A Photograph Is a Photograph Is a...
I've only recently gotten into photography. It's been 5 years now since I bought my first-ever camera.
When I moved to New York City, I got a job as a freelancer at Time-Life--they had just moved into the Time & Life Building in Rockefeller Center on 6th Avenue. Down on the ground floor of that building was a Mexican restaurant called Cinco de Mayo. Since starting work at T-L I had begun to frequent this restuarant on a daily afternoon basis, getting off my work at 4:30, so always getting there ahead of the five o'clock regulars who by 5:45 had crammed the joint, by which time I'd be up and out of there and home before my high-paid executive wife came tumbling in around 6:30 expecting me to be at her beck and call when she did so. My wife at the time was an executive with an executive search firm--looking for jobs for the best big shots in the country--she was the first woman on the board of directors of this firm--why, my wife had breakfast every morning at the Yale Club--this company's chairman was a proud Yaley and believed the Yale Club was sacred ground and he had had his company executive breakfasts there for a decade. My wife was the first woman ever allowed at this sacred breakfast--the chairman remembered Yale when it was an all-white Christian boys school--no women--and no Jews then either--ah those good old days of post-colonialism. But anyway, my wife was movin' on up but I was still a struggling unpaid writer (I did make $800 one year before NYC off some scurrilous short stories I'd written while drunk in Mexico City) and flim-flamming myself into believing I would one day hit a big-time novel and move on out into that world of big advances and potential big-buck royalties and the adventures these cash cows make possible for successful writers, and I dreamed of living like Hemingway, Joyce, Henry Miller, Orwell, and Ez in Paris, on my own, in my own atelier, and hanging out with George Plimpton and his Paris Review types and whatever existentialists I could engage in lively conversation or friendship--but, as happened with most of my fantastic desires, I never achieved such fame and the freedom that went with it. The best I could do was writing advertising--and, oh brother, I became good at that; I became a brainstormin' fool and I would sit in these Time-Life offices with writers who were Yaleys mostly and I would outshine their boring asses because I had flim-flam running naturally through my bald-prairie blood--we'd start off with punning sessions--like the head writer would say, "Golf," and then another writer would say, "Hey, that tees me off," then another might say, "Hey, is that the fair...way to do this?" and I might say, "Hey, guys, what the hell would Bogey do in this kind of below-par situation?"
So my wife made the big bucks and had the credit cards and bought me clothes at Bloomingdale's--on one trip she bought me a camel hair topcoat and a beautiful handmade tweed sport coat from The Hebrides and a pair of handmade-in-Greece shoes; boy howdy was I stylish and coolish and liquid with my language and slinging the charm like a good waitress slinging hash, and one night I sauntered into Cinco de Mayo and sitting at the bar was one of the most gorgeous woman creatures I'd ever laid me lascivious eyes on AND there's an empty seat by her, which I promptly flopped my ass down in and ordered a Heineken "and whatever the lady's drinking, too," I added with a jaunty toss of my tossled hair and a big new twenty-dollar-bill out on the bar, planning my next move, hitting on this fine chick, which I did, and I got acquainted really fast, and as the night wore on we got more and more acquainted to the point I lost track of time and my executive wife and her expectations of finding me in a servitudinal position as she tumbled in the door and ended up losing my way home via way of this beautiful "new friend's" place--way up on West 81st--in fact, I didn't make it home that night at all--calling my wife at 9:30 to tell her I was staying with my brainstorming team in a Mid-town hotel...such a bunch of bullshit, but my wife was an executive and used to such BS in the corporate world and I thought I got away with it. The next afternoon once again I was back in Cinco de Mayo meeting my new baby again with hopes of pulling an all-nighter writing session again...instead, I had sat there about 15 minutes waiting for her when a dude walks up to me and says, "Hey, man, are you the Wolf Man?" "Tis I." "Well, your baby said to tell you she couldn't make it tonight, blah, blah, blah...." "And who the hell are you?" I asked. "I work at Sports Illustrated with her and live in her apartment building, too; I saw you guys last night but you don't remember." "I was sloshed and in love." "Yeah, she's quit a woman isn't she?" "Damn right she is." "Yeah I've known her for..." And we started talking and we hit it off on all cylinders. We were a matched pair we found out the more we talked. Then at one point he told me he was a photographer, and a serious photographer who had hopes of becoming a Sports Illustrated staff photographer, though right now he was in charge of their vast photograph archives, but, he said, he was sure they were gonna try him at at the Preakness horse race later that spring. He studied with James VanDerZee for a while in Harlem (VanDerZee was still alive at this time, though he was in his 90s) and then further with another great Harlem photographer, Austin Hansen, on 135th Street. Then while at Time Inc., he'd met and worked with Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, the latter becoming one of my friend's very good friends, and who I visited with my friend in his brownstone in Bed-Stuy one year--I still have a book of Langston Hughes poems and Roy's photographs signed by Roy--I treasure it because I have a photographic image of his signing my book that day when all of us were very much and happily alive. Suddenly my new friend hoisted up his briefcase, opened it, and took out some
8 x 10 photo prints and handed them to me. "I just had these developed...." I looked at them. They were pictures of my baby, my new baby, and these pictures were of my new baby quite naked, quite spread out on some lonesome beach somewhere, and she was golden tan naked and blended so specially in with the sand and the different angles of the sun and the clouds on her and there were three of her laying back on a dune in a pose that hoisted her perfect bullet-like breasts up pointing them straight up into a cloud-speckled afternoon sky, which the camera led your eyes past her church steeple nipples right into that fluttering blue . "I took those out at Jones Beach earlier this year." Another photo showed my new baby on her hands and knees, breasts swinging down, her rear-end high up in the air--God what a piece of ass photograph--was my new baby built--whewwww.
