Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fifty Years On....

Like a few of my colleagues (David K, are you listening?) this year marks a rather major milestone for me as a photographer.  I came into photojournalism the same way a lot of my friends did: I signed up for the High School Yearbook, clueless about what the photo staff did, but became completely entranced when I saw that first 8x10 sheet of Medalist come to life in the Dektol of Mr. Blackham’s darkroom.  That was junior year of High School, and I got the bug.  I began shooting almost everything, and within a few months was trying to sell pictures at the local weekly paper (which my cousins bought the next year, and kept me on in what became my first and only “Staff” position.)  Basketball games were a good chance to try and shoot the first half, then drive quickly downtown and hope that the Salt Lake Tribune might a) care about that game and b) not having their own photog there, actually buy one of yours for $5 (and give you your exposed film back), give you a fresh roll of film, and then to top it off, put your name next to it in the paper.  Hailing the next day’s paper to see what it looked like was one of those exciting moments which I came celebrate both the pain and joy of in the magazine years.  
I went off to college in 1964 armed with my supposed smarts in advanced math, with the idea of building Moon rockets for NASA. But my math skills seemed to have given way to my photographic eye, and even though there were no photo classes at Colorado College, I shot on my own, sold weekend prints to the drag strips I would frequent (when you sold 20 pictures at a buck each, you realized that twenty bucks was a pretty good haul for a weekend in the early 60’s and a chance to have your ear drums blown out by a AA/S Automatic Hemi.  Talk about fun!

