I am completing my photographic career as well as my life, hopefully going out with my boots on, and want to share my photographic philosophy as well as my capabilities. I have been privileged to work in the creative/artistic fields for over 50 years, enjoying a career in editorial and commercial photography that has been fulfilling as well as challenging. Thought I’d start from the beginning.
I grew up on a small farm in southern Ohio, raising a little of everything, sharecropping tobacco and a few other crops, but mostly doing everything the hard way. We were still using horses when my sister and I were small, so my Mom would set my sister and I on a horse each on the collar and just behind the hanes so we could hold on, and then tie us to the hanes so that if we fell asleep we wouldn’t fall off. That way she and my Dad could work behind the team and keep an eye on us at the same time.
Lazy was something you never called anyone you respected. When you got so old and tired you could hardly move, you went on anyway. Stopping was never an option. That idea was ingrained in my family from the very start. Give it all you have, don’t stop until you are finished. It was a tenant of our faith that we were here to make a difference.
My Mom had an old Brownie box camera, and she liked taking pictures of us, but the idea that I might like taking pictures never occurred to me. Photography was kind of mysterious as well as technical, and there were never any guarantees that the picture you were taking would “turn out.”
I could draw though, from a very early age. Second grade teacher kept some blank papers on a shelf just for me, and when I felt inspired I could get a sheet and draw, and she always complemented me when I was done. As I worked my up through grade school, the teachers would have me and some of my friends draw murals on the blackboard, and teachers from other rooms would come and borrow me occasionally to draw murals on their blackboards, usually around holiday themes like Thanksgiving or Christmas, or sometimes to illustrate something relating to a lesson they were covering.
In high school I was on the school newspaper, a mimeographed and stapled paper that came out occasionally. I wrote for it sometimes, and filled in some of the spaces with drawings of one sort or another. Never gave it much thought.
Took the “business” segment in high school since I had no expectations of college, and a few months before graduation Miss Chinn, the guidance counselor, called my two of my classmates to the office. Three scholarships had become available for freshman year at the new Ohio University Branch in Ironton, Ohio, and she suggested we apply for it, so we did. To my surprise, all three of us got scholarships—so then we had to catch up by taking the ACTs and SAT’s and make other preparations we had not expected.
Went to the local draft board to tell them I had been awarded a scholarship to college, so they would make me 2H rather than 1A for the draft. Since I had turned 18 the previous January, I was already signed up. The lady at the draft board told me I had lucked out with the scholarship, because I was scheduled as number 33 on the 1969 call for our county.
I had expected to be drafted, and that was one of the reasons I had not bothered to make other plans. I was fine with the Army—military service was something everybody did. My Dad, however, had survived four years of WWII in the south Pacific, and he just could not bear the thought of any of his kids enduring the same experiences he had. Getting me past the draft was an answer to his many prayers.
Took the general course at Ohio University, mainly getting the basic requirements out of the way. Had a part time work-study job at the Briggs Lawrence County Public Library. Have always loved books, as well as the great picture magazines that were in their heyday then, so the job fit like a glove. One of my tasks at the library was to write a review of a few books every week for the Ironton Tribune. I wrote them, handed them over to the library director, and then she would sit down with me and critique each one in detail. I wasn’t sure why she did that, because I had assumed I was just giving her a rough draft that she could change any way she wanted. She made few changes and the newspaper usually printed the column as-is.
At the end of Freshman yea, I had to declare a major. Had no idea what I wanted to do, yet. I most-wanted to be a farmer but in southern Ohio, without any equity, farming wasn’t feasible. When I was growing up, the axiom for becoming a farmer was that you needed to go to law school—that way you could afford to buy a farm and have somebody run it for you.
I chose Journalism, because that course required study in as broad an array of fields as possible—after all if you were going to write about something, you needed to know about that something. However, there were bigger fish to fry.
Spring, 1970, President Nixon committed troops to Cambodia, and that sparked outrage, especially among the younger people. Kent State happened in the northern part of our state. Riots broke out on all the college campuses. Ohio State closed. Claude Soule, President of Ohio University, vowed to keep Ohio U open, but a week later Ohio University closed as well.
It was time for me to find a summer job as well as funding for the next year of college. Prospects in the Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia (the “Tri-State” area) were a little slim. Packed my bags into my ’64 Dodge, and headed to Ft. Wayne, IN where my uncle, aunt, and cousins lived—job prospects were better there.
Got a job at a factory making industrial equipment from stainless steel. I was one of the summer help they expected little from, but I never imagined I was there to do anything other than work so I made the most of whatever job they put me on. Soon I was replacing their regular employees when they were absent, learning to operate a number of machines that I had only read about.
Factory shut down for a while, so I packed my Dodge and headed for Chillicothe, Illinois, near Peoria. My Dad’s closest friend from WWII had a grain farm there, so decided to help him for a while. His oldest son was away completing his military obligation, so I filled in.
I was clearly enjoying traveling and doing a variety of work. When I knew I should be heading back toward Ft. Wayne, I was looking at a map and realized Iowa was not far away—I could make a short visit there and say I had been in Iowa. Noticed that Wisconsin wasn’t far away either—could hit that, too, and then, wow—Wisconsin actually connected to Michigan on the top side…and I had a cousin I could visit in Pontiac on the back side.