"So what do you think of those?" he asked. "Oh, man, what a woman!" "No, man, I mean what do you think of my photographs!" "They're great, man, but then I know nothing about photography, don't own a camera, though my nephew who lived with me for a while was a photographer--he studied here with Gary Wintergrad. I went up to class with him one night and met Wintergrad. I felt weird around so weird a dude, though he and my nephew were weird in the same vein and argued constantly, my nephew calling him a 'Queer phony!' and Wintergrad calling him a 'White-trash fag with a buffalo chip on his shoulder.'" "Yeah, Wintergrad and those guys, they are weird, but they get big bucks for that shit. Diane Arbus is one of that crowd. Me, I'm more into perspective than they are--they're snapshooters--I design my own scenes out of reality."
I started loving that kind of talk and my new friend could really talk photography. And he was a great teacher. We would be walking down the street and he'd stop me and say, "Look at the Look Building, man, and what do you see?" "I see the Look Building, why?" "See, I don't just see the building but I see all the different photographic perspectives of that building as a scene, as a scene with hundreds of images, like the way the light and that reflection of St. Patrick's Cathedral are falling across those casement windows and breaking up into fly-like scenes, like a blast of moving images frozen--see the clouds moving in those windows?" Then I saw what he meant. After that I got to where I could kind'a see image like he did--angles, I got to noticing angles, and salient designs and shit but he saw them as he saw them not with a naked eye like me but with a camera eye and him in control of it through his various lenses and drives and f-stop stuff--and he had two prize cameras, a Nikon and a Hassleblad, and strobe lights, and background paper, all the shit, tripods, expensive stuff, even darkroom equipment, though since he worked for Sports Illustrated he used his friends down in their developing lab to develop his stuff--to make his contact sheets and then finish the ones he picked off the sheets--he even had a light table at home and one in his office and he was always looking at contact sheets under his little magnifying glass--circling some, X-ing out others. For twenty years I hung with this dude and went on many a shoot with him and then SI sent him to the Preakness and he got the finish-line shot--and it was a close race--and they used his photo in the next issue--and he was happy but they screwed him--when he looked under the photo for his credit there was another photographer's name there. Holy shit! He hit the damn fan--he was screwed and he went to his boss and the boss trick-danced all around him, said they were sorry, they'd run a retraction--Jesus, sorry, sorry, but he knew they were jiving him. You see he knew white bullshit; he'd grown up with it; he was from the Lower East Side projects, down on Cherry Street, back after WWII and those streets were tough down there--mixed, all kinds of wild folks, Latinos, blacks, Chinese, Jews, and my pal was born on those mean streets a thinking man, a poet in that jungle, and he didn't let that wall him in and he'd fought, scrapped, and clawed his way out from those projects to City College and their new black studies program that included a photography course and that's where his love of photography took hold of his life--and that's when he wandered into Austin Hansen's studio one day and got to talking to the master who took a liking to the guy and one thing led to another and next thing my friend dropped out of CCNY and devoted himself to learning photography at the feet of Mr. Hansen. Then he went up to Time-Life, applied for a job under the new rulings of the Civil Rights Act that said a large company like Time Inc. had to start hiring blacks--though old Henry Luce, the master of the Time Inc. plantation, was a rabid racist, he gave appearances of complying with the Civil Rights Act except all the white execs knew just how to handle any upstart, uppity, Neee-grows who thought they were going to use Time Inc. to get to an equality with white people--they knew how to keep a Neee-grow in his or her place--and my friend was hopeful when they first hired him as the archive manager and promised him they would one day use him as a staff photographer but after being there year after year and being passed over and then after he kept begging them for an assignment and they gave him one and used his photo but put the wrong photographer's credit line on it he finally figured out it was all bullshit and he became so introverted and bottled up all his hostility down in his gut and he chained smoked Kools, the downfall of many a great man or woman, and he became a stone alcoholic--a poet forced into the corporate ploughing fields by Mr. Charley--forced into the fields to do the shit work while the white man got credit for any achievement he was going to make. He was put in his place and he accepted that place because of the good pay and income and the fact he then got married and had a beautiful daughter and things were going fine until one day his doctor told him he had esophageal cancer and it had already spread to his lymphnodes and blah, blah, shit-talk, blah...but pep up, kid, they told him, he was only 39 years old, there's a 95% chance we'll get it and you'll recover and be back at work in six months! Yahoo! Faith in doctors. Holy shit. At Sloane-Kettering Hospital my friend got an Indian surgeon--a cancer specialist with degrees galore and rave reviews--"Wow," I said, "That fuckin' doctor of yours, did you see how clean, well-shaven, and perfect that fucker looked?