A Firework Story

With firework season fast approaching I thought a blog on an event of our historic past would be apropos. Hope it inspires to get camera and tripod and make a fun picture.

I imagine every professional photographer is asked, “what is your favorite picture?” My answer is always the same, “Don’t have a favorite.” I’m not being flippant; some pictures most memorable are ones I put the most effort into technically achieving.

"Re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty By: Joe Polimeni"
Re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty By: Joe Polimeni

Case in point: Twenty-five years ago, this July 4th, the Statue of Liberty was rededicated. Looking at the picture I made of the firework display celebrating the event, no one could know or appreciate the work behind it or a change in weather, that could have spoiled it, made it better. It’s one of my favorites. For the record, Photoshop was in the development stage. That said, in the photojournalism world, manipulating a picture meant burning and dodging.

Part of United Press International’s photo team’s was on Governors Island, in the middle of New York Harbor to cover “Liberty Weekend,” July 3–6, 1986. A celebration of the Statue’s centennial and its reopening after more than two years surrounded by scaffolding and meticulous renovations. President Ronald Reagan presided over the rededication, with French President Francois Mitterrand.

The evening picture was the firework display behind The Statue of Liberty. I knew most people would make the “scene setter.” The renovated statue with its stone base in New York Harbor filled with ships. Why make what everyone was going to shoot? My thought was to show the detail of the refurbished copper, torch and crown. Simply I wanted the complete opposite of everyone else; focus on the Statue, the fireworks playing a secondary role.

A scouting trip to Governors Island searching for an angle I estimated a 800mm lens would do the trick. Most would tell me I’m crazy; OK they did. How was I going to make a 30 second exposure using a lens, with any movement whatsoever, would make the frame worthless? Oh, by the way, I wasn’t going to shoot our standard 400 ASA (ISO) fare. I wanted detail and decided on 100.

I made a test the night before setting the lens and camera on separate tripods and weighed them both down and protecting the lens from wind with a 4×8 sheet of plywood securing it with cinderblocks. Being in limited access area, there was no concerns of ground vibration.

After a long day of speeches and celebrations it was time to set up the firework shot. I felt a stronger wind and thought this isn’t going to work, but came this far. Governors Island had many uses over the years; during this period it housed military families. I needed “a few good men” and they didn’t disappoint holding the plywood. The wind was too strong for cinderblocks. Now I could completely focus on the camera, lens and image. As the wind continued to get stronger I noticed it made the firework’s slow descending trails sweep across the night sky. I adjusted my exposure as the intensity of the fireworks was being dispersed.

My boss looked at the first frame, smiled and looked through the roll a few times, odd for him. He chose. The detail in the statue was exactly what I’d imagined and the fireworks sweeps painted the sky with color.

A couple days later my boss handed me the phone. It was the Managing Editor of Newsday who shared his congratulations on the most different firework picture he had seen. Asking me what lens I used, he said, if you didn’t want to tell me, just say so. We both had a laugh.

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