It is the year 2020. How appropriate it is to look back over the 44 years since I first bought a 35mm SLR camera and began my photography.
Maybe to look at the physical me is a good place to start. I have assembled the self-portraits I have from those years. They are not the selfies of today because these self-portraits are between the isolated photographer and his camera and not some meme purpose.
The very first self-portrait I did came from my climb into the rafters of a large storage building where a party was happening below. You can read about the moment in my August 2018 blog post, “On The Fringe – An Aspie’s View“
About two years after that photo, I found myself camping at a KOA on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs. College had failed me. I was the broiler cook at a steak & seafood restaurant when it all became too stressful and pointless. One night while cooking I had my an epiphany. “It’s my life and I can do what I want!” You would think that’s an obvious idea, but so often we get caught up in the world we find ourselves helpless or too constrained with obligations and commitments to be free enough to change course of our lives. At 20 years of age I was not, and my 21st birthday was fast approaching so I left for the land which was inside my heart, the mountains.
With $15 to my name and 8 days paid for at a tent site on the eve of my 21st birthday in November 1978, I set the self-timer and raised my cup to one of my most happiest times of my life.
I had fun that winter. It was just me exploring life with my camera, and working outdoors surrounded by the beautiful Yampa Valley, plus skiing my heart out. At the end of ski season, the small town of Steamboat Spring shrunk back to its 4,000 inhabitants. I had enjoyed the winter bustle but now it was gone and it was clear that the place I loved had limits to the opportunities in life. Sadly, I needed more than what I felt the small mountain town could offer.
Before I left I took another portrait. With little spear cash for a hair cut and wearing a hat all winter, my hair grew very long.
I went back to the city where I was born. Gram, my grandmother, my father’s mother, died while I was away and my divorced father moved into her apartment which is where I landed. It was very difficult to be back “home”. I did not like it at all. So confining, so man-made, void of any sense of true nature. The city only held man’s designs of how the land should look.
After nine months, I headed back to college because that’s where a 21 year old should be. The state college was even more strange than the first private college I had attended. My Asperger’s (which I did not realized I had until my 50’s) kept me even more isolated than my dyslexia. The way I saw fellow students behaving was very alien.
This was 1981. Portable music players were not invented yet. The college had a music listening room where you can ask them to play an album from their collection and sit in a number of different locations around the room. I saw many students doing this, so, without any music in my dorm room, I listened to the music there as well. I usually sat at the window looking out across the campus. It provided a few hundreds-yards of unobstructed views, until night-fall when I found myself in a glass bowl due to the reflections in the window.
One night I did a series of photographs documenting the transition from the open views to being contained in a glass bowl. This portrait below is the moment where, while looking forward, I also could look backwards. I wrote in my journal “How unique to look forward while at the same time to look back. I can see what is in front of me and what is behind.”
For three semesters I tried college. I was now older by four to five years than most in my freshman classes. My life experiences had grown in a different path from the other students. Many could not fathom taking off to places unknown as I did on my adventure to Steamboat. Most at the state college were from “working class” families and more often were the first in their families to attend a college. I still could not figure out why I was there, and my grades reflected that.
Longing to be back where my heart lived, I returned to Steamboat but the magic was not there this time. The mountain had changed ownership. The once small western town with a mountain for skiing was now a big corporate ski resort with a town. I was not a wide-eyed freshmen out for a wild semester-off from college. The work I did was hard labor without the glory of working in the mountains that I once felt. Oh I tried to pickup where I left off, but as a song says, “can’t go back, you can never go back”. So once again I went back home, this time with the sole purpose of actively pursuing my photographic aspirations. When I drove from Steamboat, my first stop was the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see and photograph the third launch of the Space Shuttle.
When I arrived to my home city, I was more focused. My first step was to get a job at the local camera store. Through the store I learned of a local wedding and portrait photographer who also ran a photography art gallery. I began working there as an apprentice.
The photography I admired was not of commercial value. I admired photos from those photographers who had an “art” following, Weston, Penn, Farber, Adams, Uelsmann, Turner, Caponigro, and others. Joel Meyerowitz’s was one of them. His “Cape Light” was one book of images I thoroughly enjoyed. Joel had a self-portrait in the back of the book which I liked, so I created my own version of it.
After two years of struggles, monetarily, emotionally, and photographically, I found myself confided. Not only by the walls of the city, but by the walls of people and the confinement of the city’s photographic community.
What to do. What to do. I kept moving, and soon an answer was developing. I had the opportunity to show my work to Bob Bender, a local car photographer with national accounts. He mentioned California was producing great colour photography and that I might want to look into that. In another coincidence, somehow I received a fly about a workshop Mark Tucker was having in Nashville (circa 1983/1984), and promptly signed up for it. He had recently moved from L.A. and was knocking them dead with his music album cover photography in Nashville. He was and is a very creative photographer.
The confinement of the local photography community and going nowhere with my own photography caused me to make another “take-control-of-your-life” decision to leave. I had three choices, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. NYC was too big, and gray. Chicago was too Midwest. So it was L.A., besides my only reliable transportation was a motorcycle and it did not like the snow.
