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Paul's Peripatetic Palm Pix

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

According to legend, the Palm restaurant on Second Avenue in Manhattan originally was going to be called The Parma Restaurant, after the northern Italian city, but as often happens something got lost in translation. This was back in 1926 and the place, more a local spaghetti joint than the power lunch Mecca it has become, was the brand–new venture of immigrants Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi, both from Parma.

But when Bozzi and Ganzi applied for their business license, so the story goes, their thick accents so befuddled city bureaucrats that the name of their restaurant was translated into The Palm. The name stuck and now, 18 restaurants around the country later, The Palm is synonymous with high–rollers and expense account lunches.

The Washington Palm opened thirty years ago, in 1972, reportedly at the urging of George Bush. Not, mind you, the pretzel–choking George Bush, but his father, who was then US ambassador to the United Nations. The elder George apparently enjoyed being able to go a few blocks up from the river–past the New York Daily News Building, where I used to work–and over a block or two to the New York Palm for a restorative side of aged beef.

The DC Palm is similarly situated. It's in a prime downtown location thick with lawyers, pols, lobbyists and journalists (a deadly combination when it comes to major eating).The place quickly became a hit. Truth to tell, I've been a regular almost since it opened.

Once, more than ten years ago, as I was having lunch with photographer and friend Harry Hamburg of the Daily News, general manager Tommy Jacomo came over to our table and asked Harry if he could make a few snaps of the place for promotion.

"Hey," I said, "I'm the commercial photographer here."

That resulted in a more or less formal portrait shoot, in which I schlepped studio strobes, umbrellas, tripod, ladder and Hasselblad and made a shot of Tommy, his brother (and then co–manager) Ray and as many of the white–coated Palm waiters as we could find at 10 in the morning before the noon–to–two lunch rush.

I did the job as a favor, figuring I'd get a few free meals out of it. After a while it became ridiculous and I had to insist that Tommy once again take my Gold Card. [As I recall, Tommy agreed grudgingly, but not before handed me a box as I was leaving. It contained a cheesecake.]

Because of its vintage atmosphere–with walls festooned with caricatures of the actual and wannabe famous–not to mention the fact that the place attracts so many real well known faces–the Washington Palm has served as a backdrop for numerous magazine features about power–lunching. And Tommy, no dummy when it comes to promotion, is always gracious to visiting shooters. A few weeks ago, for example, when I arrived for lunch with Harry and our friend Paul Hosefros, senior Washington photographer for the New York Times, Manhattan freelancer Andrea Fazzari was burning a ton of film making pictures for a layout in Gourmet magazine. In fact, when I arrived I noticed that she had a dozen or so waiters assembled by a big window for a portrait. I couldn't help myself; I made a few bxw shots with my Leica and a couple of weeks later handed out prints to everyone in the picture.

So it wasn't any surprise that the New York Times would get around to doing a piece on The Palm for its Sunday Styles section. The assignment fell to Paul and, in the inevitable fashion of newspapers on deadline, Paul's editors said they needed the picture yesterday.

Paul, 55, is a first–rate and veteran news shooter, and also no slouch at location portraiture. He pulled off a logistical miracle back in 1999 when he made a portrait of 100 people–one person for each year of the century–outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to mark the new millennium. But for that job he had lots of technical help, and the precious luxury of time.

This time, Paul had to sandwich a portrait of Tommy Jacomo and his domain in between all the other demands of his spot news schedule. "First we were racing to the Hill to do (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld testifying at Senate Appropriations," Paul recalled. Then there was the off–again, on–again stakeout on the Capitol Plaza, waiting the arrival of the Phoenix FBI agent who was to testify before congressional investigators about his pre–9/11 memo warning of a possible terrorist threat from the air.

"It wasn't clear at all that this would work," Paul said, especially since the idea was to make Tommy in the midst of a crowded restaurant, not amidst a bunch of waiters cleaning up after lunch.

There were cell phone calls back and forth to the restaurant. "Finally after the fourth call, I said 'we're coming anyway.'"

In this case "we" meant Paul and his two trusty human light stands, Harry Hamburg of the Daily News and one obliging Palm waiter, both of whom had volunteered to help Paul out.

The shots that resulted show what a pro can do on a crushing deadline, though Paul, ever modest, insists he could have done better with more time.

My favorite shot is a vertical close–up of a smiling Tommy, his back to the Palm's large main dining room. You can sense the bustle and noise behind him because the room itself is effectively and subtly lit, by two garden variety Canon portable flash units, held at different places and angles to light the background. Paul is lighting Tommy himself with a third strobe handheld at arms length. This strobe is setting off the two other auxiliary units by means of a wireless infrared triggering device.

The second shot is a horizontal (to always give an editor a choice) in which Tommy is in his culinary domain. Less interesting, I think, than the former, it nonetheless shows off Tommy well, with the strobe lights strategically aimed to separate Tommy's face from the crowd, almost as if lit by a stage spotlight.

Later, when discussing the shoot with Harry and me, Paul expressed his own quandary.

"There are two ways of doing something like this [fast and slow] and I am beginning to doubt which is the best way," he said.

The slower option, "with an assistant and a lot of lights, will last 4–5 hours. The question is: are you able to do a good job (expressing) a man's character...If you take the time to do it, does it end up better?"

Though perhaps there might have been some minor technical tweaking in Paul's two images, it's clear to me that Paul's hurried photo session captured Tommy to a T. Later Paul (and Harry) made this important point as well:

"In Washington," Paul said, "I've always had to make sure that the welcome mat would be out the next time."And where access often can be in the hands of a bigwig's go–fers, publicists, secretaries or schedulers, what these people most often will remember about a photographer is that "this guy took the shortest amount of time."

It is a tough call: race through a job to keep the busy client happy, and thereby risk making a mediocre picture, or take the time necessary to cover every technical base and run the twofold risk not only of annoying the client, but of losing the spontaneity of the moment as well.

Faced with the same situation, I'd always go for the first option.

That's what Paul did. And in Paul's case, he brought a couple of things to the shoot to help him nail the job. The first were his overqualified human light stands.

The second thing he brought was talent.


Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Paul Hosefros–used with permission.
For a Sunday Times piece on the power–lunch Washington Palm, photographer Paul Hosefros used three portable strobes–one on camera and two others held by human light stands–to make this engaging close–up of general manger Tommy Jacomo.

© Paul Hosefros–used with permission.
A similar setup was used for the horizontal shot, of Tommy in his domain, with the strobe light nicely highlighting his face and separating it from the background.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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