Introducing a new type of (occasional) blog post, Photo Backstories. The idea came when I got an email recently from the son of a dear friend whom I hadn't heard from in a decade or more. He inherited a poster from his older brother, who had taken his own life at age sixteen. I had produced this poster in 1984 and personally bestowed it on the departed brother. Now the younger brother is 35 and wanted to know how the image and poster came about. After sending it to the young man, I realized others might be interested in the stories behind some of my pictures, and fleshed it out a bit to share with readers here.
Webmaster note: Please do let us know if you would like to see more of these photo backstories. I will pester Marvin gently.
also employed skilled craftsmen who used tiny brushes and color dyes to remove unwanted items from the secondary image by painting over them. That was how, for example, trash on a lawn became green grass, and scratches on the original color image vanished.
Some years later, when I was a freelance photographer, I became the vice president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Among my duties was creating and arranging four of the ten monthly programs we put on annually. Free and open to the public these programs often consisted of a well-known photographer showing images from his or her portfolio, talking about these images and about their career, and taking questions from the audience. Other programs dealt with technical subjects such as lighting or recent technical innovations.
I had learned by then how hard it was to shoot a picture that looked as good on a page as it did in the camera, and as many ASMP members shot for magazines, I thought that they would be interested to know what I had learned about correcting color, retouching, and preparing an image for the printing press. This was, I hasten to add, decades before the advent of powerful home computers and photo editing software such as PhotoShop.
I created a two hour program around a printer, a color correction specialist, and two art directors. To publicize this program, I needed a poster that would be distributed to camera stores, art galleries and at other retailers where photographers, including amateurs, might see it. Eventually, my poster would be seen around Hollywood, West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, Venice, and several other Southern California communities. We also left 200 copies on a table near the door of our rented hall. All but a few went home with attendees.
The image I selected was one that I had made years earlier.
In 1984 I learned that the Chinese government offered very inexpensive tours to media people. I applied. When I got to the San Francisco Airport I discovered that nearly all others were septuagenarian publishers of small-town newspapers and their wives. There were a few younger people, all photographers, including Mikki Ansin and John Livzey. We flew directly to Shanghai, and from there went by canal boat, train, and bus across China’s central section, arriving at last in Beijing. At every stop, we were reminded of the glories awaiting us at The Great Wall. We rarely left our bus, train or canal boat except to go to a hotel or spend an hour at some tourist destination, which always included a Friendship Store. We spent much more time in Friendship stores, each offering inexpensive, duty-free imports from France, Italy and the United Kingdom. And lots of local products—silks, carvings, paintings and other artwork, clothing, and a large selection of unusual tchotchkes at very good prices. And everywhere we went we were promised the wonders of the Great Wall at the end of the tour.
Alas, at our tourist destinations, there was no time to just walk around and explore. Mostly we had no opportunity to take photos except through the window of a moving bus.
Eventually, we youngsters, all in our forties, became the Gang of Five and jumped ship. For example, when the old folks were shopping in Shanghai, we descended, sans guide, on a factory and spent an hour or two photographing the children in its childcare facility.
We got to the Wall on a typical northern China February day: It was very cold, with overcast skies and a stiff breeze from the Gobi Desert. We were promised half an hour on the Wall, and then an opportunity to visit a very special Friendship Store before returning to Beijing.
Half an hour? The Gang of Five revolted. We decided to spend as long as we liked on the Wall, and then find our own way back to our Beijing hotel.
Our guides held a rapid-fire discussion in Mandarin and gave in.
To our surprise, we were joined, briefly, by an older woman who had informally but very emphatically taken charge of all the passengers on our bus. She, too, wanted to spend more time on the wall and hoped her legs were up to it. We learned that this lady had once been the sergeant-major of an all-female anti-aircraft battalion in London during the Blitz.
Anticipating Northern China’s winter drabness, I had brought along a bright red knit watch cap. When I got to a likely spot in the window of one of the many watchtowers dotting the wall, I asked one of others, whose name I have forgotten, to don the cap. I positioned him on the Wall below me.
When he was in position, and while I was fussing with my tripoded camera, the sergeant-major stepped into my frame and demanded in her parade-ground voice that I take her picture.
How could I say no to a lady sergeant-major?
She wore a thick gray overcoat, a white fur hat, and her new Gucci scarf.
I shifted my frame to the left to re-compose the picture.
Clutching her handbag, she smiled at the camera. A gust of wind blew her black scarf across her face. For an instant, the Gucci logo became her third eye.
I made the exposure without thinking. Then the wind paused, the scarf fell, and I took a few more for the sergeant-major’s scrapbook.
Flash forward to my poster project. I had decided to call the lecture “The Color Enigma,” because to most photographers the information my panel would present was new. Few of us had any notion of what happened between the time we handed in our transparency and its publication in a magazine, or how to make exposures that better lent themselves to lithography.
I designed the poster, which included both a title and a line of explanation, plus the time and location of the event, and found a printer who agreed to run a thousand copies gratis, as a donation to the nonprofit ASMP.
Color printing on an offset press requires that each sheet make multiple journeys through the press, each time accepting a new layer of color, laid down as tiny ink dots on the paper. Usually, the last pass was black or, following that pass, a lacquer of some sort that made part of the image pop off the page.
The printer agreed that after printing the ASMP’s posters, he would remove all the type except the word “Enigma” on the red layer, burn a new printing plate, and make 500 copies of the poster for my own use, all at his cost, which was less than $100.
I gave the poster to my clients and prospective clients. I had about twenty left when I moved to North Carolina, but they were dusty and wrinkled, and I threw them out. That chapter of my life closed long ago.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.