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Friday, January 27, 2023

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Why I Am a Photographer

Photography for me is life. It’s true. I was a working professional analog photographer for many years, sixteen with my own small commercial studio. I earned an associate’s degree in commercial photography. The years I worked in my studio were “full immersion” photography. One really learns the craft when sales of your work must pay for film and chemicals and rent on the studio and the home, must pay for food and raiment and the car and fuel and insurance and and and. I like to half-joke, “Return with thy pictures, or upon them.”

This yarn is already too long, but I can’t tell it without some backstory:

My dad was a professional photographer hired by Acme Newspictures (now part of the AP) right out of high school about 1935. He had poor vision that made him ineligible for service, but he wanted to get into it “over there,” so Acme sent him as a war correspondent. He survived the war, came home, and started an independent commercial studio with four other guys from Acme. I really never got to know him as he was always working. In 1952 he died of a disease no one had ever heard of. I was 10.

Mom was devastated beyond reason. I hoped for some of his gear, even just his battered Weston light meter, but Mom was adamant that I should never even consider a career as a photographer. I was 10! I just wanted something of his to hold. But everything was sold away; It was clear that I was not destined to be a photographer.

Fast forward to my own military service (1961–1964, Vietnam Era) when I was lucky enough to be ordered to Germany because ‘Nam wasn’t yet a thing/thing. I traveled just like Dad had, on the last troopships, both ways. What an experience the whole thing was, traveling to and around Europe on the government’s dime, and they paid me, too! A photographer’s dream!

Only I didn’t have a camera.

I was 19. Do you remember how stupid we were at 19? Not as stupid as me. I was the grand champion of stupid. Aside from my mom suppressing any notions of my dabbling in photography, I read an article in a magazine that told me that no one would ever want to see my European pictures inflicted on them in endless carousels or albums. “Take your pictures with your head,” the article cried, “Your pictures are awful and boring! Don’t torture friends and family with them; they don’t deserve it!”

The article was probably satirical.

Notwithstanding, I have no pictures of nearly two years in Germany and other places. I vaguely remember what I saw and felt, but a picture or two would be nice. I don’t even have pictures of my buddies. Or my barracks. Or the little town we visited for its Gasthauses and the beer. I remember the beer…

But photography was lurking in the alley, waiting for me to come into range. I separated from active duty in August 1964, impulsively hopped on a Trailways bus (less $pendy than Greyhound), and moved myself all the way across the country to Northern California. I got a job, had a few bucks in my pocket, no girl, and in summer 1965, Polaroid introduced — this!

The Polaroid “Swinger” Model 20. Model 20 because they charged $20 bucks for it, which even in 1965 was a pretty good deal. Photography had bounded out of that alley and ambushed me.

The engines ignited, and everything lifted off — whoooosh! I bought a more sophisticated Polaroid. I was invited to take pictures at church. I encountered a situation that the Land cameras couldn’t handle, so I borrowed a then-new Pentax Spotmatic SLR with through-the-lens metering! You cannot miss (they said) — but I missed. The Pentax was way above my pay grade. I had zero idea what I was doing. Flubbed the whole job—massive humiliation.

I bought a book and my own SLR, not a Pentax but affordable. I blacked out my apartment kitchen and started developing film. I got a little enlarger and taught myself to print. I was on a roll, and I was terrible. Worse than terrible. Incompetent. And having a blast. The sweet/sour tang of acetic acid took me right back to my dad’s darkroom, standing on a stool by the sink, watching the magic as the images came floating up in the developer tray.

The heroine of my story appeared. Daphne Jean, whom I married for 46+ years, was not only willing to marry me but encouraged my newfound fanatical passion and helped support us while I returned to school and took a degree in photography. I graduated in 1973, Summa cum Laude, one of the proudest moments of my life…

…aaaaaand there were no jobs.

I was a trained, certified commercial photographer, gofer, and lab rat with an AS, which turned out to be nice but entirely useless. So I worked in a camera store and freelanced (any photographers reading this are likely now nodding sagely).

We were steered to a retiring photographer with a storefront studio. He had been doing portraits and weddings since the war and wanted to give it up. That’s when the Full Immersion thing began. At first it was rough. Customers came looking for the previous owner, but when they saw me, they left. Some actually sneered.

Nevertheless, my bride and I persisted and eventually succeeded—sort of. We developed a loyal following. We had a kid. We had an apartment. The studio supported all of it, somehow, until it didn’t. For reasons I understand perfectly in hindsight, we failed. I pegged my guns and basically refused to pick up a camera. I ended up at Home Depot. I hate Home Depot.

But this is where the real story begins. In 2007 we were headed on vacation. It was Daphne’s 50th high school reunion. She had never attended one. She wanted me to take a camera. I protested. I was already overpacked, I said, which was true, but I hadn’t used my old pro cameras for years. I didn’t know if they even worked.

“I will budget $100 for you to pick out a new[fangled] digital,” she said.

Our son had done an exchange year in Poland just a handful of years before. The camera we’d bought him then was hundreds of dollars and didn’t even come with a battery. I had no clue what I could get for only a hundred bucks in 2007.