When I was thirteen I thought I was going to grow up to be a photographer. I spent endless hours in the darkroom and carrying my cameras everywhere I went. Being shy, it was the perfect date for me at a youth dance. I could take pictures of the action and go into the darkroom later that night to print them. Often folks would come into the darkroom (it was at the same place the dance was, usually) and see what I was doing. Photography was a social magnet.
A few years later, in college and during the Vietnam War era, photography opened up the greater world to me. I met different folk than the ones in the small resort town where I had grown up. I even met a famous one from time to time.
A word about fame, something I know a little about. I grew up in a town filled with famous people (Palm Springs, CA) and learned very early not to make a fuss over folks who have been afflicted with it. Leave ‘em be, talk to them normal, change the subject away from them. Some of them might even make the grade to friendship. But, I ramble.
I am a walker. Love to walk the streets of a town. Rome, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Palermo, Naples, Chicago, Dallas. I once walked the route on Elm Street in Dallas where JFK was shot (grassy knoll) to the shop on the same street where John Hinckley bought the gun that he shot Ronald Reagan with. On a hot July day I took my trusty Canon VIT rangefinder and a new Canon AE1 and did my own shooting. The Dallas of that day has altered greatly.
New York? Since 1975, I have trudged the streets of that city camera and wine bag in tow. My childhood friend and photography co-conspirator Bruce took a fabulous street shot, worthy of a Weegee. Bruce went on to become a movie mogul and one of the greatest collectors of photography in the world. And still a friend and drinking buddy.
I spent time in the NY scene with Diane Arbus’ teacher, Lisette Model. Not much time, but enough to remember one cold afternoon in January in her apartment. I had already been to Arbus boot camp. It started in California and concluded in a bar in Milwaukee, a bar right out of the collective mind of Kubrick, Serling and Lovejoy. I had walked onto the set of a world that someone like Diane Arbus lived daily. And it scared the holy crap out of me.
I had my time with the world of reportage and photojournalism. One photographer from Magnum, to remane unnamed, asked my help in getting him and his art director through Tijuana for a photo shoot. An ad campaign for Pentax. I thought it odd that the photographer almost exclusively used his Leica M3 for the assignment. When I asked him, his answer seemed cynical at the time. Now, I think he was like a sushi chef, just using the best knife he had to cut the Toro.
And the old masters, so many of them I was lucky to encounter, sit awhile and soak up their greatness. They were called the f64 group. My entry was through Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. In the darkroom with Ansel was a breakthrough, I still remember the warmth of that little room, and not in a creepy way. How often is it you can stand in the dark and be dazzled with brilliance?
Imogen, she reminds me a lot of my friend Alice. Petite, but never diminutive, cantankerous, strong willed and boy crazy. But a vision and a determination to walk her trail without fear. Imogen was a wonderful mentor to me in life.
On the fringe of the f64 group was Wynn Bullock. Wynn was the one who taught me about the vision thing. He schooled me in the philosophy of perception. Thanks to Wynn, some of the best photography I have ever taken was without a camera. I remember how supportive he was when I came back from NY, explaining to me that he also had to take NY in measures, not in giant doses. Like him, I needed the horizon.
My dad was a photographer and a film maker. I still have hours of 16mm reels of film he shot, some of it family, some Italy, and also Old California footage. He always thought I should take more sunset pictures.
Being a black and white kind of guy, I could never understand why he wanted to thwart my path. But fathers do that to their son’s even when they aren’t conscious of it. I love to watch sunsets (like sunrises better) but not to shoot.
My college teacher, Philip Welch, introduced me to many of the West Coast school. He was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and had given me the entrée to that world. He told me about famous people. He said, “Call them up, knock and their door. If they are truly great they will talk to you, if not, they are only famous. You want to meet greatness, not fame.”
I’ve had a few friends through the years who made it to fame, but not quite to greatness. I have also had more than my share of friends who bypassed fame and went straight to greatness. I have photographed them, opened bottles of wine with them, danced with them, laughed with them, cried with them and walked through pools of Jell-O with them.
All along the way there has often been a camera nearby, my consigliere of consciousness.