My First Brush with Photography

It was 1963.

We were on a vacation in California, and my dad wanted to see the town of Carmel. We would do that as a family. Head out from Phoenix to places (usually west of us) and find things that were interesting to my dad. Mom didn’t really care where we went, she was happy to see places she hadn’t seen.

We stopped for lunch in a little cafe in town. Dad and mom got out the maps and started planning our next town. This usually involved a lot of discussion so I asked if it was OK to go out on the sidewalk.

Two doors down from the cafe was an art gallery. I thought that may help alleviate the waiting so I walked down and turned the corner into the gallery.

It was a corner that changed my life.

The gallery was showing photography. There were prints from Weston, Adams, Cunningham and Bourke-White. I was stunned.

I had grown up around photography, my dad was a freelance author/photographer and did a lot in the hunting and fishing genre. I had been in the darkroom and had made a few prints before.

But not like these. I had never seen anything like these photographs – ever. They were so sharp, so bright and beautiful. There was a photograph of a bell pepper, and some landscapes and some people working. They were almost ‘glowing’ in their presentation.

But above all the technical excellence they showed, the images seemed to be ‘important’ and what I was looking at was meant to be seen. The images had purpose… even if the purpose was to show me how a bell pepper really looked like. The people photographs were intimate and there was something about them that made it impossible to not keep looking.

I was there for quite a while before my mom (in a lightly controlled panic) finally saw me in the gallery. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep looking at those images and wondering how anyone could ever make photographs like that.

I kept those little gallery brochures in my suitcase and as soon as I could I went to the library and started reading about those photographers. At the time, in Phoenix, it was pretty hard to find too much on those photographers, but I dug up everything I could. And I found more photographers who I was excited by; Caponigro, Porter, Callahan, White and Bullock.

When I was 16, photography took a backseat to the music. I still made photographs, but was so frustrated by the quality of my prints, that I stopped shooting and played more drums. It was hard to make the images I wanted with cameras that couldn’t do it, but enlarging with inferior lenses and light sources made it even harder. Of course, at the time I didn’t know about the technical aspects and it just didn’t seem like I could measure up.

So I played the drums. A lot. For about a decade or so. I went to school for a degree in Music Theory and Composition (yeah, that’s a huge money maker there). It was a hell of a lot of fun. I learned a lot about music, and still compose.

I played gigs all over town, occasionally traveling with bands and having a typical musicians life. Unstable and totally unpredictable. One day I bought a Nikon with a single zoom lens (43-86 – one of Nikon’s worst lenses) and started making pictures again.

Landscapes and locations, on Kodachrome. Then people in the street, people at play, people working. People in black and white. I had no darkroom, and was pretty unhappy with the little black and white prints. I was traveling a lot then and when I returned to Arizona, I took one of the negatives to a printer in town who had a Yellow Pages ad about doing “custom black and white printing”.

The image stunned me. It looked nothing like the crappy little prints. In fact, it looked like those images that I had seen over a decade before. It had a brightness to the whites and a dark, brooding shadow. He charged me $5. I began planning my darkroom.

I knew I wanted to make photographs. Actually, I knew that I had to make photographs.

I had no idea about commercial photography at the time. I simply had no idea what a photographer did to make money. I didn’t really care. I would work at a mindless gig in the evenings so I could make photographs during the day. I did that for a long time.

I lived and breathed photography. I photographed everything I found, and devoured the photography magazines from cover to cover. I had wish lists of gear, and mountains of books. Even when I was working on other creative endeavors, I would be thinking about photography and seeing images in my head while creating in another medium.

Then, one afternoon, my neighbor asked me to make a photograph for his business. He even said he would pay me $100.

How’d that work out?

Next time.

(What was your first brush with photographs that made you think about being a photographer? Let us know in the comments.)

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  1. Thank you for sharing your memories Don, I found myself going back to being a kid in Virginia doing the same thing with my family. My passion for Photography did not come till much later in life but when it did it came on like a freight train.

  2. My father bought the Canon AE-1 and took a few classes on how to shoot etc. Well he noticed my interest in photography and would come home from class and teach me what he had learned. I was always “that guy” with a camera. I never ever thought of doing it professionally until I started selling some nature and landscape pictures and so it began. Don you have inspired me to make that move as well and thanks for all your information, workshops and encouragement.

  3. I appreciate your story. I began liking photography almost as long ago as I can remember – I enjoyed fiddling with cameras, and the way you could actually make something. That led to the high school yearbook staff and a year working for a small weekly paper.

    But my passion really ignited when I went to work for a small daily newspaper in 1971. When I looked at the prints from the Chief Photographer, I was blown away by the look and the clarity of the tones. Fortunately, he was a talented photogapher and a patient teacher, and I stayed there and kept learning for four years. Now, 40 years later, I’m proud to say we’re still good friends.

    Apparently we were well ahead of our time. Even then, we were using multiple off-camera strobes. Of course, we didn’t have Pocket Wizards, so we had to run a PC cord to one strobe, and then use optical triggers for the rest.

    • “Apparently we were well ahead of our time. Even then, we were using multiple off-camera strobes.”

      LOL. Yeah. In fact I NEVER had a flash on my camera.

      100ft PC cords and a bunch of Wein’s and that was it.

      And, I even plugged my big strobes in to an extension cord… no battery for my big guns!!!

      Yeah – way ahead of our time. Heh.

  4. I am a visual person and when I was a kid I would take decent pictures. I would conisder where the sun was and put it in front of my subject and when I shot an object I would look for a clean background. No one ever taught me this, it just felt right. Nothing spectacular, but it didn’t suck.

    Sadly, as a kid I remember thinking, “Why take photographs, what will I ever do with them?” There was no Flickr or Facebook and I had no idea I could submit photos to a magazine–how I would have loved to get published in BMX Action! Film and processing was expensive and there simply was no reason for me to shoot, so I didn’t.

    Then in 1995 I got a job at Autosound & Security Magazine because lived and breathed mobile electronics. Part of the job was photography. Slide film and processing were free and therefore so was my mostly self “education.” I shot, asked questions of the photographers around me, shot some more, stared at my pics and pics from other people, and shot yet again. Finally, I had a reason to shoot.

    Ten years later I left behind the publishing part (it’s a fun but crazy industry) to pursue photography full time and that is still what I do today. Now I look back and wish I had photographed, people, places and the hobbies I loved so much like skateboarding and BMX. In fact my main self-assignment is shooting environmental portraits of people who were big in those genres back int he ’80s.

    • “In fact my main self-assignment is shooting environmental portraits of people who were big in those genres back int he ’80s.”

      Care to share some of those shots with us here at LE, Paul. Contact me and we can do an interview and show some work.

  5. My earliest memory of photography was as a kid still in shorts. My godmother had an open-house showing a collection of shells making money for charity. I was there when the local newspaper turned up and took photos. I was in the paper. Me. In print. Very strange. I took photos with Kodak Instamatics and at the age of 14 I can see I was playing with perspective and composition. But what really made me want more was in my mid-teens doing a course – just an hour a week – and the first time I saw the negatives coming out of the Paterson tank and then the time I saw an image appearing in the developer tray. That was me. Hooked.

    • “That was me. Hooked.”

      Oh yeah, I remember that moment well.

  6. Don, I would love to. I am in the early stages of the project and still trying to figure it out. It all started with this shot:

    Looking at it I thought, “Man, I whish I had done this BITD with Bob Haro, Eddie Fiola, Mike Buff, R.L. Osborn…” Since I can’t do that, I figure I could get them today. I am also going to do it with some of the custom truck industry people I know and have Courntey Hallowell scheduled for a shoot in late July.

    I wanted to be a shrink and at young age I figured out, you can’t know others if you don’t know yourself. Recently I applied that to this project and started an environmental self portait assignment with Darren Stevenson. I hope to work out the issues of creating each “story” before I get to the big boys.

    This is me in a messy, messy nutshell. Click through and mouse-over the shot to see what I mean:

  7. Many moons ago, my father gave me a Brownie camera and it all began. I didn’t understand anything about what I was doing but I knew what I liked to look at and the pictures seemed to come out okay. As I grew, my interest grew and my equipment repertoire grew, too. I was a long-time hold-out on film. In the grand scheme of things I haven’t been shooting digital that long but kick myself often for not getting on that train when it came out! Loved it then; love it more now!

  8. I grew up with the family having a subscription to Life Magazine. It wasn’t long before I was thinking that traveling the world and photographing it would be fun. That never materialized but my brother took up the hobby, had a dark room, and worked for some local papers shooting high school sports. I bought his used cameras and started shooting life around me. Documenting stuff. Pretty much that defines what I do today.

    • Yeah, my mom had a subscription to LIFE and Saturday Evening Post… I loved them when I was a kid.

  9. Started shooting outdoors, camping, landscapes, early and often. But, it wasn’t until I stumbled across a Herb Ritts show in Hamburg that it was obvious what I had to do. There was a large portrait of Nelson Mandela that blew me away. I was lost in that moment he captured. The power of that image and quality of the print was like nothing I had ever seen. I thought, “If I can ever capture 10% of this power, my work will be great.” Started photographing people instead of mountains, still trying. I wonder how many people have stood in front of that image and had a moment like mine?

    • Herb’s work had that sort of influence on many of us as well. I have only seen small prints of Ritt’s work, and they have such an amazing quality. I wish we hadn’t lost him so early in his creative life… what an amazing talent.


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