Packed up the Dodge and headed out—could sleep in the back seat, gas was cheap and the slant-six in the Dodge pushed it a long way on a gallon of gas, anyway. Slept at a gas station in Green Bay, visited a fire museum in Peshtigo, envied the firemen on the Soo Line and just marveled at the Upper Peninsula. Sat on the shores of Lake Michigan and wrote a few letters home and wished I had some way of showing my friends and family all the sights I was seeing. How would I document where I had been, other than the windshield emblems I had collected?
Finally back to work at the factory in Ft Wayne, my uncle suggested I take pictures of my travels, since I was spending most of my free weekends sight-seeing. He had been using a Kodak Instamatic X-15, and he recommended it. It was affordable, so I bought one. Opened a new world for me.
By the end of summer, other realities had muddied my plans to return to Ohio University. Dad and Mom had tried to borrow for me to return to college, but their bank had turned them down for a loan. They had both grown up during the Depression, so they operated on cash, never borrowed money and therefore had no credit history. I came home and reluctantly started looking for a job.
Signed up to work on track crew for the C&O Railroad—job paid well, rail cars supplied for sleeping and eating, and most of the work was outdoors. Good job for someone who didn’t mind working hard.
Got a call from the hiring manager at C&O, was ready to put me to work. However “I was at a meeting last night and was talking to John Anderson, a manager at International Nickel’s Special Projects Facility, and he was telling me how difficult it was to find men who could type for their mill clerk jobs. I know you can type. Give him a call…” Next day I was meeting with John Anderson and filling out paperwork.
Nice thing about working for INCO in Burnaugh, Ky, was that we made experimental metals, and my job, mill clerk, was one of only two salaried positions in my facility—the other position being Plant Supervisor. We had three small melt furnaces, a forging press, a welded tubing mill, and a complete powder metallurgy section. We made experimental alloys, so experts were coming from many different departments to make specialty metals for the space program, defense industry, and various other clients, and they all converged on my office. Had a microscope there to inspect samples, and was my job to keep track of every process completed and every raw material used. Learned a lot.
Lot of those experts were also into photography, so inevitably I started asking how to make more of my camera. Of course, eventually I took the plunge into 35mm and bought my first pro-level SLR camera. Took trips into the mountains of West Virginia, attended canoe and kayak races, toured the backroads I had grown up on looking for new photo subjects. Learned a lot more, especially when discussing techniques with those who had been doing it for a while.
Downturn in the metals industry brought my INCO job to an end, and the industrial Ohio Valley with its heavy focus on iron, steel, and industrial chemicals was suffering, and new jobs were scarce. I had gotten a commercial driver’s license just out of high school, so looked at the trucking industry. Mad a couple long-haul trips with a friend to get my feet wet, and to build some experience. Tried to find work for my camera, too, but photo gigs were scarcer than all other kinds of work. Also, I was 1A for the draft again.
Spring, 1972, I had not served in the military, and I strongly believed it was my duty. A friend, John Skelton, had served two tours as a helicopter crew chief in Viet Nam, talked me out of joining the Army—he told me it was not like WWII, it was a mess, and I really didn’t need to be part of it.
Somehow stumbled across the Coast Guard, found out a recruiter would be in the area for a couple hours in a week or so, so set up an appointment. I knew almost nothing about the Coast Guard, being from the Midwest, other than that Mike Nelson on Sea Hunt was always talking highly of it. Applied to join, but unlike the other services, I had to have strong references, an outstanding personal history, and supply very detailed information on my work history. Was finally accepted in May.
The Coast Guard was and is the nation’s smallest armed service (more New York City policemen than Coast Guardsmen in the entire world). It was started as and remains a federal law-enforcement agency, and is tasked with a wide array of responsibilities and duties—and that was why the intense background check. Very small force, every member expected to do his/her share plus, and be dedicated to the creed of Semper Peratus (Always Ready), and finally their motto “You have to go out…you don’t have to come back…” I’ve always been proud to be part of them.
Midway through Boot Camp we were expected to choose a rating and the school we would be sent to for each specialty training. Coast Guard has the same ratings as the Navy, except they have fewer of them, and often use the Navy schools for their specialty training. I had discovered that the Coast Guard had a few Photographer’s Mates and Journalists, but both of those schools were closed at the time because the Coast Guard was considering combining the rates. I qualified for a number of schools but decided to hold out for the photo rate. At the end of boot camp we were asked where we would like to be stationed—probably so they could send you somewhere else. The company behind mine were all sent to Viet Nam.
Anyway, the Coast Guard sent me to the Fifth District in Portsmouth, VA—they didn’t need more photographers, but they did need more seamen, so they sent me to the CGC Pontchartrain homeported in Wilmington, NC.
The Pontchartrain was a “white ship”, a 255-ft cutter generally assigned to do weather patrols, which meant lots of sea duty. At that time weather satellite technology was just getting started, so the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were divided into “ocean stations” 210 miles on a side and Coast Guard weather ships were sent to patrol each area for six weeks, report on the conditions and be available for emergencies such as sinking ships or airplanes in trouble.
I was a seaman (usually called “deckies”—short for deck hand) on the Pontchartrain until they found out I could type, so then I was moved to ships office to work as a yeoman. It was much better duty than being a deckie, but a big part of every job was to survive amid the constant rolling and churning of a stormy patrol in the middle of the ocean.
