Creative Director: Rob Vargas
Deputy Creative Director: Tracy Ma
Director of Photography: Clinton Cargill
Photo Editor: Romke Hoogwaerts
Photographer: Angie Smith
Read the story here
Heidi: How did this story idea come about? Why the Gem show?
Angie: The idea began when I went with a writer friend to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. We walked through the Gem and Mineral Hall and became completely mesmerized by all of the incredible minerals on display from the Congo, Afghanistan, Morocco, Brazil, China, Arizona etc. We realized that we had a common mineral obsession and a mutual desire to attend the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the largest mineral festival in the world. We plotted to pitch a story on it, or if anything, just travel to Tucson and experience it for ourselves. As the festival date drew closer, I began further research wrote drafts of the pitch and carefully decided whom I’d send it to.
My top choices were: Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine and California Sunday. Synchroncity was on my side as right before I sent it to Bloomberg, I received a package in the mail containing a book called Mossless that I had been published in. The man who edited and produced Mossless was Romke Hoogwaerts, who also coincidentally become a photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek a few months before. I realized that the timing was perfect for me to reach out to him and introduce the story idea. Romke replied immediately, telling me he loved it and he would pass it along to Clinton Cargill, the Photo Director. Over the next 10 plus days I spent my days interviewing significant figures involved in mineral show, gaining a better understanding of how the whole festival worked, identifying who the key players were, making sure I could get the access that I needed – and then communicating that back to Clinton. I found out the story was a go and I was on my way to Tucson within a week.
How did you make the pitch stronger?
After I initially sent the pitch out to a few photo editors, I realized that my timing was a little bit off (this was right between Christmas and New Years) and I knew that I could make the pitch stronger simply with more clarity in my writing and waiting until after the holidays. I worked with my good friend and Photo Consultant Meredith Marlay on the structure of the pitch. She helped me tighten my writing into 3 concise paragraphs describing what The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show was, the story angle for the magazine that I was pitching to, and how I would approach the story aesthetically. Lastly, I included images that I found from Google image search showing what the festival looked like and the types of exotic minerals and people that could be found there.
What direction did the magazine give you?
Clinton and I decided that the best and most interesting way to approach this festival was from a documentary/reportage approach, capturing not only the minerals and the people who attend this festival, but the entire context in which it exists- which is very bizarre. One of the most interesting aspects of this festival is that many of the dealers set up shop in hotel rooms for several weeks at a time. Mattresses were stacked and leaned against the walls to make way for tables and cases displaying rocks of all kinds. Dealers are not only selling from their hotel rooms but they are sleeping in these rooms. With just a peek behind a mineral case, you can see slightly disheveled hotel beds that have recently been slept in and bathrooms full of personal items, its very strange. Many of the high-end mineral dealers would show clients minerals privately – but the only place to do this was in the hotel bathroom. I often found myself and my assistant squeezed into a hotel bathroom photographing a dealer and a client examining a specimen worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. A $500,000 mineral from the Congo would be sitting in a box next to a can of coke, some granola bars and a bunch of travel sized soaps and shampoos from the hotel. It was so strange and incredible to photograph.
After each day of shooting, I would send Clinton screenshots of the key images from that day and we would discuss how the story was shaping up as a whole. It was really helpful to talk with him and get an outsider’s perspective on how clearly I was communicating what it was like to be at this festival.
How long were you in Tucson working on this?
I spent about 9 days shooting the festival, then Bloomberg decided to run it immediately, so I spent a couple of extra days there gathering the caption info and getting the final images retouched and submitted. The story went to press as I drove back to Los Angeles.
Was there any security involved since the gems and minerals were so valuable? Who attended this show?
Most of the shows took place in hotels, convention centers or large tents set up in parking lots. There were security guards at all of the shows- but not as many as I would have expected. People were walking around these hotels with thousands of dollars in cash in their pockets, carrying expensive minerals in boxes. One of the most interesting facets of this shoot was the people who attend- there were geologists, museums curators, miners, dealers, retired “rock hounds” or rock collectors, metaphysical types, traveling hippies- everyone was from all over the world- there were some real characters. A general observation that I made was that all of these mineral enthusiasts, whether high end or low end, all shared a deep passion and appreciation for the aesthetic and raw beauty of minerals that come from the earth. Many of these people have extensive scientific knowledge about the formation of minerals- and they appreciate not only the beauty of these specimens, but have an in depth understanding of how they were formed within the context of the earth’s geologic history.