Phillip Caruso was a sophomore at Archbishop Rummel High School in 1972 when he walked into yearbook moderator Bill Arthurs’ office.
Through a series of fuzzy plot developments – you would have had to have seen the movie to believe it – Caruso had met with the father of a prospective bride and reached a handshake agreement to shoot his daughter’s wedding at St. Agnes Church in Jefferson.
There was only one small problem.
Caruso didn’t own a camera.
More specifically, while Caruso had access to plenty of cameras, he did not have one of those professional models that used larger negatives and could produce stunning wedding photographs.
“When he came in and talked to me,” Arthurs recalled, “my gut was telling me that this guy was going to be something someday. He had the drive and the chutzpah – or whatever the English word is for that – to book an event without a camera.”
In a previous scene, Caruso had met the father of the bride while shooting headshots of the man’s son’s Little League team.
“It was like every other picture you’ve ever seen, but my camera had a flash,” Caruso said. “The guy told me, ‘If you can take a picture of a Little League team this good, you can shoot my daughter’s wedding.’”
Arthurs as body double
Scene 2 was the meeting with the family to iron out the arrangements. Arthurs, a young Rummel teacher but 14 years older than Caruso, came along as adult insurance.
“In those days, you were supposed to bring a sample book to show your work, but I didn’t have any,” Caruso said. “Bill brought his book with him and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ But the guy kept saying, ‘I want Phil to shoot it.’ And Bill said, ‘Oh, he’s going to shoot it.’”
In the finale, Arthurs and Caruso arrived at St. Agnes Church, joined at the hip, Arthurs with the large format camera and Caruso with a smaller camera loaded with slide film.
“Bill shot the wedding as it needed to be shot professionally, and I virtually stood alongside him,” Caruso said. “Every time Bill took a picture, I would take a picture. I had two sets of slides made – one was for the bride and one was my training set. And that’s how I learned to shoot weddings.”
Flip the calendar pages ahead 45 years to February 2017 – they used to do that in the movies – and Arthurs is walking side-by-side once again with his protégé, this time in Hollywood, where Caruso, a 1974 Rummel graduate, is receiving the still photographer lifetime achievement award from the Society of Camera Operators.
Caruso never saw it coming. “This is huge,” he said, noting that one of the first recipients of the lifetime award was portrait photographer George Hurrell, whose black-and-whites of Garbo and Bogart and Fairbanks from the 1930s and ’40s are Hollywood classics.
Caruso’s photographic depth of field runs deep. Although his father Vincent died when Caruso was 8, he left behind an exotic hodgepodge of still cameras, 16mm and 35mm movie cameras, projectors, tripods, lighting equipment, backdrops and home movies.
Older brother photogenic
Naturally, Caruso said, his older brother Joseph got top billing, being filmed every time he deigned to raise an eyebrow. Later in life, Caruso spliced the reels together and gave Joseph a present that he titled with ironic subtlety: “The Life and Times of King George V.”
The only film edge Caruso had over his older brother was that his baptism at St. Mary’s Italian Church, next to the Old Ursuline Convent, was filmed by one of his dad’s camera crews in 16mm color.
Part of the Byzantine-Greek Catholic ceremony involved the priest – Papas Matteo Sciambra of Sicily – walking with little Philip around the church, stopping at the sanctuary to lift him like a monstrance and hoisting him, up and down, east and west, in the sign of the cross.
“My brother had all those movies made about him, but I got the baptism,” Caruso said.
Two of his father’s cousins, Vincent and Ted Saizis, had been combat cameramen during WWII. The three men teamed up in the late 1940s to do short features and documentaries that would run as 20- and 40-minute shorts in theaters across the country.
Years after his father’s death – during a summer break at Rummel – Caruso went to Alabama to visit the Saizis brothers. He was stunned by what he saw on the wall of their studio: a 16-by-20-inch photograph of John Wayne, holding Vincent Saizis in a headlock. The inscription read: “To Vince, All the Best! – Duke.”
“I went, ‘Oh, I’m hooked now,’” Caruso said. “I asked, ‘Who shot that?’ And Vincent goes, ‘That was the still photographer on the movie set.’ Man, I was done.”
Because of their military experience, the Saizis brothers became adept at shooting action scenes. They used high-speed cameras to capture in slow motion the inglorious, bullet-riddled, “exit-stage-left” of “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“If you had to do a specialty shot, that’s the crew you got,” Caruso said.
Could soothe outsized egos
The still photographer’s job on a movie set is to be there whenever the movie crew is filming, attached almost like Caruso was to Arthurs inside St. Agnes Church, to capture moments that will be used to market the movie. Caruso’s ability to get the shot and to play nice in the sandbox with some of Hollywood’s biggest directors, actors and egos earned him jobs over the last four decades with Ron Howard, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Barry Levinson and Robert Zemeckis.
Caruso says the still photographer must be on the set every day because that freeze-frame moment may happen at any time. He learned that during a freelance assignment he received to shoot a Tulane University football scrimmage. The coach told him, in the interest of keeping costs down, to shoot “only the touchdowns,” and handed Caruso a single roll of 16mm film, about nine minutes’ worth.
“I told him, ‘If I only shoot the touchdowns, I wouldn’t even be here – I’d go to Vegas and be working the slot machines,’” Caruso said. “I’m there on the set every day because you never know when the touchdown is going to happen.”
Caruso grew up on Pasadena Avenue in Metairie, just a couple of blocks away from the old Airline Drive-In, which is now home to the Sam’s Club. Caruso and his buddies would ride their bikes over to the fence and soak in the large screen. If the wind was exactly right, they could even hear the Duke barking orders in “The Green Berets.”
Of all his touchdown shots, Caruso says perhaps his favorite is the poster-size image of Tom Hanks running wild as an Alabama running back in “Forrest Gump.”
“I had to get strapped onto an ATV, and a guy was driving with a movie camera on one side, and I was hanging on the other side,” Caruso said. “We were driving in front of Tom running. This was back in the day when we shot film, so I only had 36 shots. I couldn’t even look through the viewfinder. I just had to guess on the right size lens and just frame it up. We just nailed it. It was a perfectly framed picture.”
For amateurs – that is, for anyone pulling an iPhone from a pocket or purse – Caruso shares the tip he got 45 years ago from Arthurs about how to capture that “grab moment.”
“You have to think composition and breathe, which causes you to actually observe what to photograph,” he said. “Get it right the first time, on the negative. If it is not on the negative, you don’t have a shot.”
Caruso learned that 45 years ago inside St. Agnes Church.
“To this day, I remember Bill’s words from that first wedding: ‘Always remember, you got one shot at it. The girl comes down the aisle but once. You can’t ask her to back up.’”
In 1985, Caruso and Arthurs were shooting side-by-side at the climactic scene in “The Big Easy.” It was a freezing night in January. They were there for eight hours for a 12-second shot.”
One way or the other, a shrimp boat was going down.
“We had a sheet of clear Plexiglas, 10 feet tall, to protect us from the explosion,” Arthurs said. “You stuck your camera out and hoped. You only got one shot because they’re not going to blow it up again.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.