The next spring a message came that the Fifth District would have a position open for Photo-Journalist striker in the Fifth District. I was on good terms with the ship’s CO and XO so they gave me a good recommendation and I was allowed to interview for the job when the ship came back into port. They had an opening for one, and the other applicant had more college and experience than me so he was chosen, but then they let me come aboard as well.
It was a choice job in the Coast Guard, and since they had just combined the rates of Photographer and Journalist and weren’t sure how it would work out, I became one of the prototypes. Trained using the same textbooks as the Navy, was tested and responsible for everything taught in both schools, but assigned to work on a one-to-one with a Chief Photographer and Chief Journalist who would be responsible for both the training and evaluation. Since it was on-the-job training, I was having to learn as I go.
A major difference between being a Coast Guard Photographer’s Mate and being a photographer in any of the other services was the variety of work encountered. The Navy, for example, might have as many photographers on one base as the Coast Guard did for its entire service. You could spend an entire tour processing film, or making prints, or shooting motion picture film, or doing aerial recon, or just photographing the Admiral in his various activities. A Coast Guard Photo-Journalist was expected and required to “do it all,” so one day I would be shooting rust in the bottom of a boiler in a ship and the next day shooting 16mm film out the side of a helicopter. I did it well, scored the top on the service-wide exam as well as a major award in the 1973 bi-annual Interservice Photography Contest.
My trainer, Photographer’s Mate Chief Les Ceney, had attended art school for eight years when he was growing up, and it had led to him going into photography. He valued the art of photography more than the science.
“I can teach anyone the mechanics of photography,” he had told me. “f-stops, shutter speeds, films…anyone can learn those. Leading lines, composition, lighting…What I can’t teach is the art of photography, what makes a great photograph, how to see a great photograph.”
After every assignment, Chief Ceney and I would sit down with the contact sheet and go through every frame. He would look at every element of every image. “What is this?” he would ask. “Does it add anything to the picture? If it doesn’t add anything, why is it in there?”
I learned to shoot tight. No excuses were accepted. Composition was valued, and “does it tell the story?” was the standard by which all work was judged.
Also, no substitute for technical knowledge was ever accepted. I memorized the course books, Photographers Mate 3 and 2, which to this day contain a great deal of technical information on cameras, optics, film, chemistry, and processes. To make sure I understood optics, Chief Ceney would assign me to do all the assignments with one lens until I understood the lens inside and out, and then do the same assignment with another. The rule was to change a lens to take advantage of the unique optical outcome, such as telephoto compression, or the wide angle traits of perspective rather than to make the shot easier by changing a lens.
In December, 1974 was transferred to the 13th Coast Guard District in Seattle to begin another experimental position in the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had decided to form a Boating Safety Division, combining elements of several other responsibilities into a unified education and law-enforcement component, and they decided to give the division its own photo-journalist. I became one of the prototype Boating Safety Photo-Journalists. I attended “boarding school” to become a designated law-enforcement officer as well as photo-journalist so that I could fill in on the Boating Safety Law-Enforcement Detachments (BOSDETS) when needed, and also so I could work with state and local law-enforcement agencies to keep everyone on the same page.
When I arrived in Seattle in January, 1974 there were signs “Will The Last Person to Leave Seattle Please Turn Out The Lights”, since Boeing as well as the other segments of the local economy had hit some rough spots. Took little time for me to fall in love with the place, though. I worked with the Public Information Office as well as Boating Safety, so I was able to do photo assignments for both. Photo-wise my training had pretty much peaked, but the photographer, Verne Brisley, and journalist, Dan Mills, who were assigned to PIO and I quickly became close friends, and remain so.
Managed to spend a lot of time traveling and photographing the Washington-Oregon coast, spending time on the motor lifeboats as well as other Coast Guard operations. When I had free time, I spent a lot of it exploring the Pacific Northwest, and the incredible Evergreen State yielded a lot of Kodachrome images. Verne and I pushed each other photographically, exploring the new Cibachrome process, and Verne’s B&W darkroom in his basement apartment became my workplace of choice when I wanted to work without interruption. Verne was also good when I needed a second opinion on prints I was making.
Also bought a Norton 850 Commando motorcycle that was wonderful to explore the diverse landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Minimal camping gear and one of the first Nikon F2’s in the area allowed me to visit and capture environments that I had only dreamed about previously. Got really good with Kodachrome, but also learned a lot more about relating to people in their own environment. Norton motorcycles were both rare and famous then, so when I would stop at a restaurant on a rainy afternoon, loggers and farmers and working people of all sorts would come over to share a cup of coffee with me and swap stories.
Looking back, the Coast Guard had given me a unique opportunity. I was able to build a successful program from scratch, with measurable results. I worked directly with QMCS Larry Williamson creating boating safety programs that we were able to implement locally and regionally. We put on classes in schools, at events, and at seminars. I was assigned problems, and worked with other agencies to solve them.
One of the programs was a series of regular feature-type news releases on boating safety that were distributed to newspapers throughout the district (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana). Usually I would start the release by deconstructing a recent boating accident, and then pointing out how it could have been avoided or at least mitigated. A clipping service followed media coverage of the Coast Guard, and the releases were widely run in newspapers and other publications in the area.
