I got the call at 9:00 am. They wanted me to go to a Central Park West address, the home of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. The celebrity couple had just had their second child, a girl, two days earlier, and were expected back from the hospital at any moment.
Rounding the corner in front of the address, I got my first look at the scene; one clean city block facing the park, loosely strewn with five or six disheveled men, none of whom looked like they belonged there, all holding cameras, all looking around warily. I was detected immediately and for a short while, watched closely. With a camera bag around my shoulder as well as a camera, I slowly went through the pointless process of trying to blend in. I checked the exits -- there were two, the front and a side service exit. I spoke sparingly with other photographers, asking them how long they'd been there, reading their levels of territorial hatred, their press badges and their equipment choices while we talked.
Two Englishmen from Splash were there and hovered furtively near an SUV parked at the curb. One wore a camera and the other wore a grey and pea green tie.
"I'm the wordsmith," said the tie, and then he chuckled.
The one with a camera wore hungry and pained expressions. Talking looked like it hurt him. I asked him what it was like working for Splash and he said it was all right; there were hard times and good and, ya know, in this business, you've got to take them all. He seemed like a nice guy with a short time to live. His eyes were quick in their sockets and unusually watery, as though he had recently been crying.
There was one grey pirate-like man dressed in black who seemed nonplussed yet alert. He looked like a pro, like someone who had seen it all, and was not particularly impressed. He was a little intimidating and something about his demeanor seemed to simmer. Sure enough, he turned out to be Steve Hirsch, from the New York Post. I had seen many good Steve Hirsch photos in the past but this was the first time I'd met him. I praised him for some recent work. He had taken a running shot of one of the three Chinese siblings who were arrested and then released in the mysterious murder of a bouncer, Dana Blake. (Blake was in the process of physically removing a man named Johnathon Chan from an Avenue B night club -- Chan had been smoking, in violation of the recent city-wide ban -- when he was set upon by Chan's brothers and one other knife-wielding Philipino man. Blake was stabbed in the groin and died eleven hours later.)
Steve had taken a great photograph of Chan leaving his attorney's office shortly after being released.
"He said, Don't take my picture, and you know what I told him? Fuck you," Said Steve. He grinned. I was delighted.
We were standing at the corner so we could see both exits. We waited a long time, maybe two hours. A Swedish video guy from Reuters piled out of a cab with a giant video camera and "sticks" (his tripod). He had a friend who lived around the corner who came by and brought him coffee. The Swede had been all over the world and I liked his humble manner.
"Who are you shooting for today?" asked Steve.
"Getty," said Keith. "They called me at 9:00 and said how soon can you get there and I said, I'm leaving now."
"So what took you so long?" asked Steve.
"I stopped and got coffee."
Keith was good at affecting the image of a lazy photographer but I'd seen him run very fast before. He's probably a good guy but he has the annoying habit of testing his flash constantly on anyone who is standing near him. It is almost a nervous tic, though he ostensibly does it to make sure his flash isn't too hot.
He takes three pictures, "chimps" (examines the digital pictures on the back of his camera), adjusts his flash, and then takes three more. He'll squeeze off twenty or more frames this way, every quarter hour. It's endless. I suspect he's also collecting images of other journalists and in a way this is a brilliant method of doing it. Steve Hirsch was his subject this time and stared blankly back in to the camera.
"This is no way to live," said Keith eventually, imitating someone. He grinned and lurched off to go speak with the English guys by the SUV.
Around 11:30, a black Suburban with tinted black windows pulled up to the front of the building. It looked as though it would park, then it pulled forward as though it were going to drive away. Just then, Michael Douglas stepped crisply out of the building and made straight for the SUV. I was in a bad position, behind him and tried to scamper past him but he cut me off.
"Thanks for coming out guys," he said and leaped in to his car. It must have taken him three seconds to get from the building to the car and by the end of those three seconds, I think I had a series of seven photographs of the back of his head, and one partial profile of his nose and eye. I had fucked the proverbial pouch. Hirsch and Keith and I think the Splash guy too, had gotten around so that they took shots of him from the front as he approached his car.
After Douglas was chauffered away, there were a lot of excited tourists who wanted to know what was going on; all the photographers were chimping fiercely.
Keith let out a loud and angry explative and then scampered off. I knew I'd fucked it up and was filled with dread, but if Keith missed it too, then I was not alone. A photograph of Douglas alone wasn't really the money shot, but it would work in a pinch.
All the other photographers disappeared in search of a Starbucks from which they could wirelessly file their photographs. I was left with the Swede from Reuters and his friend and we decided to wait for Douglas to return. A still photographer from Reuters arrived. His name was Chip and he talked very earnestly about different kinds of personal protective body armor with the Swede and the Swede's friend.
"A jacket lined with steel is only effective until you get shot at close range at a perpendicular angle, then it shatters. Steel is best suited for glancing shots, but ceramic protection is better for direct perpendicular hits. The plastic protective jackets are also effective but they're exceptionally bulky and it hasn't been proven outright that they'll stop a bullet at point blank range from a Kalashnikov."
Chip was voluble. He was an authority on many things and had been shot in the right leg by an Israeli soldier in 2001. "The bullet missed my femoral artery by a centimeter and a half." He knew exactly what would have happened had his artery been severed. Listening to him, I started feeling vaguely ill. He was interesting but he didn't stop, he didn't pause. There was no Chip off-switch.
Then the real paparazzi arrived in a beat up rental which they left running in front of a hydrant. They looked haggard and acted as though they were on some kind of cheap meth-amphetamine; definitely unwashed, but colorful. Wow. The real papparrazzi are unbelievable. One of them -- a pathologically outgoing man with long hair and fives days' growth of beard -- described a plan he had for tracking celebrity's cars.
"Look, how expensive can it be to get one of those tracking devices that you slip under someone's car? I mean, they have the technology; we have all these frickin' expensive cameras. Can't we get the tracking equipment too?" he asked.
Everyone liked his idea.
The three paparrazzi debated whether or not they should go to New Jersey where Douglas and Zeta Jones had another house. Cell phone calls were made. Someone said something profane about "Welsh women who go for the money," and then they took off.
The Swede and his friend left. The Swede had to go the UN to cover Hans Blix and he seemed happy about it. I was left with Chip. He mellowed out a little and we got on fine. Fortunately, Michael Douglas reappeared and I got him on the return.
The English guys were back by then and one of them shouted in a desperate voice, "Michael, is she all right?"
"We're doing great, thanks. Couldn't be happier," he said as he nimbly returned to the safe-haven of the building.
I saw Steve Hirsch and someone else (Keith?) get their shots from down low. Their cameras were nearly touching and their flashes went off simultaneously. Douglas had to goose step around them.
* * *
Now it's the next morning and I'm expecting for the phone to ring again. From what I can tell, the money shot, the new baby shot, hasn't been made yet. There are a lot of hungry photographers still out there, waiting.