Shoot the Terminal

I do just enough corporate travel each year to push me into that category of fliers who are a bit more familiar with airports than they would really like to be. But this familiarity has a nice silver lining to it, and as a photographer, that translates to a target-rich environment for capturing people in a sort of raw, unrehearsed setting of life.

So, how should one go about catching this unique environment with a camera? Some photographers worry that federal agents will swarm upon them and seize equipment if they even try to pull out pro equipment on an airplane or in a terminal. I have to admit that at first, I had some serious reservations of my own – but the temptation was just too great!

My photo-conscious eye was constantly being drawn to interesting exchanges, lighting, and motion. I was missing shots left and right because I was just too timid to react. Finally, one fine day at Denver International, I just started blazing away in concourse B. You know what? No one made a peep. They barely noticed I was there. I have been shooting airports, terminals, and airplanes ever since, and it is amazing how much fun and excitement it brings.

The photos that accompany this story have been collected over a two year period starting in 2006, and they have become a special collection of technique and memories that I enjoy each time I look at them. Here are a few tips for those trying to get up the nerve to shoot the terminal:

1. I know it is tempting, but skip that non-stop flight, and choose an intermediate stopping point with enough layover to do some exploring. When I leave San Diego, I usually hit Phoenix, Chicago, Denver, or Dallas/Fort Worth. All of these are great airports to practice taking photos. Planning for a plane change will also get you mentally ready to confidently plunge into a great photo opportunity.

2. Choose a good bag for the task. I carry a sling pack that I can quickly slide around to my front. I pull my dSLR out nice and smooth, and shoot, then move on. Airport photography is all about quick, discrete behavior. I would recommend avoiding tripods or anything long and metallic that might draw the wrong kind of attention.

3. Do some recon and plan out your shot. Leave your camera tucked away and just patrol the terminals looking for that great shot. If you see a neat silhouette, or a person sleeping in an odd position, chances are you have a minute to prepare. Rehearse your approach in your mind, double check your exposure settings, and go make it happen.

4. Don’t be shy about telling people what you are doing. People in airports are suspicious by nature – it now goes with the territory. When you engage people and tell them what you are doing, they may become interested and might even help you get the shot you need. Be credible, and take cards with your information on them so you can easily hand them to curious people.

Now get out there, and embrace the plane change! There are some great shots to be had at airports. With a little effort and practice, you will soon find yourself actually looking forward to that next round of corporate customer service training on the other side of the country.

A Fight, a Flight,
and a New Fan Contrite

Who is your archnemesis – the one who stands opposed to everything you believe is good in the world? The antithesis to your thesis? The north to your south? The counter to your argument? The “One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” to your “Boy-Who-Lived“?

Two months ago, I could have told you who mine was. It might have taken a few moments to sort through my mental list of candidates for such a designation I inadvertently keep. (If there’s anything I learned from not having been in the Boy Scouts, it’s that one must be prepared with hyperbolic and uncorroboratable opinions at any moment. That is what they mean by “be prepared,” right?)

Anyway, it was a little difficult to shuffle through the crowd of names jostling to be my chief antagonist – especially with names like Kenny G and Shia LaBeouf on the list.

But one name stood head and shoulders above them all. In fact, I remember the moment when He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-A-Few-Moments first summitted my mountain of Moriartys. I was forced, by a poster plastered onto Manhattan’s Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in its most unavoidable sight line, into confrontation about which my sister (a fan of He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-Even-Fewer-Moments) still has nightmares.

“I hate, hate, hate, hate him! He’s my ARCHNEMESIS!!” I screamed, much to the dismay of wealthy tourists stuffing their Gucci bags with Coach clutches and declaring that they came to this “mall” to avoid all the New York “weirdos.” (A statement that I took not as an insult, but rather as a sincere honor, considering the source.)

The-Movie-Star-Who-Will-Be-Named-Shortly was top bill and, literally, poster boy for a new film about to hit the overpriced movie houses of my fair city, besmirching them with that impish grin and perfectly coiffed hair. Seeing this movie quickly became last on my “mop list” – a list of things that I will never, ever do before I die.

So, imagine my utter despair one fateful day when I found He-Will-Be-Named-Soon-Enough-Just-Keep-Your-Trousers-On’s face occupying one of the crucial “films you will be forced to watch on this uncomfortable 13-hour flight to Tokyo” slots. I almost got off the plane. Really. But I quickly realized that this “quote-unquote” film would be on every flight, since it was about to be released to DVD and wasn’t boring holes into people’s souls at the theater any longer.

After watching every flick on the flight roster, I was faced with the inevitable. The high noon, or maybe midnight (I’d completely lost track of time and space at that point during the endless flight), collision between me and him: The-Guy-Who-Doesn’t-Have-A-Name-Yet-But-Will-Right-Now.

Zachary David Alexander “Zac” Efron.

I stared at the in-flight movie guide, clenching my fist around the poorly designed remote control that never fits back into the holder, often causing an accidental change of channel or crank of volume. I returned my seat and tray table to their upright and locked positions and spoke:

Oh, Zac Efron. Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac. Here we are. Just me and you… and the other 200 other people on this plane. I daresay you never thought we’d meet. Nor did I. You with your millions of dollars and screaming tweenybopper fans, your filmography and successful career. Me with my crappy airplane remote, my puffy, dehydrated eyes and my inflated and unsupported opinion of my views on art and culture. It’s time to end this once and for all, ojos a película.

I pressed Play. 17 Again began.

For nearly two hours I sat, upright and locked, eyes fixed on the manchild I had despised for at least several months based solely on the “facts” that he was young and popular, and that the tweenyboppers liked him, assuming that anyone they would like could surely be nothing more than eye candy who can barely use the English language, let alone act. Just another talentless, studio-backed tool. The type worthy of derision from those with such high-minded taste as mine. (That should be funny for those familiar with my work.)

As the high school yearbook-styled credit pages turned, one word emerged from my mind, a phoenix from the ashes of that small part of me that hasn’t yet been consumed by post-post-postmodern cynicism: delightful.

The film was delightful. Zac Efron was delightful. Truly, truly I tell you, I would have shed tears if there had been any water left in my body as we soared high, and dry, above the Pacific Ocean, or the Yukon, or wherever we were.

Of course, 17 Again is, on the surface, a tired retread of the same old “I don’t like my current life. Can I go back to H.S. and relive my ‘glory days,’ then learn my life lessons and come back and fix my current life?” story. But that didn’t matter. It was a charming movie, entertaining and heartwarming. I watched it twice on the flight, and have since seen it here on the ground, while hydrated, and still loved it.

Without the mesmerizing Zac Efron, it would’ve stunk. Not that Matthew Perry is the next thin Marlon Brando, but Efron upstages him with a surprisingly complex portrayal of the 17-year-old version of a 40ish man pretending he’s the 17-year-old version of himself. No small task, especially when that 40ish version played by Matthew Perry, an actor with a hyper-stylized delivery and a known quantity to Gen-Xers like me.

Zac nails it. He saves the day. He won me over.

Zac Efron’s onscreen for 90% of 17 Again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. His performance is funny. It’s serious. It’s genuine. It’s as timeless as a performance can be in our age of immemorability.

Congratulations Kenny G: you’re back on top.