Interview with Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

by Philip Greenspun; created April 2007

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Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio are the authors of thought-provoking coffee table books such as Hungry Planet, Material World: A Global Family Portrait, Man Eating Bugs, and Robo Sapiens.

Peter is known for photographing international feature stories on science and the environment. In his earlier years, Peter worked for National Geographic. He has received a number of World Press Photo and Picture of the Year awards. Faith is the editor and lead writer for the Material World book series, and a former network television news producer. In between global book projects, they reside in Napa Valley, California.

Peter, how did you decide to become a photographer?

PETER: I fell in love with traveling and thought being a photographer would be an interesting way to travel and make a living. As a senior in high school my counselor recommended that I soften my science and math direction with an art course. Fortunately my high school offered a new course in B&W photography, so I opted for that instead of art, towards which I had an aversion. Composition is something that comes pretty naturally to me and I appreciate ordered chaos: the photo class turned out to be fun.

Instead of attending my high school graduation, I went to Europe on a work/study program where I was supposed to have a job on a farm in Spain so I could learn better Spanish. But the job fell through after I got there and the organization gave me my $400 back and told me to be in London in two months for the charter flight back to the USA. The summer of 1966, I hitch-hiked alone for two months all over Europe instead of working on a farm in Spain. It was a big game to see how much I could see on $400. This got me hooked on traveling.

Did you have any formal training in photography?

PETER: I have a completely worthless degree: a BS in Photojournalism from Boston University (BU). With this degree, I suppose I could have gotten a job teaching grade school kids how to photograph their relatives, but knowing about B&W photo processing and developing and how to shoot a picture story is good basic info that every photographer should have. I drove a taxi at night during my last year at BU and then for another 18 months after graduating in order to buy cameras and pay the rent while I tried to figure out for myself how to freelance.

What was your first big break?

PETER: My first two big breaks were a wrist and a thumb while learning to hang glide in Colorado. I thought this would be a really cool way to take photos but I had an accident early on, then didn't fly anymore. My instructor killed himself the following week doing a 360 back into the mountain, so I felt fortunate to have had a less serious crash. This was in 1972 and hang gliding was in its infancy.

My first big break in photography was a story for the American edition of GEO magazine in 1979. I had been freelancing for seven years for educational publishers in the Boston area but wanted to work for magazines. Publishers of foreign language textbooks would give me lists of required photos and I would go to Spain, France, Italy, Germany, South America, Mexico etc., mostly on my own money, and shoot like a madman for a month, living very cheaply. I would then come home and develop all the photos in my darkroom and sell them on spec. This was not very profitable, but it was enough to live on and pay for the trips, the film, and paper. It was very good practice for learning how to get into places and make photos quickly, unobtrusively, and cheaply. And I picked up some basic language skills necessary for traveling.

How did you get the job at National Geographic?

PETER: Everyone thinks it would be great to work for National Geographic. So did I. After I discovered my degree in photojournalism would only get me a job in a camera store, I taught myself lighting. I read tons of magazines and books and studied the photos trying to figure out how they were done. I bought some flash equipment and played around until I figured out how to make a subject look as I envisioned it should look. At that time in the early 1970's, there were no videos on lighting and no books per se on the subject. I worked on a portfolio I thought would be good enough to show NG and get an assignment. I called a few people who had already done this successfully and asked for advice. Cary Wollinsky, who also survived the BU experience a year ahead of me, gave me some tips. I then made an appointment to see the director of photography at NGS, Bob Gilka. He was a gruff old guy, but very honest. I took his advice and shot more and more on my own about Oakland, CA, where I was living at the time. I taught myself aerial photography and rented cheap Cessnas and a helicopter or two, although the price of an hour in a helicopter made me very sad.

