DPP Home Profiles Larry Armstrong: A Beginner’s Mind

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Larry Armstrong: A Beginner’s Mind

Former L.A. Times Director Of Photography Larry Armstrong guided the newspaper through technological upheaval and radical, fundamental changes in photojournalism

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Actor Daniel Day-Lewis at the Hotel Bel-Air.
Armstrong: George just did a book of his rock ’n’ roll images. We were looking at the photos and reminiscing about those days, and I said, “You know what’s changed? You could never get access like this anymore.” USA Today sent me to do a Madonna concert a couple of years ago. I was shocked. I had been in a time warp for 15 years. There were 50 photographers who were positioned in the back of the arena. I had been told to go out and rent a 700mm lens or something like that. In the old days, you were right up there leaning your camera on the stage and shooting. In the old days, there sometimes was a three-song limit, but that was about it. Same for celebrity portraits. Before, it seemed like we had all the time in the world to get what we needed. Now you have to get in and out very quickly.

DPP: How do those celebrity assignments work?

Armstrong: A lot of the celebrity assignments today are done in hotel rooms in hotels such as the Four Seasons in Los Angeles on press days for movies. You walk in there, and the room has been cleaned out so you have to create something with light. I discovered when I went freelance how great it was to have an assistant; newspaper photographers don’t get them. We usually have some time to set up, but then the window for the shoot is 15 minutes, and if the writer you work with goes long, you get less time. You have to do the Annie Leibovitz in five minutes.

DPP: What equipment do you bring with you?

Armstrong: Three Dynalite Juniors in one kit with grids and softboxes packed up in a roller that I can set up really fast. Then I have a bigger case with two 1000-watt Dynalite packs and four heads. There have been times when I’ve used all of them. I shoot with a Canon EOS-1D Mark III.

Actress Amber Heard in West Hollywood.
DPP: How did you light the dramatic outdoor portrait of former USC quarterback John David Booty?

Armstrong: That photo was an homage to Eddie Adams’ shot of Clint Eastwood where he was wearing a long trench coat and was holding a gun behind his back. USA Today wanted something conceptual. I thought, “Quarterbacks are like gunfighters. How about if I got him to hold the football looking back over his shoulder like the shot Eddie did?” I had two lights camera-right, a grid spot on the ball and underexposed the background. Then I shot from a very low angle.

DPP: That’s taking control of the situation rather than the situation taking control of you. From all your experience, both as a photographer and as an editor, what are the components that make for a great photojournalist?

Armstrong: In the world of photojournalism you’ve got to be topical, you have to be knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world, and you have to be receptive to a lot of different ideas. You have to have a command of your photography like a writer does of his syntax, his form and all that other stuff.

In the early days at the Times, reporters on the news side were notorious for not wanting to work with photographers. They felt [the photographers] got in the way. Often when there were features, we would get the story after it was done. We would read the story, then go out into a community and try to capture the sense of the story without setting anything up. You could visit the people and take portraits of them and ask them where did this and that happen. You have to use your photography to create a sense of place and a sense of that person. I really enjoyed that challenge. It’s not just about being able to compose a nice picture and knowing when to take a picture. It’s also knowing when to wait and when to know when you’re connected with that person so you can capture that true moment.

There are photographers who can’t relate to people or wait for that moment. They can create good photos but ones that lack any kind of emotion or empathy.


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