I earned a living as a professional photographer based in NYC for 18 years, from 1976 to 1993. I got great pleasure from working in photography and I loved making and looking at photographs. I was able to meet people, witness events, and see things I could never otherwise imagine. I began naive and without confidence but I was driven to survive and succeed. Photography enriched my life immeasurably.
A couple of experiences I had as a young teen sparked my interest in becoming a photographer. In 1961, my older sister worked for an advertising agency and got me a summer job as a messenger for the company that did the ad agency’s photo reproductions. I was 14 and excited to be set free to explore the streets of Manhattan on my own. I felt independent and grown up. The guys who worked in the photo lab showed me how they used the enormous copy cameras mounted on horizontal tracks and how film was developed in the darkroom. The cameras and darkroom were alchemy, wonderful magic to me, and I began to imagine learning how to use them.
Two years later my sister became what was then called a “Gal Friday” to Lester Bookbinder, a well-known NYC fashion photographer. It was the age of Blow Up, Bert Stern and Art Kane, and Lester was part of this scene. He had a three story studio filled with cameras, tripods and lights. Lester took great pictures and lived a life that looked fun and glamorous to my 16-year old eyes. A picture of a beautiful woman wearing a bowler hat but no shirt hung on the wall. I was dazzled. All too soon Lester moved to London, but I was already enchanted with the notion of a photographer’s toy filled, exciting life.
After a few years of college, travel, and a stint at driving a taxi in New York; I learned the photography trade as an apprentice, a photographers’ assistant. I did this for six and a half years. In 1969 I found my first assistant’s job at Warwick Studios, where a dozen photographers made pictures for product catalogues of all kinds: Christmas tree ornaments, kitchen appliances, ladies’ shoes, linens, garden tools; you could find almost anything having its picture taken at Warwick.
At that time, catalog studios worked to reproduce an artist’s layout directly onto the finished photograph. The photographers arranged the subjects of their photos to fit exactly to each page layout. Then type would be pasted onto the completed photo and the page would be ready for the printer. To get everything in place, the photographer traced the layout onto a clear acetate sheet, put that on the back of a view camera, and while looking under the cloth into the camera would direct their assistant to move the products left, right, further back, or closer until the scene in the photo fit the layout. Getting the layout right took care and patience, but at 22 I had little of either.
I was assigned to assist Mike, a photographer who was about 70 years old. Mike learned photography in Italy, during the 1920s and his technique was based on that era. He was meticulous and exacting, a craftsman in the tradition of Ferrari. Mike would sit on a stool behind the 8×10 camera, hidden by the viewing cloth over his head and shoulders, and, in his heavy accent, direct me to move each shoe or Christmas tree bulb: “a leetle left…. no not soooo much, a leetle back, no toooo much, a leetle closer.” We would do this for what seemed like hours for each photograph. When he saw how impatient I was, he would shake his head and cluck to himself as if thinking, this boy will never learn. To let me know how good I had it, Mike told me tales of his life as a young apprentice: 12-hour days, sweeping floors, and hands immersed in darkroom chemicals, all for a few dollars a week.
Despite my impatience, with Mike’s kindly prodding I learned the basics of studio photography. He showed me how to load sheet film into holders in absolute darkness, something I can still do.
I made friends with Florence, Warwick’s photo-stylist. She laughed easily and ran her life unencumbered with the conventions I had grown up with; I guess she was a free spirit who had a job. Her long cascading curly black hair, colorful makeup and scarves, strings of beads, large earrings gave Florence a gypsy like appearance. At Warwick, she bought props and helped set up some of the shots. She invited me to join an acting class that she ran with her boyfriend and some other friends. We did acting exercises like having two people face each other and mirror each other’s movements. One of my favorites was becoming a machine. Someone would describe an imaginary machine, like “this machine weighs twenty tons, it makes ear splitting noise, it emits smoke and fumes,” and one by one, each of us would join the others in the center of the room and make our bodies part of this machine, making all the movements and sounds that we imagined would come from that machine. Sometimes we’d all be screaming at the top of our lungs, it was great fun and part of a freer, less conventional world to which photography seemed the entry.
After about 4 months of pushing Christmas tree bulbs around in front of Mike’s camera, I found a job that might be more interesting at a studio that produced women’s clothing catalogs. When I told the studio manager at Warwick I was leaving, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were bored, I would have put you behind a camera!” However, I wanted more, thanked him and moved on. Either the acting class stopped meeting or more likely I stopped attending, and sadly, I lost touch with Florence.
The new place produced catalogs of all kinds of women’s clothes: bridal gowns, sports clothes, bathing suits, uniforms, anything women wore. Catalog work was intensely sought after by models: while not the pinnacle of glamor, it guaranteed many days of work for the models. And so, our studio regularly worked with the most beautiful and famous models of the day. The bridal gowns were photographed with an 8×10 stationery view camera while many of catalogs were made with 2¼ Hasselblads. Working with the smaller and more flexible 2¼ film format was more exciting… more like BlowUp- than using stationery view cameras.
The studio had a photographer, a retoucher, and a darkroom guy. I learned how to change lenses and load film in the Hasselblads and in the Mamiyaflex twin lens reflex cameras. I also helped in the darkroom.
The darkroom man Sal was Mexican, and he looked like a Cantinflas character with fleshy lips, nose and ears. Sal saw the world with a dry, ironic sense of humor and I began hanging out with him in the darkroom whenever I could, which was most of the time. After a few weeks trusted me enough to have me help. One day he gave me an odd instruction: move the darkroom stool over to the thin wooden wall dividing the darkroom and models’ dressing room, climb up and lift up a black paper pinned to the wall. Under the paper was a small hole in the wall, I could see the most beautiful women in the world getting undressed. Sal’s was truly a darkroom with a view.
I became his devoted assistant. Between model undressings, I learned how to develop film and make prints. I mastered getting 2 ¼ film onto stainless steel spools, and running the film through the developer, stop bath, hypo, and wash. Sal showed me what a proper print should look like and how to make one. I made my first good print, a picture of a friend that had deep blacks, brilliant whites, with a full range of tones in between. I was thrilled to have produced this magical artifact with my own hands. Till then, I had only been able to make dull, gray, lifeless prints.
Another unexpected lesson was getting to know Henry, the gay retoucher. I had never met, much less gotten to know, someone who was openly gay. Henry was a funny guy, and told stories of his gay life to shock and scare me. For community service, Henry was a boy scout leader in New Jersey.
But outside the darkroom, I learned little about photography in that studio. Their lighting never changed. One day I heard of a studio that did a wider range of photography and needed an assistant, and I moved on after six months.
Crandall Studio photographed not only products for ads, but also people and scenes for corporate annual reports. Most of the product work was done in the studio by the staff photographer, for whom I worked for directly. He was very knowledgeable technically and an easy-going, generous teacher. When we weren’t busy, I was allowed to set up my own shots and use the studio’s color sheet film. The owner, Bob Crandall, was an experienced photographer. He also acted as the sales rep and came to work in a tie and jacket. Bob did the people shots, and I assisted on these as well.
One day in 1973 we photographed the CEO of General Motors, Richard Gerstenberg. It was like photographing God. We had to arrive several hours before our appointment to set up the lights. His office was about 40 feet long, with his desk blocking the far end. After lights and camera were set, we had to go out because he had a meeting scheduled. When we were ushered back in, the meeting was breaking up, men were talking near Gerstenberg’s desk, saying goodbye and making their way out. Finally, we were alone with his majesty, who was making notes, ignoring us totally. After ten minutes of silence, he looked up at us disapprovingly and gave a slight nod. Bob began taking pictures and got off about half a roll before Gerstenberg turned away, murmured to his aide, then got up and left. He never spoke to us. But Bob was not shaken, the pictures turned out somewhat dour but the client was happy. Evidently the CEO did not mind being pictured as a cold, intimidating figure.