After American GEO published my coverage of the California water system with lots of double pages, the German edition of GEO started giving me assignments, usually for a week at a time: stories about factory farming, American survivalism, and travel pieces in Mexico and Hawaii. Most of these were story ideas that I generated and lobbied to produce. Many times I found a writer who also wanted to do these stories and we pitched them together. During this period, science magazines were big in the USA — as this was pre celebrity-all-the-time magazines that dominate the magazine world today — so I pitched a lot of science stories and ended up doing some very interesting pieces for them, and also for Smithsonian. This is where the ability to light well came in very handy, needing to photograph in dark laboratories, and compose concept photos. Ninety-nine percent of my subjects would look like crap without proper lighting. Scientists are usually nice, organized, logical people who are very cooperative. I always learn a lot of science while shooting science stories and it helps to be able to speak intelligently to a subject about his or her field of work, i.e., do your homework before the photography. At about this same time, I began building a network of agencies to sell my work in other countries. I found compatible independent agencies in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan that would resell magazine stories and sell my stock images. I still only work with independent photo agencies today.

After nearly a dozen GEO stories, a dozen science stories, half a dozen Smithsonian stories, and several more trips to Washington DC to show my trays of slides, the new director of photography of NGS, Tom Kennedy, called and asked if I would be interested in a story on a dinosaur research project in Australia. I spent a month on a dig on the southernmost Australian coast where some scientists were attempting to dig a mine at the base of a 200-foot cliff with heavy surf to find chicken-size dinosaur fossils. They didn't find any but I came back with a story after spending a few weeks driving around central Australia shooting fossil-related stuff.

A year later, after I had won a World Press Award for a photograph of daylight lightning over Biosphere 2 in Arizona, NGS called again and offered a story on lightning. This was very challenging since they only wanted me to do the lab shots and I wanted to shoot the whole story so I busted my butt. In the end this worked out well although the magazine also ran other photographer's work of incredible lightning with tornadoes, and lightning over an erupting volcano. By the way, the stories I shot for NGS were their ideas, not mine. They rejected dozens of story ideas that I proposed over the years. That's when I began realizing that NGS really wasn't the holy grail of photography that I thought it was. My story ideas have become great articles for GEO, Germany, one of the last truly great photography magazines left on the planet, as well as book projects that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

How does National Geographic plan a story? How many months in advance of putting a photographer on the ground do they start work?

PETER: I have only done three NGS stories so I am not an expert on this. I know that the ones I shot started many months in advance and each took about a month. Photo editors are an integral part of this process. The DNA fingerprinting story was all over the world but the magazine held it for almost two years so they could get the accompanying graphic art just perfect. Actually, the editor-in-chief at the time was not science-savvy, so it took him that long to understand the concepts involved.

How does National Geographic support a photographer on assignment?

PETER: Very well indeed. In the past, maybe too well. My modus operandi after working for a decade as a self-funding freelancer, was to spend as little money as possible to get the job done, even if it was on someone else's nickel. I chose hotels not for comfort, but for location, and often I slept in a car or on the ground if it meant getting a certain photo. I've heard Braggadocio about excess baggage charges, multiple unused hotel rooms, and rental cars held unused for long periods of time, which makes me lose respect for certain photographers. Sometimes it's worth it to spend money on a good idea, but wasting money makes me ill.

How important is it to have the right fixer in a foreign country?

PETER: Very important, and for the most part that person should be a native speaker with good English skills. Now with the Internet, you can get lots of info in advance, but a local person who knows how to work the system is invaluable. To me a translator is very, very important too. If the fixer is also the translator, so much the better. I have known photographers who didn't speak the language and would work in a place for weeks without one, getting by on common sense and smiles. But how many situations did they miss because they couldn't talk to someone and get the back story on details, small daily life things, etc. It's important to get a translator who will ask the questions in a sensitive and thoughtful way. Knowing the ethnicity issues, the tribal issues in some places...who your translator is can mean a lot. While working on a story in Istanbul one time, we were accompanied by a Japanese TV crew. We had our own translator but the non-native translator for the Japanese asked the women in the family we were photographing, "Why are you so fat? Doesn't it make you uncomfortable to be so fat?" We apologized later because we felt guilty by association.

