick attempt to check the exposure. I was shooting Fujichrome 100. Slide film is unforgiving. If you overexpose the highlights you're done. Newman wore a white shirt and hat. Andretti still had his cream-colored fireproof suit on. Both wore sunglasses and had similar body language.

They looked towards me with that curiosity of what my next move would be. I made a picture of the two of them. And by picture, I mean ONE picture. If more frames were made, I don't know what happened to them. I have one frame of this moment.

I couldn't believe my luck! I got what I wanted, and not wanting to run off skipping like a kid, put on my "I'm cool" mask and decided to walk on beyond them, a bit further up pit row. I began walking, and as I moved past them, nodded. They nodded in return. Not one word was ever spoken.

I was like a kid on Christmas Eve. I made a few more steps to keep with the "no big deal" appearance, then turned and headed back south, retracing my steps towards the garage area. I don't remember if the two of them were still there.

So. I love car racing. I made a photo of two iconic figures. I got the exposure right and the composition right. And did it in a minimum number of frames. I also got the shot by making the extra effort not to quit when I was tired. And I love thinking back on how it all happened. The photo is technically decent. Because of these factors, the story behind it and the personal level, this is my favorite picture.

A print of it hangs in my house in a location that is above one end of my sofa. When I am laying on the sofa, that photo looks down on me. If I'm feeling good I look at it and smile. If I'm feeling bad I look at it and smile. The photo is a reminder of how fortunate I am to have the career I've had, and where my cameras have allowed me to travel and see.

If you plan to be in Indianapolis during the month of May (race month) A copy of the photo will be on display at Roberts Camera Store. 220 E. St. Clair St. in downtown Indianapolis. It's a fairly new location and a beautiful store with lots of fantastic photo and video equipment. Stop in the store and take a look around.