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.