The Nightfly Revisited

In June 2008, my friend Dave Bamundo (daveB) told me he was planning his 40th birthday bash later in the year. He planned to hash out all the details himself…his own scheme for his own party: nothing too elaborate, simple space, pizza, beer, a live band, good friends and family, and a favorite album recreated in his own likeness. Yes! Let’s do it. Which album cover? He wanted to do Donald Fagen’s classic LP, The Nightfly from 1982. I knew the cover well. During the fall of that year, I worked in a music store when it was released. At the time, that style of slick, almost MOR radio rock wasn’t my bag, but now I can appreciate the production and connection to the Steely Dan sound in general.

Dave wanted to use the image for his party invitations. We began piecing together ideas for the shoot and made a prop list. It took a while to find a microphone. I ran an ad on Craig’s List and made a few calls. Bill Donnelly from Laughing Dog Studios recommended Dreamhire on West 38th Street. Chris Dunn knew exactly which mic was in the original cover—an RCA 77B. It was $65 to rent but we needed a less expensive option. He came up with a Japanese replica which wasn’t as large but suited the budget. Chris was very accommodating as well to our time frame.

Cigarettes, ashtray and matches. Since no one has ever smoked in my studio, it wasn’t about to happen now and none of those things were to be found. My neighbor Myles brought me a pack of Newports with matches and ashtray. Later he realized the cigarettes in the original were a soft pack. He was kind enough to buy me a pack of unfiltered Luckys. Much cooler-looking.

Dave wanted to use one of his favorite albums in the shot, Rush’s Moving Pictures. A friend lent him a copy of the slightly beat-up vinyl. Dave also supplied the clock, clipboard and papers, and turntable. He had intended to bring a table but left it home. I haven’t had anything in here other than a snack table for the last eight years. So that’s what we used—a tiny table next to a Remo djembe with a book on top to even it off. We covered them with black foam core that Dave bought from Staples.

The last part was the background. We knew we couldn’t reproduce the soundproofing tiles from the original shot but I still wanted to build a wall corner. The Set Shop in Manhattan sells 4x8 foot black and white foamcor (one inch thick) for about $75 a sheet. I checked the forums on Someone recommended Home Depot. They sell the same size pieces for $20 but it’s not exactly the same…it’s insulation. One side silver, the other light blue with text all over it and the sheets are dented up and wavy since they’re meant to go inside walls, not to look like walls. I painted one side with flat black and that became the background.

The lighting was easy to replicate; it was shot with what looked to be one key light 45 degrees off the subject. The more we studied the original photo, it just seemed weird. A lot of things didn’t make sense with lighting and perspective. The turntable is huge, the background looks kind of fake. It looks like there was a lot of compositing done. At that point we decided to go with the general idea and not shoot to get our version exactly like the original.

I shot with the Nikon D80 at ISO 400, with a 35mm lens at f4, bracketed between 1/3 and 1/5 of a second. I used a remote shutter release to avoid any camera shake and Dave had to remain still while twisting his head awkwardly. I used the modeling lamps only from an Alien Bees strobe with softbox and filled in some of the background with a smaller softbox and reflector.

The images shown here are the original unretouched plus the final image with a cigarette ash and background texture dropped in by daveB.

The original “Nightfly” cover was photographed by James Hamilton at Fagen’s Upper East Side apartment in 1982.