The Daily Edit – Time Magazine: Spencer Lowell

- - The Daily Edit

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TIME

Creative Director: D.W. Pine

Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise: Kira Pollack

Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise: Paul Moakley

Photographer: Spencer Lowell

Heidi: How did the cover concept develop, and why did the initial story become minimized?
Paul Moakley from Time called me at home in LA on the morning of August 7th and asked if I was interested in going to Atlanta that night and shooting a story on Ebola. At that time, the first two American patients had just been transported from West Africa to an infectious disease isolation unit at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.

The story was about America’s readiness to deal with an infectious disease as vicious as Ebola. I was assigned to photograph the facilities and staff at Emory Hospital and at the CDC. The subjects included the doctors and nurses treating the infected patients, as well as the Director of the CDC, Dr Tom Frieden. In addition, I photographed the CDC Emergency Operations Center and a staff member in the protective suiting needed to treat Ebola infected patients at hospitals.

After 3 days of shooting, the story was slated as the cover. Then on August 11th, two days before the issue was to go to print, Robin Williams died and his story took the cover and most of the issue, rightfully so.

Fast forward to September 30th, I get a notification on my phone that the first case of Ebola had been diagnosed in the US. I immediately emailed Paul Moakley a link to the article. We had worked closely together on the initial story so I thought of sharing the news with him first even though I was fairly certain he’d already seen it. He responded quickly saying that they were just talking about me and asked if I had any cover ideas that could be executed by the next day at 1:00 pm EST when they were to go to print(10:00 am PST for me).

Tell us about the time line.
That  email I mentioned was received at 2:38 pm PST so that gave me 19 hours and 22 minutes to conceptualize, pre-produce, shoot, edit and retouch. The following timeline (PST) is how things unfolded:

2:38 pm: Started researching.

2:59 pm: Emailed Paul my first idea, which was a super tight portrait of a cowboy wearing an antiviral face mask. The concept was that the cowboy symbolizes America and strength, which I thought would make for a strong contrast with the face mask, which symbolizes caution and vulnerability.

3:57 pm: Emailed Paul two more ideas – 1. overhead shot of an empty hospital bed with a quarantine enclosure and 2. an image of someone in a hazmat suit.

3:58 pm: Started looking on casting sites for a cowboy and calling prop shops and costume houses to see about getting a hospital bed and/or a hazmat suit.

5:09 pm: Kira Pollack, Director of Photography at Time emails me saying that they are definitely going with an Ebola cover and they think my ideas are great. She wants to know if I think I can pull this off over night. I wasn’t sure but I told her I was definitely willing to try.

5:30 pm: Found a costume house with an authentic Hazmat suit from the movie Contagion but they closed in 30 minutes and they were 40 minutes away. They said they’d stay open later for a fee so I emailed Kira asking if I should pull the trigger.

5:41 pm: Kira called and we spoke about which shot would be the most realistic to execute in the next 14 hours and 19 minutes. We ruled out the hospital bed because it would be impossible to source the props. Kira wasn’t entirely sold on the cowboy so we decided to go for the hazmat suit.

5:50 pm: The costume shop withdrew their offer of staying late saying that there was no one there able to stay past 6:00. At that point I called a friend of a friend who is motion picture costumer and asked if there was any way I could find a hazmat suit that night. She said absolutely not. At that point I started looking at other options. I thought back to the protective suiting I shot at the CDC and started researching the personal protective equipment (PPE) being used by healthcare workers in West Africa. I found a page on the WHO website that listed PPE requirements specifically for treating patients with Ebola. After a few phone calls, I found out that all the articles I needed could be purchased at a local army surplus store opened until 9:00 pm, a hardware store opened until 10:00 pm and drug store opened 24 hours.

6:30 pm: Called Kira back to let her know the change of plans. I told her I was able to find a yellow Tyvek suite and a white one. We talked about background options and agreed that yellow on yellow could make for a powerful image with an undertone of caution/hazard and we agreed white on white would make for a good secondary option. After we got off the phone, I set out to to purchase all the parts of the costume from around town.

10:00 pm: Met my assistant at my house to load up lights and seamlesses (luckily I had a yellow one from a previous shoot).

11:00 pm: Got to my office to unload and set up.

12:06 am: Started shooting.

3:34 am: Finished shooting. For options, we shot yellow suit on yellow background, yellow suit on midnight blue background, white suit on midnight blue background and white suit on white background.

