The Weekly Edit: Ethan Pines: Forbes Magazine

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Art and Design Director:  Robert Mansfield
Photo Editor: Meredith Nicholson
Photographer: Ethan Pines
Retouchers: Rebecca Bausher and Gretchen Hilmers

Heidi: You were shooting some of the wealthiest people in the US, what sort of production perks came with this? Besides simple things like Formula One cars and NASCAR as a back up?
Ethan: You’d think there would be loads of perks, right? This was a DIY production, like so many editorial shoots. But the benefit of shooting venture capitalists is, they’re the guys with the money. Sequoia Capital (subject of the article, stars of the race-car shot) paid for the Formula One and NASCAR cars, the props to round it out, extra lighting / grip, and my favorite prop stylist Shannon Amos. And the nice people at the Bay Area Discovery Center let us use the location in exchange for, I believe, a fine bottle of Bourbon.

As for the large gathering of company founders, we shot it quickly on the floor of the Tesla Motors factory. The perks were (1) someone brought me BBQ chips and a vitamin water; (2) high ceilings and plenty of shooting space; (3) getting to explore the Tesla factory, which is this amazing confluence of people, technology and robots reminiscent of dinosaurs.

You mentioned this was an ad-scale production. Did you produce this alone or did the magazine help you?
I typically produce my own shoots for Forbes, once they secure the subject. Since I’m the one who insisted the pit-crew shot wouldn’t be too over-the-top, it pretty much fell to me to produce this one.

In this case, I and Andrew Kovacs at Sequoia essentially co-produced it. Andrew and Forbes coordinated the company founders for the cover, all of whom were originally backed by Sequoia as start-ups. Andrew organized the race cars, secured pit-crew wardrobe and props, and helped with various details. I spent three days texting, emailing and phone-calling my brains out to get everything in place. Sequoia was extremely excited about the pit-crew shot, but I don’t think they realized what it takes to produce a photo shoot. All those details — locations, access, parking, power, water, food, shade, props, restrooms, being able to see at 4 a.m., directions, permission, weather, wind — you can’t take anything for granted. Then there’s the actual shoot, when you’re asking business guys to act and inhabit roles — and do it for an hour or so.

The magazine was available for whatever help I needed, from approving locations to using their pull to make things happen. The entire crew helped by working hard and passionately as always. I have to recognize my assistants Brad Wenner and Podbereski, who did a great job on too little sleep.

Scheduling billionaires is no small feat. What was the biggest challenge?
Fortunately it was not me but the the good people of Sequoia who scheduled that group. I’m sure there were scores of challenges I never heard about; all these major company founders were rearranging their schedules and flying in just for the shoot. I did, however, field a lot of questions about what people should wear.

My tough moment came at the shoot when Doug Leone, the head of Sequoia Capital, refused to be out in front of everyone on the cover as Forbes had planned. He wanted this to be about the founders, not about himself. Which is understandable. I’m standing there at the shoot, in front of 14 billionaires who are giving us 30 minutes, thinking, OK, what now? Do I argue on behalf of my client and jeopardize the good vibe at the shoot? No, but maybe there’s a middle ground. We compromised on having him second row, somewhere just off center. I scrapped my pre-laid plan for arranging everyone and did it on the fly.

How many days was this project?
All told, probably seven to eight days. A day of pre-production emails and phone calls from L.A. Two days of scouting and prepro in the Bay Area. Two days of shooting. Two days in post. Not to mention two days roundtrip driving to the Bay Area and back.

What sort of monkey wrench did running out of gas on the freeway do to your productivity?
I’m often overextended and pushing the fuel gauge to E, but this had never happened before. When emails, texts and phone calls are coming and going, it’s easy to forget about gas. I got rescued pretty quickly by the roaming Metro guys who patrol freeways looking for stalled cars during rush hour. What an incredible service. They’re like traffic guardian angels.