One that stood out was a release I had done on duck hunters. The drowning accident scenario for duck hunters was pretty straightforward: a 10- or 12-foot boat that could be cartopped, two hunters, a boatload of decoys, shotguns, and a dog…and no life jackets because they were hunters, not boaters. Overloaded boats are unstable at best, and a small wave or sudden movement inside the boat usually caused it to capsize.
I had sent out a news release outlining that scenario, cautioning hunters of the dangers, and encouraging them to wear life jackets. One day a letter came from an editor of a newspaper in Idaho that contained the news release they had ran inside the paper, and a clipping of a news article on the front page detailing a duck hunter drowning accident that had followed the scenario almost to the letter. The editor speculated that maybe if they had run the release earlier, the accident would have been prevented.
Coast Guard was a unique service and I was proud of my work in it, but I was consistently running into a problem: photography had become secondary to my work. Further, the more I advanced, the farther away from actually doing the photography, and the more I would be directing and training others to do it became the norm. I had the option of going to OCS and becoming an officer, but that would be even farther from actually being a photographer. I also was determined to finish college, and since I had my GI Bill to do it, I decided to leave the Coast Guard at the end of my enlistment.
Photographically, I was disappointed at where my career had taken me, but I had also been given a substantial opportunity. I loved the natural world, hunting, fishing, camping, and conservation, and I was fortunate to be centered in an area offering all of those in abundance. Hard to imagine a more beautiful area than the Pacific Northwest, with five separate geologic kingdoms within easy access of Seattle. I spent a lot of time trying to capture the unique character of the area on film.
And my work was noticed. I was given an art show at the municipal center in Seattle, and several galleries from Edmonds to Puyallup had offered me spaces on their walls. I had always titled my exhibits “Photography Is A State Of Mind.”
As luck would have it, the federal government and the Coast Guard in particular were feeling the stress of insufficient funding, so they offered “early outs” to those of us whose enlistments would expire within a few months. Usually you become a “short timer” in the last few months of an enlistment—your heart is in the next phase of your life rather than doing your job. A few months chopped off an enlistment meant a small savings for a service that was notoriously underfunded.
I had never intended to be a “lifer” in the Coast Guard, but I had offered to extend my enlistment to six years if they would assign me to Juneau, Alaska. However, the 17th District (Alaska) had only two billets for Photo-Journalists, and neither of the Photo-Journalists there wanted to leave. Getting out was the only real option for me, and getting out a few months early would get me past that short-timers syndrome. It would also allow Boating Safety Division to get my replacement in place and trained before start of the boating season. I took the offer, and left the Coast Guard in January, 1976.
My plan had been to re-enter Ohio University in Fall Quarter of 1976, so that left me with some time to fill between January and September. I had met some friends of friends while elk hunting in the eastern Cascades, and one of those friends had grown up working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. We were sharing a small cabin on a ranch, so usually spent the evenings sharing stories and life experiences. He mentioned that his nephew usually spent the summers as a deck hand on the FV Lillian S out of Kaka, Alaska, but would be spending the summer of ’76 finishing his MS at the University of Washington, and if we knew of anyone needing a summer job…
When I received confirmation I would be getting out in January, I called John, and we got together for a spaghetti dinner to discuss possibilities. At the end of the evening he called Ray Bell, who owned and operated the Lillian S, to tell him I was available. We talked a little, and he hired me for the season. I had planned it as another photographic opportunity, but it would be much more than that.
January 20, 1976 I received my separation papers, loaded my Norton Commando as well as my roommate’s Triumph Trophy into the back of my trusty Chevy pickup, and headed back to Ohio. My roommate was being transferred to Buffalo, NY in summer, so I agreed to take both bikes to my home in Ohio and he would pick up the Triumph later.
January in the northwest is usually cold and snowy, and it proved to be just as cold and snowy heading east as it had been when I had come out in January of ’74. The -20F average followed me all the way to Wisconsin, with plenty of snow as well. I managed to take a few photos along the way, but mostly made mental notes of places I wanted to return to sometime to indulge in the scenery with both camera and time.
Was pretty happy to get back to the farm to reacquaint with family and friends. Weather was unusually warm and dry that spring, and with four motorcycles sitting in the basement all needing riding, I had a lot of fun. By March had finished outfitting my motorcycle for the trip back to Seattle, so once again said good-by and headed back west. Found that the best place to keep the camera gear was in the tank bag, where it was immediately available but still reasonably safe.
Still blizzards in the north, so had to head south to Tennessee and across Texas and the southwest and then up the coast to get back to Seattle, where I would catch the boat. Dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and dust storms in Arizona and ice storms in California and Oregon, but still managed to get to Fisherman’s Terminal in time to have a good look at the Lillian S before it was taken out of dry dock.
My plan was to spend as much time photographing Alaska as work would allow, but it would all be contingent on getting my work done first. Ray Bell had been running fish tenders in southeast Alaska since 1928, but he had suffered emphysema a lot of those years. That had left him weighing about 90 lbs at 70 years old, so part of my job was to make sure he didn’t fall over and die somewhere. The rest of my job was to do everything else. I could keep my camera handy, and use it when I had time.
