Coffee & Kodachrome: A Photographic Memory

It was the top of the 80’s when Max Factor Cosmetics was still based in Hollywood, and I was working as their in-house copy writer. The job meant coming up with promotional shade theme events, nail polish color names, package copy, brochures for the sales department and the like. While I once wrote a radio ad for Jaclyn Smith to record, it was mostly the less than glamorous creative work too lowly for our ad agency, Wells Rich Greene, to bother their big apple heads over

When my boss was assigned to the company’s London office for six months we were both thrilled. She got to go to London —LONDON!— and while my new business cards said Associate Creative Director, I essentially jumped from in-house copywriter straight into her Creative Director shoes. Suddenly I was in everybody’s Rolodex; the girl to call if you were working the freelance beauty market in L.A. in the very early 80’s. Along with other writers who came out of their introverted shells to offer their services—No, Im still doing the bulk of the in-house copy, thank you very much—graphic  designers, photographers and illustrators all wanted to come in and show me their books. Id schluff most of them off while trying to maintain the illusion that I had much say in the matter. 

While I relished the image of being in charge, the truth was that Jane, the big big boss, was still the major mucky-muck overseeing the whole shebang;  the advertising—created by our ad agency in NYC—marketing, promotion, point of purchase, packaging, everything had to be approved by Jane, who wasn’t going anywhere. Which was fine by me; Jane wasn’t the kind of boss who just threw her Senior Vice Presidential corporate weight around, she had an art background and really knew her stuff. She could rough out a layout on her sketch pad as fast as any art director I knew at Y&R and if we needed art, from photos of the bottle comp for our newest fragrance, Le Jardin, to floral illustrations for the package design, Jane had her stable of guys to call.

An East Coast transplant, the very definition of old school preppie, Jane was an American blue-blood: I think her family even came over on the Mayflower. Unlike my direct superior, the MIA creative director who did little to nurture my twenty-something ambitions, Jane worked me like a mother, urging me to spread my wings beyond my job description of writing package copy and coming up with nail polish and lipstick shade names for the spring promotion. She wanted me to soar and cheerfully shooed me off to supervise the photo shoots. Unchained from my 9 to 5 desk-bound job I went flying down the 10 to the photographer’s Venice-based studio in my VW convertible at least once a week, feeling like a hot shot with the top down, a box full of products and comps in the back seat, radio on loud, singing along to Blondie’s Call Me, bungling the words.

The studio became something of a second home to me, and Flynn, the photographer, tall and rangy, thin black wire rim glasses resting on his beakish nose, a big brother. He’d hear me pull into the lot and pop out to grab my box of goodies, asking whether I wanted Marshall Crenshaw or Elvis Costello? Strawberry or plain cream cheese? His assistant was at the market picking up juice and bagels. Inside, Marshall Crenshaw’s Someday, Someway would already be booming throughout the hollow space, making me smile, making me feel bouncy, through and through. 

In the center of the space, a large white work table on sawhorses sat in front of an industrial looking contraption of metal stands and a crossbar supporting a massive roll of seamless while a dozen other rolls of colored backdrop paper, ready for the choosing, were stacked in a corner. Flynn’s sister-in-law was an artist who hand-painted furniture and she’d done his floor, slashing the grey cement with black and swirls of magenta, painting the color right up and onto his canvas covered couch. 

We’d sit for awhile drinking coffee—a specially ground exotic blend enhanced with a teaspoon of nutmeg and cinnamon—catching up on the current state of my love life: the Portland based Master Card account exec who flew me up to his home in Portland for the weekend, who sent extravagant bouquets of flowers to the office, and who, when I sent a bottle of champagne to his New Orleans hotel room when he was there on a business trip on his birthday, simply never called me again; the blind date I’d been on with a man who wore grungy tennis shoes, a man so unkempt and shabby that the shoes had slits where his unclipped toenails had slashed through the canvas; the man I couldn’t tell him too much about because he worked at Max Factor too. He offered no judgement just a sympathetic nod, a patient ear, a hug and the reassurance that the right one was out there somewhere. And, of course, we talked about the day’s work. Work. That made me smile. Work was a 9th floor office with a Selectric III typewriter where product managers rapped on my door, asking me to rewrite mascara directions; that was work. Shooting with Flynn was—well, it wasn't that.

Working with Flynn meant sipping more coffee while he and Gary set up a shot; studying the photos pinned to the cork board above the coffee station—polaroids from other shoots, other clients, pictures of his family dropping by on their way to the beach,his wife and two beautiful little barefoot children silhouetted in the doorframe, photos of guys, clones of Flynn in their t-shirts and jeans grinning into the camera doing that goofy hand gesture thing, snapshots of young women my age in wispy summer dresses without makeup or a care in the world. Models? Young mothers? It was impossible to know—the photographic evidence of Flynn’s other world.

Opening up his refrigerator, hunting for cream for another cup of coffee, I’d find it stocked, not just with cream but with big fat blocks of Kodak film stock like giant blocks of cheddar cheese. The sight of those dozens of rolls of film, tightly sealed in plastic, kept in the fridge to maintain their freshness, must have been as intoxicating to Flynn as a full carton of cigarettes was to a smoker, or a stack of crisp reams of clean, white paper on a stationer’s shelf is to a writer. The quickening of the pulse as you slit the casing, opening the package for the very first time. Those blocks of Kodachrome fast became intoxicating to me too. The faint whiff of emulsion, the empty yellow cartons tossed in the waste basket along with discarded Polaroids, the silence beyond the music as Flynn and Gary conferred over a shot, heads bowed over the table, tinkering with a set up, the squeak of tennis shoes as they moved about the floor echoing in the large space, ratcheting the overhead lights up and down, adjusting the umbrellas and reflectors, all proved potent and seductive, like a spell.

I’d watch as Flynn took a bottle of cologne, ordinary-looking, the color dark and dull, and by merely cutting out a small white card and placing it behind the glass, changed the color of the liquid from muddy brown to sparkling amber, transforming the ordinary into something beautiful. To Flynn it was a simple trick of the trade, to me it was akin to magic.

He’d bring me the polaroid or I’d wander over for a closeup view,  to see if there were any changes I wanted to make. Sometimes I’d make a tiny tweak or we’d have a brainstorm —let’s add sand!—sending Gary off to the beach a half mile away.

I kept the title and best of all, the job overseeing the shoots when my boss came back from England. I came to work with other photographers while I was Max Factor, and they even sent me to New York to work with the agency and a big name photographer on a major color event. He had not one, but a half dozen assistants running around after him. Thrilling, but not the same. Working with Flynn wasn’t working, it was alchemy, a bit of wizardry, or perhaps it was simply play. And there was no other photographer that I would rather play with.

Thirty years later and the world has gone digital and I imagine Flynn has too. No need to stand around shaking that polaroid picture and chatting, but I’ll never forget the sharp stinging smell of that emulsion, bopping to Marshall Crenshaw, and pouring my heart out to Flynn.

Looking back, was I always a little bit in love with Flynn and never knew it? Maybe. Maybe I was.

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