It was 50 years ago today that the Beatles first debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show so it seemed appropriate to share a story that I feared might become my most significant contribution to photography. Like most of my generation, my youth was heavily informed by the Beatles and their music which influenced my views on fashion, music, art, politics, religion, commerce, morality, culture…everything. The British Invasion and the Beatles were the social media for a generation.
When I was contacted to photograph Ringo Starr for a cover story I was told that he would have a narrow window of availability and the shoot would have to take place at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. Ringo was doing an interview in the penthouse (which Warren Beatty had famously leased until his marriage to Annette Bening) and we had the suite just at the foot of the stairs that led to the penthouse.
I had two assistants for the shoot. Jesse was my full-time guy and it was Pete’s first day working with us. Pete was brought on due to the fact that he rode a motorcycle and we needed to get the film from the location to the lab, back to me on another shoot, back to the lab and to Fed-X before the end of the day to make the magazine’s deadline.
The demands of the magazine were simple and it wasn’t a big job in terms of set-up. After we lit a couple of different shots I went upstairs to meet Ringo. To make our deadline this shoot needed to have the timing of a bank job, as I headed down with Ringo I radioed to Jesse and Pete that we were on our way. Ringo was great, the session went smoothly and being aware that I was on a very tight schedule I pulled the plug as soon as I knew we had fulfilled the client’s needs. Ringo thanked the guys and I escorted him back upstairs. So far so good.
When I returned to the suite Jesse and Pete were breaking-down the gear and had downloaded and labeled all the film for me to sort for processing. We were shooting with Hasselblads using A-12 film backs. After a quick count I realized we were missing a roll of film. Assuming that one of the backs didn’t get downloaded, we checked but didn’t turn up the missing roll. I went over the entire shoot in my head and was certain how many rolls we shot in each situation…there had to be an explanation to where the missing roll had gone. As we tore through the gear I noticed as the glances between Jesse and Pete went from “Where could that film be?” to “How are we going to tell him what happened?” The clock was ticking and I needed answers so Pete, assuming he had less to lose being the new guy, broke it to me that at some point I had been handed an empty film back and shot 12 frames without any film. As he was throwing himself on the sword, Jesse stepped up and claimed responsibility for the snafu. Better to have two guys accepting responsibility than pointing fingers, we could discuss this later but the mystery was solved and we had to get Pete to the lab with the film.
I hadn’t yet allowed myself to mentally process the missing roll of film. As I passed thru the lobby I noticed Ringo sitting alone in the bar and decided to join him while the guys loaded the truck in spite of our need for speed. It’s amazing how sharing a cold beverage with a Beatle can pull you out of a funk. Other than the sleepless nights wondering if there was magic on that phantom roll everything turned out well.
I only told that story so I could tell this next one.
A couple of weeks after the Ringo shoot I was leaving for a job in New York and Pete mentioned that he had a twin brother, Sid, that tended bar in Manhattan. After location scouting I realized I was just a couple of blocks from the bar so I walked over and found someone that looked just like Pete mixing drinks. I introduced myself and Sid said “Pete told me to make you something special”. He walked about half way down the length of the bar and got to work on what appeared to be some pretty advanced mixology. After liberally pouring from an impressive number of bottles and meticulously slicing garnish he began vigorously shaking and spinning the concoction over his head. He was obviously making something special, I was intrigued. After the commotion of all the mixing stopped Sid shot me a look, placed a glass on the bar and with the casual wind-up of an experienced bartender he sent the concoction sliding my way. As it slid to a stop in front of me I realized it was an empty glass with a swizzle stick in it. I saw Sid coming over with the shaker “How’s the drink?” he asked with a proud smile. “There’s nothing in it” I responded focused on the shaker. As he walked away he shouted “That’s right, that’s what we do, it’s a Ringo!” From that moment we started referring to an empty film back as a “Ringo” and surprisingly we would occasionally hear it used by other L.A. photographers.
Being punked by Pete from 3000 miles away made an impression and later when Jesse moved to the east coast Pete became my first assistant. A couple of months later we were in Toronto doing a shoot for ABC television. It was one of those tense situations where the shoot had to happen on a “hot” film set and the director was already behind schedule. We managed to prelight the set before the shoot and when the cast was made available to us during a set change we had to work fast to get the key art that the studio wanted. After I shot just a few frames the producer gave me the signal that we were about to lose the cast. I knew that I wouldn’t get another chance to get this group shot so I just kept shooting and ignored the producer hoping to get just one more roll…it would take all of 15 seconds. It was a manic situation, the producer was shouting to the cast to clear the set, my art directors were shouting at them to stay and I was shouting direction and cranking through a roll of film. Through the commotion I heard a local assistant that we had hired in Toronto say to Pete “Damn, I think he’s shooting a Ringo!” With that I paused for a second while Pete and I grinned at each other with a wide-eyed look of amazement, we both knew there was film in the camera, we just couldn’t believe that the term “Ringo” had successfully been exported to Canada.
While I’m not proud of the term, it’s always nice to be remembered for something but It looks like I will have to keep working to make my mark. Thanks to the digital revolution the terms Poloroid, snip-test and “Ringo” will likely all be forgotten.