The Lillian S was a classic Alaska fishing tender, 94 feet long, solid wood, built in 1912. Had originally been powered by a steam engine, but that had been replaced with a huge V-12 Caterpillar engine and an 8-foot, three-blade towing prop. It was designed to be utilitarian: towing bits for pulling barges, deep hold for holding ice and cargo, and a small cherry-picker crane mounted on the forecastle.
Alaska was everything I had hoped it would be: wildness and beauty everywhere. Downside was that it was my job to do everything Ray Bell could not…which was pretty much everything. Ray knew the water by heart, which was vital in an area of tremendous maritime challenges, starting with 26-foot tides, shifting currents, jagged mountains, deep fjords interspersed with sharp reefs visible only at low tide and extremely dangerous when covered at the high tide, and maritime storms that could swallow ships without even having to burp.
We made a loop of southeast Alaska each week, ferrying supplies to floating fishing communities and picking up fish for the return to the cold storage. Hauled 30,000 lbs of fish and 10,000 pounds of ice each week. Dragged every fish in over the side by hand, weighed it in a big scoop hanging from a swinging scale, dumped it into the hold, climbed down and dragged it back to ice it down in a bin, belly up. King salmon averaged about 25 lbs. each with the biggest at 50 lbs.; halibut averaged 150 lbs each, with the biggest at 300. We were usually underway five to six days a week, and I usually worked an 18-hour day. Saved all the money since there were few places to spend it and less time. Still managed to take some pictures though and have some quiet time to absorb the culture.
Caught a plane back to Seattle in the fall, packed up the Norton which had spent the season in a friend’s garage, and headed back to Ohio by way of the Canadian border. Ran into two other bikers in Montana and rode together as far as Detroit—best bike trip I had had since I didn’t have to worry about finding a safe place to camp or keeping an eye on it while eating. Nobody was going to mess with three bikes.
Made it back to Ohio University just in time to start classes in the fall, ’76. Stayed close to the journalism requirements, but took a really good news photo class from Chuck Scott, who had been a photo editor at The Chicago Tribune. Some really good photographers in that class, several who went on to do great things photographically. Got to meet Bob Gilka, who was close friend of Chuck’s and was the longtime photo editor of National Geographic. Kept my head down most of the time so I could wring every once from my education—it was my money, I was going to make the most of it.
During the long winter break cut timber for a few weeks for a family friend. One of the pastures on his farm had a mature oak grove on hills too steep to harvest with machinery, and with trees too big for most timber cutters to mess with. I had brought a Canadian 246 chain saw with a massive blade on it from Seattle, so we put it to good use. Ended up trading my labor for a horse, and it became one of the finest horses I’ve owned.
Spring, ’77 needed to make some money before returning to school, so took a job hauling has and diesel fuel in overlength tankers down through the coal fields and into strip mines in eastern Kentucky. Learning experience, but I usually didn’t carry my camera because the roads were terrible, loaded with coal trucks pushing the limits, and the trucks rode so rough that anything not bolted down was usually destroyed in a short time…and even some things that were bolted down were destroyed—like shocks, the smoke stack, and even springs. Survived it. Did go back later to ride a couple days with another driver and take a few pictures.
Back to OU in the fall, studying hard, living off-campus, and absorbed another news photo class. Wasn’t conducive to a lot of creativity since had to do most of my dark room work in a communal darkroom and carry four gallons of chemistry plus paper 10 blocks to Seigfried Hall each evening to process and print the assignments. Terry Eiler, who had been a contract photographer for National Geographic for many years, guided the course along.
Spring, ’78 ran out of money again, so went to work as a long-haul trucker hauling raw materials and steel mostly through the Midwest (Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo) with occasional runs to Adams, MA, Staten Island,NY, Dilwyn, VA, and Pueblo, CO. Rough and dangerous, but still not nearly as bad as hauling fuel in eastern Kentucky.
Made it back to Ohio University in the fall for my senior year, continuing to push hard with my studies and reawaken my photo talents. Took a little while, but by spring managed to finish another magazine photo class with Terry Eiler that forced me to re-examine my photo skills. Still have some stories salted away from that class that some day I can revisit and perhaps sell…
Graduated spring of ’79 cum laude. My Mom and Dad were up visiting, were going to help me move back to the farm. Dad was helping me replace a muffler on my truck when I casually mentioned the graduation ceremony was going on. He immediately offered to take me to it, but I said I had no interest in it. I had had enough of ceremony in the Coast Guard, wasn’t going to voluntarily add another to it.
It never dawned on me, however, that seeing me graduate from college would have been a big deal for Mom and Dad. Dad had finished the 8th grade, Mom the 11th—it was the Great Depression and opportunities for education were limited. I was still the first in my family to graduate from college, and they would have been proud to watch it.
Had a job offer from a trucking magazine in Houston, which obviously interested in my trucking experience. Flew down, enjoyed a stay in the 103F temps as a housing development burned nearby, and decided the place wasn’t right for me. I was tired, had pushed hard for 10 years, and just wanted to take a break.
Dad and I started putting an addition on the barn he and my younger brother had built. I enjoyed the work, enjoyed being home. Before we finished the addition, had offers to build barns for other farmers, so we finished and then began building an Appalachian barn on another farm. Before we finished that one, another farmer asked if we would build fences, so we gave him a reasonable price and he accepted.
