I started taking pictures because my parents stopped. I guess when the kids grow up parents lose interest. I began shooting my family and friends, carrying my camera to all the events and parties. In high school I got a bit more serious and moved from box cameras and instamatics to 35mm cameras with interchangeable lenses. My girlfriend became my first muse and since she was in theater I photographed the school’s plays and musicals. These were my first published photographs, one appearing on the cover of the Skokie News!
During my junior year, my friend Janet Williams introduced me to the school’s photography teacher. I think I learned more from her in the first 5 minutes than I had reading every photography book in the town’s library.
I took Joanne Rijmes’ photography class the next year and began to look through the viewfinder instead of just snapping pictures. She was the first person who taught me to see and consider composition. I wish I was open as a person at that time. Joanne invited me to join her group of artists but I only went once. Everyone was so intense; very different from my group of “normal” friends. I wasn’t ready.
The first thing I did when I started college was head over to the newspaper and sign up as one of their photographers. I was kind of shocked they actually hired me. It was my first paid job. I think I got $5 for each photo they printed. Next door to the newsroom were the offices of Northwestern’s yearbook, The Syllabus. The staff all seemed like a bunch of weird dark artist types. A bit too crazy for me.
But we all change and by sophomore year I had grown emotionally and was ready to give the yearbook a try. These guys all seemed like the people who scared me in high school. I still didn’t understand them but their photography was beautiful and I needed to be a part of what they were doing.
One photograph in particular will always stick in my mind. Charlie Seton had taken a picture at his sister’s wedding and a large print was in one of the yearbook’s offices. The picture showed Charlie’s sister in her wedding gown along with her new husband just after buying ice cream from the Good Humor man. What was so wonderful about the photo was how it captured the pure emotion of the moment while presenting an image of perfect design and tone. I wanted to learn how to take pictures just like that.
The yearbook gave me the chance. They gave me free film, paper, and a 24 hour darkroom. I sometimes wonder if I worked harder on the yearbook then I did on my biology and anthropology degrees? Taking pictures was certainly more fun. In my junior year I became the photo editor of the yearbook which would be published during my senior year.
As the college years flew by I realized med school and the life of a doctor wasn’t for me. Sorry doctors, but I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life with the people in the pre med program. I preferred the warm and fuzzy feeling of the anthropology department. I spent a summer at the Koster Site, Northwestern’s dig in southern Illinois, and took pictures which soon appeared in the archeological journals. Near the end of senior year I discussed my graduate school future with my professor and she said I would be accepted into Northwestern’s PhD program.
I thought that was my plan. But at the end of senior year, the editor of the yearbook came up to me and said he was going to finish his education as a film student at New York University. Jon said I should move to New York City and become a photographer. You know those moments where lightning strikes. This was one of those times. I figured I would go to NY and study photography for two years. Then I could go back to Northwestern and get my PhD in bio-archeology but with my new photography knowledge. I would be much more valuable to the department because I could take high quality pictures of the digs and specimens.
I worked all that summer selling Indian jewelry (probably fake), making a fortune. At the same time I worked as a teaching assistant for the photojournalism department at Northwestern. I thought the money I saved would last me at least a year in NY and by then I imagined I’d be earning a little money on the side with my pictures.
On August, 21, 1976 I packed all my belongings into a U-Haul truck and headed off alone to New York City. I had signed up for classes at the School of Visual Arts but other than that I had nothing. No work. No friends (beside Jon the editor who was living in New Jersey). No apartment. I arrived on the 22nd and stayed at a Holiday Inn overlooking the George Washington Bridge from the Jersey side.