Crandall Studio was also known for producing excellent photographs of artwork. There is only one way to photograph paintings accurately, and Crandall knew how. Once we had to photograph a large, diamond-shaped Mondrian painting in someone’s home for a cover of Time magazine. There was something of a mystery about this assignment, and I wasn’t told the destination before we arrived. We loaded the 8×10 camera, tripod, film holders, a hundred pounds of lights and drove up to Westchester County. We entered an unmarked driveway and drove through beautiful grounds to a large home. We rang the bell and after a while a 70ish slightly stooped lady answered the door. She welcomed us in and said brightly that her husband would be with us shortly. He appeared to be around 80 and wore comfortable and simple clothing like his wife. Their place was filled with artwork, and I brought in the equipment cases very carefully. I admired a small sculpture of a reclining nude on a side table and the lady said she liked it too, and told me what year she had bought it from Picasso. We went into a large and comfortably furnished living room where the Mondrian took up a wall of its own. The piano in the room had belonged to a composer in the 1800s. The house was like a museum, every object we saw was beautiful and had been made by someone famous. Then our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Rothschild, said they’d let us get on with our work and left us alone with the Mondrian, Picassos, and other treasures. We made the Mondrian picture, packed up, and the Rothschilds wished us farewell.
After Crandall, I then went to work at Art Porta’s studio. Art ran a one man show, making pictures for advertisements. He mostly photographed products in the studio with a 4×5 camera. Art was a master of lighting. He used raw incandescent bulbs with clip-on “barn doors” to shade and control the light. By then, in the early 1970s, product photographers were switching to strobe lighting, and Art’s technique was going out of date. Nonetheless, I watched Art set up the lights and could see the effect of each change he made.
Art was also an excellent printer and knew how to develop film by inspection. This meant staying in the dark a half hour to get your eyes used to the dark, before starting the run. After the film had developed for a while, you’d look at it by the light of a one watt narrow spectrum green bulb to determine how much longer to let it develop. Art used one film only. He also used a non-Kodak film developer which he never changed, adding small amounts of refresher every week or so. He believed that the developer bath needed to age a couple of years for it to be just right. His negatives were perfect. Art was teaching me the real craft of photography; not from a book but from experience and practice.
Across the hall from Art’s studio was the office of a graphic designer named Carl. Art and Carl were friendly and helped each other out. One day Carl came in, huddled with Art, and then asked me if I wanted to take a picture for a record album cover (33 rpm vinyl, in those days). Was he kidding?!! The album was called something like “Tough Poems” and consisted of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee reading poems by African-American poets. Carl wanted a gritty urban scene. I ran up to Amsterdam Avenue and photographed some beaten up garbage cans in front of a graffiti covered wall. Carl like it and paid me $25. When the album came out, I saw that Carl had “forgotten” to give me a photo credit, I was crushed that my name was left off my first ever published photo, a record album cover no less. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to have become a published photographer, even if I was the only one who could tell.
I began taking evening classes in photography at the School of Visual Arts on 21st Street in Manhattan. I started with Basic Photo taught by Cora Wright Kennedy. She had a column in Popular Photography magazine called Tools and Techniques and wrote several books, like “Filter Guide for Color and B&W Photography.” She generously shared her encyclopedic knowledge of all things photographic with us. She taught her students how to use a camera, how to develop film and how to make a print. I already knew some of this but learned much more from Cora. And every week after class she went for coffee at a nearby diner and invited anyone from the class to join her. This was great fun, the best part of the class. Cora suggested I take her friend Ralph Hattersley’s class based on his book, Discover Yourself through Photography. Ralph was a bear of a guy with a big white beard, and saw himself as a philosopher. I remember that he said once that “we are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.” I loved Cora’s and Ralph’s classes and got inspired to apply to the SVA full time photography program. I stayed in touch with Cora for years; her pride in my success as a photographer meant a lot.
In 1972, I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts three year photography program. At SVA real working artists served as their teachers, so whatever you studied, your teachers were highly skilled professionals in their fields. I had never met so many smart and talented artists.
The SVA photography students took a “science of photography” course which covered chemistry of film and development, basic optical theory, and camera mechanics. This fascinated me. We also had a year of history of photography which I loved. The most interesting and exciting classes were the ones I had about art history and how to look at art. Mel Bochner’s class, Looking At Art, was the best. Mel was a conceptual artist and had his first exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art at that time. He challenged us to see with our eyes, not our brains, to understand what we were seeing graphically instead of culturally. What I learned in these classes stayed with me forever and helped me succeed as a photographer. I was among several students that Mel hired to help him with projects. When he paid me, I wanted to frame the $30 check but I needed the money and cashed it. Mel was a very cool guy, thoughtful, deliberative, and serious. I also met another conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. Dennis had planned an exhibit about violence where he had attack-trained German Shepherds chained to stakes in a large area and each dog had a radius that it could get to before being stopped by the chain. The idea of the exhibit would that there was only one path between the dogs from one end of the exhibit to the other, kind of like a maze, but instead of walls defining the maze there were the mouths of the attack dogs. I don’t think this exhibit was ever realized.
During that first year School of Visual Arts I worked for Art part time, which did not sit well with Art. He could no longer rely on me to assist him for every job that came in. He said SVA was a waste of time, that I could learn more from him. He wanted me to work for him full time. Lamentably, I finally caved in and after only one year at School of Visual Arts I didn’t go back, even though I had met so many exciting and wonderful people there. But I thought my future was in commercial photography, which was a big mistake.
One of the benefits of working for Art, the best part, was getting to know Harry Lapow, a friend of Art’s, a guy in his mid-sixties who used the darkroom at nights and weekends. Harry was a designer by trade and an avid photographer of life on the streets of New York. Harry was a great enthusiast of life in general, and he loved photography. He continually encouraged me to photograph “for myself” and to not neglect my art for commerce. Harry introduced me to photographic artists he knew, including the somber Leon Levinstein, who had a gritty black and white picture of a Hudson taxi cab in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. After I accumulated a dozen or so decent prints of my own pictures Harry told me about a great photographer and teacher called Lisette Model. She had held a master photography class at the New School for years, had mentored many well known photographers, and also had pictures in MOMA’s permanent collection.
Harry encouraged me to take Lisette’s class. I did not feel remotely worthy of it and fearfully brought my box of prints to Lisette’s tiny apartment on Seventh Avenue South for an admission interview. Lisette acted like a European aristocrat and spoke with great authority and an accent worthy of Russian royalty. Every sentence was a pronouncement, spoken slowly with ponderous drama. I cannot remember anything Lisette said to me in the interview, but somehow she allowed me to take her class. The class opened a new world for me, to be among serious people who saw themselves as making photographic art. Each week, one of us would present our project for class discussion.
Around this time I met Al Loving, a well-known painter. Al, the first American artist who had a one-man show at the Whitney while still alive. Al was nine years older, and we got to be good friends, he was a bit like a big brother, and he urged me to make art with my pictures. Al got invited to every exhibition opening party at New York museums and took me along. I photographed the people at these parties. I used a wide angle lens to include the beautifully dressed people and the art on the walls, and made high contrast prints. In my pictures, the people and art seem to float in white space, giving the photos drama and impact.
When it was my turn to show work in Lisette’s class and I hung up the Openings series for class comment. As always everyone looked to Lisette for a first reaction. Lisette looked at them in silence for a long time, sucked in her breath and theatrically pronounced, “You… are… already…. a… photographer.” I was thrilled but still felt the rube; naïve, not that conscious of what I was doing. Looking at my photos of these parties years later I saw I photographed Georgia O’Keefe at a MOMA opening without knowing who it was in the picture. I was elated by Lisette’s praise and embarrassed, not feeling worthy of it.
I continued working for Art Porta but it was a confined environment, just the two of us. And I didn’t really want to become a product photographer like Art. A friend of mine who worked at Vogue magazine told me that the successful and well-known fashion photographer Bill King needed an assistant, and my friend called Bill to recommend me. Bill King was a top fashion photographer of the day and he was one of the “beautiful people.” He had long strawberry blonde hair, kept in a ponytail; he spoke in a whisper, and he was extremely elegant. His clothes were always beautifully pressed and clean. I was afraid that I did not have the elan to work for someone that famous but I went for an interview and somehow got the job. Now the real reason I got the job is because Bill was an absolute tyrant and sadist to work for and his assistants lasted for only a few months or weeks. Bill could not keep assistants for any length of time because he was so mean. His assistants would get fed up and just walk out, so Bill couldn’t be that choosy in who he hired and had to hire someone as dissimilar to him as I was. I used to walk in there in the morning, looking more or less like a typical 25 year old and Bill would look at me, curl his lip and sneer, “Did you sleep on a park bench?” I never forgot how awful it felt to be the target of his contempt.
