The coolest kid in the fifth grade at Bayside School was Murphy Singer, who for some unknown reason decided that he wanted to be my friend. Murphy moved around school with a retinue. I am not exaggerating—wherever he went there were eight or ten kids in his wake. He had runners to get him Fritos and an audience for whatever he said. To my surprise, Murphy invited me to his birthday party, so I invited him to mine in return. My birthday is in winter, but that year I had my party on my "half birthday" so we could do things outdoors. My Dad devised a number of games and contests. One of them was that everyone took off their shoes and created a big circle in the yard. Stationed around it, we all took off running around the circle. The game was that as soon as you got touched by the kid in back of you you were out. The last man standing won.
I was a runner when I was a kid and I was the fastest kid in my grade by a comfortable margin. (Only C.B. Harper in the neighborhood could give me a good race. C.B. was quicker, but I was faster in a straight line.) Pretty soon it was just me and Murphy Singer left. Now, Murphy was a winner—he was competitive and had determination. So I toyed with him. I'd almost catch up to him, and he'd run with a will to escape me; then I'd do the opposite and let him almost catch me, but stay just out of his reach. I was going to see if I could wear him down.
But he was game, and did not wear down. After a while the other kids started to get impatient, my father (who could see what I was doing) started to get cross, and I started to get bored of my plan. So I slowed down and let Murphy win. Hey, he was my guest, you know? And he wanted to win so badly. I, on the other hand, didn't care.
My father was furious. I got a stern lecture about how you should always win when you can, and I spent some time in my room as punishment even though it was the day of my party.
I tell this story to explain why I have never shown my work. It's too...competitive. And I'm just not a competitive type of guy. It doesn't appeal. I decided in art school that my photography belonged to me, and that was that.
I had an early experience (well, several, actually, but this is one) that reinforced that view. For a few years after I graduated I did what I called "plain portraits" that were influenced by Mike Disfarmer (obviously another uncompetitive guy—he took his moniker because he detested farming, the local industry). I made simple, 35mm B&W portraits of unsmiling people, dressed casually, standing and facing the camera, sometimes in front of plain backgrounds.
But as I did more and more work for pay, my style morphed to suit the clients. Many people wanted color; many people wanted to be dressed up and well coiffed; many people wanted to choose their own backgrounds. Before I knew it, I was charging a pretty penny for my work, but I was doing medium-format color portraiture of a decidedly more formal cast.
Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Merry Foresta, a curator of photography at one of the Smithsonian Museums. I never knew how she had learned of me or who had recommended me to her (perhaps she had seen an exhibit of my pictures at a friend's frame shop). But she knew of my "plain portraits" and she wanted to see a portfolio of my recent work in that style.
Trouble was, there was no recent work in that style. All I was doing were commercial portraits.
Oops. As my friend, former teacher, and Zander's grandfather Paul Kennedy used to say: "You know what they say: 'Oh well.'" I had to beg off Merry's request.
So anyway, I've really only ever shown my work once, I think. After graduation, I was asked to curate a large photography show at a Park Service gallery in Washington, D.C. I chose six young photographers I knew. The show took up two floors. I included myself. I showed a set of then-new B&W medium-format work that constituted my self-motivated attempt to "loosen up" conceptually.
As the "frontispiece" for the show, I hung in the doorway of a building a color 4x5 shot of my own, of a northwoods lake. It showed a yellow canoe far out on the lake, hit by the rays of the setting sun. A storm had just passed, and the sky and the lake were the same gunmetal-gray color. It was just meant to be decorative; you know, color.
Even as we were hanging the show, I got inquiries about that print. Trouble was, I had printed it in the beautiful color darkrooms at Northern Virginia Community College, where I had been teaching, and I had only made two prints. One I had given away. So the print that was hanging in the show was the only one I had. Many of the prints in the show were for sale, and I guessed I'd continue to get inquiries about that lakescape. So, to forestall any interest in it, I put what I thought was an outrageously high price on it—$650. (Other prints in the show were selling for up to about a third of that—one photographer in the show had his prints priced at $35, if memory serves. The standard price for a "student" or recent graduate's prints back then maxed out at about $350.)
And I sold three of them! Much to my amazement. But even though I was desperately poor at the time, I turned down the money. I didn't want to have to figure out how to go make more prints.
People have this idea that being an art photographer is somehow less work than being a professional. It's not—you're just working for a different clientele. You still have to promote yourself tirelessly, service your customers, schmooze with all the right people, network, and fit your work to the tastes of the market. It's just as competitive as any other kind of professional photography, and requires just as much assertiveness and just as healthy an ego.
