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Photo District News CoverCircling the Digital World with Denise Rocco

by Hal Stucker

At some point in her young life, San Francisco-based photographer Denise Rocco must have seen The Sound Of Music and decided to take to heart the advice the Mother Superior offers Maria. Not that Rocco has yet climbed every mountain or forded every stream. But she's been part of the way up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with a blind mountaineer; gone swimming with rare pink dolphins in the middle of the Amazon rain forest; bounced over old Sahara Desert caravan routes on the back of a camel; explored Fijian coral reefs with Jean-Michel Cousteau (the late Jacques Cousteau's son); and traveled along the Niger River from Bamako to Timbuktu, retracing an earlier trek made by 19th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park. And she has plenty of time to explore the world's other exotic realms: Denise Rocco is a mere 31 years old.

Not only are her travels extraordinary, Rocco's photographic methods break new ground as well. She isn't going out armed with a bag of Nikons and bricks of Kodachrome, shooting for glossy magazines like Travel Holiday or Conde Nast Traveler. Rocco's equipment list includes a digital camera, laptop computers and a satellite telephone, and to see her work you'll have to log onto the Internet. The trip to the Amazon rain forest and the climb up El Capitan were for TerraQuest, a Web-based travel magazine sponsored by a company called Mountain Travel-Sobek. The Fiji and Africa trips, along with a recent trek through Vietnam and Cambodia, were for Mungo Park, a Microsoft-created Web site named for the aforementioned Scottish explorer. It chronicles trips taken by its writers and photographers to the world's most exotic locales.

Pule WomanBesides being skilled at electronic photography, Rocco is a strong contender in the electronic design department. She and her boyfriend, Michael Zilber, created the Web pages that chronicled the El Capitan climb. TerraQuest had already given Rocco the Amazon rain forest assignment, she had finished it and was subsequently planning the Yosemite trip, when " TerraQuest's original designer left to do National Geographic's Web site," she says. Worried that the El Capitan job might be in jeopardy, "Michael and I agreed that within two weeks we would design and produce the whole Web site ourselves. Michael had never done any programming, I'd never done any programming or design. But in two weeks we taught ourselves HTML and how to use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

The resulting Web pages that the two created, called Highsights 96 later received a rave, two-page review in design guru Laura Lemay's most recent book, Sizzling Web Site Design. "Every so often people have the opportunity to stumble upon something that is so absolutely close to perfection that it knocks the very breath from the body," Lemay gushed. "I believe this is what the word 'awesome' originally set out to describe, and, should it appear in a Web site dictionary, TerraQuest will be the graphic definition of the word.

Mali BookThough Rocco is now as knowledgeable about the vagaries of the Internet and Web site design as she is the particulars of black-and-white printing, she knew nothing about computers when she began working as an assistant and studio manager for Rick Smolan of Day In The Life fame. In fact, Rocco had to lie to Smolan about her proficiency on the Macintosh in order to get the job. She had already spent four years after college working for photographers in the Northeast when she got tired of the hard winters and moved to San Francisco. Seth Resnick, whom Rocco had worked for in Boston, put her in touch with Sausalito photographer Doug Menuez, who put her in touch with Smolan.

Rocco, at that point, had been in the Bay Area for all of three weeks. "I showed Rick my portfolio," she recalls, "and he said,' need somebody. I'm leaving for Germany tomorrow and I need someone to run my shop.' Then he said,'You know how to use a Mac, right. And I totally lied, I'd had no experience with computers at all. So that night I called one of those companies that sells Macintosh teach video-tapes' and while he was gone for a month I taught myself how to use the computer." She says with a laugh, "I didn't even tell Rick the truth until about a year or two ago."

Working for Smolan also provided Rocco with her first experience using a digital camera. Against All Odds, Smolan's company, was part of FutureZone, an event that Apple and Adobe sponsored in conjunction with a music tour by singer Peter Gabriel. FutureZone hired photographers to shoot pictures at the concert using digital cameras "and Rick gave me an assignment to go out and shoot. It was $600 for the day, I'd never shot with a digital camera and they gave me a high-end Nikon with a Kodak 460DL back. And I was so pumped! You'd run around and shoot, then you'd run to the FutureZone tent, they'd plug it in and download all the images and then they were projecting them up on this big screen during the concert." Though some of the other photographers complained about the limits of the lower-end digital cameras they were using, Rocco, who had lucked out and been given top-of-the-line equipment, was having a ball. "I was loving it," she says. "I could see everything instantaneously."