the Grateful Dead  June 1967 - New York

Spring break of Junior Year, this was 1967, I bought a cheap (as they were then) United Air Lines ticket to New York, and spent a week trying to find a summer gig in the city.  In those days there were tons of classified ads in the Times  Help Wanted for Studio Assistant,etc., and while I did see a couple of them, that wasn’t my main aim.   My aunt had a good friend from Kansas City who had come for dinner the Sunday before I left, and as it happened she had an old pal, Ruth Lester, whose job it was to look at portfolios off the street for LIFE magazine.  A quick call was made, and I was invited to come see Ruth, showing off my pictures (which were, frankly, pretty lame….) in an attempt to get some kind of  summer gig.  Most of the magazines that did hire college kids limited their applicants to PhotoJ majors - usually from Missouri.  But I met a few contacts - friends of friends, who would call a photographer and ask if they would see me. (Steve Horn at Horn/Griner.  Katherine Abbe, are two I recall.)   I so remember the kindness that was paid to me, and have honestly tried over the years to return the favor to young photographers who want to talk about the business.  
Ruth was very welcoming, though I remember being so damn up tight on the 29th floor of the Time Life building, where LIFE Edit offices were.  Looking around you could see names on office walls who you had only ever seen on a page in the magazine.  She had, she said, nothing, but offered to call the Time B/W Editor (in the late 60s, the magazine could only use color with a couple of week’s advance, and so most pictures were in black & white, and that is what they spent most of their time working on.)  The Editor, Barker T Hartshorn was a jaunty New Englander, who I recall (Arnold I’m sure will correct me) wearing a lot of bowties.  In his charge was a large room of office cubbies, staffed by the women researchers (in those days, “Women” were the “Researchers”… it was one of those last (?)  bastions of male chauvinism) including Alice Rose George, Michele Stephenson [who became Photo editor twenty years later], and the unforgettable Evelyn Merrin.  “Bo” Hartshorn, as he was known, was very welcoming, and for reasons I have never truly understood, apparently saw in me someone who could eventually be of worth to both him and to the Magazine.  I briefly met Charlie Jackson, who was the overall editor in charge of pictures, and working with him, a  youngish editor named Arnold Drapkin, who was still a kid.  I left the building that day with no idea of what had transpired, other than I knew I’d been in the TIme-Life building, and that was pretty damn cool.  It was another three weeks later that I received the letter from Charlie Jackson offering me a 3 day per week internship at $85 per week.  How could I beat that?!  Couldn’t.  I can still remember the feeling of anticipation as I walked in from school the day the letter arrived. My  mom had placed it on my bed, the blue tinted envelope with the TIME logo sitting almost helplessly on the brown corduroy bedspread.  I don’t know if I ever opened a letter with such excitement.
I spent the summer in New York (for a month), Washington DC under the tutelage of Wally Bennett, the TIME staffer ( 6 weeks) and back in NY for a couple of weeks at the end of the summer.  I still had another year of college to go, but I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for a magazine.  Space, page size, and of course the attention that came with something which reached 25 milliion readers every week.  
My first few days that summer were a bit dodgy.  There was really nothing set up for me when I arrived in New York on the morning the 6-Day war started, so they just cleared one of the extra desks and that became my space.  There were still a number of NYC daily newspapers, and each day as they made the rounds, the papers would pile up on  my desk. I wondered, as I sat there in my coat & tie, my huge “everything I own in it” camera bag next to me, when I would have a chance to do something.   Sometime late in my second week, as I was about ready to give up in despair, Michele Stephensen, whose cubbie was just around the corner from my desk, gave a yell…”David!”   I sprung to life, grabbed my bag and asked her what was up.  “There is a new President of J Walter Thompson… Dan Seymour… he’s leaving town in half an hour, so get over there and see if you can make a portrait…”   I hauled ass out of the building, found a cab on 6th avenue, and sat nervously as the cab went almost no where in the slow sluggish traffic.  I hopped out, grabbing my WorldsLargestCameraBagWithEverythingIOWNinIT and ran the last half dozen blocks.  I was shown upstairs to Seymour’s office , panting like a race horse, and as he talked on the phone, shot about 30 frames on my one roll.  He hung up the fone, I shot the rest of the roll, him looking at me with the expression of someone who feels his wallet has just been lifted, and that picture was what ran in TIME  “The Weekly Newsmagazine” the next week.   I had to make a real decision. Michele (whose mom, as it turned out, had gone to high school with my mom in Salt Lake) asked me that most important of questions:  “Do you want the credit line to be Dave or David?”   It took a few seconds to react, but I decided that it was, safe for Facebook, the last time I would be known as Dave.  That next week became very collegial as many of the magazine’s regulars   -  David Gahr, Peter Polymenakis, and Burt Berinsky, among others, all said something nice about having my “first picture” published.  
Every week there was an adventure of some kind.  Photographing private aircraft for a story on General Aviation,Vietnamese business women touring the states, etc.    And one day, I had another of those over the cubbie-wall screams for my name  — this time it was Linda George.  She had another of those “get down there NOW!” jobs.  There was a band playing a free concert in Tomkins Square Park in the East Village (decades before it was remotely gentrified) and please get down there and make some pictures.  I was not exactly the greatest of rock & roll trivia experts, but young people who I’ve met over years still can’t believe I’d never heard of The Grateful Dead.  I arrived as they were playing in a small bandstand, and with several hundred devoted listeners having taken lunch off to hear them play.  I hopped on stage, and to me Pigpen was THE guy to photograph.  He looked as if he’d been there a half dozen lives already, and made for a good picture. At one point a young boy, probably lost from his pals (or mom?) broke out into tears on stage in the middle of a song.   I’m sure he ended up making it home ok, but it made for one of those pictures that you remember. Not because it’s a great picture, just because it’s a kind of weird moment.   Who is that guy?  He would now be in his mid or late 50s, and somewhere, I’m sure, has a very distinct memory of freaking out at the Dead concert.   
Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything, and I have to admit that had it been anything other than photography, I probably would have moved on.  I’m still kind of sorry I didn’t drive dragsters or work on the Saturn V  Apollo rocket program.  I studied Poli Sci in college, but have never run for anything other than one semester as Kappa Sig Grand Master.  You never really know where life will take you, but as long as you are able to be open to the things which present themselves you can make a life which won’t be full of regret.  I keep thinking that from the Class of ’46 —-   Donald Trump born June ’46, George W Bush born July ’46, Bill Clinton August ’46, that I, born in September ’46 should have really been the next President.  It would have made for a helluva lot less “Fake News,”  progress might actually have been made on a number of social challenges, and boy, would the pictures that the White House photographers make be damn good, or what!?  I don’t really  feel that bad about missing out on being POTUS, and I feel lucky and honored that I have seen as a witness with a camera so much of what has gone on in our time - in a hundred countries - over the last fifty years.  What better wish can a photographer have hoped for, other than, of course, ‘don’t fuck up.’   We’re just sayin’… David

No comments: