Every so often a photoshoot comes along that both excites you and terrifies you at the same time, and today’s article is about one such instance.
When I was in college, and more specifically in Russian History 401 at ASU, I got a phone call and had to leave class, much to my teachers chagrin. It was Getty Images (my rep at the time) with a photo request for me to photograph the one and only, Mike Tyson. To add a little stress to the mix, I had less than two days to prepare for the shoot and at the time I hadn’t worked with that many celebrities.
Deciding that it would be best to put my focus towards the photoshoot, I called my parents to come pick me up so I could go home and practice at their house. Keep in mind that I had chosen buying a camera over a car a couple years prior, so this was my only method of transportation. At the end of the day, my Dad showed up and I loaded my gear into his car so that I could go to their house and practice through the night for the Tyson shoot.
For hours and hours I would set up the lights and with my camera on a tripod and the 10 second timer to the shutter and photographed images of myself as I imagined capturing Mike Tyson the next day. Where some kept diaries and journals in college, I kept a notebook of lighting diagrams I had created in my head for made-up photoshoots and it just so happened that I had two extra lighting setups from a one had done of an ASU football player (seen here) previously. Taking these setups, I translated the lighting to apply to an athlete without a visor. This meant bringing the key light (a Profoto 36 inch ruffled silver umbrella) high enough to Rembrandt light Mike Tyson, but not so high that we would lose the specular light in his eyes.
The next day was the shoot, and I probably only got a couple hours of sleep due to the night’s lighting practice. However, if I could create a couple decent images of Iron Mike, I knew that the tiredness would be worth it. My friend Mike (not Tyson, different Mike) came to the house and we loaded up the gear and drove to a boxing ring in a rough area of town where we would setup and photograph Tyson. Upon arrival, I knew that this was going to be a far different shoot than I was used to in this early stage of my career.
I should mention that at the time it was nearly summer in AZ, and the temperature was easily in the hundreds outside, yet despite this after knocking on the metal door of the studio, a guy with slicked back hair and decked out in an ALL leather suit answered the door. I had in my mind the idea that they didn’t expect a young kid to show up to photograph Mike, and that was confirmed when before even entering the studio the rather imposing leather-clad guy steps out and says, “whata ya want?” I explained that I was here to photograph Mike Tyson and he seemed to think I was the assistant. He looked at my friend and me and said that when my full crew was here, we could load in the gear we were going to use. A minute later it finally hit him that we were all that would be coming and almost begrudgingly let us enter.
Upon walking into the sparsely lit warehouse, to my immediate left there was a line up of Mike Tyson’s posse, strait out of a Vegas sitcom. There was leather suit guy, there was an all white suit guy with red sunglasses on despite the dark room and (I shit you not) there was a guy with a briefcase HAND CUFFED to his wrist. We were looking at a real-life caricature. However, with all the characters at hand, we did not have Mike Tyson. Nonetheless, we proceeded to bring in gear and do very preliminary setup of stands, find where we would draw power and so on. Then, without any preparedness, Mike Tyson walks in and before any introductions, the leather suit guy walks over and says, “Mr. Tyson would like to do a workout, and we need everyone to step outside the warehouse until he is done,” I asked how long this would be and he responded, “sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes a couple hours.”
And so that is how my friend Mike (again, not Tyson) and I stood, in the hot as hell Arizona sun, in a bad neighborhood next to the metal door of a very sketchy building waiting for the indeterminate 10 minutes to two hour workout to be done. To make matters worse, this is at a time before smart phones existed. We would spend the next hour trying not to get robbed or sun burned too badly for I left the keys to my parent’s car in my camera bag and didn’t want to risk going in unannounced to retrieve them.
When the workout was over we were let back in, and immediately started setting up the first shot. An image that I had laid out of Tyson in a stoic stance, arms crossed and punching the camera with his eyes (yes, I joking asked him to do that). For the shoot, I was using my Canon 1D Mark II and trusty 85mm f/1.2 L. At the time it was my go-to for portraits, and it would be a few more moths until I was able to afford the Canon 1Ds Mark II (which would become and remain my absolute workhorse for quite some time). On the lighting side we had a couple Profoto Acute 2R 2400 kits and two heads for each. While I progressed on to using a lot more lights as I shot more in my career, at the time it was what I could afford, and provided us the ability to control lighting in a schematic that was divided into quarters.
At this point we were ready for the first shot and a couple minutes later Mike Tyson came out of the locker room and walked straight up to me – I still get goosebumps thinking about this. I was never a big boxing fan, but I still knew what this man meant to the world of sport. As he walked up, he didn’t seem tall like some of the football players I had worked with, but there was no question that he was in incredible shape. Then came the most memorable moment of the entire photoshoot for me. He shook my hand. Now, when Mike Tyson shakes your hand it is not like anything you have ever experienced before in the world of hand shakes. When he shakes your hand, his hand FULLY envelopes yours, and AT THAT MOMENT you immediately realize the absolute terror that every one of his ill fated opponents realized right before they slipped away into sweet unconsciousness. His hands are not those of a human, but rather steel wrecking balls mounted to a chassis of a man that can swing them at speeds that pulverize any unlucky chap in their way.
So you are probably at this point thinking, with Iron Mike being the most feared man in the ring for so many years, it must be extremely intimidating to work with him. This was not the case, not even close. Over the years since that shoot I have come to find that the more dangerous a sport that the athlete is in, the more relaxed they are in front of a camera. This idea held very true, as on many occasions, I had to redirect Mike’s expression into one of intensity for he smiled all the freakin time when I raised the camera to my eye.
As we progress through the shoot, we got to a shot where I mounted a Profoto ring flash to the Canon and had Tyson sit on a stool in the corner of the ring that still was damp with sweat from his workout. I was balancing out the harshness of an on-axis ring light with a medium soft box to fill in some of the shadows where the light fell off. It was at this point that without thinking, I asked my assistant, “Mike, can you move the fill and drop it by a stop?” It had been lost on me that Mike Tyson thought I was asking him to do this lighting adjustment. His face was immediate confusion as to what was happening, and at that moment I saw an expression from him that I hadn’t seen before. I snapped only one frame before it had gone and the image to the right is it.
As we wrapped the set and the day, we (me, Mike and Mike) stood in the boxing ring and talked cordially. For every interview I have ever seen of him, or comedian doing an impersonation, the voice that sometimes goes comically nasal-y was not there, replaced by a normal, and actually very kind man. Before leaving he shook my hand as well as my assistant’s and walked back into the locker room. As soon as his back was to us, my assistant turned around to me, looked at the hand Tyson had just shook and then looked at me and mouthed, “holy shit, his hands are huge!!!”
As a funny little sidetone to this whole photoshoot. At the time I had a pair of “lucky shooting jeans” that I liked to wear on set. I was indeed wearing them on this day, and while I was putting away the Profoto 36 umbrella, I pushed hard to get it into the cloth case and put the top of it through the case, my jeans and into my leg. Trying not to make a commotion in the presence of the “posse” I acted like nothing had happened and we walked out with the gear, and my lucky jeans forever ruined with a three-inch hole and bloody leg. They were good jeans, they will be missed.
About the Author
Blair Bunting is an advertising photographer from Los Angeles. He has won numerous awards and worked with the clients such as Discovery Channel, Pepsi, Disney, Adidas, Nikon, to name a few. If you would like to see more of his work, visit his website, read his blog, follow him on Instagram and Twitter and like his Facebook page. This article was also published here and shared with permission.