Archive for March, 2013

Monte Zucker

In my opinion, the late  Monte Zucker‘s name should never be far from the mind of any professional portrait photographer.  Monte’s photographic gravitas is like the reputations of  so many inspirational people whose fame and respect only grow larger when they are gone.

I have often talked and joked about Monte’s approach to posing people for portraits — he knew what he wanted.  But the pose,  while resulting in a classic portrait that looks completely natural, often feels really unnatural to the subject.  It’s counter-intuitive.

So Monte would sometimes take matters into his own hands.  He would put his camera down, approach the subject, grasp the neck and render a quick adjustment that resembled the work of an impatient chiropractor.

Joe Bruch

Of this technique, my friend and fellow Monte disciple, Master Photographer Joe Bruch recounts that after Monte administered the first ‘adjustment,’ the subject would most likely proactively assume the perfect pose should Monte begin to approach for the second time.  (I would have opted for the adjustment).

Rod Menzies

Anyway, when director and acting coach Rod Menzies contacted me and asked if I could to do a favor for his friend and acupuncturist, Edward Jwa of the Toluca Wholeness Center, I jumped at the chance.  Edward and his partner, Daniel Cho are well-respected in the Korean Community, but felt that a short video of their new Toluca Lake, California clinic produced in English could interest perspective Western clients who were perhaps unfamiliar with and might benefit from acupuncture and herbology.

At one point while making the video of Edward of Daniel as they were consulting in their office space, I felt Monte’s memory urging me to correct Daniel’s head position.  After unsuccessfully verbalizing the correction, I decided to come forward from behind the Canon camera. I quickly approached Daniel and made the necessary ‘Monte Adjustment,’ as shown in the video clip below.

Now, the astute observer may notice that magic was in-the-air immediately after the adjustment, because  my ‘chiropractic posing’ diploma mystically (and tastefully) appears, thereby appropriately augmenting the Toluca Wholeness Center’s waiting room wall:


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Have I Ever Really ‘Seen’ My Mother?

When I have pointed a camera at my mother – ever – she would respond by turning on a dime and running into another room snarling, “Oh, Billy!”

This visit to Los Angeles was the exception.  She let me put a camera on her and opened up like I don’t remember.  I began to get an idea of her persona. In fact, after viewing the clips and stories that I am about to share with you, I am beginning to think that my Mother was not the combination of cook and maid that I had expected her to be in my youth, but rather that she was actually quite a bon vivant — certainly much more of a person than my limited view of her has allowed.

And after finding the snapshot below in my late father’s archives of my mother, younger than I am now, I suspect that I may not have ever ‘seen’ my mother as she is or was.

“Billy, Why Don’t You Come Over for Breakfast?”

“I love to cook,” Mother says.  “Your sister doesn’t want me to cook for her, and since they laid me off, I have more-than-enough time on my hands.”

Life After the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) Hospital

The MPTF Hospital (affectionately, ‘The Old Actor’s Home’)

The MPTF Hospital laid my mother off at age 84 after 35 years of service.  She called me one Thursday night to say that the Personnel Dept. had asked her to come-in to discuss her separation package.  I listened patiently as she said,

“Billy, they can’t lay me off, can they?  There’s just so much to do, and these young kids they have working with me don’t care about the job; they make mistakes constantly and seem only to want to text their boyfriends.  I find so many medical samples mis-labeled all the time and I have to correct them.  And besides, I have a meeting with the pathologist tomorrow to discuss a rush job for him, so I can’t take the time go to Personnel!  What do you think?”

Having lived through some lay-offs of my own, I, with some filial hesitation informed my Mother,

“Mother, you’re already gone!  Your supervisor was probably asked to reduce a full-time-equavalent (FTE) — and you’re it!.  Maybe you can negotiate some time to cross-train someone who will be staying.  But you are history!”

Still incredulous, she said,

“What am I going to do with all that time on my hands?”

Just about everyone in my my family has worked at MPTF at one time or another.  It was my first job.  While still in a college pre-med program, they gave me a summer job in housekeeping.  That work just kept piling-up with every new day! I think at least one of my sisters and brother worked there.

Now, Mother invites me over when I am in town, and I could be mistaken, but she seems to be  less anxious for me to leave.

