today is veteran’s day, november 12th, 2018 - the day stan lee died at the age of 95.
for a certain type of kid - the type of kid i was - growing up in the 80s, (and for other kids growing up in the 90s and 60s and 70s) stan might have been as influential a figure in my life as any of my friends or even my parents. stan took the fantastical things we were drawn to and grounded them in a depth that no one before him thought they deserved. i grew up collecting and admiring stan’s work, never thinking how silly capes and tights really were. even when i became an adult these things still mattered to me. i never cared much for sports, but the closest corollary i had was the way my friends and i would discuss superheroes. like sports, it’s all just a little silly and semantic. but our teams were our teams. and stan was the general manager.
(my wife will either be proud of me for attempting a sports metaphor, or horrified that i likely mangled it.)
[part of this post will be repeated from a former post on a now defunct page, from the last time i shot stan on august 12th, 2013. exactly one year before my son was born.]
the first time i photographed stan lee (in 1997) i was as green and wet behind the ears as could be. i was trying to be fancy, using an old speed graphic 4×5 camera that i barely knew how to operate. i got everything set up and the moment stan arrived the camera decided to break. i was sweating bullets, in my twenties, in the office of the man whose ideas formed the foundation of the happiest, nerdiest times of my teens and i had just blown it. he let me come back the next day and things went a bit better.
a few months after that i received this note (below) in the mail from stan. i had sent him a print of the photo and i was beyond thrilled to get an actual note back.
four years later (2001) i shot him again, this time at his house, shortly before christmas. he didn’t remember me at all. the house was veritably overrun with christmas decorations. it seemed like every square inch of the place was covered with tchotchkes (or whatever the gentile term might be), all except for stan’s office, which simply had a lamp in the shape of spider man. the equipment worked then, but i mentioned to stan that once we were done i could have it all cleaned up and loaded out inside of ten minutes. he sat in the chair where i photographed him and timed me with a stopwatch, calling out the minutes as they flew by. i made it out with a few seconds to spare. i was never quite satisfied with that picture, but really pleased at the experience. sometimes that’s what you’re left with and that’s okay.
all i could find of it on my computer tonight was this one low res film scan. we’re so far into the digital world now that i’d have to go dig through boxes of proof sheets in my garage to find something else.
i photographed stan for the third time in 2013, for a spread in the “hollywood issue” of elle men, china. i felt better going in this time. i knew stan looked great. i knew he’d be wearing his trademark sunglasses, but if i lit him all right i’d be able to see his eyes. i knew i wanted to shoot him in color on a white background and in black & white on a black background. i knew how i wanted the spread to look, and i knew my equipment worked. i even found a copy of wolverine #1 in my garage, from 1988, in case the generalissimo felt like autographing things. the only hiccup this time was that we had to set up in the smallest possible office space, around an intern’s desk, even.
still, we made it happen, stan was as gregarious as ever and – as expected – didn’t remember meeting me. i showed him the photos i had taken of him previously and he was polite enough to pretend to recall the episodes. it’s a great privilege to be able to revisit the same subjects over a period of many years, and an even greater privilege to be able to revisit a subject who had had such a profound impact on me growing up. making the pictures sing is – dare i say it – a great responsibility, too.
just before we left stan smiled, shook my hand and said “i’ll see you in a few years.”
it’s heartbreaking that he was wrong that time. i was really counting on it.
excelsior, generalissimo! you were a force, and you will be missed by many.