I was born in 1964. That means the Nikon F2 was out when I was 10, the FM2 when I was 20 and I grew up in the era of Kodachrome film, Fuji Velvia, Ilford HP5 and Kodak Tri-x black and white films, and plenty of wonderful photographers working in those days like Garry Winogrand, Vivian Maier, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark.
The music of the 60s and 70s was phenomenal–Queen, the Eagles, Supertramp, Joe Jackson, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Squeeze, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. Today’s music doesn’t quite compare for me.
We had a telephone, fortunately it the kind that was bolted to the wall and had a longish cord if you wanted to walk and talk, which we rarely did. We had no message machines. If you missed me, you’ll call back.
We didn’t have 24-hour news, computers, internet or cell phones. (I could go back to before these, easily.)
But we had creativity. Large format film cameras, medium format Bronicas and Rolleiflexes, 35mm in all shapes and size cameras. Film that was fairly sensitive. Darkrooms where we could create our printed masterpieces.
I went to work at 22 as a news photographer for a daily newspaper in New Jersey, working freelance. Then moved to a larger paper at 23 as a staff photographer where I stayed for 13 years until the newspaper business tanked, photographers were laid off, and digital photography and the internet had changed the publishing model forever.
But before it tanked, it was wonderful! Every day a new assignment, new people to meet, new challenges to photograph.
There were many kinds of films available. Plenty of cameras to choose from. New sales in stores. Used sales via classified newspaper ads and frequent camera shows, an actual flea market of dealers all selling cameras. You went there with things to trade and items in mind to buy. If you’ve never been to one, you’ve missed out. It was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and the deals were happening.
Attending big national camera shows like at the Jacob Javits Center in New York where the manufacturers showcased their latest offerings.
Shooting pro football while standing along the sideline, loading film with fiingerless gloves and tossing the film canister to the wall where there was quite a collection of them by the end of the game.
Covering visiting Presidents and VPs, even at times misspelling “potatoe”.
Photographing small family stories and big business ones. Making photos of so many people in places most people never get to go.
Restocking our car trunks with bricks of Tri-x from the film closet. 24-packs of AA batteries for our flashes. And 10 rolls of Velvia or Provia.
We had big books of maps that had every street in every town listed, so we could find the address for our next assignment.
Being the masters of our craft. Not everyone knew how the photos would turn out like we did. Even the art directors offered their photo goals, and then we worked our magic to realize them, and they stayed out of our way. The trusted us to get the photograph. They entrusted us with the vision–we were the pros.
The photo editors at the news desk weren’t directors telling us what to shoot. We weren’t tethered to a computer where those editors picked and transmitted what they thought was the best photo, we did that ourselves after processing our film.
We had authorship!
We had camaraderie. Whether stopping by the used camera shop or socializing on Monday nights with our photographer colleagues at SoHo Bar, or Tir Na Nog, a local Irish Pub, we had a circle of photographer friends. Social media doesn’t compare.
The photography world feels different now. It’s not like I didn’t appreciate it while it was what it was. I did. I loved it and always felt like I was living in a special time. But something has changed.
People have always complained that there are too many photographers and too many photos being made. I don’t bemoan the quantity, I just tire of the lack of quality, and the absence of curation. And the plethora of locations where these photos come into my view. I seek out quality photography in real places like galleries and museums, my favorite being the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. But online, I find few places where quality work is regularly seen.
I long for those days when photography meant magic waiting in the roll. The wonder of what’s on that roll–not so much on photo assignment rolls, but the personal ones–and the elation when remembering the moment that photo was made, who I was with, what was the occasion.
Lost hours in the darkroom watching images emerge in the liquid developer. Thankfully, I still have days like these.
Holding prints in my hand and gifting them to friends and family and received prints from them. I still gift printed photographs in small frames, but it’s rare to even see framed photographs in people’s houses nowadays.
I am grateful for when I grew up, what I got to experience as a photographer. And how now I can photograph with many of my dream cameras of those days–Wista 4×5, Hasselblad, Leica–that were simply not affordable and became so after digital photography took over and the market for film cameras dropped.
I’m happy that I got to see and do what I did. If you didn’t know that time, I wish I could take you back to revisit it. It was truly incredible, wonderful, magical. I think it was.
It was the best time, I believe, for becoming a photographer.