SunWorld Shoot

Tom Watson
In the 1970s’, I was working as a C.D. on a new account called SunWorld, located in the Coachella Valley in Southern California’s desert region. SunWorld grew and packed citrus fruits and vegeta­bles, and sold them all over the world, and they grew into one of the leading compa­nies in agri­cul­tural research and devel­op­ment. Coachella Valley is a prime growing area with rich sandy soil, and is ideal for growing fruits and vegeta­bles, year round. It is also located in the hottest spot in the nation, with record temper­a­tures every summer.. 110 degrees (F) and hotter in the month of August, is not unusual.

As you might have guessed, we sched­uled a photo shoot in August, for a four page full color tabloid insert, and addi­tional photos to be used on future projects. I called my friend, and well known envi­ron­mental photog­ra­pher, Ernie Braun. His father was one of the orig­inal Early Cali­fornia Impres­sionist painters from San Diego, CA. Ernie, a WW 2 U.S. Army photog­ra­pher, saw more than his share of the tragedy of war. He was as kind and gentle a human being as I have ever known. Sadly, Ernie died in 2009, not long after I had a phone conver­sa­tion with him, after years of being out of touch.

Loaded down with photog­raphy equip­ment, Ernie and I flew to the LA airport, then hopped a flight to Palm Springs, where we had our motel rooms reserved. Since we knew it was going to be scorching hot, we made sure the motel had a nice swim­ming pool, but it was not a luxury motel. The owner of the agency I was with, started out at BBD & O, and he was quite aware of the big bucks photo shoots with the large corpo­rate clients. But, he also thought it was prob­lem­atic and unnec­es­sary, trying to justify bloated expenses and expanded budgets.. espe­cially when other compet­i­tive agen­cies were constantly scratching at the door of oppor­tu­nity. I char­ac­ter­ized him as an ad man who was half CPA and half attorney. He was tough minded, smart, bottom line oriented, well prepared, never let his guard down and accounted for every nickel that came into the agency, or left the agency.

The first day of the shoot, we met with my clients, who were the two founding owners of SunWorld. Their offices were next to thou­sands of acres of thriving fields and orchards. The first shoot for the day was an outdoor casual portrait shot of the two owners in one of the citrus orchards. That sounded easy enough, right? Since it was already nearing 100 degrees (F) before 9:00 AM, we began setting up. But, there was too much distracting shadows, so we had to wait for the sun to move into a more ideal posi­tion, while it increas­ingly became hotter. Finally the sun filled the area we had selected, and as Ernie began to take some test shots with his Polaroid, swarms of gnats began to converge on all of us, millions of them, like a swarm of locust. We had other shots sched­uled, so we had to stick to our schedule and somehow deal with the gnats. Forget the test shots, it became a ‘relay photo shoot’! The two clients would run out from cover, stand on their desig­nated marks, and before the gnats could swarm on them, Ernie would fire off a couple of quick shots. This went on the rest of the morning, taking a shot or two and then wait for another round. By the end of the morning, my clients were tired, hot and sweaty.. jokingly claiming they had done more phys­ical work that morning than working the fields as young men. Both had worked the fields and expe­ri­enced years of back breaking hard labor. They were not suite and tie corpo­rate execs, they were farmer entre­pre­neurs! By the time we got enough portrait shots to cover our bases, it was about 110 degrees (F) in the shade. The rest of the after­noon was uneventful, but it was hotter than hell! …a dry, intense, dessert heat.

Back to the motel and into the pool to cool off.. even 80 or 90 degree water seemed cool. A cock­tail before dinner, then dinner but no girls or parties, like everyone hears about. We were sched­uled to have the “big shoot” early that morning. At 4:00 AM, Ernie and I met with the Forman, who brought the props we requested ahead of time. The props consisted of three large flat bed field trucks loaded with wooden produce boxes. The scene was to be a shot across huge fields of cucum­bers, with moun­tains in the back­ground and the sun rising from behind the moun­tains. The trucks were parked on a dirt road between fields, about 500 yards in the distance, showing full profiles to add variety, interest and authen­ticity. Nature would provide the rest. This shot would be the front and back spread, and the most impor­tant photo of the bunch. And, it had to be ‘drop-dead-gorgeous’.. and no second chances!