My Dad, my Uncle, and I spent the winter rebuilding pasture fences on another farm. We had a tractor with post-hole digger available but seldom got to use it. The hills were too steep, so everything had to be done by hand. We were good at it though…we could take down 5 strands of old barbed wire, pull out the old posts, clear the brush away, dig new post holes, carry down the new posts, set them, and put up 5-strands of new wire, 100 yards a day, every day. Had to be complete at the end of the day, every day, because a fairly large herd of cattle were in the field.
By spring decided I needed to get back to photography some, so visited with The Ironton Tribune, the local daily that had covered Lawrence County for most of my life. Offered to freelance for them, but instead they offered me the job of chief photographer. Made a few changes to the dark room to make it more efficient. Turned into a really good opportunity for me because it threw me head-first back into the world of photo-journalism. Had several assignments to cover every day as well as direct several of their freelancers, and had to produce a cover photo six days a week as well as inside assignments. Had to stretch to make sure I was delivering something fresh and different every day—they had been impressed initially with my work and I wasn’t going to give them a chance to get bored with me. Editor responded by running my pictures big, and readers responded as well.
Had a lot to choose from though. 4-H steer weigh-ins, several volunteer fire departments throughout the county, five school districts, high school sports, highway maintenance projects, accidents on the rural highways, society meets, never a dull moment. Then got a job offer from and ad agency in Oak Brook, IL that I simply could not turn down.
April, 1980 started working for Dave Brown & Associates, a public relations/marketing firm specializing in agricultural companies. A.O.Smith Harvestore (the big blue silo people) was the primary account, with Allis Chalmers and Dow Corning as secondary clients. We produced a quarterly magazine for them, Harvestore System Farming, which was published in three regional editions with a circulation of 200,000. Four-color, full sized, printed on high-quality stock made it stand out among industry magazines.
Two other Account Executives and I supplied most of the material for the magazines. Usually go on the road for two or three weeks at a time with a full Hasselblad system and cover a region of several states. Usually did stories on farmers who were doing a verifiable outstanding job using the Harvestore feed processing, storage, and handling systems. I would usually plan two stories a day, take the pictures and do a quick interview of the farmers, and sometimes driver several hundred miles in between.
We usually alternated regions with each other, but I still managed to cover the lower 48 states and five Canadian provinces in the two years at DB&A. Usually drove everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, flew everywhere west. While Harvestore was the principal account, we usually managed to work in assignments for Allis Chalmers as well.
Since the trips were scheduled weeks in advance, there simply wasn’t a way to plan the weather, so I got very good at working within the meteorological parameters to still produce outstanding images. Could use flash and a threatening sky to make the colors of a farmer portrait jump. A few minutes of sunshine after a shower could make an agricultural landscape shimmer. Multiple lighting arrangements could make a feed room shot look like it was from the Space Age, or a milk parlor appear impressive. And usually the window for getting the right field shots was very narrow, sometimes just minutes, and required meticulous attention to the movement of clouds and sun rays.
The agricultural economy crashed in 1982, and of course that caused the agency to crash with it. I was out the door in June, showed up at 6:00 am at the Unemployment Office in Joliet with about 10,000 others who had been laid off from Caterpillar. Managed to make it inside to a help desk around 3:00 pm—no meals, couldn’t leave the line. The compensation they were allocating to me was discouraging at best.
Got home and started making calls. Called Farm Journal—had had unusual success “placing” a story with them.
Part of our marketing program for Harvestore was a “case history” program—where we did a complete story with photos on a farmer in a particular region, and include in a “by the way” kind of scenario, information on how the Harvestore system had helped improve the farm’s efficiency and income. We offered the package to a particular magazine, and they were usually happy to have it, especially since it included high-quality photography that they often used on the cover.
Farm Journal was notorious for not accepting anything they viewed as promotional rather than news, but I had managed to give them a story they accepted. The piece was on a University of Arizona agricultural study on a technique involving the Harvestore system that made sorghum grain more digestible naturally rather than involving an energy-intensive process called ‘steam flaking.” They had run the story, complete with the scientist in front of the Harvestore structures (and a dramatic half-moon behind the structure).
Anyway, called Roe Black, the editor, and he was interested in trying me for some freelance work. He had had a story on a new accounting program that brought farm bookkeeping in line with established accounting practices that nobody seemed to be able to grasp. Asked me if I would give it a try, and I did.
Interviewed some farmers who were using the system, interviewed the professor who had designed the program, gave him good photos of all of them. Put them together as a package and sent them to Roe, and three weeks later I had a check in hand. Sent me a couple other story ideas that had not been successfully done, and I completed them, too. Asked if I had some ideas for stories, and I did, so did them too.
Finally, called Roe one day with nine story ideas I had researched, we discussed each of them. I asked if any of them interested him, and he said “Do them all…” Farm Journal became my “bread and butter” account, meaning the client you can count on to pay your bills while you try for bigger and better things.
I had had a company car when I worked for the agency, so when I was let go they gave me an old company car in leu of a severance package. Economy was taking a pretty hard fall, “real” jobs in any of my related fields were getting rarer rather than more plentiful, so I had little choice other than to work harder at freelancing. Sold the car and put the money into more photo equipment—I could pack enough gear on my BMW motorcycle to do a magazine shoot (35mm was now acceptable to almost everyone), and I only needed portable strobes for most assignments.
