Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You Want to Go Where? Without a Net?



This month we offer another exclusive sneak preview of one of our favorite and never-before-told adventure projects, an anecdote that will appear in You Want to Go Where: How to Get Someone to Pay for the Trip of Your Dreams by EN editor Jeff Blumenfeld (Skyhorse Publishing, publication date: June 17).

It’s one thing to capture an image in the field, and quite another to transmit it back home almost instantaneously to a waiting audience of armchair explorers. Today anyone can link their digital camera to a satellite telephone from the most backwater regions of the planet, then onto the Internet. But it wasn’t always that easy. I pushed technology to the edge in October 1995 when I hired a Brooklyn-based news photographer named Mark D. Phillips to photograph a tightrope walk—to this day history’s longest and highest—across China’s Qutang Gorge, the most spectacular of the fabled Three Gorges.

But the word “tightrope” doesn’t do it justice. Listen to former circus performer Jay Cochrane, a thin, intense, milk-drinking athlete in his sixties with impossibly orange-blonde hair, and he’ll tell you it was a high-wire “skywalk.” Listen to my father, a retired but still savvy menswear retail consultant from seventh avenue, and he’ll say, “schmuck! You have a tightrope walker for a client? Better get your money up front!”

Jay, nicknamed the “Prince of the Air,” became a client when he was looking to promote his plans to walk 2,098 feet, some 1,340-feet above the Yangtze river. The Chinese hired the wirewalker to bring international attention to the Three Gorges dam, the largest of its kind ever constructed, and deflect some of the criticism for the many cities and towns that would be inundated. We brought in Mark Phillips because we needed an image of the feat, and we needed it fast, sent by telephone modem to the closest wire service. Easier said than done.

Base camp was Fengjie, a historic city in southwest China’s Chongqing municipality about to be submerged by the dam. First we needed a signature photo. One image that would communicate death-defying heights, an exotic location, and just one man, one wire, and a forty-five-foot balance pole. Mark stationed himself on the far end, waiting for Jay to complete his fifty-three-minute crossing in front of an estimated 200,000 Chinese spectators, and another 200 million watching on television across the country.

Photography is all about access, being in the right place at the right time, so Mark spent two weeks scouting the best position for himself and his camera equipment. Scrambling down to a narrow ledge, just below Jay, below the supports for the unforgiving 1-1⁄4-inch braided steel wire rope spanning the gorge, it was now or never. He fired off dozens of frames of film with his Nikon f3. When Jay simultaneously lifted one hand and one foot, we had our money shot.

Mark raced back to his room in a seedy hotel, developed the film in water that housekeepers boiled for him, and dried the color negatives with a hair dryer. He placed the color negatives into a scanner, then tried to secure a clear open telephone line to Agence France-Presse in Hong Kong. The transmission over the hotel’s single long distance circuit continued to crash. Finally, after sitting on his hotel-room floor attempting to connect for four hours, he managed to complete one seventeen-minute transmission. AFP distributed the image worldwide, and Jay made it into the record books.

Mark believes his digital transmission was one of, if not the first from an independent photojournalist sent from this rural region of the country.

“It was at the cusp of digital photography,” he remembers. Mark would later become embroiled in controversy when a photo he took of the 9/11 disaster, an image shot from the rooftop of his Brooklyn home, seemed to show the face of Satan in the smoke enveloping the World Trade Center. The photo was sent worldwide over the newswires, and a media frenzy ensued when it began appearing on front pages nationwide. Mark was accused of doctoring the image for private gain, but was eventually vindicated when Olympus technicians verified the authenticity of the digital image. It was a case of pareidolia, the same phenomenon that makes people believe they can see the face of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun.

2 comments: