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Best of ASMP 2009

Stephen Mallon is a specialist in making light of challenging industrial landscapes. As soon as he learned about US Airways Flight 1549, he knew just the right client to call about the salvage of this infamous jet. When the plane was hoisted from the water, Mallon had a front row seat to history and he got the image captures to prove it as well. After a roller coaster ride of media coverage and image embargoes, Mallon is now gearing up for a September exhibition in Brooklyn, NY.

Stephen Mallon


Project: The Salvage of Flight 1549

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

SM: I started shooting full time in 2000.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

SM: Since 2002.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SM: Industrial subjects, portraits and landscapes.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

SM: Hmm, my 6 foot ladder?

© Stephen Mallon
All images in this article © Stephen Mallon

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

SM: I am a wannabe painter, so when people see my images and tell me “that looks like a painting” it’s one of my favorite complements.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

SM: Serendipity! After the water landing, I made a phone call to my client and the assignment followed from there. Once the shock faded and I was able to concentrate on shooting, I stayed focused on making the images that I wanted and, at the same time, captured the story of the most successful water landing in over 50 years of US history.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Your photographic specialty is industrial work. How did you get your start in this niche?

SM: I started shooting this subject matter when I was still in high school, then got away from it, but I got back in via my licensing agreements with stock distributors. A conversation with a senior advertising agency art buyer prompted me to start photographing the workers in addition to the work space, in order to make the images more viable for the commercial world.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Please describe the clients/markets most interested in your photography. Does your industrial subject matter have much cross over to different types of clients or markets?

SM: It’s a range, from the crane companies to construction to the energy industry. Manufacturing is also looking pretty promising!

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Do your clients generally provide you with detailed direction about a shoot or do they have restrictions on how and what you can photograph? What are the most important considerations to be aware of when working within this framework?

SM: So far I’ve been pretty much left alone to shoot what I see that works well visually. In my most recent job for the construction company, AECOM, the client emailed me some scouting photos. I went and scouted it as well, we talked about what to keep an eye out for, and then off I went to jail. (The shoot was in a prison power plant.)

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Do you get property releases for your industrial coverage? If so, please describe any particular strategies you use when requesting this documentation.

SM: When I can! I work some of the locations on trade. I get property and/or model releases in exchange for self-promotion usage. Some of the work is strictly for the fine art market. In these cases, I am granted access for specific projects and allowed to photograph due to the fact that images are for exhibitions and not for commercial use.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Your work often involves shooting in challenging locations and circumstances. Please describe the most essential considerations one should observe when working in these types of environments.

SM: A hard hat! Keep an eye out — I was standing under a subway car shooting the underbelly and at that point the MTA supervisor was kind enough to point out that the cables do break from time to time. S%$T happens, so keep your eyes open!

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: How much preproduction goes into the planning of your shoots? Are there specialized services, suppliers or support staff that you rely on for shoots?

SM: It varies from job to job. For a past pharmaceutical assignment, we were on a sound stage shooting portraits with two 10x10 foot silks, an octabank and six packs going. We had a similar set up in jail at the power plant. When I was shooting the Salvage of Flight 1549, the NYPD had the airplane nicely lit so I didn’t have to worry too much about lighting for that! My crew ranges from 1 to 10, plus talent, and can include a producer, three assistants, two interns, a stylist and art director, or it can be just me.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: How much work had you done for the crane operator prior to their granting you access to photograph the Salvage of Flight 1549? Was there any one detail about your relationship that you feel was a linchpin for allowing you this access?

SM: I got in touch with the crane company, Weeks Marine, in 2008, when I found out they were involved with retiring 1,500 New York subway cars to form artificial reefs off the east coast. Our working relationship was great on that project and they began to call me when they were working on interesting jobs, including the delivery of the Concorde to the Intrepid Museum this past fall.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Did other photographers or media outlets contact your client to request access to document this event?

