April 3, 2020

Roth and Ramberg- About Photography IX


(Dale Roth is one half of the photography duo, Roth and Ramberg. As writing is not his strong suit, he has asked his teenage son to correct his lack of punctuation and when possible, add in big words. However, Dale does know how to do a perfect scheimpflug.)

Most memorable photo

I’ve been asked many times what the most memorable photo I’ve taken is, and it’s the same answer every time: Bailey the Buffalo! 

It was after about 4 or 5 years in the business, we got a phone call from People Magazine in New York. They wanted us to take photos of a man named Jim Sautner, who lived just outside of Edmonton and owned a pet Buffalo named Bailey.

I pulled into his farm and drove down the dirt road to a small, undistinguished house. As soon as I arrived, Jim came bursting out of his house, full of life and energy. He then took us to the yard to meet Bailey. Bailey was a full sized buffalo who seemed nice, given it was my first face to face encounter with one. Jim said he could bring him into the house if we would like, but cautioned us that if Bailey lifted up his tail, we were to go over to him and lower his tail manually. The reason being Jim didn’t want Bailey to go to the bathroom on his floor. My immediate thought was, “There is no fucking way I’m doing that,” however, I had decided a photograph of Bailey and Jim in the living room would be best. In order to access the living room, Bailey would have to go through the front door, straight into the kitchen, make a 90 degree turn in the kitchen, then another 90 degree turn. My initial idea was to have Jim on the couch with Bailey behind it while I was pressed up against the front window facing the couch, a good place to start considering the cramped quarters. 

As soon as the lighting was set up it was time to bring in Bailey. Surprisingly, he fit through the front door. I would have thought his body was too wide, but he slid right through. Jim guided him through the kitchen and into the living room. Bailey fought a little, but Jim eventually managed to lead him behind the couch. Jim sat down and we started taking photos. After a few photos, however, it seemed Bailey had had enough. He was pretty tight behind the couch and there was a wall in front of him. The only way out from the tight space was for the buffalo to back up, or so I thought. Jim stood to settle the buffalo down when, all of a sudden, Bailey leaped sideways over the couch. It was incredible to watch. I held my tripod and light in either hand, unsure if it was to keep them from getting kicked or some feeble attempt to protect myself from Bailey. Fortunately for all, after he made his seemingly impossible jump, he just stood there frozen.

“Do you want him to watch TV with me?” Jim bellowed out as though nothing had happened. I’m sure my response was a resounding, “Yes!” We were moving the lighting and equipment when Bailey began to lift up his tail. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion as Jim noticed as well and ran over to Bailey (thank goodness he was closer) to push down the tail. But it was too late. Bailey had already begun to defecate. The smell and the sound of it hitting the carpet was well memorable. I think I made some sort of smart ass remark such as, “Hey Jim, maybe you should get some hardwood in the house,” to which he replied “Oh, I’m just renting this place anyway, no worries.”.

After a quick clean up Bailey seemed tired. he lay down on the floor and Jim put in a VCR tape. Jim sat down on the floor next to Bailey, leaning against the buffalo as they both watched the television. I started taking photos from all angles and realized I had got the shot. 

In those days we shot slide film, meaning all the film was shipped away. We shipped the film to New York and upon arrival our client phoned and said, “You are the buffalo photographers of the world!” I wasn’t sure if that was good or not. 

A few years later our client at the time, DDB and their client Syncrude Canada, wanted to do a photoshoot with a buffalo on a chair lift. Part of Syncrude’s reclamation project was bringing buffalo (or bison, which is the proper term) back onto the reclaimed mine area . To this day they have a big herd of bison up in Fort McMurray grazing on what was a former strip mine. Syncrude had donated money to the local ski hill in order to build a new chairlift. The agency wanted a photo of someone on a chairlift with a bison beside them. 

We would have to get physically close enough to a bison to get the photo and the lighting would have to match so it would be best to shoot the bison first. If a bison is sitting on a chairlift then we would kind of want to shoot as if the bison was sitting so the best angle would be on the ground looking up to its neck. In photography you never say it can’t be done, you figure out how to get it done. I informed our clients, “I knew the bison for the job,” and made a call to Jim. We were based in Edmonton at the time so a call to the local ski hill for the chairlift shot was made and off we went. 

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we had to photograph the person on the chair first then add the buffalo. Not ideal as we can control the lighting for the chair much easier than for the buffalo. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to get low to the ground without Bailey either crushing me or the camera. The first shot of the person on the chairlift went smooth, we went to the top of the hill so there would be nothing but sky as a background. I took a slightly low angle and took photos of our model. She was photographed smiling, looking at the camera, looking away, etc. We had some fake snow that we put on the chairlift and our model in order to add a bit of realism.

To back up a bit, Jim mentioned that the originally Bailey had passed away and he had a new Bailey, a younger version, which at the time really didn’t make much of a difference to me. “He’s a bit more feisty and unpredictable” was his response. I was just happy he still had one. We arrived again at the farm and Jim greeted us as usual with his happy demeanour. I explained to Jim what I was looking for and he led me to an area of the farm where a ramp was built out of dirt. It was used to load cattle onto trucks. It was perfect! Jim insisted on driving Bailey over in his car which, of course, was not necessary but Jim always liked to put on a show. 

Bailey arrived to the set. I was laying on the ground, looking up at Bailey, if he were to jump I would have been in pretty rough shape. We had a light acting as the sun, matching the angle of the girl on the ski lift, as well as a light beside me acting as a fill light, or a light to fill in the shadows. Jim leads Bailey up to the edge of the ramp. I wasn’t sure if Bailey had a scarf on yet, but that wasn’t the problem.

When Jim started putting on the fake snow, that’s when it got a little sketchy. Bailey wanted none of that he climbed off the ramp, fortunately not onto me. Although Jim had to wrangle him and calm him down, in the end we got the photo, and as a bonus made a video.

Here is the link to the most memorable photo(s) that I’ve ever done.