March 8, 2009

Can’t Take My Camera Off You

March 8th, 2009

By JBB Special Correspondent, Audrey Rockman

It’s spring 2005; Jersey Boys is meeting with unprecedented success in its early, California run and now it’s time to take on… BROADWAY! Sandy Block, from Serino Coyne Agency, calls photographer Chris Callis with an idea about a new ‘face’ for this show.

A Frat House, Viet Nam and a Burgeoning Career

Flashback to 1964, the same year that “Rag Doll” and “Dawn” debuted. University of California freshman Chris Callis stumbled on a love and propensity for photography after raising his hand when the fraternity he was pledging asked for a volunteer shutterbug. Chris discovered he loved everything about his new hobby – the equipment, organizing the shot, studying new trends; especially working independently but still as part of a team. Inside of a year, the always-industrious Callis was taking photos for the college newspaper, developing in his own dark room, buying and selling equipment (not to mention managing a lucrative paper route). By his final semester, he was paying his way through school with his photography – taking portraits of fellow students and much more. He enjoyed the distinct identity as a photographer and was well on his way to working for himself – a goal since high school.

At this point, you might think, “Hey… seize the momentum and leave that Food Science major behind.” If that’s what you think, you didn’t live through Viet Nam. The four year college deferment was a gift that disappeared if you changed majors, so Chris had to take his “cultural development” into his own hands. Enter the “Famous Photographers Correspondence School”. After writing away for information, Chris was sleeping soundly one Saturday morning when a representative knocked. Pretty heady stuff for a student on the UC Davis ‘cow’ campus in northern California. Okay… so the talent scout turned out to be a salesman, but it also turned out that the $29 a month lessons were a bargain and possibly Chris’s biggest creative influence.

Jump ahead to graduation. That looming Viet Nam ‘conflict’ was still plucking young men from commencement ceremonies across the country. Unlike a lot of folks who were putting flowers in their hair and trying to levitate the Pentagon, Chris had been too busy to figure out the pros and cons of the war. He wasn’t too busy, though, to know that six months of Officer Candidate School would delay shipment overseas. With a plethora of photography awards as a bargaining tool, he approached his commander about possibly documenting this training; the response was carte blanche access.

Here was a group of 50 young men, all recent grads of similar backgrounds in a short term, intense process – answering to other young men a couple of years older. He found the whole experience uncannily similar to his pledge days. It held the same opportunity for pranks, which only slipped by because of the group responsibility. At the end, the Fort Sill Brigade Commander received his customary gift from the class in the form of a remarkable photo-documentation in classic black & white.

Finally it was time for Lt. Chris’s all-expense paid trip to Viet Nam. He spent six months in Phu Bai with an artillery unit and then a year as a Da Nang Press Center liaison. Upon his return, he continued his career development, with growing confidence, at the Art Center College of Design in LA. By the time he turned 27, NYC seemed like the place to be. The groovy land of LA, where everyone was finding themselves wasn’t Chris’s trip. As the story goes, he came to NYC for a party and ended up signing a lease for a mid-town loft three days later – 4,000 square feet at $500 a month! He willingly left California, but NOT its contacts, having done trade ads and album covers for California-based record companies. Now those relationships strengthened as the agencies wanted to send someone they knew on the NY assignments.

The Zen of Commercial Photography

As Chris and I sat in his home, we got to discussing different comfort levels in front of a camera; the big question being… which comes first, someone’s ease in front of a camera or their success there. Chris sees firsthand that people get their comfort because they realize they’re photogenic.

Chris doesn’t engage in the stereotypical verbal coaching of the subject – a good percentage of his skill comes into play before the shutter starts working. The planning is extensive, yet knowing when to abandon the strategy and read the moment is equally crucial. Callis recalls the sky-scraping energy of actor Michael Keaton one time, when he was utilizing a visual technique, which required a paced movement. Nothing could rein Keaton into the needed pace that day… nothing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, could be won over. After receiving an assignment which took him to the set of Conan in Mexico to shoot Arnold and Grace Jones, Chris learned a movie set can be a busy place with little interest in a photographer sent by The London Times. Arnold told Chris that if he could make Arnold’s assistant looked blessed with big ‘pec’ muscles, Arnold would be on board and arrange Grace’s cooperation as well. One little Polaroid later, the persuaded Schwarzenegger was calling Jones over to join him in front of the camera.