Faith is very exacting about what she needs and wants from a translator and is very clear with them from the outset. Sometimes we have to change translators in midstream, which is a giant pain in the ass. She prefers working with women because the filtering is better. We aren't interested in the personal anecdotes of a translator when we're interviewing people. Women are less prone to self-agrandizing and inserting themselves into the dialog.

Our one exception for always using native speakers is when we're in China. We use our son Josh who is fluent in Mandarin, lived in various places around Mainland China for some years, and currently lives in Taiwan. His ability to work the system is invaluable, combined with the astonishment he's met with when he speaks fluently gives him instant credibility. It's harder to get him for ourselves, though, because he's often working for other writers and photographers.

How about the right producer in the U.S.?

PETER: Same thing but less so. A local, well-respected person is very valuable. I don't shoot many corporate or commercial jobs, but when you do, you had better have someone helping who has done it before. One time we used a fixer who was supposed to come up with "typical families". The folks she picked were living in trailer parks, replete with tattoos, inflated by fast food, and greeting their boyfriends as they returned from prison.

Who is your producer now and who works harder, you or she?

PETER: My wife is my assistant and producer most of the time now and does most of the writing for our books. We both kick butt, sometimes each other's. Having a clone working with you, even with the Mars/Venue issue, is pretty valuable. When I am grumpy, she is charming, and when she goes off like a car bomb, I help pick up the body parts.

Why did you leave National Geographic?

PETER: I was only there for a few years as a freelancer, but the reason I haven't shot anything for them since the lightning story in 1993, is because I joined a class action law suit over the use of my photos in a product that NGS farmed out, which made them a lot of money: the NGS CD-ROM set. As a freelancer, I had a very specific contract that spelled out the uses for the photos made while on assignment for NGS. Instead of negotiating a pittance fee for my photos, which I and nearly all the other photographers would have gladly accepted, NGS hired a team of lawyers to attempt to interpret the contracts in a different way. Several dozen photographers stood up for their freelance rights, since secondary usage is important to freelancers. For this action, we have been blacklisted and none of us has been able to work for NGS for the past ten years. The case is still pending, moving from court to higher court, and may not be settled anytime soon.

Where did you get the idea for Material World?

PETER: Freelancing in Somalia during their civil war and in Kuwait right after the first Bush War, I had some rather intense experiences that made life in the U.S. seem rather shallow and superfluous. Previous to those eye-opening events, I had the displeasure of experiencing a twenty-year marriage end in divorce. Sitting in my office early one morning, listening to NPR, which is the way I like to start every day, I heard an amazing piece on the marketing of Madonna's autobiographic book called SEX. The book was a sensation in the U.S. The radio report ended with Madonna singing, "I am living in a material world and I am just a material girl," or something close. I thought it was spot on. We live in an idiotic capitalist self-indulgent society where the sex life of a pop star is more important than impending starvation, land mines and child soldiers in Africa, or more interesting than the world's biggest man-made natural disaster in oil fields of the Middle East.

Quite literally, it took about a minute to come up with the concept and title for Material World: dozens of statistically average families from every corner of the world take all their stuff outside of their house for a big portrait. This way, all of my fellow, greedy, shallow American neighbors could compare themselves to the rest of the world and see if they were really better off. I also got the idea for an interactive CD-ROM at the same time.

How much time and money did it take to produce Material World?

