After graduating from Boston University in 1964, I set out to be a credit to my family which meant getting a job, grabbing the first rung on some corporate ladder, and raising a family. I did none of those things. I was alienated from that middle class way of life I grew up in. What I saw around me was that the money, stuff, and leisure time these people labored for didn’t bring happiness. I had to figure out how to deal with this.
The 60’s was a decade of great social transition. The post-war prosperity that my father experienced provided a cushion for me that offered summer camp, a new car, and a college education. I had no complaints.
My parents’ mind-set of “it’s just not done” was being replaced by “do your own thing”. The old authority was being challenged and the message was loud and clear in the music and the news.
This was back in 66, before the movie BLOW-UP described photography in romantic terms, when the popular view of “photographer” was a dude with a bow tie that took school yearbook pictures.
A period of desperation drove me to think deeper about what I enjoy about being alive. The revelation was that seeing brings me great pleasure. I had saved a little money and bought a Beseler Auto 100 camera when the big innovation was single lens reflex cameras with through-the-lens metering. I saw promise in those first pictures and signed up for a basic commercial photography course at the Germaine School of Photography.
There I could use my college chemistry to understand the photographic process and learn the techniques of lighting and use of big cameras.
Before the course was over, I had my first job as a photo assistant at a catalog house. I was hungry to learn and the offering was rich. Assisting other photographers, I learned that commercial photography didn’t excite me as much as photographing on the streets. I wanted to be close to real people; to connect with the universal themes that unite all people. I don’t know how I got that universal perspective. I feel very privileged to do this work. I met many wonderful people: peasants and kings. The camera became my vehicle to explore the world. The images along the way are personal memories.
Over the years my clients include the United Nations; LIFE (in the days of John Loengard and Mel Scott) among other magazines; National Geographic, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; book publishers (including Hyperion, and Harry N. Abrams, Inc, publisher of three books);educational media companies, and more.
Photography is a difficult field to enter. Fine photographers were plentiful, so to distinguish myself I presented clients with good ideas and concepts. My portfolio was filled with bold colorful images organized so that a sheet of slides was a composition.
To show I could do travel assignments I traveled to the island of Jamaica (1968) and photographed the early days of the Rastafarian movement. Remember “peace and love”? With that travel portfolio and images shot on the streets of New York, I started knocking on doors. I had reasonable success. Enthusiasm earned me jobs from some big clients. (Harrison Abramovits architects; Pan American Airways; CARE, Save the Children).
With this budding reputation and working with a Christiana Dittmann, we made the first around the world trip photographing the universality of childhood. This was for a multi-media company that made educational materials (filmstrips) called Guidance Associates.
Later, with a typewriter and telephone I (with the help of John Durniak at the NY Times) created a trip to photograph the positive stories in the sub Sahara in the midst of a ten-year draught. After that, I illustrated a guidebook to the Georgian Republic.
The pivotal assignment that changed my life was to photograph growing up, aging, work, and leisure in a Maya community in Mexico. This was especially exciting because it put me in touch with the intense beauty of another civilization. as well as the scholars studying it. In personal terms, this was the great adventure I wished for. It was beautiful and exotic, real and historic. I felt privileged and passionate. I made a connection with the Science Museum of Minnesota who needed images. For them, I made a series of visits to the Maya through the 80’s to enhance a permanent collection they were making of textiles and artifacts. The challenge was complex and perfect for me. I was forced to innovate ways to photograph these people who were camera shy, and learned to protect my health, my equipment, the source of transportation, and the film. Challenges included culture sensitivity, language, resistance to being a Gringo, and making good pictures with no margin for failure.
I traveled 7000 round trip to Chiapas in a 1971 Volkswagon camper. It was basic and luxurious at the same time. The 67 horsepower engine meant that slow and steady would win the day. Still, it had integrity as a driving machine. In the acknowledgements of LIVING MAYA I refer to myself as a vanologist with photographic tendencies. It had a place for two to sleep with storage under the bed that by day folded into a seat. There was a table for eating, an icebox and a sink. One locked storage unit was for the photographic equipment. Other spaces were for clothing. I had a one-burner stove, a couple of pots, dishes, utensils and basic necessities like canned soup, plus spices (garam masala), and Grand Marnier that could turn leftovers into a feast. The van had a pop top so one could stand up while camping, and a stretcher-like folding bed to snooze up top with screened in windows. It was like a land sailboat. I loved it. I STILL love it.
Even traveling slow and steady, I was forced to deal with all mechanical failures and dealings with local mechanics. Fortunately, the VW is familiar in Mexico. I, therefore, know the Spanish name for constant velocity joints -- voleros omosonetico, and many other parts.
The way the first assignment was organized, I would enter a community with an anthropologist who had an on-going relationship with families. Through that rapport, I was able to gain acceptance and waited until it was okay to photograph. Important: the families were being paid for the textiles they produced and not just paid to be photographed. Over time I improved my techniques photographing in their dark adobe homes. The adobe absorbs light, plus, the homes also have no chimney so the smoke passed through the thatch roof. In time the interior becomes black from the wood fires... So lighting was difficult. I made some creative concessions to quality, but it was clear that images had to be made no matter what the sacrifice. I used fast film and pushed it. I would set up a space blanket and bounce a strobe light off it when I could which was like punching a picture window into the wall. I have never liked the look of flash-on-the-camera so that was the last resort. Those were the days of the Vivitar 283 flash, not sophisticated but reliable.
Trust me. If it was easy to do this work, then someone else would have done it. These Maya are not a people who love the camera. Their tolerance has limits. My challenge was to string out each session as long as possible done with a variety of techniques. I would hand the camera to the weavers so they could see what I was seeing, but also to show that I trusted them. Giving away Polaroids was important. Knowing when to take a break, or let the kids look through the camera paid off. In markets I would at times shoot from the shadows into the bright sun, or use a right angle finder to face one direction but be shooting in another. This is not to say they were completely fooled. Missiles would land nearby -- never to hurt me but to communicate they knew what I was doing. I would plead no contest and move on.
The same mud that makes superior adobe blocks would stick to the bottom of the van. Each day, after being out on the roads and going through puddles the underbody would have to be hosed off so the wheels would turn properly. I developed a theory that on those terribly pot holed roads that if I went twice as fast I would hit half as many bumps. There were so many more stories to be told. The stories go on and on. It’s been a great adventure.