SM: One videographer wanted me to take his camera to the scene and shoot it for him, but I was the only photographer at the site other than some photographers from the NYPD, the NYFD, and the FBI. The New York Times photographer did sneak onto the barge in Bayonne, but he pissed the FBI off pretty good! Other than this, it was just myself.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: How many hours and over what time period did you shoot the entire plane rescue? How many frames did you capture?

SM: I shot the airplane over the span of two weeks, with close to 6,000 captures.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Was there anything you encountered on the Salvage shoot that was totally unexpected or surprising to you?

SM: It was really nice getting to know the crew and New York’s emergency response teams even better. I felt very welcome and trusted!

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Please describe the situation you encountered when your images were embargoed by the NTSB and the airline. What reasons did the NTSB and the airline give you for trying to prevent distribution of the images? What was your initial reaction when contacted about this?

SM: My heart sank because I was afraid it was going to be years before the images were released. The NTSB was very apologetic about having to take the images down, and this ended up only being a couple of weeks, minus the interiors (which, as of July 15 have just been released again). The airline’s request was frustrating at first, but understandable in the sense that they were just trying to protect their client. It all got resolved with the help of two lawyers, the ASMP’s Victor Perlman and Amy Benjamin of Benjamin Law, plus a lot of support from the photo community! ASMP National also considered starting a legal fund for my situation but, fortunately, the dispute didn’t get to that stage.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: What legal resources did you use in dealing with the NTSB and the airline, and what led you to these resources?

SM: Victor Perlman called me pretty quickly after the AIG embargo happened. I was also referred to legal counsel Amy Benjamin who assisted in drafting a letter to AIG.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Please talk about the post-production work you were asked to do on this series before your images could go back online. Since this agreement, has there been any additional concern about presenting these images to the public?

SM: AIG and USAirways asked for the airline logos to be obscured or removed, which I did.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: In light of your experiences, do you have any advice for others facing this kind of situation?

SM: Take care of your client, but be aware of your rights and get a contract! This situation got complicated because of my situation in being a sub, sub, sub, sub-contractor of US Airways. There was nothing in writing saying they had control but there was nothing saying they didn’t. I wanted to keep my clients happy but at the same time also get my photos released.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: This project has received considerable media attention and was featured by many different outlets, spanning print, online and televised media. Having been the subject of such a media blitz, do you have any insights for others about how to leverage this kind of attention for maximum benefit?

SM: Share your work with your colleagues. I emailed my friends when the images first went live; one friend sent the link to another, who sent it to, which opened the floodgate of press!

At one point I was reading a post on about photographer Elizabeth Fleming’s blog Teathered. On the side of this blog she runs an “as seen in” field. This is a great way to always keep press about you or your recent assignments at the top of the blog, so that no matter how many posts are there, you can always click to all the different interviews.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: During the time that your project was a hot news item what, if anything, did you do to monitor and/or grow interest?

SM: I kept an eye on my Web stats and was very psyched when my site went up to 10,000 visits a day at one point. During the month of February 2009 over 125,000 people visited my site. I am now also using Google alerts to let me know if anyone is writing about me or my project.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: Were there any missed opportunities as a result of the image embargo?

SM: New York magazine was going to run one of the images, but due to the restrictions placed on them, this ended up not working out.

© Stephen Mallon

ASMP: What are your future plans for this work? Are there any plans in the works for presenting the work in the context of anniversary coverage or anything in discussion that would take a more historical look?

SM: I will be having a solo show of the Salvage of Flight 1549 pictures at Front Room Gallery in Brooklyn, opening September 18, which I am really excited about! I also want to explore channels for publishing the images again during the one-year anniversary of the water landing next January. After the September exhibition, I would also like to have the work head to a New York museum. Once the exhibit invites are ready, I’m going to check with the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Historical Society, and the New York Public Library, as well as any other museums that might be a good fit.

© Stephen Mallon