After asking if he ever feels rushed during a job, I discovered that appointments are specific with negotiated end times; thus keeping Chris focused and the client from looking at their watch. On the subject of time management, I also learned that top photographers often utilize agents to book jobs as Chris opted for in the 1980′s when he had eight assistants.

It all comes down to the right image and the ingredients needed to get it. You’ve got to be a technician, negotiator, general contractor, businessman, advisor, and of course… visionary. Some may want him to take a decisive lead like the young art director who was blunt about her inexperience, while others contact him because he knows how to really listen for successful collaboration.

Enough of the Early Years, Let’s talk…Jersey Boys!!

Flashback once again, just four years ago when it was time to create an iconic visual image for Jersey Boys, the show poised to break the Broadway mold. Chris arrived hours before the scheduled shoot with his three assistants to handle the lighting and background. Reflecting on that day, he recalls the ease in working with the original Broadway ‘boys’ on that Monday in early May. This was the first time that these four had been in the same room. Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer had been a part of the show’s huge success in its pre-Broadway run, but John Lloyd Young had recently been cast for the lead role of Valli. After introductions, it was time to get down to work. Deadlines being what they are, the costume of La Jolla’s David Noroña with its longer pant leg, was worn by the new Broadway lead.

Callis described the four as professionals who seemed happy, even excited, to be there. There were perhaps 15 or more people at Splash Light Studio that day; among them – Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer of the stance and arm angles, as well as JB co-writer, Rick Elice, who had worked at Serino Coyne for years as Creative Director and knew Chris from previous projects. Lee Austin was handling the costumes. Sandy Block was the man bringing all this together.

Block, known to be sharp with keen creative instincts, had called Callis about three weeks earlier. He had the general idea of a photo from the back or possibly one with faces obscured. Sandy brought out a DVD of the La Jolla show with the scene which gives the audience a view from backstage, so to speak. The plan was to take the photo and then have several people within the agency, as well as Chris, work independently on possible applications.

On a logistical note, a photographer at his level is contracted to handle everything- including the studio and equipment rental. Food is always part of a shoot; it helps calm nerves and is a necessity since these sessions can run long. When the price is agreed to, the producers may use the images in any way and to any extent they wish. As fans of Jersey Boys know, this image is seen on Vegas chips and the Palazzo hotel card keys, as well as merchandise like t-shirts and lapel pins. Chris sees the work of sessions occasionally end up in a dead file when a project or show doesn’t make it past the beginning stages.

Callis has all his work catalogued in his studio and I found it interesting that the first notebook in the archives was “late December back in ‘63” – okay, so it was November, but close enough! I saw files from jobs for New York Magazine, Glamour, Esquire, Oprah Magazine, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, Parenting, Reebok and Honda to name a few.

With Sergio’s guidance, the multiple poses happened easily that day, Chris recalls. His camera, which was linked to a 21 inch computer screen where the photos were frequently viewed, clicked a total of 287 times during the three hours…but who’s counting. You can see some more of the day’s shots in the Jersey Boys book on pages 8, 28, 50, 154. (While you’re at it, try to locate the primary image elsewhere in the book – other than the cover.)

When Chris was back at his studio, contemplating his application possibilities, he ran across some photos of bright, blurred lights he had taken several months before, when wandering near the AMC theater on 42nd Street. There is an accessible landing on the second level of the theater and Chris, with camera in tow of course, had started snapping different combinations of the colored lights. He utilized these lights for his part of the assignment. Chris placed the light images fairly large and above shoulder height – unlike the smaller and lower footlights in the production’s backstage scene.

Chris met with the agency when it came time for everyone to put the varied, creative choices up for evaluation. Impressed with the diverse and imaginative ideas out of Serino Coyne; he put his with the mix and went on his way, curious what the final decision of the team would be. In the end, the producers chose those lights in Times Square shining on the unseen faces of the soon-to-be famous Jersey Boys — probably more famous and more boys than anyone might have imagined.

The FIRST Jersey Boy Photo Session

Chris also did a record cover photo of original Jersey boy, Frankie Valli in the mid 70’s. His memory of working with Frankie, who walked into Callis’s NYC studio/home (on 26th Street and 6th Ave) alone that day, is of a session with a real, no-nonsense professional. That is exactly what Chris liked about people he found around NY versus LA at the time–direct, straightforward. He remembers Frankie as having a certain presence, a quiet confidence and attention toward results. At the time, Callis was working with an aged, brown-tone look known as sepia, which was the application used with the 100 images snapped that day.

