Photography & Me

Photography & Me 2011 (Incomplete)


Photography is my earliest love. I came into this world with that purpose. It got sidetracked, I got distracted, but it was always there. This photo below… I remember this very clearly. I am about three or four. For months I’ve been trying to get my hands on my dad’s Minolta SR-T 101 35mm camera.

One day, late in the fall, he comes home with this junk store, Lomo Diana F+ (a legendary plastic camera that has enjoyed a resurgence in the past five years). I’m thrilled and I call out “twi-pod!”. He sets it up, I hold my camera on the mount, and click away. No film. Film is expensive and my parents are, as the state of my hair might suggest, living outside the “social construct of materialism”.

We are somewhat “nomadic” and in fact, after the 1940 Dodge truck, and my parents’ Raleigh bicycles, the Minolta SR-T 101 is the most valuable family possession. Time moves on and so do my mother and I. She gets a job at a hippy commune cum boarding school in Oregon and my dad remains in California. In the second photo below, you can see the split coming….

In Oregon I’m wild and crazy, living in the woods 14 hours a day. When I’m about seven or eight that’s cut back to six hours and the realities of classrooms start to hit. I don’t care for math and science, but I’m, possessed of a preternatural understanding of government and politics. I have a ready knowledge of history and US politics from the 30’s into the early 60’s and can name world leaders, their country of origin, and their years in office or the period of their reign when shown their photograph. I do impressions of some too. I love encyclopedia, LIFE magazine, National Geographic. Every summer I go to California to stay with my dad, and at 13 I start working. The money I earn mowing lawns or crawling in attics to run electrical wire for burglar alarms (my dad’s business), buys color Kodak film and I’m shooting with the old Minolta and eventually I piece together a Polo wardrobe. Politics….

By about 14 I have a roommate in the school dorms and he’s a photographer. I shoot photos for fun trying to understand what makes an image that gets into LIFE or National Geographic, but he’s really into the art of it. His name is Chris. I’m still deep into government and politics and I want to be a politician…. It shows in the photo below. That’s me on the right, and on the left my roommate Chris. He goes on to earn a degree in photography from The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. 

For three years I’m shooting black and white for the school yearbook and spending a lot of time in the darkroom - mostly rolling my own film, developing it, but also learning a fair bit about girls and anatomy. There was a blond girl from Missouri, “J. M.”. Said her dad would write me a letter of recommendation to law school. I should have taken her up on that and other things she was offering. My roommate Chris teaches me how to use the enlarger and now I’m also printing photos from my negatives… and I continue study female anatomy. 

It’s good to be on Yearbook: all the film you can shoot and print, and access to the darkroom.

I graduate still thinking about politics and I spend two years interning at a lobbyist office in Sacramento for what was the most powerful lobby in California, The Association of California Insurance Companies. Boring stuff, but in the early 90s the insurance industry is in the crosshairs of California politicians. 

Day to day I deliver press releases, gather copies of  bills at the Capital, read eight news papers and clip any stories on the insurance industry and learn the ins and outs of government, business, and politics. So many “outs” in politics. It’s a dirty trade. It predates prostitution and is lower on the evolutionary totem. 

Years later my wife has a political consultancy as a client. The stories of debauchery, lecherous behavior, bag men, back room deals are true. If you can imagine it, it’s happened. Power and ideals suffer in the hands of many politicians and their consultants. Party affiliation doesn’t matter. For example, story of an early morning, brown-bag delivery to a Central Valley sheriff to spring one of the state’s most powerful consultants, his impounded Porsche, and to scrub the books of a DUI…. Did it happen? You might think that, but  I couldn’t possibly comment. (The original BBC version is superior)

Through various run-ins and brushes with political staffers and other interns, I soon learn that I lack the requisite ratio of reptilian to human blood to successfully survive in the chambers of government, or in a law office - something I see as another option. My mentor, Tom Coneely, the head of the lobby group, offers to write a letter of recommendation to law school. It doesn’t phase me and I thank him, but no. I kick around in and out of college for a couple years. Mostly out.

Still, I’m shooting photos, along with video - another story with a similar time line. I decide to try college in New York City, so I move there with my high school girlfriend. Political culture shock - I’m a strange mix of early 60’s ideologies, some conservative, a fair amount of what used to be called liberal, overall a good balance, that remains in me. Easy access toThe Met, MOMA and so on is the best part of my time in New York. After struggling a year in the city and more lost than ever, I decide to take the easy way out and return home to California. Artists still seem to exist only in dreams, in a world beyond the one I think is most important - politics. How wrong I was.

The idea that I can pursue photography as anything more than “just something I love to do” does not exist for me. My world revolves around all things political. I start working for my dad’s construction company to make money. Actually, I’m just too lazy to make a go of life myself. Four years later I’m deep in it and I get my contractors license. In that moment I feel that I’ve achieved something marginally important as one of the youngest contractors in California and that I’ve shut important doors simultaneously. I still have not “made money”, my original intention in doing construction.

I build up my own construction company and buy cameras and continue to shoot. My girlfriend becomes my wife, I continue to build and remodel people’s homes. I’m largely unhappy with it, but I come alive when I’m doing fine wood working or interacting with my clients. I buy an autowinding, autofocus 35mm film camera and I think I’m in Heaven. We travel to Honduras to visit my wife’s expat grandparents who moved there in 1975. I feel like a National Geographic photographer or photojournalist. It’s the 90s and the Contras are camped just 30 miles from where we are staying.

Honduras is like the American west 100 years ago. Most people walk or ride horseback, machetes hang from their belts and some wear pistols. I see my first murder victim and lifeless corpse of a child in Honduras. The first, a black form floating down a river we’re riding up on horseback.  The next day I shoot a photo of the accused murderers, peering out the steel cage door of the tiny blockhouse jail on the town square. The second as I round a high mountain curve driving to the Maya ruins at Copan. A boy’s body lies twisted, his side split open like a struck deer. The mother, convulsing, face buried in hands. A cattle truck parked roadside 100 feet up, it’s cargo mooing. The driver standing near the body. Matter of fact. A mob waiting for a bus - like this mother and child - stare on. Unmoved. Matter of fact. Life unvarnished.

The sun is dipping back of distant mountaintops that backlight vibrant cotton dresses in many hues. A grief-choked mother. A twisted young corpse. A soccer ball came to rest in a ditch. The driver… matter of fact. Remorseless. I reach for my camera. I pause. I skip the shot. It feels predatory. I drop the Toyota into gear and press on toward the Maya ruins at Copan.

To be continued….

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