Where Did All Those Years Go?
This site results from many years I have spent taking pictures as a serious amateur. Sorting through old photographs inevitably has heightened my sense of time as evanescent, retrieving memories that I thought were lost. Maybe that is the lure of photography, after all.
My grandparents’ house was full of old photographs and even as a young child I was fascinated by the camera’s ability to freeze time. I was also interested in story telling so it was only natural that I would eventually start taking pictures. Now I look back at my own photographs and realize that many of them are older than my grandmother’s picture books were when I studied them so intently as a child.
My Dad in 1938. I love the kid in the window behind him.
And me 38 years later in a picture that is itself now 37 years old.
When I started taking still pictures in a committed way around 1970, I was very fortunate to find my way into a newspaper culture early in the process. I had a couple of wonderful mentors for the technical aspects, including a man who ran a prominent news photography organization, and a patient boss for one of my summer jobs at a video production company back when video meant film. John Massey, a generous and faithful employer while I was in college, taught me invaluable lessons about cameras and the camera business.
I paid for my gear by photographing weddings and by taking informal portraits. In college I worked as a stringer for several newspapers, selling photographs and an occasional story. All of that gave me a great background for efficiently producing relatively high quality images.
My earliest interest in photography though was Dad’s eight millimeter movie camera. Starting around 1967 my friends and I managed to stay out of trouble by making little story telling movies. If you have seen Steven Spielberg’s film, Super Eight, you have a good idea of how we spent most of our summers between ages 13 and 16, although I don’t remember too many aliens in the backyard.
Shortly after my friend, Allen Keen, and I started making movies I began reading seriously about about film making techniques, a study that continued through college. As a result, I eventually understood that making movies and taking expressive still images involved the same bundle of skills. A lot of my pictures are about mood with an implication of human involvement, which is certainly a cinematic impulse.
My Photographic Heroes And Most Importantly, A Heroine.
Ansel Adams made the earliest and most long lasting impression on me as a photographer. His exquisite composition and understanding of tonality inspired my love of black and white photography that persists to this day. Studying his work made me not only a better photographer but also a better print maker once I entered the darkroom. Just as importantly Adams’ commitment to the environment, so apparent in his photographs, showed me that a serious photographer must have a passionate connection to the subject if he or she wants to make compelling images.
Reading about Adams heightened my visual literacy and exposed me to the work of other photographers. Soon I found my way to Alfred Eisenstaedt, Richard Avedon, Edward Steichen, and Margaret Bourke-White, all of whom have influenced me as they have most serious photographers of my generation.
Bourke-White was the photographer I most wanted to emulate. Instead of using light and texture simply to create beautiful landscapes, she used them as aids to story-telling. Ansel Adams made images that inspired environmentalism. Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs told stories with a social conscience. She also consistently captured the beauty of machines and industrial landscapes as emblems of modern life.
Margaret Bourke-White on the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building in 1930. She was so enthralled with the view that she located her first New York studio there, keeping a pair of pet aligators on the terrace.
Unconventionally educated (she was a Cornell graduate with stops at Columbia, Michigan, Purdue and Case Western), she first worked professionally as a commercial photographer in Cleveland during the 1920′s. Although her earliest professional work was archtectural photography, she soon became fascinated with the raw beauty of heavy industry, particularly steel mills. Her landmark work photographing technically difficult industrial images at the Otis works soon caught the attention of Henry Luce who hired her as the first staff photographer for Fortune magazine.
Working alongside such splendid writers as Archibald MacLeish and Parker Lloyd-Smith, she learned the power of the camera as an aid to storytelling and helped create the craft of photojournalism. Six years later Luce selected her as one of four original staff photographers for another start up magazine. This one was named Life and her work there off and on for the next three and a half decades made her an international celebrity. Her biographer, Vicki Goldberg, probably put it best: “She was a true American heroine, larger than life-perhaps even larger than Life.”
Her work had incredible breadth, photographically supporting the magazine’s populist appeal. She owned the first ever cover of Life with a stunning photograph of the Fort Peck, Montana dam, a masterpiece of light, shadows, and geometric shapes, but soon moved on to telling human stories in earnest. Her best work placed human beings in the context of modern structures and ordinary environments, pioneering a style that came to be known as “environmental photojournalism.”
In time she became the first female combat photographer, observing the Nazi bombardment of Moscow during World War Two and later covering campaigns in North Africa, Italy and the final drive to Berlin. When her transport ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and she emerged from the experience unscathed except for the loss of her cameras, colleagues dubbed her “Indestrucable Maggie.” Her own reaction was less prosaic. Viewing the sinking ship against a backdrop of luminous clouds, she lamented the loss of a great picture, remarking that it was a “perfect K-2 sky,” referring to the yellow filter used to heighten cloud effects on black and white film.
Margaret Bourke-Smith lived a heroic and in some ways tragic life. She certainly was not without detractors; some called her arrogant, manipultive, and a shameless self-promoter. Friends and colleagues viewed her as a charming force of nature. In truth, she was bits of all those things. Few doubt though that she was the foremost photographic storyteller in the formative period of photojournalism.
I have never come close to her artistry. Mercifully I have lost many of my photographs that most shamelessly stole her ideas but forty years after I first became familiar with her work, many of my pictures involve industrial themes, geometric shapes and subjects consciously depicted as part of their environment. Many of the pictures on this site are homage to Bourke-Smith’s eye and to her spirit.
Bourke-White’s iconic 1937 image of a relief line in Louisville following a flood.
I first remember seeing this photograph in an old U.S. Camera annual that I retrieved from a church paper drive around 1967.
Sorry if that inspirational list sounds antiquated but a lot of the currently prominent photographers produce images that seem over processed to me. To my old fashioned eye, the real craft of photography is composition, exposure and content, not post processed effects, although I certainly plead guilty to using my share of that pixelated magic.
I have a bunch of them. Many of the pictures on this site were made with a Nikon D300, a great DSLR choice for me because I have a collection of Nikon lenses going back to the mid 1970′s. I also still shoot a lot of film images on a Nikon F4.
Recently I inherited a splendid Olympus OM 10 from my father in-law. It’s still a magnificent camera that I enjoyed using before my daughter commandeered it for a college photography class. I liked it so much that I replaced it with an entire OM-1 system that I had lusted for back in the day. All of this 35mm wonderfulness is shockingly affordable these days because people don’t understand what they are missing by ignoring film cameras. Let’s keep that quiet.
A surprising number of the pictures here were taken with a high quality seven meg Panasonic Lumix point and shoot which I carry most of the time because I believe the old maxim that the best camera is the one that you always have with you. Lately I have been carrying an Olympus E-P 5 which I adore. It handles and shoots like an old Leica rangefinder.