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An interview with Jim Sugar

From: Shooting with Wireless Flash: Product Shots

Video: An interview with Jim Sugar

Photography was something that from an early age it felt right to me, and more importantly it made me happy. And one of the very, very earliest pictures that I shot got published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and the Times paid me the princely sum of $25, which at that time was a fortune and that was a great experience. And I also had a chance to photograph William Manchester, who at that time was writing Death of a President about John F. Kennedy who had been assassinated about two years earlier, and those pictures got published.

An interview with Jim Sugar

Photography was something that from an early age it felt right to me, and more importantly it made me happy. And one of the very, very earliest pictures that I shot got published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and the Times paid me the princely sum of $25, which at that time was a fortune and that was a great experience. And I also had a chance to photograph William Manchester, who at that time was writing Death of a President about John F. Kennedy who had been assassinated about two years earlier, and those pictures got published.

So I learned very early on, A, that I was good at photography and I shot nice pictures and that there was a market to do the kind of work that I did. Even though I was living in a relatively small place like Middletown, but it was halfway between Boston and New York. And so I made a lot of weekend trips back and forth between Boston and New York. Fairly early on during a geographic story I had a chance to meet the man who I consider to be the smartest human being I've ever met, the absolutely great Burt Rutan, the brilliant airplane designer who up until about a month ago lived in Mojave, California.

His most famous project was the X- Prize where he actually built two aircraft, the White Knight One and SpaceShipOne, and it went up to 100,000 feet and came back down again, SpaceShipOne did, and landed. And then that same aircraft had to be refueled and flown again less than 10 days later in order to win 10 million bucks, and Burt designed these airplanes. I was lucky enough with Burt that at a time when his company was producing a huge number of aircraft, sometimes they would be working on multiple designs at any one time.

Because my connections within the aviation industry were pretty good, sometimes I'd be able to do a story for Popular Mechanics on one of Rutan's planes, sometimes I would do -- I had a lot of Rutan's airplanes in the Geographic, sometimes it's just a single picture in a bigger story or story in a book. But when I got a chance to photograph Burt Rutan's airplanes there were two things that were happening; one were air to air photos of the airplanes in the air. How do you take a picture of an airplane in the air? And you come to realize very early that just because you're 3000 feet up in the air you still have to think and act like a photographer.

You've got to be able to see pictures. You still have to tell the story of that airplane. But then when the airplane was down on the ground, that same airplane whether you did it the night before or the next day, it was a big piece of modern art. It was really sophisticated either sheet metal, or carbon epoxy fiber, that had been formed into this thing that we call an airplane. With Rutan airplanes each one was the mark of a generation, and so what were the features of that airplane that were distinctive, and how much time would they give you to photograph the plane, and where on that airport can you take the plane in order to photograph it? And mostly we worked at twilight.

So the pictures of the airplanes on the ramp at twilight, and each plane was different, the thought process, the way of working, the way of seeing that airplane, of telling the story of that airplane was exactly the same process as photographing our friend Tony holding the pizza in front of Tony's Pizzeria, right at the magic hour in Ventura, California. One guy happened to be in Mojave, the other guy happened to be in Ventura, but it was all about telling stories and illustrating this concept.

Later I got involved with some friends of mine at the Geographic, mostly Rick Gore who was a great science writer at that point, and I started to do science stories. So as a result of doing science stories they had a different requirement and I learned how to light, and learning how to light and learning how to tell the story of complex subject. The most difficult one was gravity. I did a story on gravity for the Geographic and that was really, when I got that assignment it was really a gut shot for me.

How do you photograph something that you can't see, smell, touch, put your hands on, do anything to it? But it's there all the time and you're surrounded by it and you -- it's your job to illustrate that. How do you that? In order to photograph gravity I had to show the effects of gravity or the things that it did, because I couldn't take a picture of it directly. And I had a great picture editor at the Geographic, Bill Douthitt, who is a very close friend of mine to this day, I'm happy to say. And he and I decided that in order to do gravity one of the things we needed to show was we needed to illustrate Sir Isaac Newton's concept of a feather and an apple dropping at the same rate.

And that lead to doing a photo which again to this day was the hardest photograph I've ever done. And I was able to find a vacuum chamber at NASA Ames in Mountain View, California and we build a trap door and got a feather and an apple and I collected them very carefully, and then I got a special set of lights that fired about 20 frames a second. And I was able to figure out how to fire these strobes, and we took all the air out of the vacuum chamber and we put the feather and the apple at the top.

And then when I pulled the release on the trap door, the feather and the apple fell in the vacuum chamber and it took about three days to get it right. I didn't get it right the first time, but at that time we were shooting this on Kodachrome and there was a Kodak dealership right down the street where we could get the film processed overnight. It's not like using one of these digital cameras where you can see that -- I didn't know that I had the picture or not had the picture until the next morning literally. And the second day I still didn't have it right, but by the third day I had everything dialed in, and frame after frame after frame was perfect.

There was no manipulation of the image, the image was very, very carefully set up, but we did it right and we did it honestly. That was the kind of shot that occurred at a point when I was learning photography that I couldn't have done that as an earlier photographer, but at that time it was really a breakthrough shot for me. And so photography for me became problem-solving. Are you doing street people down in South San Francisco under the freeway somewhere next to the railroad tracks? Okay, you can do that, but at the same time somebody may ask you to go out the next day and do a CEO of a corporation, or a CEO of a company where the photo has to be lit, or you may have to go out and photograph a feather and an apple dropping in a vacuum chamber, and do it honestly, it can't be done in Photoshop.

So there were other people who were done similar things before that, but for me the level of complexity for that shot gave me a lot of confidence that almost no matter what was thrown at me photographically I could figure it out.

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Shooting with Wireless Flash: Product Shots

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Jim Sugar
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