The episode actually didn’t hurt my schedule that badly. I was a bit shaken after sitting on the freeway with cars rushing by on both sides. And it made me realize that I need to take a breath.

How much time did you get with the subjects?
For the cover shot we had 30 minutes, which of course just flew by. At the end we yanked away the grey seamless, formed them into a loose line and used the factory as background for another eight minutes or so. For the race-car shoot, we set up from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., then had about an hour with all the Sequoia guys. I tend to ask for as much time as I can get.

Were you nervous prior/during the shoot?
Oh, sure. Before, during and after. How the hell do you arrange a large group vertically on a plain background, without furniture or a room to rely on? Would they be on time and easy to work with? What do you do with them once they’re arranged? How do you light and shoot two large group setups (grey background, factory background) in 30-40 minutes? I planned a lot of this during the drive to San Francisco. And it’s always amazing how even the busiest, wealthiest people will listen to and grant control to the photographer. You just have to take charge (in a friendly way) and ask for what you want. I told them that they could all go out and destroy each other’s companies if they wanted to when this was over, but here they were all buddies, and I wanted some good loose interaction among the group.

For the race-car shot, we didn’t have a location finalized until the day before. And there were so many moving parts to put together. Makes you really appreciate what producers do. Once I was on board for these shoots, they consumed my days and my thoughts until they were done. I think that nervousness helps you be prepared.

How difficult was it to get your cover shot?
Not easy, but not torturous either. My crew and I showed up three hours early to load in and set up lighting, so I could focus on the subjects when we started shooting. Once we got everyone up on apple boxes and did some positioning and re-positioning, I mostly worked on creating an atmosphere where people felt at ease and trusted me. We got some straight shots, like the one that ultimately ran, some lighter ones, and some with everyone interacting. There were only supposed to be 12 people in the cover shot. And suddenly that night I was counting 14 on the set! That was a little surprise.

The toughest parts were the time limit — I was working like a madman for those 30 minutes — arranging 14 people vertically, watching 14 people at once in the viewfinder, and trying to get quality moments from everyone.

I also try to monitor the small details, like the woman in front placing her hand on her hip. All that being said, the shot on the cover is a single capture. No mixing and matching of faces. No one even blinking in that shot.

What about your work struck the magazine to award you this job?
I think they like the way that I always bring back surprises. And I try to make the business world as colorful and unusual as I can.

Most interesting thing you learned on set with such game changers?
Due to the short time frame, not a lot. You know what I loved seeing? The variety among them. A group of billionaire company founders is no longer a group of middle-aged white guys. They were also very human, easygoing and funny. I’d love to hang out with that group again.

Who’s in the driver seat?
The “driver” in the F1 car is a woman from Sequoia. We even gave her extensions so her hair could be flowing out of the helmet. The location is a walkway in a kids-oriented museum in the Bay Area. We had a NASCAR car as backup, trucked all the way up from L.A. We never even got to fire them up. That F1 car is 16 feet long. It’s a monstrous beauty in person.

Heidi Volpe

There Are 18 Comments On This Article.

  1. Question, re “This was a DIY production, like so many editorial shoots.” I admire his producing a nice idea on a shoestring and doing it well.

    Is this a problem though, ethically, letting/asking/having a subject pay for some of these things for a shoot production, and even doing a lot of the work/planning? I know the LA Times (I was the Photo Editor for their magazine) would never have let a subject pay for all that or be involved in the production to that extent. Letting you use a location, yes, and props if they bring them. Certainly not paying for an assistant and gear or a racing car and bits. (In addition, it could make the magazine seem extremely cheapskate w/no budget … kind of embarrassing). Typically, strobe rental and assistants, within reason, could be paid for by the magazine and many of the photogs I hired as a picture editor had enough gear to light a decent sized set, though not always, and I understand the high cost of gear myself.

    Just asking … maybe the game’s changed that much.