PETER: I went to Japan to test the idea for Material World. After a lot of difficulty, I found a family there willing to take all their stuff outside their home for a portrait. Next I went to South Africa and Mali to do the same thing. With those three portraits, and the realization that the idea was good but impossible to do by myself, I formed a corporation and worked out exactly what photos and information were needed to shoot thirty families in thirty countries. I then asked a bunch of photographer friends to help me finish the project. In all, there were sixteen of us and we completed the shooting in just over a year. Each photographer was paid a weekly rate, plus all expenses, and they joined in a pool to share stock photo profits after the project paid for itself. I re-financed my house and took all my credit cards to the limit. I got some of my photo agents in other countries to lend me money. In all, I spent $600,000 to gather the photos and information that became the Material World book and CD-ROM.

How nervous were you before the launch? How many copies has it sold now?

PETER: Not very nervous, because I knew the idea was good. The contributing photographers made incredible images. I believed it would be successful, but I couldn't find a book publisher willing to do the book. Fourteen publishers turned it down. Finally, getting rather desperate, I went to Sierra Club Books in San Francisco and found a sympathetic ear. We reworked our text to cover a few extra environmental issues and we had a publisher. The only problem was that they thought we should only print 10,000 copies and in order to keep the price low, I gave up royalties on the first 10,000 copies to make the hardback price out at $30. I had a story in Life magazine lined up and in most big foreign magazines around the world. I knew we could sell hundreds of thousand of copies but Sierra Club Books laughed and said that their previous bestseller took a decade to sell 40,000 copies and that I should be patient. But it is tough being patient when you are more than a half million dollars in debt. Fortunately, a producer for Oprah Winfrey called and asked if I wanted to go on the show and talk about the book. I had heard of her, but never seen the show. Oprah loved the book and it immediately sold out. The book made some best seller lists, but only for a week since there were only 10,000 copies. I tried to convince the Sierra Club Books editor to print more books but he told me that in the spring the demand for the scheduled paperback release would be good and they were thinking of 15,000 copies. No way they would reprint before then. I ordered a reprint from Hong Kong myself of 10,000 copies and designed a direct mail order brochure which I sent out. Once this was done and orders started coming in, I called the head of the board of directors of Sierra Club Books and told them what had happened. The next day, the publisher called and offered to buy all of my order from me to fill bookstore backorders. Finally Sierra Club Books realized they could sell a lot of Material World, so they commenced to make small orders of 10,000 copies over the following years. The problem was that the books were printed in Hong Kong and delivery time was three months. There were never enough books available to make a bestseller list again. Several times the publisher didn't order enough for the Christmas book buying season and on one occasion, the publisher forgot to even order them on time. With my royalty now at about $1 per hardback, I was only chipping away at my debt. The real way I paid for the project was through magazine story and stock photo sales. After less than three years, the project had paid for everything and all the photographers were enjoying stock sales checks. We established a scholarship fund for the kids of the poorer families and many of them were put through school with project money.

In total, Sierra Club Books has now sold several hundred thousand copies of Material World. The Japanese and German editions have also been quite sucessful, but because this was my first book, the royalty portion of its success is mostly enjoyed by the publisher.

Besides books and magazines, calendars, and CD-ROMs, there have been some major exhibits of Material World. Although there is no money to be made from exhibits, they are a source of pride. Just last week there was one in Barcelona, at which I spoke. The fact that a thirteen-year-old project still resonates and can still have a large exhibit with lots of newspaper, magazine and TV press shows the timelessness of the project.

Faith, you started in television, right? What's the common thread between TV production and what you're doing now?

FAITH: I was a television news producer and as I recall, my friends in the business were sure that I would return to television news. I am a total excitement junky and political news hound just like them. But they were wrong. The parts of my television career that I enjoyed most were developing the narratives of the people that I was covering and that's what I do full time now, in every nook and cranny on the earth.

What was your first project with Peter?

FAITH: Our first full project together was Women in the Material World and was probably the most difficult ever for Peter as we used only female photographers so he had to stay at home for a year while some extraordinary women and I did the coverage. That project came on the heels of Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

Tell us about your business today. Where does the money come from? What percentage is stock, corporate assignment, editorial assignment, books?

