I got to be a photographer through a combination of luck and genetics. My dad was an avid amateur photographer. He had a dark room in our house, and a pretty good collection of cameras. Neither of which interested me. Actually, it was a sore point between us. Dad was always taking pictures; I hated to have my picture taken.
Then in high school, a chum hooked with up with a weekend job as a copy boy at the old Chicago ’s American. My dad started asking if I’d met any of the photographers and other such questions. So I started hanging out in the photo department, seeking answers to my father’s inquires. Most of the photogs were more than willing to share their knowledge.
Finally, I asked my dad for a camera to use, and to show me how to use that mysterious little box. My first efforts were a disaster. Everything was out of focus, and the exposures didn’t come close to the zone system. But for a school project, I decided to demonstrate how photographic emulsions worked. I got top grades; even better, I held everyone’s attention. It was like having my own magic show. I was hooked.
My mother wasn’t too happy at this turn of events. It seemed to her that I always took her picture when her hair was up in curlers. I was dating a young lady who was the neighborhood baby sitter. I’d bring my camera and shoot the kids, promising the parents a print, should anything come out. This developed not just my photographic skills but my patience, to boot.
Pretty soon, I was shooting anything that moved. At the paper, I loved going down to the press room to fetch editions hot off the press for the editors. First thing I would do is flip to the back page. It was then a “Picture Page,” and I’d marvel at the photos. Besides my dad, a picture editor named Bob Nelson worked with me on my camera skills. He’d make time to critique my proof sheets. Several staff photogs began trusting me to develop their film.
On an outing to the park with some friends and their children, one of the kids fell asleep in a swing. I snapped away, processed the film and showed the proof sheet to Mr. Nelson. He circled one image and said to make him an 11 by 14 inch print. When I went to retrieve the papers the next morning, my picture was on the Picture Page. It took up the entire page. I was euphoric.
In college, I went full-time at the paper, working the midnight shift and going to classes during the day. From time to time, I got to go on assignments with staff shooters. Bitten by the news bug, I got a police and fire monitor for my car. I “cruised,” as newspaper photogs called it then, hoping the radios would get me to the right place for a spot-news shot. There were lots of opportunities, what with urban riots and the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was starting to be at the right spot at the right time, and the newspaper was running a picture of mine, just about every day.
During the Convention, the city editor couldn’t get a hold of the night photographer on duty. Everyone in the newsroom was yelling that the Hippies were mounting a protest march that blocked the Michigan Avenue bridge. “Get your camera and go,” someone barked at me.
The next morning, I had three photographs on page 1.
The next week, I was told to come into the paper during the day and report to The Editor. Sweating more than a little, I figured I was going to be fired. I asked several colleagues what was up, and they played dumb, a goofy little smile on their faces. It didn’t make sense. Why would the editor, whom I’d never met, call in a mere copy boy, just to fire him?
He shook my hand, introduced himself and got to the point. “Son, you’ve been doing a fine job,” the editor said. “I see that last week you had more photos in the paper than my entire staff. How would you like to join us—as a photographer?”
I was stunned, speechless. I remember catching my breath and mumbling something about being in school, though deeply appreciating the offer.
“Take your time and think it over,” he replied. “You can always finish school but you may never have an opportunity like this.” I couldn’t wait to get home to share the news with my parents, though I thought their advice would be to finish college.
Instead, my dad broke out in a big smile, and said virtually the same as the editor had: “Whether it works out or not you may never get an opportunity like this again. You can always finish school,” dad said. “If you like photography, go for it.”