I helped Ernie set up and talk over our strategy.. to make sure the sun was on the right side of the photo so it would show on the front cover of the wrap around, which meant following my layout, without compro­mise. I had complete confi­dence in Ernie’s judge­ment and skills. We stood in an irri­ga­tion ditch, with the camera on a tripod, which was the only strategic spot that we could get what would work. We were ready and waiting like soldiers in a movie, ready for the inevitable attack at dawn. Just before the sun was due to rise, we suddenly noticed water rapidly flowing around and over our shoes. The irri­ga­tion system was on a timer, and we were standing in one of the major arteries that fed the other ditches between endless rows of crops, just in time to be well irri­gated along with the cucum­bers. There was know place else to go, and we had to get the shots within a few minutes. We also had to catch a flight back to LA, then San Fran­cisco to meet a tight “drop dead” dead­line.. no excep­tions or excuses!! It was do or die, we might have to go down with the ship, so to speak! Our strategy was to start shooting just as the sun began to peek over the moun­tains, and keep shooting until it was too high for an ideal effect, which would last only about five minutes, or less. As we stuck to our plan, the water quickly rose first above our ankles, then our knees and before we were finished, it was nearly up to our waste. I was loaded down, holding Ernie’s bags above water, full of expen­sive photog­raphy equip­ment. When the sun was in the right posi­tion, Ernie was all busi­ness, never complaining or allowing the distrac­tion to effect his laser like focus on the job at hand. We had to make quick adjust­ments that couldn’t be antic­i­pated ahead of time. I’m sure that other photog­ra­phers would have been distracted, if not rattled, but Ernie’s war photog­raphy expe­ri­ence under extreme combat condi­tions, prepared him for unex­pected situ­a­tions like this, and he was as calm as the cucum­bers on the vines in front of us.

It was like being in the middle of a fast moving river. Just standing there, even for a short time, mired our shoes and ankles into soft sandy soil, which was like quick­sand. The temper­a­ture was in the 90s’ and climbing. After the sun became too high to fit the layout, we exerted a lot of effort trying to keep our balance, while we grad­u­ally slogged and scram­bled out of the bottom of the irri­ga­tion ditch. With no time to even hose off our jeans and shoes, we rushed back to the Palm Springs airport, barely making our flight, with jeans and shoes wet and muddy. The passen­gers and flight atten­dants looked at us like we were a couple of very unsa­vory char­ac­ters. By the time we got on our flight from LA to SF, our jeans were almost dry and we could brush some of the sandy mud off.

When Ernie brought the trans­paren­cies to me at the agency the next morning, I was more than happy with the results. Ernie had nailed every series of photos. The portrait shot was perfect and there was an adequate selec­tion in which the gnats were barely notice­able in the photos. No one would ever know there was an all out gnat attack! We consid­ered retouching the sweat running down the two client’s faces, but decided it was natural and added to the reality of that area being the hottest recorded temper­a­tures in the nation, every summer. The sunrise shot was ‘drop-dead-gorgeous’! I chose the shot of the sun just as it sepa­rated from the moun­tain top. There was a warm golden cast from the morning sun over the entire photo, and it was as ideal as I could have hoped for. The head­line which was designed and strate­gi­cally placed in the sky to empha­size the rising sun, fit perfectly. The dead­line was met on time and on budget, and the client was thrilled.

It was those little adven­tures and unique chal­lenges that were nice breaks from the usual agency routine, and I always enjoyed working with my photog­ra­pher friends, espe­cially Ernie Braun.

I used Ernie for all the SunWorld photo assign­ments, as well as other assign­ments. He was a great photog­ra­pher and a great guy to work with, and I miss him as a friend. I wish I had exam­ples of that assign­ment, but they were lost in our last move.