4:33 am: Sent my edit of the shoot to Kira, Paul and DW Pine, the Creative Director of Time.

6:34 am: DW emailed me his two cover selects to be retouched – the first yellow on yellow and the other white on white.

7:28 am: DW updated me that they were definitely going with the yellow and asked me to focus my retouching on that shot. He had also comped yellow patches over the edges of my seamless to use for a mock up which he and his team thought looked like walls so he asked if I could composite yellow walls into the final image, which I did.

8:32 am: Final retouched image delivered.

What prompted you to reach out to the magazine about the ebola case?
On the day of the first US Ebola diagnosis, I received a news alert on my phone. Because I had worked so closely with Paul Moakley on the original Ebola story, he was the first person I thought about when I read the news.

Where you surprised when they offered you the assignment?
More than anything, I was surprised that they were willing to let me try to pull the assignment off in such a short period of time. I didn’t think it was impossible but I wasn’t sure it was possible. The fact that they wanted me to try gave me the confidence to push myself. It’s amazes me that not only are they constantly operating at that level of production, but that they maintain such a high level of aesthetic aspirations in the process. It’s really a privilege to get to work with such wonderful people.

What was running through your mind when you fully understood the short timeline?
I didn’t have time to fully understand the short timeline. In pressurized situations, I thrive off of not being able to overthink things and making decisions as they arise. The lack of time really acts as a filter and helps prioritize.

With such little time where did you source the props, and I’d image accuracy was essential.
I referred to the personal protective equipment for Ebola treatment section on the WHO website for accuracy. I also referred to the images I had taken at the CDC of the staff member wearing the PPE for Ebola treatment. From there, I purchased the Tyvek suits, rubber boots and plastic apron from an army surplus store; face shield from a hardware store; and gloves and antiviral face mask from a drugstore.

Who was the model in the image, seeing that the shoot started at 11:30 pm?
The model in the image is my friend/assistant, Pat Martin. I’m grateful that he was willing to drive across town last minute, help me set everything up, and pose in the very warm and uncomfortable suits all night. Now he can say he’s been on the cover of Time Magazine.

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( Some outtakes )

Did you sleep at all?
I didn’t sleep at all. In fact, I told my wife who is also a photographer, that I’d be on set with her for a shoot she had for the Hollywood Reporter starting two hours after I delivered the final image. So, I woke up at 6 am on September 30th and didn’t go to sleep until 9 pm on October 1st. Definitely one of the longer days I’ve had.

What was the most rewarding part of this shoot?
Usually I’ll have a few days to think about an assignment before I start shooting and then a few days to live with the images afterwards. In that time there is a lot of static between my ears while trying to figure out the best decisions to make. The most rewarding part of this shoot was compressing my process to the essentials and becoming very aware of that static which I can definitely live without.

This was also my first cover for Time, which has been a goal as long as I can remember so that in and of itself is rewarding.

Heidi Volpe

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. Nice shots and what a nice break and cover for you. The one thing I want to know is,….and I’m trying to get into the heads of the art buyers here,…why would you hire a guy from LA to go shoot in Atlanta? I’m quite sure there are very capable shooters in Atlanta to do this job. This used to happen to us in Miami. It was one of the things we would talk about at ASMP meetings,….we hated it when people would fly others into town….We had some of the best photographers in the country working out of Miami too….. Now, I get it when someone has a style or look or has a history with he client. I’ve been in the biz since ’81 so I get all that. But in this day and age of dwindling budgets and shoot rates, paying the expenses to fly someone across country vs giving the local guy a better rate seems strange to me.

    I think it’s great he got the job. Good luck and many more!! If I got the call, I surely wouldn’t turn it down. Just trying to make sense of this bizarre business we’re in,…..

  2. Congratulations on the Time cover for you and your friend. Great story that I actually tweeted!

  3. thanks for sharing the story of how you pulled this off.
    perseverance, intellingent research, and Great Retouching — those walls and the glow you put on it. nice

  4. @ Kerry
    Spencer’s website shows his unique point of view, and a wealth of excellent images. It’s very likely that no one in Atlanta shoots with his distinct point of view. His high-end rep agency obviously put his work in front of the editors, and brought him to their attention.

    Photogs aren’t interchangeable, ESPECIALLY for those clients who have budgets.

  5. Great read. It’s fun to read someones process when they are running on such a tight deadline. Thanks for sharing!