MonkeysIt was Against All Odds' A Passage To Vietnam book and CD project, however, that finally spurred Rocco to go out on her own. Though she worked primarily as project coordinator--managing schedules, making travel arrangements, working out assignment lists and doing myriad other task to coordinate the efforts of the project's 70 photographers--she also made sure that Smolan and his wife, project director Jennifer Erwitt, gave her at least one assignment of her own to shoot during her stay in Vietnam. "We have a policy, says Smolan, "that anyone on the project staff can shoot for us."

When the full take from the seven-day shoot was shipped back to Sausalito, a panel began editing down the tidal wave of images the trip had produced. "And Denise's pictures were subject to the same editing process that everyone else's were, Smolan says. He also says it didn't surprise him to see two of Rocco's pictures make the final cut for the book, even though there were thousands of slides under consideration. "I'd seen a lot of her work before," he says. "She's an accomplished photographer. She jumped in with both feet and she did a lot better than many of the photographers we'd flown over for the project."

War HeroineRocco saw her photographs, one of a North Vietnamese war heroine and the other of a man selling monkeys in a Hanoi market, not only published in A Passage To Vietnam but also used for much of the collateral advertising and news reporting that surrounded the book's release. "My pictures even got on Good Morning America, " she says proudly. "Rick was on the show talking about the book and they showed only ten pictures, and mine was one of them. And I went, ' Whoa!"

Working for Smolan, however, had been a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week job and Rocco had had very little time over her three years at AAO to pursue her own photography. Given a heady boost of self-confidence and national exposure from the Passage project, she decided it was finally time to see if she could make it on her own. "it was scary to think about making the leap, but I wanted to do it before Rick started another project."

Amazon RiverSmolan was supportive of Rocco's decision to leave and would later hire her to shoot on his Twenty-Four Hours In Cyberspace project. And, though Rocco had no assignments or prospective clients lined up when she left AAO, it didn't take her very long to get her career underway. Mountain Travel-Sobek, the tour and travel company that was then sponsoring the TerraQuest Web site, heard that the young photographer had traveled extensively in Vietnam and, after initially trying to hire her as a guide for their Far East tours, referred her to Christian Kallen. Kallen,who at the time was the writer and director for TerraQuest, gave Rocco the Ecuadorian rain forest assignment.

The technical demands of the TerraQuest assignments were typical of the jobs Rocco now faces when covering stories for display on the Web. For the El Capitan story, Rocco and Zilber put up a set of preliminary Web pages several weeks before the excursion began, providing background info on climber Erik Weihenmayer and telling what he was attempting to do. They then set up computers in a Yosemite hotel room so they could update the Web site every night while Weihenmayer was making his climb. This included posting a written report, the day's edited take of photographs and creating a picture map of El Cap showing the mountaineer's current position on the cliff each day of the ascent.

Bot through doorIn the meantime, Kallen began working on the Mungo Park Web site. Kallen and Rocco had already trekked together through Ecuador for TerraQuest, so he had no reservations about asking her to come along on a trip for the Web site's second issue, following the Niger River through Mali, a country in sub-Saharan Africa. "She's a very hard worker," says Kallen of his traveling companion, "which is why I wanted to work with her. She's tireless and shows it in the field with her persistence and creative problem solving."

And Rocco's persistence and problem-solving abilities came in handy. "My title was field producer/photographer, which meant I was in charge of all the media," she says. This included learning how to use a satellite telephone to upload all their material back to the command post in Redmond, Washington. Though she was supposed to have been trained on the satellite phone before the trip began, "basically, Christian and I figured it out on the road. ln theory, it isn't hard to learn but in reality it's tough to figure out the right programming configuration to make it work for you." Though Microsoft later gave them an ISDN modem for the phone, the system on the Mali trip would only transmit at a very slow 9600 baud. "I had to really get the file size on my images compressed down," says Rocco, "Or else I would be spending many, many, hours uploading data."

A subsequent assignment, diving with Jean-Michel Cousteau in the Fiji islands, was not without its share of problems, including two cyclones over three weeks, underwater camera housings that leaked and a live interview with Cousteau, broadcast from underwater, that almost didn't happen due to technical difficulties. Cousteau was wearing a specially designed diving mask that allowed him to speak while submerged, "and there was a cameraman shooting video down there," says Rocco. "We took that feed and sent it through the satellite system live to Microsoft Network and they broadcast it over the Internet." But there were problems. "The radio feeds would drop, the satellite phone would go down, the picture and the audio wouldn't sync. Every time we tested it, something would go wrong." And Rocco still isn't sure why on the day of the broadcast, everything seemed to work perfectly and there were no glitches. "I think it was karma," she says.

So have her travels made her jaded, instilled her with a "been there, done that" attitude? "There are still very few places in the world wouldn't want to visit," says Rocco. "I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. And I'II be very happy if five or ten years from now, I'm doing the same thing. Just more of it."

Reprinted with permission from Photo Distict News