06/10/13: gordon munro studio

I doubt I’d be here right now if it wasn’t for Gordon Munro. In early 1979 I was going through a difficult transition period in my career. I had moved to New York City in August, 1976, planning on living the life of an artist. I quickly discovered the fallacy of that idea when I realized how much it cost to live in this city. After a year and a half of classes and assisting photographers, I opened my own fashion studio. To save money I built the studio using construction scraps found in dumpsters on the street. It was an exciting time. I was dating a six foot tall model, dancing until dawn at Studio 54 a couple nights each week, and shooting fashion in the streets of New York. It was crazy and wonderful. But the jobs I got were boring and weren’t paying the rent on an apartment and studio. It seemed silly to struggle, only to take uninspired photographs for money. It wasn’t why I moved to New York. So after a year I reluctantly gave up the studio. It was a depressing time and thank goodness I had supportive friends.

gordon and sam. april 2, 1980

After leaving the studio behind, I did some freelance assisting and darkroom printing for fashion photographers while I worked on my art and portrait portfolios. I began to learn I was not great as an assistant. I already knew too much and the photographers I worked for never wanted to hear my ideas. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut if I saw something was wrong. I’ve never been good at ass kissing and that’s what they wanted. Fortunately I was a great black and white printer and there weren’t many around. In the darkroom I was left to myself and didn’t have to work on set where I could get in trouble. I began to promote myself more as a printer than as an assistant.

In the old days, the 1970′s, it was easy to get an appointment with a photographer to show your portfolio looking for assistant work. I had seen Gordon Munro’s color slide film hanging up in the lab I used for my own color work and was impressed by how perfect the lighting was. Gordon could shoot a white dress on a white background, keeping all of the detail in the dress and separating it from the background. It’s not easy. I didn’t know anyone else who did it that well. The lab owner said no one’s film looked as good as Gordon’s.

guy lebaube photographed in gordon's studio. april 1, 1981

I called Gordon’s studio and set up an appointment with the studio manager to show my work. This was late 1979 and as it turned out, Gordon shot many of his jobs in black and white and was in need of a freelance printer. Gordon’s work for Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Interview, and many other clients were all black and white shoots. There were endless ads in newspapers in those days and Gordon worked a lot.

Soon the studio began to hire me every day. I had never worked for a photographer like Gordon before. He had the best clients and worked with all of the top models but he had no attitude. Gordon was a true gentleman. He trusted my judgement allowing me to tweak the processing of his film to get the best results. No other photographer had listened to me before. Their egos always go in the way. Gordon seemed more like a nice uncle than my boss.

lord snowdon (tony armstrong jones) photographed in gordon's studio. february 21, 1982

As the months went on, I settled in to the studio and would often work on my own prints late in the evening after the studio had closed. Gordon was nice enough to trust me in his space at any time. I can’t remember exactly how my portrait of Gordon with Sam came about but I believe one evening, Wednesday, April 2nd, 1980 to be exact, I was setting myself up to spend the evening printing in the darkroom when Gordon came back to the studio to pick up something he must have forgotten. I only shot five frames of Gordon and Sam which never would have happened if we had set up a shoot. I’m a maniac when it comes to taking pictures and never shoot less than several rolls of film during a portrait. Whatever the situation, I’m guessing the lights and background were already set up for the next day’s shoot and I asked Gordon to sit for a quick portrait.

sarah jean and carol lynn childers. one of my first portraits at gordon's studio. september, 1980

I love what I got of Gordon and his wonderful Golden Retriever, Sam. It was at a time in my life when I was finally settling into life as a New Yorker with a lot of great friends and finding my way as an artistic portrait photographer. I began photographing friends and co-workers in the studio on nights and weekends. Life was good!

But wait! The story doesn’t end there. At the time, Gordon was one of the photographers who shot for Danskin. That’s back in the days when Danskin hired top fashion photographers for their “Danskins are not just for dancing” campaign.” It was a great series of ads. Too bad no one in dance does anything like that now. Late in 1981, Gordon was hired to shoot Danskin’s catalog, in black and white. I’ll never forget the first day the dancers walked into the studio. They were like goddesses, floating into the room. I had never seen models like that before. Thinking back I believe they were from New York City Ballet but I really have no idea. All I know is that moment in time changed me forever. I snuck out of the darkroom whenever I had the chance to watch the Danskin shoot. I needed to photograph models like this.

nan freedman. the first dancer i photographed at gordon's studio and the person who got my dance career started. march 26, 1981

Fortunately for me, over 30 years later that has been my life. My dance photography career began on that day in Gordon’s studio. How I deal with my business and even my magazine, “VISION”… I doubt anything would have been the same let alone happened at all if I hadn’t spent those five special years working in his studio. Of course there’s so much more to the story but that’s for future essays.

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