    • I don’t think any magazine (except those connected to newspapers natch) bats an eye at letting the subject provide things for a shoot. This includes paying for travel, props, meals, crew, etc. These stories are purely entertainment.

      • Well as photojournalist with 25 years in the news business, and several years as an editor, and knowing that Forbes does allegedly do journalism and investigative pieces too, I am a bit surprised. Even profiles of people or companies, if they’re done thoroughly and well— “warts and all”—can reveal some things that may not be entirely flattering to the subject, so it’s not just purely entertainment, imo. Imagine profiling a subject and they pay for the use of their yacht and crew for example, costing them ten grand, and then the profile comes out and they are unhappy about some things written. “Hey, I paid for that shoot, and the photographer’s assistant/lights/props, and you write things I don’t like!?”

        Can you see where I am going with this? You have to draw the line somewhere, though I don’t know where it is and each magazine probably has varying policies. At the LA Times, we couldn’t accept gifts or meals from a subject of a story (or anyone) if they were more than $25, and they were VERY strict about it. I would hope newsmagazines would have the same policy to some extent. When you are beholden to a subject of a story (even for the photos), it arguably colors your judgment or your willingness to take the gloves off if something unflattering comes up in the research or interviews. I sent this to a friend in Europe who is a longtime journalist for many major publications, and asked if he was surprised by it. He said “I don’t know how they do it in the US, but in Europe for the magazines I’ve worked for, no effing way would the subject be allowed to pay for all that!” It would be interesting to see Poynter Institute do a piece on the ethics situation in journalism today.

        This isn’t a criticism of the photographer … he did his best in making good images on a shoestring, with assistance. The magazine must have approved, so it’s their sticky wicket if there’s a problem.

          • I’ve been embedded with the Marines in Desert Storm, and I worked in Hollywood for 16 years, so I know the story and the drill. That said, the LA Times never allowed publicists or celebrities to dictate terms. This issue is always a delicate balance. One’s journalistic integrity, for a real news magazine (business news is both news and big business) or newspaper, is hard won and easily lost. The true celebrity magazines have their own “special” arrangements and it’s journalism of the softest kind. I’d just call it writing instead.

  2. Nice work, Ethan, Meredith and all! And, Ethan, I love that you captured a candid look of the Sequoia group on the factory floor. We’ll done.

    Great questions, Heidi. I think this format for the column really works well.

  3. Interesting to see the color grading done on the cover image become so apparent when the inside photo is put up right below it. Levchin’s green shirt looks a bit off on the cover, but only after you notice how green it really is.

  4. Thanks, everyone. Interesting discussion here.

    @Patrick Downs: I hear you, and if this were an investigative piece, or the subjects attempted to influence the article, I think their contribution could pose a problem. In this case they were excited about the pit-crew idea and just wanted to make it as good as possible; not simply for the publicity, but because a shoot like this is a pretty cool and memorable event for people who are usually behind desks.

    I have to mention, Forbes is not cheap at all — they’ve always been very fair in paying for the things to make a shoot happen, much more so than most magazines I’ve shot for. Forbes paid for the assistants, makeup/hair, the bulk of the lighting and grip, my medium-format kit, travel, etc. But in this case the scale was beyond their budgets, and the subjects were glad to help make it happen. As you pointed out, if you were shooting Kanye, and he wanted to rent a yacht and a couple of Bengal tigers and a miniature volcano, you’d surely agree, no? Sounds like an incredible shoot. No one tried to influence my work. I don’t think Doug Leone loved sitting on that little stool, and the guys at the race-car shoot were pretty over it by the end.

    @Adam Ryan Morris: Thank you. This shoot drove me nearly insane for a few days, and I’m very glad I got to do it. For that factory-floor shot, I figured, with this somewhat historic gathering, I’d like to get two different shots in the short time window. I set up the lighting for both setups beforehand so we’d lose no time transitioning from one to the other. The chemistry within the group helped too; they were really enjoying themselves.

