How did I get here?

Caleb brought up a good
question from my last post: what made me want to not pick up a camera for fun
but with “serious” intention? I’ll give it a go. Here’s the long form answer:


You see I had been making
photos since the age of 8 due to the fact that I went to a school that was a
kind of experimental deal where they were trying to push the boundaries of
education. This was in the middle 1970’s. The thing was they ran the school
like it was a university in the sense that they let the kids determine their
class schedule. Well one semester I was putting together my class schedule and
I had it all figured out except for my required art class. I think that I
wanted another pottery class, read as an excuse to get my little hands filthy
for an hour, but it was already full. All that was left was something like
dance – yeah right! – and photography. Pictures seemed interesting so …


My instructor was Dwayne
Walker. Great dude. Everything was done thusly. “So you roll your film on the
reel thusly.” Or “then you aduate your tank thusly”. I thought he was
hilarious. Still, any guy who has the patience to teach photography to a bunch
of elementary brats is more a man than I. He taught us the basics starting with
photograms where you put objects on the photo paper and expose the paper to
light so that the shape and varying opaqueness produced an image. For me it was
the total cliché where I saw my first print develop in the tray under the amber
safe lights that was it; magic and I was hooked.


Photography was my thing even
though I didn’t have a camera. Dwayne had us make pinhole cameras out of
oatmeal boxes and that was fine by me. Then I took a summer camp photo class the
following year and got my hands on my first real camera a Yashica Electro 35. I
just checked and my memory was correct after all these years – wow what an
impression that little camera made! So I ran around for the summer making
dreadful photos and was happy as can be.


When I got to 6th grade
I was placed in a small private school that was like a little college: you
totally picked your class schedule within reasons. Well lo and behold they had
a dark room and photo classes. So the following year with my new friend Sean’s
dads camera a Konica Autoreflex TC on nearly permanent loan, yes I remember all
this stuff, I scheduled myself for 2-3 hours in the dark room almost every day.
No joke. Some stoner guy from the “upper school” hooked up a record player,
remember those?, to the power line that fed the safe lights. The record player
was on repeat and the only record we had was The Doors Greatest Hits. So when
you turned on the safe lights to make prints it was all “Riders on the storm!
Bow-buh-bow-bow-BOW!” Ugh! That is where I picked up my distaste for that band.
So this went on for two years. Making dreadful prints of my dreadful photos for
hours every day but learning a lot in the process. Photography was my thing. It
kept me sane during those tough years but dealing with “L.A. Woman” and “Light
My Fire” constantly stuck in my head was a bit tricky.


By the time I hit high school
I was working at the local camera shop and finally got my own gear; a Minolta
X700 and the crap zoom lens I mentioned before. I had made hundreds of prints
by this time and had read every photo book in the store. I was cocky, knowledgeable
for my age and intended to keep things rolling as they had in the years prior.
I found that my high school had a photo program so I brazenly marched in and
told the instructor that I wanted to use his dark room. He said that I needed
to take basic photo first and I told him that I’d test out of it. That didn’t
go over well so he kept to his line and I obliged as it would still get me
access to the dark room. After the first class with him he made me the TA
because I was helping everyone out and knew stuff that he didn’t. Victory!


This brings me to an
important side note. In high school I was a big science nerd who was part of an
improv comedy troupe, had a varsity letter in 3 sports, liked to work on cars,
did martial arts, played guitar in a metal band, had a huge vocabulary and if
you didn’t like my use of alliteration I was willing to kick your ass. In short
I baffled my academic advisors.  Not that
they are of any use to anyone because they only meet you for ten minutes a semester.
If you wanted to be an engineer and were good at math they would pull the lever
labeled “engineering track” and off you went. Yer dad is a doctor and you want
to be one too? Well with your grades we know just what to do with you: “medical
track”. But what do you do with a kid like me who would either academically
dominate a class that I liked, say physics, and skipped classes that I didn’t,
like French? I skipped those classes to walk a mile to the college library so
that I could read about things that I thought was interesting, like the metallurgy
and design/craft of making Samurai swords. I think that they just wanted me to
go away and leave them to the kids who didn’t make them work very hard at


So I muddled my way through
college and found that for various reasons I didn’t want to be a physicist, mechanical
engineer, biologist or psychologist. The last seemed to make the most sense
because I’m always wondering why we do what we do. But I didn’t want to have
people whining at me all day where I couldn’t just tell them to shut up, get a
grip, accept a few hard truths and get on with things. That wouldn’t do.  I hit a wall.


My two life long passions
have been music and photography. I realized that it is far easier to try and
start a career as a photographer at the age of 30 than as a musician. So I
dropped out of school with a two year time line to see if I could make a go as
a musician. I formed a metal band called Dorian Gray – irony!, and proceeded to
do pretty well in the
Detroit club scene. Just as we were about to cut a demo the
singer and bassist tell us that they are quitting to cut a demo with the other
band that they secretly had been working with over the last 8 months.


