Photo Shoot

I first heard about photo shoots in college from a friend whose father photographed food products for print ads.  Came as a surprise to learn he regularly emptied his product down the drain and carefully poured the rival brand of cooking oil into the now empty bottle.  “Their’s looks better than ours.”  Also surprised—though in retrospect not sure why—when I heard that he carefully opened a cream-filled cookie and loaded it with more cream from others in the box.  “Makes for a better looking cookie.”   I kept eating those cookies, but it reinforced my belief not always to trust what your eyes tell you.

And that was the first thing that jumped to mind when I learned that Sue and I were going to stay at an underwater hotel off the Florida Keys for one of her assignments. (In those days she was a feature magazine writer and if the assignment was interesting enough I’d roll along for the ride.)  Staying in an underwater hotel was interesting enough.

There were only two catches—we had to pass a diving resort course—no problem once they loaded enough weight onto Sue to get her frightened inflated lungs underwater (no need for that with me, I had plenty of my own weight) and she would have to do a photo shoot in the hotel to illustrate the article.

Now that was an eye opener.  Photographers swarmed inside and out looking for shots and angles.  Setting up the lights inside and especially outside underwater was amazing and time consuming.  Especially since the water surrounding the hotel’s porthole was so silty that a guest had to shoot wads of American cheese food (provided by management) out a pneumatic tube to lure anything aquatic to a porthole.

Me, I curled up out of the way and spent part of my time watching the photographers and the rest eyeballing the rivets that held the hotel together.  Even with all the action going on, Das Boot was never far from mind.

Years later Sue had another assignment, this time with a food stylist.  She described seeing the same type of illusion making my friend’s father did—only advantaged by technology and technique.

Ever see a mouthwatering heap of steaming spaghetti?  That “smoke” is often a product of soaking a tampon in water, nuking it in a microwave and burying it in the middle of the bowl.  Real spaghetti heat doesn’t hang around long enough for photographers to get their shot.  I guess the moral of the story is: Don’t eat a picture of pasta.  Or at least be careful where you bite.

Last Sunday was my turn.  As many of you know, I’m in the process of turning my books digital.  Although I now own the rights to my words again, the original covers were already someone else’s.  My friend and artist and art designer, Michael Paul Smith generously agreed to create new ones.  One glance at his work (check my links page) will explain why I am delighted.  And for those who would like to have his art at home, he recently published a hardcover book called Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town. ( or at

After he re-read my Matt Jacob novels, it was time to shoot the cover for the first, Still Among the Living.  He wanted to shoot on our kitchen’s enamel top table.  He asked me to put on my Matt Jacob head and gather some of the things he’d have hanging around.  But Michael also give me a long list including a greasy pizza bought the night before (for the perfect congealed look), a .38 with its bullets. First I scoured the Internet for a prop gun.  Seems they only come looking like cheap plastic or a very expensive facsimile.  Quandary time.  Then I remembered my neighbor, Nick, was a hunter and asked him whether he had a .38 and bullets.  He didn’t, he had a friend who did, and he could borrow and transport it given his gun license.  His friend, responsibly, wanted him to be with the gun at all times, so we were gonna have a prop wrangler at the shoot. (Pun intended.)

The day before, I gathered a bunch of Bakelite, bought cigarettes, dug out some old time menu paper from my father’s bar along with mechanical pencils embossed with “Klein’s Tavern,” rolled a few joints (oregano, of course), dirtied up some ashtrays, found my copy of Mark Harris’s book The Southpaw and felt good to go.

Until 1 AM when I realized I had forgotten the damn pizza.  I grabbed my phone hoping to find some place that delivered or was at least still open.  Even on Saturday nights Boston closes early.  I scored—though the man kept asking me what I meant by extra grease.  I explained it was for a photo shoot the next day and I needed the box to have blotchy grease stains.  He reluctantly agreed as long as I didn’t show the store’s name on top of the box.  Delivered and leaching oil, I went to sleep.

Sunday morning Michael arrived with his tiny electronic camera and painter’s lamp (he never uses any fancy equipment, which makes his art all the more astounding).

Michael surveyed all the stuff I’d collected for him to choose from.  He immediately began to arrange the objects that, when assembled, would represent Matt Jacob inside and out.  He took more than a half hour to pick and position on the enamel top table.  He also had his photo shoot tricks, like lightly dipping cigarette butts into coffee so they looked like the nicotine had drawn through (all of us had been smokers so were afraid to light up).

Then I called Nick who came right over.  He took the gun out of a soft case and started to hand it to Michael who pulled away as Sue also cringed.  Nick assured everyone it wasn’t loaded and showed us the bullets in his hand.  Michael took the gun, sprinkled the bullets in and outside the pizza box and proceeded to shoot (pictures).  Finally finished, Nick took the gun home and the three of us sat down and ate cold pizza.

Michael has sent some first takes on the cover—amazing.  In the upcoming week, we’ll work on hammering out the fine details.  But now Sue and I are just back from New York City, where we visited our son Matthew, his girlfriend Alyssa and the Museum of Art and Design with an exhibit, Otherworldly, which is running through September 18th and is featuring some of Michael’s work.    (You gotta scroll down to find his work—the artists are named in alphabetical order.)

It’s going to be even more fun when we’re ready to shoot the cover of TWO WAY TOLL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.