I joshed a bit the other day about our precarious place in the tachycardiac economic universe, prompted by yet another edition of the ongoing black humor fest Bill D. and I have been engaged in now for, oh, about 20 years. Things are admittedly a bit terrifying of late, which in its own way is reassuring.
Hear me out. Engaging in anything creative pushes the meter anywhere from uncomfortable to risky to flat out screaming bejeesus anxiety attack status. Just does. Couple that with the uncertain (now there’s one way to put it) nature of being a shooter and trying to make a living at this, especially now, and you can see your way to terrifying real easy. But, when has this not been terrifying? So there you go. At least that hasn’t changed a whit, and immediately we’re back to reassuring. Stable, even.
Whew! Nothing like a big, fat juicy rationalization or 30 or 40 to get you through the day!
As the bhagwan says, the only constant is change, and that dude is definitely onto something.
I grew up shooting for mom and dad’s magazines. You know, National Geographic, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek. Change has hit those books hard and they have come in for some rough sledding. LIFE of course, after giving Lazarus a run for his money, finally gave it up for good. When I was a staffer there, I would always note that it was appropriately titled, seeing as it would reincarnate endlessly. And, of course, “Death” didn’t test well.
Nat Geo is still kicking, and bless ‘em, they’ve kept me a bit busy this year. I tell ya, though, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in the field and somebody said, “Oh yeah, my mom and dad used to get that. The attic was full of old issues.” That usually produces from me a strained smile that is more akin to a grimace than an expression of shared joy and reminiscence. Much more likely now, though, you get, “National Geographic, dude, cool! When’s this gonna be on?”
No, no, young person. This is for the printed page. It has no buttons or blinking lights. You don’t turn it on. I hear that from a teenager and my D3 feels like some parchment and a quill pen.
All this uncertainty is okay, though. I’ve been fired from almost every job I’ve ever had, so by now, I guess I’m comfortable with not knowing where the next assignment or check might be coming from. I was fired from my very first job in journalism in NY, at the NY Daily News. It was fun while it lasted. I’m still friends with some of the gang there, though the real classic old characters have long since shot their last holder.
My bud Johnny Roca, a terrific street smart shooter and all around NY original is still there, 35 years in. Quintessential ladies’ man who had a phone booth of an apartment in Tudor City with nothing in it but a circular bed and an entertainment system. The whole staff would live vicariously through John and his tales of leggy women in the windswept dunes of the Hamptons, where he would regularly seclude himself for much of the summer.
One year he had copped himself a good chunk of freelance work and bought a convertible Mercedes. He called me up. “Joe, Joe, you can’t believe it. I got women diving in the car with me, they’re diving in the car. It puts out a male scent, I swear to God.” He would tell tales of his exploits and a bunch of the photo guys’ eyes would glaze over in rapture. Of course it wasn’t that tough a crowd to impress, as many had, you know, a house in Massapequa, a battle axe for a wife and their groins had stopped working sometime during the Truman administration. Their idea of really cutting loose on a weekend was to pop open a brewski and fire up the weed wacker.
I don’t have 35 years in anywhere, having been fired from the News during the Pleistocene Era, and, from that point taken, well, a different road. Not so much a road, really, more of a cow path. But back then, I was bent on being a newspaper guy. Johnny and I would ban together as apprentices in the studio, waiting for a spot on the street to break open. We would pass the time by complaining to Al Pucci, the lab manager, about our schedule. Al was a lovely, decent man with one helluva stutter. (Think K-k-k-Ken in A Fish Called Wanda. “Otto tried to k-k-k-k-kiss me….”) It was one of those painfully wonderful moments in life that would occur when Bill Umstead, managing editor, crashing the night owl at 5:30 would scream over the newsroom intercom about where the hell was his page one, and poor Al, also on the blower, under pressure, on deadline, would attempt an answer.
The silver lining in this of course was that, if page one was not ready at that moment, Al’s crafting of a response would give the printers a bit of extra time to slosh the print through the fixer and slap it on the drum dryer.
The printers were a cool bunch. Union to the core, and utterly unflappable, seeing as one of the chemicals in regular employ back there in the dark, right next to the dektol and the hypo, was Johnny Walker Black. (Does wonders for a flat neg.) They had unique skills. Soon after the night owl went to bed, the presses would start to roll, and literally, the entire building would start shaking. At that point, getting a sharp print meant that the enlarger had to be oscillating at the same frequency as the print easel, and boy these guys had that down pat.