Brooklyn Boy Wrap-up

Chris has always loved the computer side of photography. He worked with the first Apple computer in 1983 and was in fact, one of 16 photographers specially flown to California to experiment with the first Photoshop program.

He left the Manhattan loft of 28 years about four years ago and headed to his first house–in Brooklyn closer to his two children’s school. Callis, who started out a middle child in Sacramento, with parents who cautiously supported his love of photography, is now a husband and father of two, enjoying a career he loves – with no end in sight. (Visit to see a wide selection of his work.)

Although it’s all good, it got more rewarding about 10 years ago when an ad agency asked him to do some pro-bono work with the Doe Fund, a group dedicated to helping individuals reach self-sufficiency. Through his photography, Chris experiences firsthand the deep satisfaction of working with men who have come from the brink of personal hardships and yet persist.

Having developed substantial lighting innovations over the years, Chris can now be found teaching “Lighting” in Manhattan at the School for Visual Arts in the Masters of Fine Arts Department of Photography. In fact, his assistants generally come from the classroom and when asked what skills he’s on the look-out for, his reply is basic… a strong work ethic. The kind he’s honed over the years since starting out as the Sigma Alpha Epsilon photographer, and if I may editorialize…the kind of work ethic that’s evident with the show Jersey Boys – from some of the original Four Seasons, the producers, the creative team AND the Jersey Boys casts around the world – most going out on stage 8 times a week.

Thanks to Chris’ iconic photo, we have the eternal image of the Four Seasons–standing in the spotlight; difficult to determine if they are about to take a bow or… just getting started!


  1. Audrey, besides such a wonderful story (it really is a story…so much more than a mere article!), I love the shots from JB first photo shoot! I had no idea this is where the cast first got together. The anecdote about JLY wearing the costume of La Jolla’s Frankie made me reach for the program & yes, you can see his pants leg slightly bunched up around his shoe! Mr. Callis is a creative, talented man. I could relate to the picture of Vietnam… so haunting and austere…it gave me a new persepctive of the place my father was stationed in the Air Force so many years ago. Thank you, Chris Callis, for a Playbill cover that will long be remembered by many, many people, and thank you, Audrey, for bringing us the story behind the photo!

    Comment by LuluThompson — March 8, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  2. Audrey, Thank you for telling this wonderful story. You did a lot of research for this. It was nice to see the photos of Franki Valli as well as photos from the JB photo shoot.

    I’ve wondered about the photo shoot and how long the guys had to stand there with their arms in the air like that. At least they didn’t have to smile or worry if their eyes were closed.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Comment by Linda/Tiggerbelle — March 8, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

  3. Great article, Audrey! What a fascinating and creative career Chris Callis has had. Loved reading about how the JB logo came to fruition. I always wondered why JLY’s pants were a tad too long there!!

    Comment by Pamela — March 9, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  4. So great to get to read this article after hearing your adventures discovering the details of it all! They say pictures are worth a thousand words and indeed they are, but this story could not have been conveyed any better than through your wonderfully descriptive paragraphs!

    Comment by Courtney — March 9, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  5. great article audrey, i think you have taken over first place in the blog writers standings……….jim

    Comment by james petrecca — March 9, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Very interesting article, Audrey. I too found the “factoid” that this was the first time JLY was with the other three guys fascinating.

    Pics 9, 11 and 12 are great! Anyone familiar with the show would be interested in these “outtakes.” Chris, I’d bet that some limited editions of these shots, or maybe a book with more images from that shoot (if there are others) would be a big hit among real JB fans. Or they should at least be on display at the JB Theater in Vegas.

    Comment by stubbleyou — March 12, 2009 @ 1:40 am

  7. I echo Stubbleyou; would love to see a book, and it would be a great hit.

    I never did notice for some reason that JLY’s pants were so long. Now, it’s the first thing I’ll look at.

    Nice coverage, Audrey.

    Comment by Howard Tucker — March 12, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  8. I’ll never look at this picture again without thinking of this article. Thanks Audrey – great story.

    Comment by David Cace — March 13, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

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