PETER: Our business is constantly changing. If it doesn't, we are out of business. A big part of our income comes from stock photos. The rest is from editorial assignments and a small bit comes from corporate shoots, for companies, which I feel are not too evil. We also do a dozen or so speaking engagements every year that generate some income and increase awareness of our book projects. Book projects are tremendously expensive and we fund these through all the other income we generate.

How do you market your stock photography?

PETER: Our agents license our images outside the United States and most are very good at it. Our web site, designed by David Griffin and created by Bo Blanton, brings in a lot of queries and we have a licensing agent on staff who handles U.S. negotiations.

How has the editorial market changed over the years that you've been working for magazines?

PETER: It has gone completely in the toilet. Except for a few magazines like Business Week that pay about $800 per day, most of the major magazines all over the world are stuck in the $400-500 range. When I started in 1970, magazines were paying about $250. Last month a well-known national magazine told me they pay that amount today. I accepted the job, but only because I like the magazine and they will pay expenses to get me somewhere to photograph something I can use in our next book.

Lots of textbook companies have discovered royalty-free images. We are involved more now with educational publishers who are using our books, or parts of our books for posters, PowerPoint lessons, and teaching guides, which help educators use our books in classrooms.

Is it better to work for U.S., European, or Asian magazines right now?

PETER: Europeans still read rather than watching TV or listening to their clergyman tell them how to vote. The European magazines are far superior to American magazines in content and readership, but TV is taking a bite out of circulation now even in Europe. Asian magazines have never paid very well although they do some really beautiful spreads at times. The Korean edition of GEO magazine was super, but they folded a few years ago.

Tell us about your next trip.

PETER: We are on one right now. It started with a keynote address to the Maine Nutrition Council, then we photographed a lobsterman for our new book, Nutrition 101 (working title; scheduled for a 2009 release, check for updates). This will be photographs of 101 people, each one surrounded by the food that they eat in one day.

After a talk to a textbook company in Boston that is working on a new geography series, we went to Barcelona for an exhibit opening and a slide lecture (digital). We then headed to Madrid where we photographed a famous bullfighter for Nutrition 101 and a totally unknown shepherd in a village two hours outside Madrid. Currently shooting some Holy Week coverage for another book, then on to Luxembourg for a week shooting some families there in the style of Hungry Planet for a large exhibit there this fall that will include the new local families.

What other projects are you working on this year?

PETER: This year, mostly our new food book and some corporate and editorial work that is either too interesting or too lucrative to turn down. We are also planning a Discovery Channel road trip for a documentary on our new book this summer across the U.S. with a video crew and then on to Africa and Asia to finish the books. A book on death is also in midstream. We never work on just one project at a time when we're traveling. It's too expensive. Besides, what would we do with free time?

How has your life changed with the conversion from film to digital?

PETER: We don't eat in restaurants as much anymore when we're on the road. We get room service all too often because we are processing up to twenty gigs of RAW files at night, doing a preliminary edit, and then burning them onto disks and other back up drives, as well as, recharging batteries. Not carrying film is a relief, and also I don't need as much equipment: flash and filters. Changing the ASA in camera is such a relief. We can do a lot more work on the road and then have more time at home to do more work.

What are you doing with all of your old slides?

PETER: We have had the best 10,000 images from the past thirty years drum-scanned as 100 Mb scans. This was done in India because of the price and the quality. Then we caption, label, and keyword and send these in disk sets to our twelve photo agents around the world for them to sell as stock. We also have smaller JPEG versions of all these on our web site in the Stock section that anyone can look at. This process is only part way completed but should be totally done by the end of the year.

The slides still sit in filing cabinets at home. Every once in a while someone needs a 300 Mb scan for a huge print or sometimes we have a slide that didn't get scanned the first time around that fits someone's needs so we go into the filing cabinets.

How much disk space do all of those scanned film files and new digital files take up? What kind of disk array do you have at home to store it all?