    • Hey Ethan … Great job, and I applaud your initiative in taking the shoot beyond the ordinary. Thanks for clarifying and adding additional information, and not minding my observations on the broader issues of ethics. I’m glad you didn’t misinterpret and think I was suggesting anything was unethical about this shoot … I wasn’t. I guess after 20 years at a newspaper with VERY strict policies, maybe now I should relax! I’m glad to hear Forbes is generous in photography budgets, given the discouraging news we hear so often about the state of the editorial world. Cheers, and I look forward to seeing more of your work.

  5. I get what Patrick is saying, but I think the implication of somehow generating tainted journalism doesn’t really apply in this particular venue. As Heidi said, most major magazines generate entertainment first, and journalism second and I think this goes even for a magazine like Forbes. Also, it might go without saying, but given the current budget cuts most magazines are facing I’d wager many stories like this (and even those requiring significantly less production value) wouldn’t even get off the ground without some assistance from those being profiled.

    Forget for a moment the Tesla factory or even the race car. . . The fourteen subjects pictured each flew in to the location (if they weren’t already there) specifically to do the photo shoot. This wasn’t sponsored by Forbes. So, by Patrick’s argument, does the fact that they already each laid out some dough for their own travel also taint the integrity of the story?

    Were this an investigative story on the corruption of venture capital, or the oligarchy of billionaires featured in the LA Times or the NY Times, under different circumstances then I could see the point of not accepting any financial/production assistance for the story. But it’s Forbes, and they need the cooperation of these people or else nothing is going to happen – and the bottom line, at least from a photographer’s point of view is: accept the help, make a much, much cooler photo.

    Lastly, I would say that anyone smart enough (or lucky enough) to become a billionaire should also know that nothing in the world is guaranteed, especially flattery. The world – and Forbes magazine – does not owe it to you to make you look like a hero. That’s why whenever I want to look cool I stand next to a race car.

    Ethan took a set of difficult circumstances and hit it out of the park, as he always does. Getting so much cooperation and assistance from a subject is so rare that I think we all welcome it. Editorial photographers are primarily accustomed to – and ready to handle – subjects that can turn antagonistic or impatient on a dime. When that doesn’t happen it’s a wonder and a breath of fresh air.

    Damn guy shouldn’t have worn a green shirt, though. Forget what I said about smart billionaires.

    • I agree with many of your points, and made it clear that I commend the photographer’s initiative. And yes, in these days of challenged budgets in media organizations, making a little go a long way is appreciated by photo editors I am sure. I know when I was one, I didn’t have much of a budget for editorial shoots. To these billionaires, whatever they spent was chump change, especially if they flew in on their private jets for the shoot! I remember doing a portrait of Jerry Weintraub on his yacht in Cannes, rented at $10,000 a day (but not for me). If he’d said, “Let’s take it for a spin to make a better picture” I’d have said yes, and ignored what it cost him. His idea.

      Ethics are always a conundrum in journalism, and not always clear cut. The relationship you have with subjects must be appropriately careful imo, even for benign profiles (puff pieces are another thing), to maintain your editorial independence and integrity.

      That’s all I have to say about that!

    • re “I would say that anyone smart enough (or lucky enough) to become a billionaire should also know that nothing in the world is guaranteed, especially flattery.”

      I had to laugh. The Hollywood deca-millonaires (and a few billionaires) just have people on the payroll to flatter them on demand, but they also have half a city who will do it for free! I’d guess these tech/VC folks are a bit different … a bit. When you’re a billionaire people laugh at your jokes though … well, maybe not the Koch brothers’ :)

      • Perhaps I was being too generous. Of course, I think billionaires are hilarious. And witty. And devilishly handsome and/or lovely. Please make checks payable to Max S. Gerber. Thanks for the yacht.

  6. The irony of this cover story given the tanking of tech stocks this week is interesting. Not a photographic point, I realize, but interesting to me nonetheless.