Blog #213 7/11/17
What follows is a short story…with a happy ending.
About 10 years ago, the chief photo editor at Sports Illustrated Magazine, Steve Fine, asked me to make a portrait of George Steinbrenner, the famous (some would say infamous) owner of the New York Yankees.
In order to avoid New York taxes, Steinbrenner lived slightly more than half the year in Tampa, Florida, where he maintained his New York Yankees business headquarters. Sports Illustrated made the arrangements. I flew to Tampa with my assistant and enough equipment to create a compelling (my goal) portrait. During the week before going, I did as much research about him as I could. He had a reputation as a tough businessman, with the impatience typical of many such men; I knew I’d have to be fully prepared. This turned out to make a significant difference and is the fundamental lesson/message of this missive.
The magazine told me that I would have only an hour with him. I arranged to arrive five hours ahead so that I’d be fully prepared to make the portrait and have a few sets for other options in the allotted time. I had in mind various approaches to lighting, perspective and composition to make original images of a public figure who had been photographed countless times before.
When we arrived at the Tampa airport, a member of Steinbrenner’s staff was there to take us to the Yankees spring training baseball field and offices. On the way, the assistant said casually, and without empathy, “You’ll have 30 minutes, with Mr. Steinbrenner, not one second more.” I was about to complain, but realized that it would not only do no good, but would cause even more stress and tension; there was already plenty of that.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ve experienced worse as a working photographer. I can handle this.”
We brought our gear to the office space where the session would take place. I examined every detail within the space and determined what I would and could do in the 30 minutes we were allotted. My assistant and I built the first set. I wanted to create an ad hoc studio rather than simply use the office itself as a background. I tested it out with my assistant as the stand-in, then made two more sets, testing those as well. Within an hour or so I felt well prepared. We waited.
The one o’clock hour that George Steinbrenner was to arrive passed, as did two o’clock. The atmosphere was so controlled and corporate that I only asked once about the schedule. I felt that to do so more than once might result in an
invitation to leave with no portrait. Everyone working in the offices there was serious and mum.
At about 2:30 p.m. Steinbrenner entered the room. The first thing he did as he entered the room was to hold up one hand with fingers extended and proclaim, “Five minutes! That’s it! I’m late for meetings already.” Just imagine for the moment the gut-wrenching feeling…….
How to ease the tension….
“It’s a great privilege to meet you,” I said, and offered my hand, which he shook. I then added, “I understand that you have thirteen grandchildren and that they all live right here in Tampa.“
“That’s right,” he said.
“You are so blessed to have your entire family here with you. That’s an awesome gift.”
He said, “That is really true.”
I asked him about his grandchildren and the ones he was closest to. Although I was doing what I could to remove “the wall” I was also sincerely interested. From that moment on his rigidity began to melt away and we began a respectful, warm conversation about him, his life, family, and the Yankees.
We then spent a full hour making photographs.