The Still Photographer in me
People often ask me "how'd you become a still photographer?"
I'm never sure if they are truly interested or simply dumbfounded. In either case, here's the scoop.
I was not one of those kids who always had a camera, shot pictures for the family albums, worked for the high school yearbook as a photographer or for that matter... ever really wanted to be a
photographer. Looking back now, however, I wish I was one of those kids. But I was too busy hanging out, playing sports and chasing girls for any of that "nerdy" stuff.
Back then, it wasn't like it is today. We didn't have smartphones that could shoot pictures, or autofocus cameras, or drones, or go-pro's. If you were lucky, you had a plastic Kodak Instamatic camera in the household somewhere that used those square flashbulbs that you attached to the top. There was no digital photography so you shot film. Then you had to take it to get processed at the drug store or "Fotomat" and they would give you a pack of 3x5 prints. All of that cost money and I didn't have any of that.
So many of my treasured memories would be so much better if I had an interest in photography back then. When we were about 14 my buddies and I used spend weekends at this old hunting cabin in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Someone's parent would drop us off on a Friday and pick us up on Sunday night. No cell phones, no phones at all, no supervision. It was our "coming of age" time and we learned a lot of life's lessons at that cabin. A true benchmark of my youth. Not one picture. Later, I drove across the country with my girlfriend in a van after high school. We did actually take one of those Kodak Instamatic cameras with us. We had exactly one roll of 12 exposure film. After messing up a few of the pictures because of my lack of photographic skill I think there are about 7 that still exist. Later, one of my childhood friends and I hitchhiked to Montana to go back to college one summer. An epic journey by anyone's standards and filled with stories. Not one picture.
You get the idea.
I was always a creative kid. I could draw and I could write. My dad actually did have what appeared to be a decent camera and even an 8mm movie camera. I even had a famous uncle who worked in Hollywood making movies. But I had little interest in it until I was a high school senior.. and even then just because our English teacher said we could make a movie instead of writing a senior english paper to graduate. So we made a movie, my first, which I still have.
I really had no "real" interest in photography until I went to college. After doing a year at what is now The University of New Jersey I transferred to The University of Montana. It was a scary and gutsy move that probably helped build me into what I am today. I was a transfer student who came in at the middle of the school year. I knew no one. Zero. I had a roommate that the school assigned me who had a girlfriend that lived two floors below us in the dorm. So he basically lived in her room. I remember just wedging my dorm room door open hoping someone would come by and introduce themselves. But everyone was already pretty firmly in their little friend clicks by then. Eventually a guy named Bob Wolfe came by and asked me if I played baseball. He was our floor Resident Advisor and would later become by best college friend. They needed a second baseman and I was pretty good at snagging ground balls... so I was in. The friendships followed. Sports has a way of doing that.
Wolfe was a graduate student and taught classes in black and white photography to help pay his way through college. One afternoon he stopped by my room and said he was going up to the Student Union. They were having a wildlife photography exhibit and some famous wildlife guys were exhibiting their work. He asked if I wanted to go along. With nothing but time on my hands I said yes. Montana is a great place to shoot wildlife and there, displayed on temporary walls in the Student Union, were some awesome pictures. One particularly caught my eye. It was a Tundra Swan (at the time I didn't even know what a Tundra Swan was) shot at dawn as it took off from a mirrored Sealy Lake. It was backlit, in perfect focus. You could see where the swan had stirred up the water as it ran to take off... and then just little backlit drops of water on the mirrored surface as it became airborne. There were specular star-like highlights in the drops of water as they fell and a light morning mist was in the background. It was, and remains to this day, one of the coolest wildlife pictures I have ever seen. I wanted that picture. But I was poor, so it lives only in my imagination now, I'm sure larger than life magnified by the passage of time.
It flipped a switch in me, however. Wolfe suggested I take one of his classes. I didn't even have a camera but if you took the class they lent each student a Nikon for the semester. I was in.
Wolfe's class was a "class" but it was different from any of my other classes or any class I had ever taken. It was the first time I "wanted" to learn instead of "having" to learn. Montana was rich with subject matter... cowboys, rodeos, wildlife, big snow, old barns and majestic landscapes. By today's standards, my class was "old school". We shot black and white film with manual cameras. We processed the negatives and printed the pictures. These were the first pictures I produced that were bigger than the 3x5 prints that came from the drugstore. I would stay in the darkroom for hours. There were no computers, no photoshop, no fancy filters. I quickly learned that the darkroom is where most of the magic happened. If he were still alive even Ansel Adams would tell you that. I ate it up.
Eventually one of my roommates sold me an old Olympus camera and a lens or two and so it began. Thinking back, I was always a fan of photography but didn't even know it. I loved LIFE magazine growing up. LIFE was filled with pictures from around the world shot by top notch guys. I couldn't wait for it to arrive. It was like a window to the world. A world I had no idea I would someday see for myself. My bible, however, was Sports Illustrated magazine. These guys were capturing sports at the perfect moment... the crack of the bat, the moment the swimmer broke the water, the instant the ball touched the receiver's hands. And they had no in-camera light meters, no automatic exposure, no autofocus, no image stabilization. To this day I wish I was that good.
For a long time I had a Gallery in Asheville, NC. I was up there once doing something in the gallery and a young college student came in and was admiring a picture I had shot of some killer whales in the San Juan Islands. They were chasing a school of salmon and a bald eagle had just dropped down over their heads. It's a cool shot.
He said he loved that picture, one of the coolest he had seen, and he would hang it in his dorm room if he could afford it... which he could not. It touched something inside of me. I asked him if he was a wildlife photographer. He said no, but he loved taking pictures.
I took the picture off the wall and gave it to him.
"You will be".