[Disclaimer: The information that follows is all entirely from memory, and the research wasn't rock-solid to begin with. So don't take this as historical fact unless you get corroboration. —Mike with Ed.'s hat on]
The camera that I used to shoot the pictures in that show was one of my favorites. Thinking back on it, it was a "retro" camera even when it was brand new. Heinrich Mandermann was a German industrialist who owned a number of photographic companies, including the famous lensmaker Schneider-Kreuznach, Rollei GmbH of Rolleiflex fame, and Exakta. Evidently he had worked in the Pentacon factory in Dreden as a young man, and had a nostalgic fondness for the ancient Pentacon 6, a 1950s medium-format SLR, itself based on the even earlier Praktisix. So he built and briefly marketed a modernized version with contributions from several of his companies. Although based on the old Pentacon, the camera was called an Exakta (the Exakta 66 Model 2, mine was), and it had modern Schneider lenses. The lenses were breech-lock, a lens attachment method already long outmoded in the '80s when I bought mine. Oddly, the new version was "rubber-armored," which was a fashionable thing to do to binoculars at the time.
Not only was I too cheap to buy the metering prism, but I refused to spring for the dedicated camera strap, which I thought was too expensive (it had a curved bracket that fitted under the breech of the lens and screwed into the tripod thread—and it cost ninety bucks. No way). So I shot that camera with the waist-level finder, without a meter (that's where my article "Train Your Brain to Guess Exposure" came from), and I had to carry it around in one hand because I had no strap.
The camera was quite primitive. The viewfinder showed only a portion of what would be on the negative, and what it showed wasn't centered! The bottom edge of the picture was fairly accurate, but the top was wildly off. And the viewfinder image would black out after you took the picture, until you wound the shutter again. The winding mechanism was notoriously finicky—after winding, you couldn't let the lever snap back on its own spring, or it would eventually stop working right—you had to be very careful to let the lever back gently. Many people had problems with overlapping frames.
And yet I loved that camera, and did some of my best work with it. Go figure.
The lens was the best lens I ever owned. Not only was it a great design from a top lensmaker, but I lucked out and got one of those "cherry" examples you come across every now and then...one that is not only within spec, but that happens to be at the very top of the spec. After selling it, I tried to replace it several times with no luck—the otherwise identical replacements lacked that last little bit of magic. I even—true story—saw a print in a gallery show by a local photographer that had the same kind of magic, and I took some pains to track the guy down to find out what lens he was using. Not only was it the same kind of lens as I'd had on my Exakta 66, it was the exact same lens—the woman I'd sold the camera to (Claudia Smigrod, a fine local artist) had sold it on to him! I had recognized the look of my beloved lens just from a print on the gallery wall. I tried to buy it back from the guy who owned it, but by the time I had enough extra cash to make him an offer, he had already sold it. (It really was not a very good camera.)
Looking back on it, if I had wanted to be an art photographer who exhibits, I should have kept that camera and kept photographing in that style and with that technique all the way to this very day. I would have been happy. It was unfashionable and contrarian enough for me, and I loved the technique.
I made a large set of 16x20 prints with that camera that I wish I still had. But I left the portfolio case in the apartment of a girlfriend I was trying to avoid, and by the time I realized where it was, she had moved, and all that work was gone.
That show in the Park was a success, by the way. It was well attended (probably because so many Park visitors wandered in little knowing what they'd find), a lot of the photographers sold work, and we even got written up in the newspaper. But it was a lot of work.
Of course I had to sell that camera to pay the rent one time when money got tight—same as happened to all the rest of my cameras back in those days, even my beloved rosewood Wista 4x5 (Wistas were made a lot better in those days. I've tried to replace that one, too, and the new ones aren't nearly as nice). And then, of course, I started writing for photography magazines. And the rest, as they say, is history.
And in this case all this really is history. Times do change.
"Open Mike" is the lying-in-the-tall-grass-looking-at-the-clouds page of TOP. It happens on every Sunday that Yr. Hmbl. Ed. has the energy for it.
P.S. And before anyone asks why I didn't just get commercially-made prints made of that lakescape, that just wasn't the ethos then, in my circles. You printed your own work. At that time I wouldn't have considered selling prints I didn't make myself.
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Featured Comments from:
Andrew Lamb: "I had an Exakta 66 in the '90s. I experienced no end of focus problems until I worked out that the screen had been installed the wrong way round. The camera suffered from overlapping frames as did most Exaktas. Also, my particular 80mm Schneider lens was good but not magical. Probably, the best thing about it was the packaging. I really liked the boxes it came in it. An odd thing to say but they were the only thing that worked properly. Occasionally, I pine for it until I recall the frustration. I don't regard it as one that got away."
Mike replies: That happened to me too, on one of the cameras I bought trying to replace my first one. I was mystified until I was having dinner with Ron Leven, the U.S. Schneider importer, and he mentioned (with an eye-roll) that they kept getting Exakta 66 warranty returns when all that was wrong was that the focusing screen had been installed upside-down by the factory. As I said, it really was not a very good camera....