--starched uniform--great shirt and tie--hair coiffed to the max--lucky you!" "Lucky me, hell. The joke around here is those Indian doctors are great diagnosticians but butchers when it comes to surgery." And that's just what happened. My friend got butchered--they cut out his lymphnodes first and left him unable to raise his arms higher than his midsection; then they pulled all his teeth and cut out half his lower jaw, bone and all; then they wired his mouth shut and did a tracheotomy on him and he breathed through a tube after that and was fed intravenously from then on--then one day Doctor Butcher came in and told him the Big C was headin' toward his brain, har-rumph, er-ah, blabber, blabber--well, anyway, they hadn't stopped it, so now they wanted to do a little brain surgery on him--or at least a heavy chemo session--oh, hell, it's gonna be holy hell radiation or you can give up, go home, and die, we don't give a shit--we'll keep you alive 'till you money runs out--then we'll dump you in Mount Calvary Hospital overthere in a far corner of the Bronx and let the little nuns bullshit you peacefully until one day you kick the bucket. And that's exactly what happened.
After my pal died three years after he was diagnosed with cancer, one day I got a package in the mail. It was from my friend--he'd had it sent to me on his death by his wife. It was all those photos he'd first shown me that first day we met--those photos of that beautiful woman naked and startlingly natural and blending in naturally with those Long Island sand dunes--Wow, and underneath them all was an 8 x 10 glossy of me--playing the piano--and I had totally forgotten he had been at a recording session I'd done back in the early 80s--with a massive hangover and my Puerto Rican girlfriend at the time--oh what a magnificent creature she was--but hell my friend's portrait of me made me look so fucking serious and involved--though in actuality my head was pounding and I was having hell remembering the changes.... I have that photo hanging on my wall to this day--in remembrance of my pal.
Then one day I was tooling around eBay and at work I had worked with a dude who used a digital camera and one day he told me all about digital cameras, blah, blah, and so, while tooling around on eBay, I looked at digital cameras. I mean I got serious about them, learned what all their technical jargon meant and the difference in models and stuff and I decided on a Toshiba 4.0--a silver beauty--and damn, I found one on eBay for $400--they retailed for over $600--so, hell, I was loaded moneywise at the time, so I bought it.
I knew "real" photographers hated digital cameras. "Point and shoot" cameras they called them--you know, everything's automatic, focusing, shit like that--oh, you can use them manually, too, but why?--why not let the computer in them do all that work for you? That was my attitude.
I'm a shy person. Especially on the streets of New York City with a camera--I mean, you bump into a photographer on the sidewalks of NYC every five feet or so--all of them taking the same "pictures" over and over again. No perspective at all to their work--yep, they were just pointing the camera and hitting the activator and then boom off went the flash and then there you were, a photograph of whatever, so what. Now, too, the popularity of the cell phone camera has put cell phone photographers now at intervals between the digital camera shooters who are every five feet, so every day in NYC, you are surrounded by photographers and photography, all the signs and shit are now graphically done, digital art, everything going digital in 2009 when we'll all be forced by the powers that be to go digital or go to hell. Analog is officially dead. It's a Federal law--whooooooo.
So being too shy to compete on the streets with my new camera, I started just taking it out and just shooting around my room, different perspectives, remembering what I'd learned from my friend. One day I looked out one of my windows, it faces south down Manhattan Island and also southwest out over the Hudson and over Jersey toward Newark, and I saw a sky that was bleeding red-orange beams of celestial blood all over a heavy black cloud background--so I took my camera, held it out that window, clicked it, and brought it back in and looked at what I taken. It was shocking. I downloaded the shot onto my computer. Holy shit. It was awesome--sort of like the photograph I used in the lead to this post, a much later photograph but of the same shot, the shot I've come to make my speciality--I call it "multiple images out of one window of opportunity." This window and what it looks out on has become my photography palette--and I have shot now literally hundreds of images out this window for over 5 years. I am using this camera to search that same vista day after day attempting to come up with a different perspective of the same image. The irony is, I've caught on; I know now precisely what went on in my old pal's perspective mind--how to think ahead of the camera you use as a tool--you master the camera and don't let it master you--but that's the same principle to use in trying any accomplishment, isn't it?
for The Daily Growler
Inspired by wood s lot Putting His Photography on His Site, The Daily Growler Is Proud to Offer You the Following Photographs Taken by tgw Over the Last 5 Years
"Photography is in the eye of the camera's holder" tgw