The most common perception of people in wheelchairs is “weak.” Equally out there these days is “heroic, even superhuman.” Both are well-known distortions. The way to dispel these bad raps is probably not with rhetorical assaults or righteous legislation. Even laws have their limits in changing minds. A living, breathing personal example is much more powerful. The most inspirational stories are usually of some guy or gal in a chair you happen to know personally who succeeds in life, one way or another.
If you don’t know the name, Christopher Voelker is a photographer, specifically, a studio photographer, and has been for the last, oh, say, twenty five years. It’s both his living and his life’s work. Chris’s dramatic, boldly-lit approach to picture-taking is very recognizable and very stylish. A lot of people in LA love working with Chris: Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, crime author Michael Connolly, Robert David Hall, the Push Girls, and the subjects of over thirty “New Mobility” covers, among countless other portraits and spreads.
The fact that Chris was paralyzed in a motorcyle accident is not really relevant, only in the ingenious way he has incorporated his state of being into taking pictures. He manipulates an image with all the finesse that he uses to manipulate his chair.
Sam Maddox, the much esteemed knowledge manager at the Reeve Foundation, directed me to Chris’s photo studio for a shoot one recent morning. Sam wanted a picture of me for his soon to be released, revised “Paralysis Resource Guide,” and he and Chris had decided beforehand that I should be set in a dark news reporter’s setting circa 1930, manual Underwood typewriter and all. Worried about looking like an idiot, I nevertheless went along with the scheme. Chris dressed me up with a spiffy Fedora, like a noir Hildy Johnson from “Front Page,” set me at my dingy, butt-strewn desk, and started fooling with the lights, moving set pieces around, and playing with scrims until he was ready to click. My job was to look this way and that and keep puffing on the cigar in my left hand.
Most of the takes ended up as a study of the cigar and its mysterious smoke that encircled my agony-of-writing face. Besides turning green from excessive cigar smoke, I spent most of the session watching Chris work – quiet, cool, extremely focused, and improvising his way into something he liked.
Concentration is a gift or a long-developed skill or something, but it is essential to succeeding in damn near anything. And for the last time, I’ll make the obvious point: that kind of vision and dedication to craft has nothing to do with physical disability. Nada. But ingenuity helps. Chris and his wife, Melanie, a makeup artist, live over Chris’s vast studio in the San Fernando Valley. The studio itself has all-purpose camera mounts and video screens, all at Chris’s fingertips. His working mode struck me as similar to my dentist performing oral surgery – wheeling back and forth, picking up utensils, giving instructions, telling the patient not to “open wide” but to “puff more smoke.”
Chris tells a story about going to an album party recently at Capitol Records for a new solo CD by Mickey Dolenz, formerly of “The Monkeys”. Chris was of course the only guy roaming the room in a wheelchair. But because a gigantic photo of Mickey’s cover, created by Chris, hung over the proceedings like the political blowup of Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane,” no one came up to Chris inquiring about his condition or what he did to justify his existence on earth. They didn’t see the chair first. They saw the photo first. People went out of their way to find him to talk about his great photography, a completely different tangent of perception.
Chris discovered a passion for photography many years back when someone left a Richard Avedon photo collection in his hospital room. He’s most often compared to the late, great Hollywood glamour photographer, George Hurrell, whose images of Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable are forever etched in our collective cultural brain.
Some wag once described Chris as “Hurrell on acid.”
That sounds about right.
NOTE: You can see Chris’s work at www.voelkerstudio.com
© 2012 Allen Rucker |