“Come over on Tuesday — I’ll make you waffles the way your brother likes them — with bacon in them.  Better not tell him; he’ll be jealous.”

(So, I immediately emailed my brother the following picture:)

“Don’t tell your brother that I made you waffles!”

As suggested by the above image,  Mother would not sit down with me at the table that she had meticulously set, but instead kept handing me waffles through the kitchen portal while never stopping talking.

At one point,  she sat down on the cobbler’s chair that she keeps in the kitchen and continued to reminisce about her life.

I stopped her before she got too far and said, “Hold that thought, I’m going to get my tripod.”

Continuing Life’s Recapitulation

I ran to the car, came back,  set it up and started to record her stories, very surprised that she did not object.  I have heard some of the stories before, but each time is like the first time.

“At 65 I wouldn’t have put up with this for a minute.  But at 85 ….”

She was feeling that my sister was taking her for granted, but instead of complaining, she started to reminisce about the way she had done likewise to her mother.  Seeing her filled with emotion before my eyes, I did not stop to make fine exposure adjustments, but instead started to record (I’ll know better next time):

Navigating Early-television Hollywood

Bill Leyden, Jr.

Bill Leyden, Jr.

This rogue is my late father.

(Headshots like this are usually touched-up.  But that is the way he looked.  In fact, his hair looked like that when he woke up!)

An early death probably cut short a career that had already peaked.  But there wasn’t anyone in Hollywood that he did not know.  The peak preceded a tragic personal loss.  He never fully recovered from a hunting accident that occurred in the early 60s in which he lost one of his eyes.  It made him self-conscious that the glass eye never quite matched the other.  The aftermath of the injury also gave him constant pain.  And with 20/10 vision (pilot’s eyes), he was particularly saddened by the loss.

On day, with my juvenile take on things, I said to him,

“Daddy, if you had just been one step to the left, the buckshot might have missed your  eye.”

With no hesitation, he said to me, “Or if I had been one step to the right, I may have lost both of them!”

Mother often talks about their forays in Hollywood.  And I listen eagerly, watching attentively as her moods reflect upon one other and then dissipate —  often  several times during the same sentence.

“Well , What Did You Think of Clark?”

Clark Gable

Clark Gable

I love to hear stories about the Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s.  The air was dirty, but life seemed cleaner.  My faded recollection is that you could leave the family car running outside all night (don’t ask me why one would do that) and it would still be there in the morning!

It has been my experience that kids that grew up around movie and television stars are probably more impressed by the stars on a general’s uniform than the stars on the screen, whereas a ‘military brat’ is more likely to be star-struck.

Mother, by virtue of her relationship to Dad, fell into the former group.  She would not be prone to gush over a movie star, and would at times be oblivious to one’s fame even if she had been conversing with one, as the following clip regarding  Clark Gable would seem to suggest:

“Not TullyTelly!”

Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas

I’ll have to remember to ask why Mother says that Telly Savalas was such a ‘sweetheart,’ considering that he chided her gently for mispronouncing his name.

“Agnes Moorehead – She Was Striking, Absolutely Striking!”

Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead is probably best-remembered as Samantha’s moody, red-haired mother on the television sitcom, “Bewitched.”  She was much more than that.  Here Mother gives an insight to the late Ms. Moorehead that I would not have expected:

Did Mother Just Say Nick Cravat Asked Her Out?

Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat in “The Crimson Pirate” (1959)

OK, you can think what you want of me, but one of my favorite movies as a kid was “The Crimson Pirate,” starring Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat and Eva Bartok.   Now that I have broached this subject, I might as well come clean and admit that  Steve Reeves in “Hercules Unchained” would have my brother and I in front of the TV set — guaranteed.  (Mother also claims to have had a date with Steve Reeves — he took her on the bus to Muscle Beach).

In fact, any swashbuckling adventure or feature with a character named “Machiste” would usually have my brother and I on the edge of our seats. There, I’ve said it!

Anyway, I was thrilled that Nick Cravat gave to my mother for me an autographed copy of “The Crimson Pirate.”  Not knowing anything about their acquaintance, I asked her about him:

“—-trying to look classy….”

Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles

Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles

I am not sure if I would want to come-in late to a Don “Mr. Warmth” Rickles performance; it would be a sure-fire way to be a target for quips, as Mother was soon to find out:

“…Betty White – Boy, Was She Young!”

Betty White

Betty White

Since Mother had mentioned meeting Telly Savalas at the late Dennis James’ house, I was curious if she knew Betty White.

Two days after mother had sat willingly in front of my camera for the first time ever, I was still in disbelief that she had opened up while being recorded.  I had previewed some of the footage and was unhappy with my technical performance, but let it go.  I picked up the phone to call,

“Mother, I loved listening to your stories, would you be willing to sit with me again before I leave town, maybe Friday morning?”

“Yes, I guess so.  But I know I will freeze if there is anyone else at home but you.  So come early.  What stories do you want to hear?”

“I’m not going to telegraph them — I would prefer to hear them fresh!”


On Friday, I thought that Mother might have second thoughts about being in front of the camera, but she didn’t hesitate to start talking about the past again, but not before over my feigned objections she offered to make me an omelet.

“I’ll make you a cheese omelet; that will be simple — with ham, spinach, pepper, onion and salsa!”

(That’s the kind of thing that I would never do on my own; I don’t have the patience to cut up all that stuff).

“Bill Leyden’s Wife …. That’s Nobody!”

She started right-in remembering the night club days.  Here, forgetting about the omelet on the stove, she fondly remembers Milton “Uncle Miltie” Berle and also a snide put-down by a fellow party-goer.

I rather like this snippet because at the end it shows one of my favorite Mother-stereotypes — no matter where Mother goes, she jogs!  Here she forgets that there is an omelet on the stove and jogs over (she would have done that if she had not forgotten).  I have seen her jog in the Petrified Forest in Arizona in 100 degree heat!

I continued our visit by asking her to tell several stories about which my sister had coached me two days earlier.

Lucille Ball’s Ride

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball had not yet become a recluse in the early 60s.  This story about my dad mistakenly being given her car by a valet is a scream.  I remember as a boy walking into a school bazaar in Hollywood and seeing Lucille Ball sitting at a carnival-style make up booth.  Nobody was in the booth.  I walked up; she bade me sit down, and proceeded to turn me into a bandito complete with sombrero.

‘Sick’ in Florida

My sister loves this story; it must touch for her some inner-rebel.  She advised me, “get Mother to tell you about the time she called-in sick and went to Florida for a weekend of water skiing.  She didn’t realize that her boss was vacationing at the same location in Florida!”

Just-a Dancin’ Machine

Jimmy Stewart, Dance Instructor

I am sorry, but the thought of my mother doing certain things does not set well with my stomach.  I can’t help it.  I think any detail further than those shown in the following clip of her learning how to do “The Twist” is unnecessary and probably undignified.  Let it be enough to say, that I am glad that Jimmy Stewart was the one who had to see my mother learn how to do “The Twist.”  For me, watching this clip just about crosses-the-line; the vision of my mother ‘twisting’ at any age is almost more than I can bear.  But, it’s not about me, after all, is it?

“Mother, Don’t Move the Chair — Just Get Up and Move Out-of-Frame.”

Planning a ‘Dissolve’

I wanted to do a cheap editing dissolve at the end of the first day’s recording, so I asked Mother, “Just look at the Canon Logo on the camera for a moment, then, when you are ready and without moving the chair, get up and get out of here!”

Anticipating a Broken Heart

The above clip is most likely my pre-sorrow manifesting itself before we will no longer have the waffles and the sharing of memories.  I will remember this expression that she made that seemed at-once proud, content and grief-ridden.  When that time comes, the kitchen will have never felt so empty.

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The Crayon Court Comes to Town

Paul, from the college foundation was explaining to me, “Bill, donors to the college make events like this possible. We’d like to get an image that we can use for our magazine — you can do anything you want — make any image you want –anywhere you want.  All the performers ask is that you don’t use any flash during the show.  They are more-than-willing to help you make an image at the end of the program with one or more of the audience.”

So, as the school buses began to arrive, Paul and I were on the lookout for someone who might enjoy getting a picture taken with the cast.