FAITH: I'm using an x-serve running 10.4.8 with fourteen terabytes of external 800-firewire drives, including back up drives. I manage the workflow by strictly controlling the access to drive locations by only giving Peter and the staff share-points to log into. I can run server monitor software and Apple remote login from my office computer so that I don't have to spend precious moments running back and forth when there's an issue. This is very helpful when I'm trying to both write a book, manage the office, and be sysadmin for my husband and staff. I have a safety backup system in place in which we manually burn newest work so that there's always a disk archive somewhere if everything craters. I also have a "virgin" record of unretouched fresh-from-the-field images. If anything, I err on the side of too many redundancies and backup. I once lost the entire first chapter of a book that Peter was already on press with and had to reconstruct it and rewrite it in thirty-six hours. That will never happen again.

What are the most important factors in accomplishing an editorial assignment? Is it patience? Pre-planning?

PETER: Pre-planning is essential. Research, research, research. If you are going to do a portrait, know as much as you can about the person beforehand. The web makes this very easy. Think about the photo you want to make beforehand. Then do it, but also don't be blind to better options that present themselves at the location. Be flexible, and be patient. Leave ego at home. Get the photo before you yell at the asshole, not after.

Something that everyone should understand is that getting good photos is paramount to everything. You have to do what it takes and often comfort and sleep are the first casualties of an assignment. Getting up way in advance of dawn is always a good idea. Nearly ninety-nine percent of the time when I have gotten up in the middle of the night for a shoot, something good always presents itself to offset the nagging tiredness and discomfort of losing sleep. I would tell my assistants when I would wake them up that they can sleep as long as they want when they are dead but we need to get moving, now!

How important is it to move around during a project? Get up on a ladder, down on the floor, up on a roof?

PETER: I like to move as much as possible and look at reflections, weird angles, subjects from airplanes and cranes. I feel sorry for the Jabba the Hut types who can't do this. Once an obese student told me that he wanted to be a war photographer. I said, "Really?" and then I shot him.

What is your typical assignment kit? Bodies? Lenses? Flash? Tripod?

PETER: I use at least two bodies, now Canon 5Ds; Canon lenses: 16-35, 24-70, 55 macro, 80-200, and 100-400; Gitzo graphite tripod with Leitz ball head; Really Right Stuff releases; two Canon flashes, one or two Vivitars; Dynalights and a Lumedyne set; lightstands, softboxes, clamps, etc. The light kit depends on what and where I am shooting: sometimes I use four cases of lights plus a Hosemaster, sometimes a backpack with just small flashes. I made a seven-foot extender for the dedicated Canon flash unit. Instructions to create your own extender using telephone or data cables can be found on the web.

I sold all my medium format equipment in 2005 after Canon came out with the 12 megapixel EOS 1Ds.

Do you use filters or just rely on digital post-processing for the kinds of things that you might have done with filters in the past?

PETER: I used to carry lots of filters: polarizers, different 10, 20, 30 magenta; neutral density; gradation filters, etc. but now I do that post-processing. I still use one polarizing filter. Digital makes it so much easier. No bricks of film, no worrying about airport X-rays, etc.

Do you capture RAW or JPEG? Why?

PETER: RAW, RAW, RAW. That's the spirit. RAW is very forgiving. I was photographing a farm woman in Ecuador cooking over a small fire and my fill flash didn't go off a few times. I was about to delete the RAW files but decided to play with the curves first because I like the composition. It turned out that the image, although underexposed by two stops, was better than the fill-flashed images because the fire was the only source of illumination and it looked more real.

I only capture JPEGs now for stuff I know I won't use big, such as Faith's journals, model releases, and receipts.

How do you determine exposure? Do you use the meter more or the histogram from a test picture?

