Photo Location Vans
When Jim Houghton and I first started our photo studio in New York way back in 1965, going on location was a drag — literally: we had to drag our equipment, props, and everything else to the chosen spot by subway or bus, unless there was enough of a budget for taxis. As our clientele grew, we began to rent cars, usually station wagons, from Hertz. Although we had no credit cards then, I did still have an account with Hertz, left over from the time I was the studio manager for the famous photographer Richard Avedon.
The first major improvement occurred in late spring of 1966, when we got an assignment to do several days of catalog fashion photography for Abercrombie & Fitch out in the Hamptons (the southeastern end of Long Island, New York). This involved dozens of items of clothing along with winter props such as skis (it was a Christmas catalog), and loads of styrofoam "snow." So we needed a truck as well as a wagon.
We rented a large step-van truck and put together a makeshift dressing room in it. This also held all of the merchandise, the props and equipment, and served as a working area for the stylist. It was driven by a freelance assistant that we hired for the job. I rode in the cab along with him and one of the models; Jim, the stylist, client, and two models went in a rented station wagon. The two vehicles stayed in touch while looking for locations via walkie-talkie; this was long before cell phones.
After that we realized the need for a better way to work on location.
Then help arrived. A guy (I think his name was Bob) started a location van business geared to the still photography business. The first vehicle was a full-size Dodge van converted with a pop-up top and sufficient space for smaller jobs. One very useful feature was a car phone (remember, this was in the late 1960s, long before cell phones), and another was a 110-volt generator to power lights and special effects equipment. We often used this van in New York's Central Park. Bob, or whatever his name was, also provided a great picnic lunch. The clients, models, and stylists came by taxi or rental car.
As his business grew, he acquired other vans and hired drivers for them. The one we liked best was a huge Dodge Travco motor home (RV) in which everyone could travel together in comfort. This looked very much like the one on the left. We took this to such exotic places as New Hope PA, East Hampton NY, and the Upper Hudson Valley in NY. Again, this was equipped with phone and generator, plus a bathroom and a tiny kitchen.
Bob's big van was used on our infamous night job of the rock group AC/DC on a closed stretch of highway on Staten Island. Not only did it have to carry (and feed) the band and us, but also people from Atlantic Records as well as provide power for the smoke machines and strobe lights. The resulting photo was used on the back cover of their great album "Highway to Hell."
One problem with vans in New York City is that often the best way in and out of Manhattan is via the Lincoln, Holland, Queens Midtown or Brooklyn-Battery tunnels. Ordinarily, motor homes and camper vans are not allowed through these because of the propane tanks they carry. Bob's vans did not have propane, but he still always had to prove to the toll taker or police that it was okay.
Another good vehicle for big location jobs is a regular tour bus. In the late 1970s we had an assignment for TWA that took us through New England and then down to Washington DC, all in a period of three days. This involved several models including children, and promoted the airline's guided bus tours. The bus itself was also a prop, so it had to be kept clean. For Washington we had to get a police permit to photograph in the streets. When we parked in front of the Capitol we were ordered to leave by the Capitol Police, who would not honor a permit from the city. Fortunately, I had already taken the photos before we were forced to depart.
Interested in photography? Check out my "Assisting Avedon" blog.
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