By Charles Cohen
The fact that Sam Holden was a studio photographer in a smudgy newsprint world immediately distinguished him from the photojournalists who dedicated their lives to capturing life in motion.
But Sam wasn’t interested in lucking or timing himself into a great image. He believed that the image lies within or below the surface, and he was going to pry it out one way or another. Sam Holden entered a room big, a loveable Bluto carting a massive case, holding not one, but two Hasselblad cameras. His Hasselblads were the size of a V-8 carburetor and about as heavy. No one used a Hasselblad in the field. But Holden was into plying the sacrilegious road as a way of searing his own art. He worshipped at the altar of style as many a modern artist from Miro to Warhol understood, as advertising geniuses also knew and even photojournalists recognized but would rarely admit.
Not only did Sam wield the German box camera, but he’d haul in lights, stands, reflectors and hanging globes, threatening to commit the cardinal sin of swamping a story with yourself. But somehow, Holden showed up big but sat quiet …. for at least awhile … as I would scribble and blather away. Then he had enough, “Cohen are you done,” and not waiting for an answer he’d heave himself up and take over, click clacking the gear together like a machine gunner taking the hill under heavy fire. Truly his setup was amazing to behold.
Normally mobile studio photographers with such outfits in tow have to scout a place out, demand a half an hour to set up, and then still go into an anxiety jitter fit when the remote sensor goes ballistic. Holden had his shit together. He prided himself on this and no doubt like a good grunt practiced the drill at home. Within minutes he’d have a room, a warehouse, a mechanic’s shop transformed in the classic three point lighting system, lights blinking and the power packs doing that sci fi winding. Holden was a master of presentation. Could Holden have taken a picture with a 35 mm Canon with a removable flash? Hell, yes. But he wasn’t looking to snap an image; he was looking for transformation. This kind of utterance would never spill from his grinning pumpkin slit mouth. But there can be no denying when you were standing at the receiving end, holding his taekwondo stance, all in black biting down as if some kind physical convergence was about to ensue. If that wasn’t enough surely the inappropriate comment would put you on notice
Whether it was a down-and-out homeless vet or a CEO of Legg Mason, sooner or later the F-bomb would explode. Could you put your ass against the wall. Fuck yeah. That’s great. Hold it. Hold it.
This was shock technique similar to that of the 80s New York photographers who would throw balls at their subjects to slap them out of their world. In most cases, Holden’s subjects would follow, sometimes uncomfortable, and that’s because his tone would suddenly ratchet down to a tenderness, hold it, hold, eyes right here man, that’s it, beautiful and they got it. This was no glossy in the making.
But getting the shot is only half the equation. Sam saved his wizardry for the dark room, as he told Mary Rose Madden for The Signal, “You are standing inside my darkroom and to look around here you are kind of like inside my soul.” Even as early as the 90s, newspapers and magazines were using developing machines hooked up to Macs. Holden for the most part was doing his alchemy by hand — a mad scientist of color saturation. Much has been detailed on the web/Facebook eulogies about his rock esthetic where he uncannily grabbed the glory of the jell lights and infused his images with lava pushed color saturation. He loved rust and corrugated steel or maybe just an excessive spew of white paper. Anyone who has ever pushed their way up to the stage to gaze dreamily at their hero got Holden’s patented hue-heavy style immediately. The reds, greens and cobalts of black room clubs swirling in smoke is what dreams are made of.
At their best, Sam’s portraits worked as landscapes, the colors were not visual adjectives, but pieces of nature, life forces. Faces in big lens detail picked up the tone the way a gritty building picks up the last shards of sunset, their eyes glinted with the hunger of the stage or with lust or madness. (Holden’s website)
When critics write about artists, they like to study their environs — the French countryside or Hopper’s Chicago rail yard patinas. Well, in Holden’s case his natural palette was no doubt the Indian summer gloaming of Baltimore. Apparently piss poor air quality does wonders for an orange splash fest across over West Baltimore. Case and point for me was when he did a cover shot of a chess hustler on the verge of becoming a grandmaster. As a rule, I tried hard not to see his photos before they hit the press so I could enjoy the rush of seeing it the box. I was shocked when I saw how he not only captured this guy–sweat on the brow, a maniacal killer from his shades –but he was swimming in a crazed burning orange around him. This cover came out during a heat wave and like any acutely released publication does, the cover needs to reflect both the pages within and the world it’s entering. The New Yorker carved out its foothold by doing this. Holden relished the impact, but moved on his never ending list of cool shit he was doing.
I rode shotgun with Holden in his oversized Suburban then Tahoe for a solid six years when he was my assigned photographer for a City Paper column. It didn’t take long to realize that we were having one of those cop car relationships. Just like the clichés we’d both talk about dreams. But unlike 99 percent of us in this pathetic mulch pile that is print journalism, there was no stench of little lives of quiet desperation in his plans. He put out his plans like nails waiting for a hammer, and how he went at it. I watched him jump from a decent studio on Fort Avenue to a massive space that could easily play as a stage set. It was a brazen move, borrowing heavily just as the city was approaching its third Renaissance that would see the rise of Harbor East. Holden had to get those big accounts pronto to pay for that studio, which he was opening just as Baltimore’s major advertising agencies were shutting down, due to the first heave of the digital revolution of the late 1990s. But he fortified his move by saying that if you wanted to be nationally recognized – hell internationally known– then you must set yourself on a top tier.
The first sign of Holden’s gambit could actually work was that his buddies were stepping up for him. He and his father did all the work they could themselves, and a slew of artisans filled in the detailed stuff. His eye for sparse design was apparent when he retrieved stainless steel medical cabinets from Church Hospital, the place were Edgar Allan Poe died, as it shut down for demolition. This he used for well paying food photography gigs.
Sure enough, Holden did bring in the top talent from Ray Lewis to shooting Iggy Pop, but he always kept his one foot local, driving with me to City Paper gigs. He used to rip me at times for chattering like a runaway organ grinder monkey and I’d counter by calling him a superstar who didn’t know whether he wanted to be behind or in front of the camera. The fact is, Holden uniquely pulled off this non-negotiable edge being both a gonzo character as well as an observer. He’d do the LA thing, but also dug deep roots that sprouted way beyond Baltimore but always felt local.
No doubt Holden aspired for the large as in Annie Leibovitz large, but the truth is his amazing network reveals his homeboy connects ran deep. His Facebook page shows the widest range of folk who bypass posting the usual sympathies, instead offering testimony of how an interaction with him imprinted their lives. There is a lot of “I knew him when” at play, but this is out of the desperate yearning to keep someone like Holden around for just a little bit longer. Sam Holden was a kind of force that propelled us all.