PETER: Before digital, I spent thirty years shooting color transparencies, which are very unforgiving of exposure. A half stop can make or break a good photo on slide film. I used a Minolta flash meter all the time because it was very helpful for flash ratios and multiple flash shots. Now I predominately rely on the histogram. When using flash, I will still check a meter. It is so much better to get the right exposure than to have to mess around later with Photoshop.

What do you do on the computer for editing and conversion?

PETER: I use Adobe Bridge. Faith calibrated all of our monitors with a ColorSpyder. On the first pass, I physically delete files that are marred by camera shake or other technical errors; this is about 10 percent. After the deletion, I use Batch Rename to give the files sequential names of the form "country code"_"date"_"3-digit seq", e.g., GRE_070323_123 would be an image taken in Greenland on March 23, 2007, the 123rd image of the day that did not get deleted. Then I use the star system, assigning 3 and 4 stars to the better images. Those 3- and 4-star images go into a subfolder called "AandB". Then I create two more subfolders, "A" and "B", and move the best pictures from "AandB" into "A". If I tweak a photo in folder A with the raw tools, I will add an "_x" to the file name.

Sometimes I use the color marking feature of Adobe Bridge. In the old slide days, I would mark a good slide with one red stripe, a very good one with two red stripes, and a great one with a solid red on the bottom of the mount. In Bridge, if there are 50 good photos in the A folder, and I want to show 10, I will mark them with red. Sometimes we use color for workflow as well, e.g., we tell an assistant to "PhotoShop all the purple images, marking them green after he is complete."

How about printing for your museum shows? Do you send a RAW file to a lab and let their technicians handle it or do you do a lot of conversion and adjustments yourself?

PETER: I do the adjustments myself in Photoshop and turn over an 8-bit TIFF file. Bryan at knows what looks best so he will make any tweaks necessary before they print it.

Faith, how big a print can you make from your EOS 5D and still have it look good when viewed reasonably close?

FAITH: We have made six-foot prints for the Hungry Planet exhibit from Canon 1DS files, which are the same size as from the 5D. I sold the 1Ds because they were too heavy and expensive and now have several of the 5Ds, which I like a lot.

What are the challenges and advantages of working as a husband-and-wife team? Can you recommend it to others?

PETER: Are you insane? Seriously, having a partner who is your wife traveling with you can be great. We each have our roles in the work and then can help each other out on the emotional front when things get stressful, which they are. Most of the time when you try to get a lot done in an efficient and timely manner it's stressful. I would recommend trying it for other husband-wife teams. If you don't get divorced or kill each other after the first few months, you might learn to like it.

FAITH: We're together 24/7 and have to be extra organized because we spend so much of the year outside the country. Luckily we have two stalwart staff people, Sheila Foraker and Colleen Leyden, who are amazing at their jobs and keep everything moving along in our absence.

What about your hometown of Napa, California? When should a photographer visit and what is not to be missed?

PETER: The Napa Valley is very beautiful. If you visit during harvest and crush (September/October), you will be surprised how friendly all the pickers and growers are, as long as you stay out of the way. Wineries love attention and most will allow you to shoot their crush. March and April are also nice due to the mustard flowers growing between the vines.

Hot air balloons are terrific to shoot from, although they have become very expensive, as has most lodging and food in the Napa Valley. Go to Taylor's Refreshers in Saint Helena for America's best drive-in restaurant: calamari, fish tacos, great burgers, ahi burgers, plus wine by the glass or bottle and micro brews on tap. There are lots of great restaurants in the valley, although don't forget to bring your credit card or hit a quick stop with a stocking mask on the way.

I have not done a lot of Napa Valley work because we are away so often and there are a few really great photographers like Chuck O'Rear who have concentrated on making beautiful books of the valley over the past few decades.

Final advice?

PETER: Back to general advice: do something you like that you feel is important. Don't worry about making money at it right away. If you try hard and long enough you will figure out a way to do it. Better to die happy than die rich.


Text and photos copyright 2007 Peter Menzel.