Danger Will Robinson

“This light-head is broken.” My fellow Assembly Line Portrait photographer says as she pulled down a light with a burnt out bulb. “I need to replace this bulb.”

“Ok.” I say as I look around in the small storeroom for a spare bulb. Before I can find one, the other Photographer grabs the burnt out bulb with her bare fingers and gives it a twist to free it from it’s socket. She has not turned off the power to the light-head. There is that all too familiar sizzle and pop and the smell of ozone mixed with loud and pain-filled curses.

“I found the replacement bulb.” I say as she throws the light-head against the nearest wall.

There comes a time in all good bios where the Hero, such as he is, hits faces down his/her demons and dangers. The drunk goes to rehab, the drug addict has a major breakdown, the steroids user blows a gasket. And maybe that’s why my story of the daily grid is not all that dramatic-it lacks that certain life and death element. Assembly Line Portraits is not an overly dangerous job, but it does have a few small risks and dangers.

One my most common dangers is old equipment. There are many fine brands of lights, Novatron, Speedotron, Norman and many others which use Power Packs. A Power Pack is a kind of voltage regulator with a Capacitor inside it that looks all the world like a car battery. Over time, usually a pretty long time, a capacitor will go bad, and when it does, it will explode. Most Power Packs have a safety feature where a fuse is tripped to prevent this from happening. But it is possible to have someone sit next to the Power Pack and press the reset button each time the breaker trips.

Well, at least it is possible until the capacitor blows, as it did with one of my Trainers. This makes a very impressive noise, much like a shotgun going off, and the sound echoes most gratifyingly in the enclosed space of a Big Box Store. This explosion was powerful enough to bulge out the metal sides of the Power Pack. No one was hurt, though there were a lot of ringing ears for a while.

Flashbulbs and Modeling Lights run pretty hot. These bulbs are often Halogen gas bulbs and create a white hot light. I have had these lights explode from normal use and rain a shower of near molten glass around me. These glass fragments are very hot and I have found small holes burned in my clothing from them-I have not been seriously injured from flying glass. Not yet anyway. One time a bulb exploded and the fragments fell onto a carpet, where they quickly melted their way to the cement floor the rug was resting on. The small glass bits became a permanent part of this carpet, fused into a new compound by the heat.

A more common injury comes from Light Stands. Most modern Light Stands have air cushions inside them and you can release a stand segment and it will float, in a bouncing sort of way, down to it’s closed position. Older Light Stands, however, either have lost their air pressure over time or never had any to start with. So it is not all that uncommon to grab a Stand segment with one hand and release that same segment with the other hand-resulting in the stand collapsing instantly and pinching the skin between the thumb and forefinger. I have had this injure many times, as the air pressure can give out without warning. It is almost always the skin between the thumb and forefinger that gets injured-and it is an annoying wound that takes a long time to heal.  I have learned to a bit more careful when lowering light stands.

Children are nasty bits of business for all manner of reasons-they carry diseases, are unpredictably violent, and their parents are invariably morons. Children think a wonderful bit of fun is to hit the Photographer with a prop, such as an umbrella or a baseball bat-one more reason that I no longer use props. They will stomp of your foot if given the chance and if your reflexes aren’t as fast as they should be. They will bite, scratch, and otherwise inflect bodily harm. They put forth all manner of nasty bodily fluids.  They have also been known to knock over all manner of equipment-from light stands to backgrounds to the Photographer himself when they run around behind you and trip you up. They also have the habit of hurting themselves and making the most appalling noises.

The Assembly Line Portrait Studio is never exactly the same each time it is setup-cords, posing boxes, tables, and more cords are always tripping hazards. I have broken more than one light-head while freeing my feet from tangled cords. The Photographer is in near constant danger of tripping and falling-and there are all manner of unpleasant items to hit on the way to the floor or pull down on top of yourself once safely on the ground. One of the skills I have acquired over the years is a near uncanny ability to right my balance and free myself from stray cords, boxes, children, and unknown odds and ends that somehow find their way under, around, or near my feet. Tripping is never fun. It is embarrassing, may cause injury, and can lead to injury of the Subject who hops up in an effort to help a Photographer who has lost his/her balance.

The Bad Back is a common inujury for the newbie Photographer. Dealing with children, who are getting larger and heavier every year, involves moving those children around. I worked at a number of Assembly Line Portrait companies which used a table to take portraits of smaller children. The way your supposed to do this is by asking Mom or Dad to put the child on the Posing Table. Mom and Dad are more likely to be used to this, the child is more likely to trust Mom and Dad, and The Photographer doesn’t spend the day lifting 80 pounds every ten minutes.

Kids also think it is big fun to pretend they are dead weight when you try to pick them up, thus raising the chance of an injury-to both Photographer and child when said Photographer is pulled over on top of them. There was one Trainee who had to stay home in bed for a week because he was dumb enough to pick up kids up all day and put them on the posing table.

I have nearly come to blows with the occasional Subject who has very particular ideas about how they should be posed or what I should or shouldn’t be saying to them or their children. These are usually persons of the Red Neck persuasion and tend to take offense if you, oh say, look at them.

Many people of all persuasions think posing for a portrait is either gay or unnatural or both. Just do what I tell you and the portrait will look fine-if you happen to look gay or unnatural that can hardly be considered my fault.

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  • I never thought of all the ways a studio photographer could be injured. Somehow seems like a hazard free career for the uninitiated. Until now, when I thought of a photographer being injured on the job, I had imagined only the National Geographic photographer being eaten by an alligator or falling out of that helicopter they were hanging from in order to get the perfect aerial shot. Very enlightening. No pun intended. :-)

  • The Photographer wrote:

    Well, it’s not exactly up there with being a Test Pilot in the 1950s, but it does have it’s moments.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I must admit, I’ve always had this glamorous, dream-like view if photographers but your honesty brings me back to earth as I seriously consider having a private studio. Thanks for helping me to see it in a more complete light, with all its good AND bad.

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