As I was scouting the audience of anxious first-graders, the subjects were hamming-it-up for the camera.  The scene below is typical:

Waiting for the “Crayon Court”

Outside, the students were filing-in and being greeted by the cast members.

After a couple of passes capturing candids, I sat down and mentally ran the checklist for the cover shot that I would make at the end of the show.

  • Canon flash charged, set on manual, soft-box, waiting in the wings
  • Quantum Q Flash charged, set on manual, soft-box, also ready and waiting in the wings
  • Radio slave transceivers set to Channel 1

Suddenly, I realized one of the first-graders had turned around in her seat and was staring at me; she wanted me to take her picture.

“OK,” I said.

“Will you take my picture?”

I showed her the back of the Canon camera.

“How’s this?” I asked.

“It’s OK,” she allowed.

“Really? What would make it better?” (I learned this response from my osteopathic mentor, Hugh Milne).

She quickly answered, ” … if there was one of those crayon people in the picture with me!”

Smiling to myself I said, “I think I can help you with that.”

I quickly signaled to Paul and a teacher to come over.  After confirming with the teacher that she was a candidate in good-standing,  we gave her the news — if she wanted to be in a picture with the Crayon Court, we would get her after the show.

She was thrilled.

So, after what was a really wonderful performance on colorometry and shapes, I grabbed the flashes from the wings and got ready to shoot using the auditorium as the backdrop.  We told the rest of the children if they wanted to be in the pictures, to come to the front of the stage.

I set about making the picture ‘better:’

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I love watching rehearsals — any kind of rehearsal.  Concerts, plays, public speaking events, sales presentations — you name it.  I’m the guy who would rather walk through the unmarked door next to a gift shop near the Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland that leads to the utility corridors than go on the ride itself.

When my good friend and director Rod Menzies let me sit in on a coaching session with comedienne, Alice Johnson Boher, I was beside myself!

So yesterday, when I found myself at the Performing Arts Center at Yavapai College, I couldn’t help peeking at the stage.  I rarely lug the Canon camera around if I am not expecting to use it, but yesterday was an exception. So I entered the balcony and saw that there was a little activity on the stage.

An informal rehearsal in Prescott, AZ

The musical chorus director rushed to the stage to send individual groups to rehearsal rooms, leaving two students on the stage (I’ll get their names later for a post script). Since I was accompanied by my friend and fund-raiser for the college, I felt completely comfortable about going up on the stage to get a closer look.

There was a time in my life when the thought of approaching people going about their business would have never entered my mind.  But over the years, I have missed making far too many good images by being timid or worrying about whether or not a photographer would be welcome to over-think taking the shot now. And although I don’t practice the all-out techniques of the paparazzo, I will usually not hesitate to approach people in a scenario that interests me.

So I did not flinch to make this image:

“Let’s take it from the high note…”

This particular image above  would have been very difficult to make several years ago.  Although it does not look like it, there was very little light on stage.  With another camera, it would have been a grainy mess, especially if I had used a vintage digital  Nikon.

I used a Canon EOS 6D with the 40mm pancake lens (great for walking-around) at ISO 3200 (no flash), f3.2 at 1/30 second.

If I had it to do over, I would have done it at ISO 6400 at 1/60.  But I am still learning, after all!

They looked at me with the glory and fearlessness of youth and asked me, “are you coming on March 21st?  We’re doing “Children of Eden“!  You know — by Stephen Schwartz; he also wrote  “Godspel,” and “Wicked!””

Without hesitation, I said, “I’ll certainly try… break a leg!”

“Thank you!” smiling at me as they answered.

A Lapse of Invisibility

They were shortly joined by an accompanist, who upon observing me making the following image

looked up from the piano.  With a little hope in her voice, she asked me, “Are you the composer?”

(She must have been fooled by my Hollywood-actor-style, dress-down wardrobe with the trendy wool scarf and big camera).

I answered, thinking to myself ‘maybe I’m not as invisible as I thought I was,’ “No, I’m just a guy with a camera.”

And I’ve never looked as good as Stephen Schwartz!

Composer, Stephen Schwartz

Composer, Stephen Schwartz

“Oh, OK,” she said without any animus – and went back to rehearsing.

I love rehearsals!

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