We rarely talk about that day. It’s too awkward. It was the day I sent my husband on a low-key photo shoot with my Dad. I blissfully thought it would be a great chance for them to bond since we hadn’t been married that long. I never dreamed Dad would go into, well, “work mode” while Jonathan was with him. I had not prepared Jonathan for “work mode.”
Dad needed a background for his giant, jumping bass photo (more about the bass later). His scouting expeditions led him to Lake Ray Roberts north of Denton, Texas. He also needed some muscle to get the canoe to the exact spot on the lake in time to catch the best light. Enter Jonathan.
Jonathan and I stopped at my parents’ house during one of our many Army moves. When Dad asked if we wanted to tag along on the photo shoot, we said, “Sure.” When Dad asked Jonathan to hop in the canoe with him, Jonathan said, “Sure.” Upon their return to the shore, Jonathan said, “Never Again!” It was clear something terrible had happened and neither one was talking. (I had stayed behind on the shore because there wasn’t room in the canoe once the camera gear was loaded.)
But later that night I finally got the truth. Dad had treated Jonathan like one of his photo assistants. “What’s so bad about that?” you might be wondering. Well the photo community in Dallas didn’t nickname Dad and Uncle Gordon “The Killer Bees” for nothing. They were tough on assistants, but at least the assistants got paid. Jonathan was doing this for free. He thought it would be a nice canoe ride where Dad snapped a few pictures and they paddled back. Wrong.
To be Dad or Uncle Gordon’s assistant you had to be a mind reader like Carnac the Magnificent, have the strength of Sampson and the endurance of “24’s” Jack Bauer on a really bad day. Believe me, I know. I served as their side-kick on many a shoot and quickly decided a photojournalism degree looked very alluring, mainly because no one had assistants in that world.
So back to the lake. Apparently Dad went into “work mode” on an unsuspecting son-in-law. “Paddle faster.” “The light is almost right. Hurry up.” “Stop.” He barked out commands left and right. You get the drift.
Now my husband is a career Army officer, used to taking and giving orders, but I don’t think he anticipated the gruff, demanding photographer that emerged once they were on scene. Plus he didn’t know his father-in-law all that well at this point. Family dynamics can be so tricky.
Getting to the location wasn’t much fun. And once there Jonathan got bored. He skipped rocks. He pondered the meaning of life. He wondered how long this canoe trip would last.
Meanwhile Dad was waiting for the light to be just right. And he was taking shots from multiple angles. And…who knows what else he was doing. Those who have been on location with a photographer know it can be a long process. The photographer is completely absorbed in capturing his shot. The other person isn’t. It’s kind of boring. I know. I’ve been there.
Finally the job was done. He’d gotten his picture. The Dad on the way back was much more relaxed than the Dad on the way out. Nevertheless, Jonathan vowed he’d never be in that position again. Dad was blissfully ignorant.
Many years have passed since the fish incident and there has been a healthy dose of female intervention. Dad has received coaching from Mom about appropriate father-in-law behavior. Jonathan has heard plenty of photo assistant horror stories from me, and now he knows he wasn’t alone in his experience.
The two have gotten to know each other much better over the last 12 years (I’m thinking the two-day “24” marathon at the cabin in the mountains probably helped). They’ve even gone out shooting together—as two guys trying to get a photo, not a photographer and his assistant. And about two years ago, Jonathan even suggested we go into business with Dad after he closed the commercial photo studio.
The moral of the story: Ladies don’t leave the two most important men in your life alone, especially in a work situation and especially early in their relationship. The whole incident may end up in a blog on the Internet.
And Now, The Rest of the Fish Story
Dad had his background for the big bass. The really tricky part was creating the big bass itself. The whole project originally started as a commercial advertising shoot. Dad needed a very special big bass that could launch out of the water on cue. He found a taxidermist who could make a fiberglass fish that looked so real no one would believe it was a fake.
To figure out how to best launch the bass, Dad consulted with a movie special-effects guy. He suggested adding an arm to the fish that was connected to a two-way air cylinder. The taxidermist again came to the rescue and attached the arm. Dad was set to test the bass.
Launching the fish took many practice sessions and tweaking. The water droplets needed to fall off the fish just so and the lure had to be spot on. All of that depended on the pressure in the air cylinder and timing. Finally everything came together. Two thousand pounds of pressure propelled the fish out of the water perfectly.
About that time, the commercial client canceled the shoot. Dad had already poured a good deal of money into the project and decided it shouldn’t go to waste. He would use the picture for his stock photography collection.
With the background and the bass action shots in the bag, all Dad had to do was merge the two images in Photoshop to create an amazing photo. The two images blended seamlessly together. It took some time, but Dad and Jonathan also forged a good relationship despite a rocky start. Although I have to say, I’ve never seen the two of them canoeing together since that fateful day.
Have you ever been a photo assistant? Have you ever sent your spouse on an ill-fated mission with one of your parents? Share your comments below. C’mon, I know I’m not alone here.