They spoke their mind, too. Bobby Hayes, master printer and ex-jar head, was hammered a great deal of the time, and come one newsroom Christmas party time, had a brisk exchange with Mike O’Neill, the exec editor. The News would give out Christmas bonuses every year, based on length of service, but it was ridiculous. Guys with 30 years in would get, like, 300 bucks. O’Neill, a glad hander who spoke like his mouth was full of marbles, was working the crowd, and had the occasion to wish Bobby Christmas tidings. Bobby was appreciative. He thanked Mike for his bonus, but added something along the lines of, “Usually, when I get fucked, I like to be lying down in a dark room.” O’Neill mumbled something like, “Sorry to hear you feel that way, Bobby,” and meandered off in search of some egg nog.
Anyway, back in the lab, Johnny and I would appeal to Al’s better instincts to make our skeds more regular and desirable and Al would simply say, “Y-y-y-y-you boys want a regular schedule? Get a job in a b-b-b-b-b-bank.”
Never did that, either, cause I suck at math. It was the freelance photo life for me. Until I got a staffer job at LIFE, of course. I got fired from that one, too. In the waning days, they brought in some dipstick of an efficiency expert to go around and see if corners could be cut. He came into my office and I fruitlessly tried to explain that photography couldn’t be metered on an efficiency scale, couldn’t be plotted or graphed and wages and hours and time spent didn’t necessarily add up to usable “product,” to borrow his term.
None of it washed, or even dented his numerically driven psyche. He tried to prove his point by singling out one of my pictures, and telling me, while jabbing his finger at it, that he just didn’t understand that photo.
I told him that was vastly reassuring. I was fired soon thereafter. Actually not. In Time Warner parlance, I was “riffed.” (Reduction in force.)
SI is still going strong, though not according to upper management who would have you believe that their poor magazine is the equivalent of the guy on the street with a tin cup and an eye patch. (They would try to convince you of this from their regular table at Elaine’s.) Steve Fine and Jimmy Colton, the bosses in photo, routinely do more and more with less and less, witness SI’s stellar photography outta Beijing.
Colton and I go way back. As kids together we were over in Poland for the first papal trip JP2 made to his homeland. Talk about doing more with less. Newsweek was always a distant second to Time in money and resources. As Jimmy used to say, “Time is a hospital and Newsweek’s a mash unit.”
I was designated as the courier to get Newsweek’s last batch of deadline Ektachrome back to NY. Sheesh, was I nervous, sitting in the bare bones waiting room of the then Communist Warsaw airport, clutching a bag of about 200 rolls representing the efforts of some 7 or 8 fellow photogs. I was routed outta Poland to Zurich, where I picked up Swiss Air, first class. The home office knew the trip had been hell, and sprang for a seat up front.
Hot damn! First class on Swiss Air! The flight attendants were super nice, constantly filling my plate with fancy foods, even though I’m sure they were mildly bemused by having someone whose face more likely belonged on the side of a milk carton than in one of their first class recliners. That stuff, by the way, doesn’t happen anymore. Tough enough to get a day rate, much less a first class ticket.
Called Jimmy at the beginning of the Beijing Olympics, and told him my ruse worked. He was like, “What?” I told him I had circulated a rumor on the internet of a major sporting event happening in China, and SI took it, hook, line and sinker and sent their entire staff out of the country, creating a wonderful window for us lonely freelancers. We had a good laugh, but I didn’t get a job out of it. Last day I worked for them was last November, when I put Shawn Johnson on a balance beam in an Iowa cornfield. One day job, which produced the lead double truck for their Year In Pix female athlete portfolio last December.
Didn’t like what ran.
Would have preferred this.
What I really would have preferred is for the clouds to hold off for a bit longer, but no. Slogging a 300 or so pound balance beam outta the Iowa mud was one of the aspects of photography I don’t believe they dwell on at say, Brooks or RIT.
It ain’t the way it used to be, but what is? There’s never been any guarantees, or forgiveness, or for the last 10 or more years, fairness, in this industry. But here’s the thing.
We are out there, in the air, in the world. We don’t go to a cubicle farm everyday and stair at dismaying numbers on a screen. We make pictures. At the end of the day, we create something potentially significant that did not exist at the beginning of the day. We go forward, despite the uncertainty. Because this is an act of love and passion, which defies reason and prudence.
And we make that occasional good frame, the one that sings, the one that lifts our hearts and the hearts of everyone who sees it. That well and truly is as good as it gets. More tk.