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Cover Me
All we wanted was a beauty shot of L.A.’s burgeoning transit system. But Metro wasn’t ready for its close-up. So like so many in Tinseltown, we improvised.

Here’s what we were after: a photo of a surfer dude carrying his board onto the subway or light rail. All in all, I thought, a pretty straightforward image for the cover of OnEarth’s summer issue, for a story that was (among other things) about how Los Angeles is energetically committing itself to becoming a mass-transit city. And, I thought: a photo that shouldn’t be too difficult to get.

The photographer I hired, Thomas Alleman, seemed to agree. For the sake of logistical ease, we toyed with the idea of just having Thomas show up at some scenic and well-lit train platform somewhere in L.A. with minimal equipment and crew, and simply letting him put his considerable skills to use. But considering that the cover article would be saying more than a few nice things about Metro, Los Angeles’s transit authority, we opted to ask for the agency’s help.

Big mistake.

Thomas made contact with a perfectly nice young woman who assured him that she would be able to assist us. A most impressive stream of correspondence followed: I can say this because I was actually cc’d on all 29 e-mails. Dates were set. Dates were changed. Locations were set. Locations were changed. All the starting and stalling was a bit unnerving, but every time I began to get nervous, I would remind myself that all those e-mails meant that at least things were moving forward.

We had already been told that we could hold our cover shoot on one of Metro’s non-operational rail cars (sitting, at the time, unused in a repair yard) when we encountered our first pocket of unexpected turbulence. Suddenly Metro was informing us that Thomas, his assistant, and even our surfer-dude model would be required to complete a three-hour train safety class. Even as we scratched our heads in befuddlement—why would photographers and models need to be educated on the finer points of braking technique and train velocity just to take a picture?—we tried to remain flexible. Sometimes you just have to say: Okay, sure. We’ll do things your way.

More e-mails were exchanged; apparently the time and location for said three-hour safety class were subject to sudden change, too. Finally, training day arrived. That morning, Thomas, his assistant, and the model were having their coffee and getting ready to leave for their 9 a.m. class when another call came in from our friend at Metro—who regretfully informed Thomas that the plug was being yanked on the whole plan. Apparently, as news of our request had made its way up the bureaucratic food chain, someone at a higher level had decided it didn’t comply with specific Metro protocol regarding photo shoots, after all.

After being re-directed to a gentleman who was, by all indications, more aware of the details making up this specific protocol, Thomas was told that we were more than welcome to move forward with something like our original plan, so long as we were willing to use a replica of a train car rather than an actual one. With what sounded to Thomas almost like enthusiasm, this gentleman let him know that the replica—the same one used by Ridley Scott for one of his movies!—could be conveniently delivered to OnEarth’s “studio”(!) on the back of a flatbed truck. (The cost of lending and transporting this fake mode of transportation to OnEarth’s non-existent Los Angeles “studio”—billable, undoubtedly, to the recipient—was not mentioned.)

Oh, and one last thing, he told Thomas: the train-car replica was booked by someone else for two more weeks. We had been led to believe that we would be doing our cover shoot in two more days. Waiting two weeks would have pushed us so far past our deadline that we would have been slightly early for the issue of the magazine after the one we were all working on.

Thomas phoned me in New York and spelled out the whole, sad story. Then, with remarkable nimbleness, he pulled off an elegant tactical U-turn, suggesting that we go back to our original idea: just show up and start taking photos.

So the next morning, our intrepid trio drove down to the train station in Redondo Beach, which they had designated as their starting point for a day to be spent riding the rails. They took a series of pleasant, leisurely train trips, making notes about which stations offered the most picturesque settings, and which presented the best possibilities in terms of light. They mentally worked through the logistics of several different scenarios. Then, at about 6:00 that evening—just as the sun was falling in the sky and the Southern California daylight was beginning to take on that golden, saturated quality for which it is world-famous—a handful of photographs were taken of a man, a surfboard, and a light-rail train. Everything about the operation was hand-held and utterly low-key; there were no stands or tripods. No trains were delayed. No one was inconvenienced. No one’s safety was jeopardized.

As a matter of fact, our cover shoot went as smoothly and as quietly as … well, as the ride on one of Metro’s light-rail cars. Like the subway, they represent a fantastically creative way to get around L.A.—and to avoid gridlock, and all of its related headaches, as you do. Because sometimes, to avoid gridlock and headaches, you have to get a little creative.

Below are more great shots by Alleman of Angelenos on the go.

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image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