Also started hitting the big ad agencies downtown Chicago pretty hard. Would set up a few appointments with art directors, pack up the motorcycle with a large portfolio case strapped on the back, and spend a half-day schlepping my prints around town. Started having some small successes with photo assignments, and was getting more references to other art directors in town. I was kind of a pinch-hitter, but was becoming known as someone who could do location work well.
I had close friends in my neighborhood who kind of looked out for me, and sometimes loaned me a car if I needed to do a shoot that required heavier photo equipment. Then one of the neighbors came up with a 68 Dodge Dart with rust down the side and flat tires that we managed to get running with a new battery and fresh tires. Had to pump the brakes a few times to get a complete stop, but it did the job.
Also checked in with the Bolingbrook Sun, the local newspaper, and started doing photo assignments for them, and then for their parent paper, The Naperville Sun. I’ve always liked newspaper work, and it was good for local contacts and leads. Joined the Chamber of Commerce as well. Started making friends with other photographers in the area, especially photographers from the Chicago Tribune I kept bumping into at events.
In 1983, the Chicago Tribune decided to expand coverage in the suburbs. They were a union shop, but they had no one to cover the suburbs so they picked me up as a freelancer—pretty sure I was the first. The Tribune and Asssociated Press assignments, as well as the Sun assignments gave me a pretty good base for work in news photography, which I loved, and the magazine work from Farm Journal put me well on my way to freelancing as an occupation.
Great thing about the Tribune was that they were always being called by newspapers and magazines around the country looking for recommendations on local freelancers, and they usually sent them to me. Got to work for everyone from the Baltimore Sun to the Miami Herald.
Before leaving the agency had also made contact with the Texas Highways & Tourist Literature people, who used the same printing company as we had. Made an arrangement with them: they would send me a list of everything in Texas they wanted a photo of, I would take a few weeks, line out a route and make photos. They paid for the use of the ones they wanted, and I used the rest as stock. I would usually camp along the way and was driving a Honda then, so my expenses were low.
Great thing about the Texas photos was that I would usually set up some assignments along the way from some of the magazine clients I had begun picking up, so I would have some immediate income as well as longer term pay from the stock photos. My Dad loved to travel, so he went with me on those trips—wearing his bibb overalls and work shoes, he would usually keep my photo subjects occupied with farming stories while I took photos. Made it easy to get unposed and meaningful images that I got a lot of use out of.
Only downside to the Texas trips was that we were using a car without air conditioning and camping in the hottest part of the summer. One trip the average temperatures stayed above 100F most of the time, cooling down to the 90’s only at night. Also had a few run-ins with ants. Other than that, got to know a lot of Texas, with deep dives into local history combined with the opportunity to spend precious time with my Dad.
One day I was sitting in the office of the Bolingbrook Sun drinking coffee when I was introduced to a new reporter, Valerie, who had returned to writing after a hiatus. We did some assignments together. She was going through a divorce. We fell in love, and have been together since. It added THE dimension to my life as well as my work.
Valerie had had a lot of reporting experience, and soon took over as managing editor when the previous ME, Frank Gist, had fallen ill. She was and continues to be the toughest editor, photo director, and critic I have ever faced. We began working together on other projects as well as the newspaper assignments, and our marriage simply formalized a partnership we have cultivated to this day.
With our family growing, I began concentrating on the more lucrative commercial photo assignments that required more attention, more equipment, and a more technical skill than the editorial work I’ve always enjoyed. Lighting was always my strong suit, and especially when the large-format transparency film in difficult lighting situations. The many years of location shooting had required a lot of skill-building, and that came play big-time when doing photo shoots across the country with set budgets and no provision for “redo.”
I’ve often said the reason I’ve always insisted on “tight”, precision shooting, is that for most of my photographic life Photoshop did not exist. “Fixes” were simply not available, and to shoot a large, expensive piece of film that had very little exposure latitude simply required that every shot be done perfectly. Large-format location photography became my forte, and I could drag my view camera to the top of a water tower if necessary, or assemble a studio in a conference room or in the middle of a factory floor when needed.
I did a lot of catalog work on-location, shooting everything from artificial hips to prison locks, burial vaults to golf clubs, tool castings to clay statues being cast into bronze. Since I was nearly always shooting transparency film, color balance was critical and my “go-to” setup always included a lot of powerful strobes in soft boxes, umbrellas, pan heads, and go-bos. Occasionally I could balance with filters, but all of the light and lighting had to be in harmony before the work could begin.
Architecture had become a significant specialty for me. One of my images of the 333 Wacker Drive building in Chicago had made it to the cover of a special edition of Chicago magazine, and a couple night shots of the building for another client was used on the covers of several business magazines.
An art director at an ad agency in Glen Ellyn had seen some of my architectural work and asked to see a portfolio. She told me one of their major clients, a high-end real estate broker, had a property on the North Shore that was sweeping and historic, but had some problems like peeling paint and other signs of its age.
I had a look at the property and then told her I thought I could fix it. Photographed it in late twilight, dramatic sky, with all the lights on, which gave it a cozy feeling of warmth in a dramatic evening light. Think I was using Velvia 4×5 film, which renders those scenes wonderfully, and nobody even noticed the paint or wear.
