It was a dark and stormy night on the outskirts of Singapore, as salt air from the South China Sea stung the face of the weary photographer. He clutched his Panasonic Lumix DMC L1 tighter, keeping it safe from the deprecating wind. Climbing to a rooftop, the only Westerner in this part of the city, he arranged with a friend of a friend to begin shooting the transvestite beauty pageant, lit only by three bare, unshaded light bulbs. The photographing of the opium harvest would have to wait….
It may sound like a J. Peterman fantasy, but except for the weather condition and the specific camera model, the above describes an actual night-in-the-life of world-traveling photographer Douglas Carver – who, to his down-to-Earth credit, evinces a WASPish reticence over how this all might sound to anyone besides a writer who’s had to push to get great stories out of an essentially humble guy who became something of a photographic Indiana Jones.
We say he needn’t worry – who wouldn’t love to be good enough at one’s craft and so adventurously hard-working as to get to places like that? And Carver actually had to fight family expectations to do it.
“My family was very conservative,” he explains about a clan who came here on the Mayflower and whose lineage includes a British lord admiral and the first governor of Massachusetts. “Everything was geared to trying to make little Douglas chairman of the board somewhere.” With photography not in his blood, he made career of it with his own hands. “I remember after [college] having a conversation with one of my friends who was just in anguish trying to figure out what he was gonna do with his life,” Carver recalls, a bit embarrassed. “He told me, ‘You don’t get it. You don’t know how easy you had it. You knew what you wanted to do – you didn’t even blink.'”
Carver did, however, wince, when a sports injury sidelined him during his boarding-school days at New Jersey’s Lawrenceville School. No longer able to play sports, but needing something to do and wanting to stay involved with his friends, the Long Island-born Carver began fooling with photographing. Next thing he knew, he was getting a degree from the University of California, Berkeley; taking a workshop by the legendary Ansel Adams; studying under Lisette Model, Philippe Halsman and George Tice; and getting a scholarship for a summer photography course at MIT. Moving to New York City, he began apprenticing for the likes of credits include Arthur Elgort, Francesco Scavullo, Eric Bowman, and –just for a few days, basically just to meet him – Irving Penn.
“I started at the very bottom, working for free,” Carver remembers, “and slowly moved up the apprentice/assistant ladder. I worked hard and I was very lucky. I assisted some very talented people and learned a lot about the industry, the craft and myself.”
During that time, he met and began living with a New York City Ballet corps dancer. Discovering a lot of ballet, he began attending performances as many as three days a week during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite all his subsequent success, those days, he says, were among the best of his life. “You can make a lot of money in photography, though I’m not sure New York is the place to do it – there’s infinite competition and price-cutting. But when I had my life in the ballet I had no money,” he says wistfully, “and yet I was phenomenally happy.”
Carver eventually began shooting backstage at another famed New York City troupe, American Ballet Theater. The connection between that and his later celebrated work with Formula One racing – culminating in the book Michael Andretti at Indianapolis (Simon & Schuster, 1992) – might not seem immediately apparent. But as Carver explains, “They’re both behind-the-scenes. I love peeking behind the curtain to show everyone the wizard,” he says, evoking The Wizard of Oz, “though in this case the wizards really are wizards.”
Carver has since shot advertising, fashion and editorial photography for a mind-bogglingly world-class clientele, including L’Oreal, the Grateful Dead, Vogue, Glamour, Newsweek, Microsoft, Chase Manhattan Bank, Eastman Kodak, Toys-R-Us, Cathay Pacific Airlines and the jeweler Harry Winston. His documentary photography includes an opium harvest in the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand meet. As he told Mark Lapin at TakeGreatPictures.com, “I certainly wasn’t the first photographer ever to do this, but I sure didn’t run into any tour buses, either.”
For all that, he warns, “I think photography is really devalued now. I feel like I’m so much at the peak of my game, yet it’s hard to find good work. The celebrities get it: Annie Leibovitz can get $70,000 a day. Someone who isn’t can’t get $7,000 a day. [Employers] get to walk around Soho telling everybody, ‘I shot with Annie Leibovitz last week.” Decisions are being made on that level.”
And yet … and yet … “Follow your passion,” he says simply. “If you believe in it enough, you’re not gonna listen to anybody trying to talk you out of it.”
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