Ever really get to know those guys and gals behind the counter at photo stores? I think every photographer out there has either been saved by, exasperated by, befuddled by, informed by, counseled by….those folks behind the counter. Part priest (or minister, or rabbi), part bartender, part technician, those fellas (mostly) wait for us behind glass bins that contain vast troves of pornographically delightful gadgets, all gleaming brighter than the right side of the histogram. We swoon as we approach the altar of gear.
We are impulse buyers, often times, near keening in our desire to possess the latest newfangled widget which will catapult our photography to the next level. Just one more light modifier, the one that bends photons into the darkest, truest corners of our subject’s souls, or one more ultra-smooth, chromium coated, bi-pixelated, extra dispersionary piece of glass that is faster than light itself–that’s all that’s needed. Once in possession of these treasures, the road will be smooth, and the assignments will be plentiful. The next phone call indeed will not be from someone we owe money to, but rather it will be from the National Geographic Society, sending us packing to places of unspeakable wonder. We of course are snapped out of this delightfully implausible reverie by the voice behind the counter reminding us that there’s a special on if we buy the camera with the lens.
Given our tendency towards rapture when we enter a camera store, we could easily be led astray. That’s why, when you find good people behind those gleaming counters (or on the other end of the phone), you stick with ‘em.
My first major camera purchase was in 1974 at Willoughby’s on 5th Avenue, and it was enabled by enduring physical harm and mayhem. (Hmmm. Has anything changed?) During my first job in journalism, as a newspaper boy, I was bitten by a dog. Badly. Put me in a wheelchair for 5 weeks, and it took two operations to put my left calf back together. Turns out the family was beating the dog with the newspaper, so I’m sure to the pooch, this was a very logical move. It resulted in a payout of ten grand, available to me at the wise age of 21. Did I invest it? No, of course not. I turned it into a car and a couple cameras. Made the deposit, and went to Willoughby’s. Back then, the store would actually make a phone call to the bank to check your account. (How quaint!) The check hadn’t cleared. The camera salesman turned to me with a knowing look, and said, “You’re a little short in the bank, kid.” (How was I to know he was also a prophet, and this would remain a perpetual state of affairs?)
If you told me back then I would have a relationship with one of these shops, I would have looked at you like you were off your nut. But, turns out, after purchasing many photographic talismans from many, many places, I’ve come to be part of the family at Adorama. The folks who run the place decided to partner with me to support the Faces of Ground Zero giant Polaroid collection a number of years ago. (I had gone it alone preserving and storing 24,000 pounds of photography in museum quality storage for a number years, and it damn near broke me. Then, Harry Drummer, he who makes all things happen at Adorama, shook my hand and said, “We’ll help you.”) I’ve done all my business with the store ever since.
And hence have gotten to know the guys in the Adorama Pro shop pretty well. They are equal parts characters, soothsayers, geniuses and camera-wise counselors. After a few years in the business, it’s pretty easy to get dismissive about the “camera salesman,” right? “I know what I want, here’s my money, and how long is this going to take?” can be the dialogue in your head when you’re at the counter purchasing, and that’s understandable. But, over time, I’ve come to regard these guys not only as friends, but as resources. Because, in short, they know more than me.
Let’s start with Daniel Norton who describes himself as “a Springsteen tune sung by Tom Waits. And he knows stuff about light bulbs.” A fine photog in his own right, he knows more about lighting than, well, just about anybody I’ve encountered. His expertise crosses a vast array of systems, and he can tell you what works with what and why more easily than a kindergarten teacher reciting Dr. Seuss. Which, given his clientele, he might often feel like. He’s able to quickly suss out the essence of what a photog really needs to get a job done, and it comes from the depth of his experience shooting on location in places like NY and Miami. He’s also always got a perpetual, slightly bemused, knowing twinkle in his eyes as yet another photog recites a fevered litany of what they will try to accomplish with this newly purchased magic box. Think of a cop at the driver’s window while someone nervously babbles what they perceive to be a perfectly defensible rationale for doing 75 in a school zone. Daniel knows his stuff, and I have personally witnessed him saving a photographer from himself. Which is actually very cool, considering there are some guys behind the counter out there that are the camera store equivalents of Hannibal Lecter…”Closer, Clarice, closer…..”
Then there’s Efraim Nussbaum. I don’t know too many geniuses, but he is well and truly one of a kind. He speaks a half dozen languages, and knows, by heart, virtually every SKU in the Adorama system, which, as you might guess, has more than just a few products. He has, literally, a photographic memory. He scans a page of figures, and then, simply, knows them. He is a wonder to watch, ball capped, scanning his computer, drawing on more than 20 years of camera store experience, spewing SKUs and manufacturer’s descriptions like he’s reciting poetry. Seriously. He can make a recitation of the tech specs on a lens sound like Yeats. I think this occurs because he does truly love his job, and this world of information bubbles out of a very decent, helpful place in his soul. I asked him once about an obscure connecting cord. He not only knew the cord, and the SKU, but he knew it was impossible to get and suggested another historical predecessor to that cord that works just as well if you hooked it to XYZ coupler, and there are two of those in the system! He did this without the aid of his computer.
And then (drum roll, please) there’s retail store manager Isaiah Wong. He went to Cardinal Spellman HS in the Bronx, and I went to Iona, and they used to regularly kick our ass on the basketball court, but I don’t hold this against him. A self starter nonpareil, he’s the young father of three and brings the obvious patience of parenthood to maintaining order and equanimity on the floor of a hectic NY camera shop, which at least occasionally rivals the tumult of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. To me, he is part of the vibrant soul of New York. Chinese and Puerto Rican, he put himself through Baruch College, and then climbed the managerial ranks through the clothing, wireless communications, consumer electronics and now photographic industries. Looking at his bio, it makes sense that he once worked at Prada and The Gap, as he still manages to pull off stylish, despite wearing the standard issue Adorama duds.
And then, of course, there’s the big guy, Jeff Snyder. I shot this picture of him down in North Carolina, and it’s pretty good, so he uses it as his Twitter pic. I haven’t had the heart to tell him that I only shot it because I was bored with the lighthouse I was looking at that morning. Now he knows:-)
Seriously, Jeff and I have been buds a long time, and my business followed him from Penn Camera to Adorama. Remember I said when you find good guys, you stick with them? He’s a fine shooter who’s out there in the trenches with us, so his camera advice is sound and grounded in reality. And his jokes aren’t bad, either.
Good jokes, good guys, and good camera advice. What’s not to like? More tk….