You’re So Vain, You Think This Story Is About You

I am inclined to think Carly Simon had it right about many people, including some of my neighbors, as well as many people I have photographed throughout my career.

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact it is simply part of the human condition to aspire to importance and power, when the truth is we feel powerless and unimportant.

I will spare you my theological discourse on worshipping graven idols, but I will not spare you from a story that happened to me a long time ago in a far distant galaxy called Phoenix.

I had been asked by The Wall Street Journal to photograph a number of CEO’s for an advertising campaign. The campaign championed the fact that for CEO’s one of the first things they read in the morning was The Wall Street Journal.

The agency that was producing this campaign had done intensive and extensive research, spared no expense, in finding out that The Wall Street Journal was a must read to all these titans of industry.

I could have spared them the expense, for in all my travels to distant shores, photographing senior management; I had always found a well read Journal lying prominently on their desks.

Just think if I could have confirmed to the paper about the importance of The Journal, and added the agency research to my fees, I could be now be driving in the Bentley I covet instead of wishful dreaming.

Anyway, I am roaming away from my story and I need to hone in on an important paradigm about life and men.

One of these men I was asked to photograph happened to own a good chunk of the city of Phoenix. He was a CEO of a major corporation in Phoenix, and as usual his name will be omitted to protect the guilty.

As was my fashion, I convinced him to meet with me the evening before the shoot to discuss the photograph. Now, having been born and breed on the east coast (and having been called an eastern elitist by another CEO, who informed me he wanted me to leave Idaho as soon as possible) I have found myself always looking for that patina that history provides. Sometimes it can be in a weathered face, or at least  in the architecture. On the East coast, particularly in New England, there is a semblance of history preserved. Ideally, I am always looking at America for what lies in Rome, Paris, London, etc., I am looking for history. As I make my way westward starting from Europe, I find myself more and more despondent, as history exposed in life and architecture gets less and less prevalent. In fact, as you get far enough west, history and architecture is understood as what happened a year or two ago and is generally not worth preserving. Let’s bulldoze it down and build something new.

In the new and transient culture of America, that which is appealing to many, is appalling to me.  On my scout around Phoenix, I could not find one thing that struck me as beautiful and interesting, except it’s name.

Oh I saw big houses, beautiful hotels, and maybe the Biltmore Hotel would have worked out in the end, but generally everything seemed too new, too many golf courses, too much fast food, so I finally ventured outside of Phoenix and found my nirvana, the desert.

It was here in this lonely, primitive, silent world, that I finally found beauty. I actually found one 15 to 20 foot Saguaro cactus that was the perfect spot for the man of the hour.

Stay with me, this is a long-winded story.

So that evening as I met with our man, I told him that the picture of him was of him reading the journal in the desert, but the agency had asked me to first take one of him in his office or boardroom.

Over the years, I have been in many CEO offices and homes, and let me tell you, dear reader, that except for the fact that theirs is bigger, it is no better than yours.

They do have corporate jets that separate us from them, but their office their houses, (except for a tiny minority) are boring and even ugly. They know how to make money, but they don’t know how to spend it.

The morning of the shoot I arrived to take a quick portrait of him in his boardroom. As usual, there were about twenty people watching these events unfold; to make sure all was well with him, because if all was well with him, all was well with them. There were people from the agency, assistants, and assistants to the assistants, etc.

I asked him to stand near the window and read the paper leaning over the table. It was fairly uneventful, and I thought a rather harmless request. Out of the blue he screamed, “I was told you were a famous and great photographer, but this is a stupid picture, and I won’t take it.”

As usual, everyone was in an apoplectic state. They didn’t know if they should quietly leave to get coffee or run to his defense, or in some cases, agree with him and start yelling at me.

My first and only reaction was to be extremely annoyed. Now, I know this was not the most significant picture I have ever made. In fact, I could not stand his boardroom. I may be fearful of flying, but I am not fearful of anything that invades my ability to make my pictures.

So with his outburst, I proceeded to tell him that he had every right to tell me he didn’t want to take the picture, but don’t tell me this is a stupid picture. I’d tell him if this was stupid or not.

With this exchange, you could hear a pin drop. Like on other occasions when one’s authority has been challenged, no one knows what to say. He looked at me and said very gruffly, “Let’s get this over with. Roddy, you come with me and we will go out to the desert. The rest of you can follow.”

With this command I got into his v-12, 600 horsepower Mercedes and at a rather leisurely 125 mile an hour clip, made it to the spot I had found in about 20 minutes.

I took his picture by the cactus, he was polite, and in his way apologized, by pronouncing to me to not take him too seriously, and from that moment on, nothing of what had occurred earlier, happened again. He joked and laughed with me and was cooperative. The picture was made it was all done.

Now to the moral of this story. As I learned later, Mr. X, an ex-marine also had a bad back. He was very reluctant if ever to show anyone his vulnerability, least of all me and his entourage in the boardroom.

It turned out the position I had requested had hurt him to do so, but instead of asking if he might change the position, as it was uncomfortable for him, he lashed out at me.

I am more than willing to take it, as I am generally able to give back what I receive.

So, All’s Well That End’s Well. The journal was happy, he was happy and I have a story to tell.

P.S. The picture above is not Mr. X, nor was it taken on the same shoot, but it is a desert in a different part of Arizona.