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