From August of 1985 to July of 1996, I was the proprietor, manager, technician and custodian of Groundglass Photography Inc. I serviced the commercial and industrial markets of Northeast Ohio with studio and on-site location photography – weddings not included. These projects ranged from shooting in blazing hot, filthy forging foundries, to delicate Spode ceramics featured in gift catalogs, to open heart surgeries for the manufacturer of stainless steel chest retractors.
In most major cities, photographers can base their entire business on specialty shooting, i.e. food, fashion, sports, annual reports, or any one of a number of markets. But in Cleveland, you pretty much have to cover the spectrum of whatever work is available.
I started in business by renting cooperative studio space on Superior Viaduct with two other commercial photographers. Herb Crowther, the leaseholder and general manager of the association, was very influential during my inaugural year as Groundglass Photography. There were a number of collaborative projects we partnered on including, by today’s standards, a rudimentary special effects photo of laser beams emitted from candy bars into milk shakes.
As hokey as it sounds, it was a monumental feat in 1985 to expose one sheet of 8×10 color transparency film about a dozen times with this much accuracy regarding position and exposure.
In late 1986, Lenore and I bought our first house in the Old Brooklyn section of Cleveland and subsequently relocated the Groundglass offices, studio and darkroom.
This was an ideal situation to keep the business overhead costs down, but limited my studio jobs by what you could carry up a narrow flight of stairs. One of my best customers, the Cleveland Range Company, could never utilize my home studio because of the size and weight of its commercial convection ovens.
This, and increasing demands from other customers, prompted my move to a 2500 square foot warehouse complex in Brecksville. It was a prime location from the standpoint of highway access and facility features that included a large drive-in overhead door, 18-foot ceilings, concrete floor, and a 30-foot infinity wall.
This facility was active from 1989 to 1996 and created many new friendships, customer relationships, and interesting life experiences. But statistically, still half of my work was done on location. This was usually at the customer’s facility, or someplace that had a connection to my customer’s products.
The following post’s are based on a series of on-the-job experiences. They depict how sometimes business decisions are made regardless of your fears and apprehensions. Additionally, these cases show how photography is sometimes more dumb luck than skill.
Chapter One… It’s a Flying Shame
I’m not ashamed to admit that working at heights above 20 feet does not qualify as one of my strengths. This includes airplane travel in general. One bad experience in 1982 has me popping Dramamine religiously before boarding any aircraft.
One advertising agency that I had a strong business relationship with was Sonnhalter Incorporated. John Sonnhalter and his staff specialized in business-to-business industrial clients which fit right into my business profile. When he approached me about a project that required aerial photography of his client’s manufacturing facilities, I silently hesitated. Thinking it through, I accepted this job because of the potential work that may come as a result of this.
It was a clear summer morning when I arrived at the charter service’s hanger at Cleveland Hopkins airport. There I met Bill, the Marketing Director for the client, Presrite Corporation, who would be flying along with the pilot and myself. Our objective was to photograph two facilities, and then create large poster-size color prints used in an upcoming trade show. The first location was near Ashtabula Ohio, and second was Presrite’s main plant on Bessemer Avenue in Cleveland. I boarded the single engine Cessna and positioned my gear on the rear bench seat. The interior of the plane was similar to that of my Toyota Corolla, with the exception of over sized pop-out windows and white vomit bags in the front seat pouch. I immediately felt an anxiety rush. In my haste of gathering up photo gear earlier that morning, I didn’t take any Dramamine. The door slammed shut and Bill asked, “Do you have everything?” Once again I silently hesitated thinking there’s no way they’re going to delay taking off while I go search for a Walgreen’s. “I think we’re good,” and upon saying that another rush of fear traveled from my heart to my brain. Bill asked the pilot if he knew navigationally where we were headed. The pilot took from his satchel a Rand McNally road map of Ohio and said, “If we head over I-90 east and turn south on Route 11, we should be able to fly into it from the west.”
The flight itself was smooth – no crosswinds and unlimited visibility. I was actually comfortable and enjoyed the view from 5000 feet. Flying low and slow allowed time to find familiar reference points along the way. About 20 minutes into the flight, Bill looked back at me and pointed down to a large, yellow warehouse looking building. In order to get the proper shooting angle, we had to fly at a very steep bank and in a continuous circle. As I put the lens on my camera body and positioned myself against the rear window, I felt the same gyrating feeling like on the “scrambler” at Geauga Lake. The plane was bouncing and lurching much more now than before. Looking through the camera’s viewfinder, I found it difficult to hold steady. I clicked off several shots, but knew that the combination of a slow shutter (due to the low speed film) and the excessive shaking would not make for a crisp image.
We circled several more times with my eye pressed against the viewfinder trying to compose the best shot, when it hit me. I wasn’t going to make it. That sensation – the cold sweats, my color turning green – I’ve felt it all before. Sitting back into the bench seat, I put both my head and camera down. Glancing at the white bag in the seat pouch, I knew it was going to be my only friend for the rest of this flight. It may have been the noise or the smell that prompted the pilot to turn around and take notice of my situation. “We had another photographer do the same thing last week,” he said. All I wanted right now was to get back on the ground, script an apology to John Sonnhalter in hopes that this incident wouldn’t damage our relationship, and go home to bed.
Unfortunately, we still had another location to shoot. Even a quick glance outside the plane’s window would send my body into a retching position. Bill must have had compassion on me because he instructed the pilot to forego the Cleveland facility and head back to the airport. The pilot radioed the control tower and received instructions for a flight path that took us right over downtown Cleveland. In a somewhat sarcastic tone, Bill turned around and said, “Too bad you’re missing some great shots of the city.” In an act of defiance, or some sickened sense of humor, I lifted my camera off the seat, pointed it in the general direction of the window, clicked one shot and set it back down. This was all done in one motion with my head still between my knees. I never looked up, or made any adjustments to the camera’s settings. I do recall Bill chuckling and saying in a low voice, “That’ll probably be the best shot.”
The balanced of that beautiful day was spent in bed.
When I arrived at my studio the next morning, there was a message on my answering machine from John Sonnhalter. I could tell by his voice that he was amused over the stories Bill must have related to him about the previous day’s events. I returned his called and assured him that there would be no charges incurred for that assignment. (This was a job that I quoted $600 just for my time.) As suspected, the processed film came back from the lab with less than stellar results. Presrite’s facility images were shaky at best and would be suitable for reproductions no larger than 4 or 5 inches. Definitely not the sizes of trade show posters, as was the original intent.
Later that week, I spoke to some photographic colleagues who had experience with aerial photography. Much to my relief, they had similar experiences during their first time shooting from a plane. The consensus is that motion sickness is accelerated when you limit your peripheral vision. This theory especially holds true when keeping one eye shut, and the other eye looking through a very monocular device. There are cameras available specifically designed for aerial photos with over sized viewfinders. This allows your peripheral vision to increase and not be restricted as in the case of conventional cameras. For the amount of times I would commit to more aerial work, it wouldn’t be worth the investment.
As for the over-the-shoulder shot of downtown Cleveland, Bill was right – it was the best shot of the day. In fact, this particular shot was purchased and used by several other accounts I did work for.
No technical expertise here, just simple luck.