So back to school I go to
cram my head with what I can while I can with the intent of becoming a
photographer.  So I say to my college
advisor that I want to shoot for National Geographic and he tells me that I
should become an art major. Mmmm, ok. I quickly found out that being an art
major really meant finding ways to convince the self righteous instructor that
your shoddily crafted project is a serious piece of art because of how it’s all
about the modern emotional disconnection brought about by the blah blah blah.
The more crap puffery you use to explain your work the better then grade. Oh
and they expected me to already know how to draw, sculpt and paint! Well I
could draft a mechanical design, sculpt you a new fender after the accident and
paint your car back to factory new. But draw and paint like in galleries? Get
out! None of that did squat for me except for prove my worst fears about the “fine
art” world. So I downgraded my major to “liberal arts” and took what classes I
could get into that were cool but didn’t have prerequisites. Thus I got into
some grad level classes and didn’t care about my grade but rather what I could
get from the experience. Like the class in international law where I was the
only non law school student and half the lectures seemed to be in Latin. Got a
B+ in that one.


So one day I was in the
student union having lunch flipping through the student paper looking for the
comics when I saw an advert for writers and photographers. So I took my
sandwich on the hoof and went to the address that was listed. I met Brandy, the
chief photographer, who I promptly told should hire me because the photos in her
paper were crap and I would do a much better job than THAT!. Taken aback she
asked if I had a portfolio. Nope I said but I have been shooting for years and
have books filled with slides to prove it. Ok, she says, you start Monday. What
I didn’t realize was our “student paper” was the third largest daily in
Detroit with a 35,000 circulation. As my British friends
would say “that took some stones!”


My first assignment was to
shoot a student council meeting. I shot it just as I would anything else: move
over here, find a composition, wait for the elements to come together, make the
exposure. I head back to the office and process my film.  The conversation went like this,


Her: “How did it go?”

Me: “Oh fine. I have two that
I’m pretty happy with.”

Her: “Great! Where is your

Me: “Just coming out of the

Her: Pulling the film from
the dryer and inspecting it “Where’s the rest?”

Me: “That’s it”

Her: That’s it? That’s it?
Seven frames? I send you to do an assignment and all you shoot is seven frames?
Fer crying out loud shoot the whole roll! Shoot three rolls! It’s free! What’s
wrong with you?”

Me: “I have two that work”


Ya see I shot the assignment
the way that I did everything else I had ever shot: like a landscape or still
life only this time I wasn’t on a tripod. I had brazenly told a newspaper editor
that I was a photographer with experience and I was truthful. I had just never
photographed people before.


Well I had a steep learning
curve but I quickly got the hang of it. But after 2 semesters I was getting
tired of shooting all this stuff and not getting paid for it. I did my first
photo essay and that completed my folio. I took my leave of the paper and set
off to freelance. Not knowing how to do it of course!


I banged on every door I
could and oddly enough, people hired me! I will say that my presentation was
good. All my work was done as 16×20 inch B&W hand printed fiber prints on big
black matt boards. All the time that I had spent in the darkroom had paid off.
I learned the Zone System and gotten a strong hold on my craft. My father and I
would fly out to the
looking for places
that Ansel Adams had shot and I made hundreds and hundreds of prints in our
deluxe darkroom with the intent of being as good a printer as Ansel was. So the
editors would take a look at my gallery prints and yell to the news room “Hey!
Ya want to see some great looking prints?”


That is when I realized that
I had taken it all seriously enough. I was shooting the stuff for the school
paper with my old Minolta and used my discount to promptly buy a good system: a
Nikon system! I was ready for the big time. Well that took a while longer but
when I started sending out invoices for my work is when I realized that the
long and winding progression from happy snapper to budding professional had
clicked into place. Something about getting paid to do what I would do anyway was
really premium.


But if you figure that I got
no instruction from my fellow shooters at the school paper, almost nothing from
my high school teacher, had no instructor during middle school, the only one
who essentially showed me how to do photography was Dwayne with all his “thusly”.
I read a lot, make thousands of crap photos, thought a lot about what I wanted
to do, dissected the work of guys whose work inspired me and without any formal
training, no internships or the like I got here the way I always have: wanting
to get here – a professional photographer, by making it up as I go and not backing
down from set back to disappointing dead end. Like the conquistador Cortez, I
kept burning my ships thus forcing me to go forward. Kinda hellish but it’s a
workable plan!


The short answer: I got here
due to going in lots and lots of small circles.

Here's a shot that was triggered by my butt as I was running around at a shoot a while ago. I dig these. they are all abstract and funky. Some work, some don't. I like this one.

Butt of March


P.S. Thanks Dwayne!

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