Later that year and a couple of months before leaving for L.A., I drove my grandfather to his Florida winter condo. We stop in Nashville and visited Mark. He told me to look up the Black Book offices at 1545 Wilcox Ave. in Hollywood. I thanked him and we continued to Florida.
Although this next photograph is not of me, per-say, it is a portrait directly connected to who I was. This is the motorcycle I drove to L.A and my sole transportation for the first year there until I was able to afford a small 2WD truck. I carried my Nikon in the tank-bag, the Hassleblad was stored in the side-bags and the tripod was strapped across the back with my tent. Motorcycles are great for photography. They can go many places cars can’t. They are quick to stop and turn easily around when needed if you pass an inspirational scene. It’s a great form of transportation.
When I arrived in L.A., I was very fortunate to get hired at Elmi Graphics. It was mysterious when I realized Elmi’s was in the Citizen News Building at 1545 Wilcox Ave. in Hollywood. That’s the address Mark had mentioned! I began working with and learning from David Travis. The lab’s business was making photo-composites for the movie studios, pre-Photoshop. On the side Dave did printing for some of the big-dogs of the art photography world. I assisted Dave as we did Cibachrome prints for Eliot Porter, Paul Caponigro, and other freelance jobs he had. Every now and then art photographers like Lucien Clergue and Herb Ritz would visit Dave at the lab. It was a real honor to meet them.
After two years of working with Dave, he move to San Francisco in 1986 to be closer to Carmel. It was around this time that I began to print Cibachromes for art photographer Jo Alison Feiler. She lived in NYC but frequently visited her family who lived in the L.A. area. Over the course of two years, we built a friendship and on occasions she invited me to her family’s home for dinner. Later that year (1988), Jo and Yolande Clergue invited me to submit a photograph in homage to Vincent van Gogh for the newly formed Fondation Vincent van Gogh, in Arles, France. I was honored to do so.
Testing my lighting, 1988. What a difference between these portraits. (age 30)
Photographically speaking I was loving my work at Elmi Graphics and the side opportunities were fun. Unfortunately, when I turned 30 there was a gnawing inside of me that asked “Is this where I want to be?” It’s now 1988. Photoshop and large computer systems were taking over the photo-composites work. My job at Elmi’s was becoming obsolete. The Los Angeles lifestyle was exciting the first couple years but I could not see myself there much longer. Plus, my photography wasn’t providing a livelihood. Once again I could not stay where I was. I told myself “I should be very pleased that I took photography as far as I could, and that it was always something I could always do in retirement.”
Yet again, I returned to Northeast Ohio and went back to collage to continue my education. Over time I sold my photographic equipment to help pay for college but not until I made a couple series of images around NE Ohio. (Years later in 1997, Ernst & Young, and Parker Hannifin bought several prints from those series. – They were Photoshop developed and inkjet printed on cold-pressed watercolor paper, a very unique way to print in 1997.) When I graduated in 1991 at age 34, I eventually got into computer networking. You could say I accepted that computers were taking over the world and I joined in on the opportunities.
2004 Contax G2 and 2018 Olympus Pen-F. Wow, what a change 14 years make.
From when I left L.A. in 1988 until 2008 (20yrs) cameras and photography went through its digital transformation. In 2010, I entered digital photography by purchasing my first digital SLR (DSLR) camera, the Canon 5D Mark II. I was amazed at the features the new digital cameras had. I particularly liked the video (film making) features and I got caught up with it to that end of making a documentary film of a four women bicycle team and its crew as they raced across America in 2012.
In 2018 I began this photo blog and began to actively enter back into the photography community, which I never really left. I had always been watching the photographs being produced, and I had always captured some images along the way.
A lot has changed in 30-35 years since I left Hollywood. There is an ungodly amount of images being made very day. With 44 years of looking at images, I, or other veterans of photography will see that photographs can be typed-cast as every plot of a story has been. I call them photographic genres. In the 1970s modern photography was new, with new films and new print processing being made. Today there are creative people who once would pickup a paint brush now pickup a camera and use Photoshop to compile and complete their vision. Where once Ansel Adams had to note and map out all his dodging and burning, Photoshop provides for exact image development, and you don’t have to wait for the print to come out of the developer to see the results.
Having fun with the camera on my laptop. (circa 2006, age 49)
I mentioned hindsight at the start of this blog entry. Over the course of my life, in times of trouble I wondered if I should have stayed in Steamboat Springs at age 21, or dug in and stayed in Hollywood at age 30, or stayed at one of the many companies that hired me in my IT career, or for that matter even way back at the start of it all, should I have stayed at the first college I attended. Each of those situations would have worked out if I had accepted them. But in each case my journey had an ending or perhaps, it was more like a fork in the road that I chose.
My life has been that way. I enjoy the journey, not necessarily the destination. That’s it. Yes, life is not so clear cut. Sure I wonder, but in times of wondering (the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve), of life is not pleasant for me. The best method I have found when wondering is heavily on my mind is to keep moving by constantly assessing where I find myself and make corrections as needed.
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