The image worked so well they decided to hire me to do all their upscale listings, all in the same manner. My standard charge was for a half-day for the exteriors with unlimited exclusive use for the images. Usually I had a few days advance notice, which allowed me enough time to scout the location and time the shoots with the weather.
Also did interior shots of some of the more spectacular listings, which always required a full day. Day rates were common then for photography, and were especially useful for bidding jobs. It would usually put the client at ease after I had spent the first two hours of the shoot assembling and placing equipment, lighting, props, etc—had it been priced by the hour they would have been wringing their hands after the first hour. I always assured them that however long it took to do the shoot correctly, the price would not change. I always stood by my quotes, and only added to the fees if the shoot parameters themselves were expanded.
Commercial photography, in my experience, lives and dies with the art director. Takes a lot of networking to get to the right art director, and once you’ve established a relationship the jobs can be steady. In my experience, three years is about the average employment span for an art director, and then they leave and another is hired and you have to start over. Usually the new art director brings their own preferred venders, and you have to wait for one of them to make a mistake before you have another opportunity.
Aurora University as well as Joliet Junior College were good examples. I did work for each of them for over 20 years. I lost JJC when a new administration came in, and my contacts were part of the old that got replaced. Aurora University was great until their marketing director retired, and the new one wouldn’t even take my phone calls.
In my career, I’ve had companies I was fortunate enough to survive a number of art director changes, and I’ve also had art directors that took me with them through several job changes in companies or agencies. For me it usually averaged out.
One of the highlights of my career was shooting for Amoco at their research center in Naperville. They had three excellent photographers on staff and about a dozen support people, and brought me in for some annual report photos when they had become overwhelmed. Got to work with their photographers on some assignments, but we were always able to compare notes at the end of each shoot. Learned a lot from them, learned a lot from the projects I was working on as well. Assignments were consistent for nearly two years, but then ended when BP bought Amoco and slowly disassembled the center.
A major downside to being a freelance commercial photographer is that when the economy dips, photo projects and new advertising budgets are usually the first to be cut. In those times its usually an advantage to have another occupation you can use as a “fallback.” My fallback was truck driving.
In 1992 when the economy nosedived, I bought a tractor-trailer and hauled steel a couple years until the creative industries recovered. I was able to park the truck long enough on several occasions while I completed a catalog shoot or other project, and then put it back on the road. It helped me maintain my place in the photo industry while still managing to pay the bills. I got rid of the truck as soon as I could make a living again with my cameras.
For me versatility has been a really good survival tactic. In the late ‘90’s I started doing some freelancing for the Copley newspaper chain, specifically for some editors in the business section. They already had good photo-journalists, but they wanted a different style for some of the businesses they featured, and I could do that for them. My name got passed around some, ended up on the desk of an editor who had real estate as part of his coverage.
We did a few real estate projects, and they evolved into the Sunday Real Estate Showcase, a full page section that featured one house, exteriors and interiors, noting the highpoints and represented by one of the advertising realtors. It was a weekly assignment for me, introduced me to a lot of realtors, and was one of the most popular sections of the Sunday editions. It was mine exclusively until 2010.
I became active in the Yorkville Chamber of Commerce in the late ‘90’s. Most of my clients were from downtown Chicago or other major cities across the country, and I wanted to be more involved with my community with my work.
A company published magazines for a number of communities across the country, including the Yorkville Chamber’s magazine. Their formula was to send an ad rep in and sell a lot of ads, then they would send a photographer for a day, and then assemble the magazine with those images and fill the rest with stock photos. It came to an end when the magazine came out featuring the band and football teams wearing blue uniforms, when the school colors were red and white and blue uniforms had never been a part.
I had by that time spent half my life photographing for magazines, and Valerie had done writing, layout, and design even longer for a range of publications. I proposed to the chamber that we do a magazine for them, and since we had lived in the community for many years and our kids had attended the schools, we could assure them that mistake would not be made again. They accepted, and formed a publishing company, and set to work.
Our first community guide was well-received, and we were even able to make some money from it as well. It wasn’t long until other communities saw our magazines, and asked if we could do magazines for them as well. We expanded carefully, not wanting to over-extend our resources. We also did some one-time publications.
Major hurdle to making a successful magazine is building the advertising base. Our magazines were nearly all ad-supported, and we even paid our sponsors a percentage of the ad revenue. First magazine is rarely profitable, but repeat issues bring long-term support. We were moving in that direction, with the Yorkville Community Guide being our flagship publication. We also did community maps that became quite popular.
The financial meltdown of 2008-10 hit us particularly hard. Advertisers were caught in a bind, which meant we couldn’t pay our bills either. In addition Valerie, who was also Mayor at the time, had to go through chemo and radiation, so had to curtail what she was able to do. Trucking was always a good fall-back for me, so I took a job delivering trucks and other oversize equipment across the country.
Vallerie continued to publish the Yorkville Community Guide, with me doing the photos when I was in town. Currently we have produced 18 of the annual guides, and we are hoping to continue.
In my past experiences I could drive a truck for two or three years and then go back to the photography, but the financial crisis was different. Ten years of constant travel to all of the 48 states was required before I could finally get back to photography. A lot of things changed in the industry over that period, with print taking secondary positions, and the I-Phone replacing a lot of cameras and lighting equipment.