There’s a story that I love to tell because it explains why I followed the path I did – in my career and my life.
It was 1976 and I had just graduated from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. I had my technically perfect portfolio and I was ready to set the world on fire. My plan was to move back East, and pursue my dream of becoming a photojournalist. That was where my heart was – “telling the story” through my images and I wanted to share those images through the pages of magazines. But even back then photo essays and the magazines that printed them were threatened by a bad economy and changing times. Look had just folded and Life was seeing its demise – the first time around.
Back then everyone told me that to make a living in photography you needed to get a studio and shoot commercially. I bought into that, geared my first portfolio toward that and got a job assisting a commercial still life photographer. But it didn’t feel right -it wasn’t the right fit for me. I had wanted to become a photographer to capture people and their cultures and what was going on in the world – not to shoot static objects in a New York City studio.
I had admired Jay Maisel’s work at the time, his eye for the detail and the streets of New York. I decided to give him a call and ask if he had time to look at my portfolio and maybe give me a critique or some advice. He agreed so we set up a time at his studio down in the Bowery. The late ’70’s was not a great time for NYC – economically speaking it was broke and Mayor Beame had just been turned down by the Feds for a bailout. Just taking the trek down to that part of Manhattan at that time, was an adventure in itself. Jay was a true pioneer in buying that old bank building back then. I’ll never forget the contrast between the graffiti covered exterior and amazing space inside.
Jay looked at every perfectly mounted print of technically perfect photographs and tossed them aside. He looked at me and asked me if this was what I really wanted to do. I started to go into a lengthy explanation of how I really wanted to be a photojournalist and proceeded to tell him all the reasons that I had given myself when I talked myself out of pursuing that dream. And then I took out some snapshots of things I had shot on my travels before I even went to Brooks. He looked at the images and told me that he could tell that this was what I should be doing. And then he asked me how old I was. I replied that I was 25. He looked me straight in the eye and said “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises?”.
It was a turning point in my life. Every time I’m tempted to go off course, I remind myself of Jay’s words and I get back on track.