So, Bill treated me horribly from the get go, but he treated everyone except clients and models that way. He had a notebook of rules, a Bill King studio rule book which he made me read and rewrite and it had things in it like “the assistant shall not talk to clients except to give them directions and show them where the bathroom is.” And “the assistant should never ever have a personal conversation with models.” Bill had a previous, hapless assistant paint different colored lines on the floor of his studio to show who could stand where. If you were an assistant you couldn’t pass, say, the yellow line and if you were an art director you could walk up until the red line. And there were all kinds of rules about going on location with Bill; one line in his book which especially struck me was “Bill doesn’t share,” so Bill would never, ever share a hotel room or just about anything else with his assistant. His assistants were the prime object of his sadism, he was incredibly intimidating so I could never relax and enjoy that job.
But as bad as it was with Bill, I got to experience a top, top photography business. At the time Bill worked on the most exciting fashion campaigns. He was known for photographing models while they were jumping in the air. Bill started that. And he did the Blackglama fur ad campaign, ‘What Became a Legend Most’, so while I was there we photographed Carol Burnett, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman. It was a treat to meet and just watch these people perform. We photographed Carol Burnett in Hollywood. I rented a studio in Burbank. The shoot was scheduled for mid-afternoon so I got there early in the morning to set up the lights. About an hour before we were due to begin, and before anyone arrived, the doorbell rang and Carol Burnett, by herself walked in, “Hi I’m Carol.” I was flustered to the point of stuttering and absolutely too shy to talk with her. I showed her to the dressing room, blushing all the way. Once people started arriving I calmed down. She was wonderful to be around, easy going and funny. While we were taking pictures – she wore only a leotard, tights and the Blackglama fur- Carol looked at the price tag, about $30,000, and mugged outrage, hysteria, and pretended to faint.
Bill also took me on some great trips. We went to Los Angeles frequently and always stayed in the super luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel. We went to London. He took me to Nice, where we went to a three star restaurant. On the way to the restaurant I smoked pot with Bill and his client, the editor of a top fashion magazine. This was a terrible idea; I spent the meal in a silent paranoid funk, fearful of saying anything that Bill would pounce on. But it was a beautiful restaurant, we ate outdoors, and I had never eaten food that good. So the trips were very exciting. Bill flew in first class and I in economy so I was spared trying to have a conversation with him. But we had to drive in the same car and frequently it was just us two. Neither of us knew how or wanted to talk with the other. I would drive at about 85 mph to hurry to our hotel and be away from him. My driving terrified Bill, he would hiss at me to slow down, and I wouldn’t. My only revenge.
Bill claimed to know nothing about photographic craft and had his assistants do all the technical work. So I set up all the lights, took the light readings, did the Polaroids. When everyone was around him — the models, the art directors and the stylist, hairdresser; and everything was ready to shoot, Bill would say, “What’s the exposure” and I’d say “f 8.” He’d snarl “f 8! Are you sure it’s f 8?” I’d say, “Yes.” “Are you sure?” And he kept on hissing in a whisper, “are you sure?” until I lost my confidence and I’d take the light reading again and again and I’d manage to do it wrong, “All right it’s an f 8 ½” and sure enough all the film would come back slightly underexposed. Once we were shooting for a top fashion magazine at a chateau in the south of France, near Nice, and Bill started hissing critically at me about the exposures. I had the fantasy of wordlessly walking off, not even saying I quit, just taking the car, leaving his cameras and gear in the driveway, driving back to Paris and then home.
The job was awful. Thank God there was a dark room guy at Bill’s studio, an English guy, David, who was sympathetic. So at least there was someone I could talk with. But Bill could totally scald with words. He was a terrible guy to work for. I lasted eleven months and when he finally fired me I found out I was the longest lasting assistant that Bill King ever had. It says a lot for my masochism, I suppose.
The day Bill fired me, I walked out of his studio and went directly to a resume shop, did my resume and the same day got a mailing list of the top photographers in New York, all the people I really wanted to work for, and sent out letters. And sure enough, I got a call from Pete Turner, who was one of the most successful photographers of that era, a great photographic visionary, a pioneer in the use of color film and in seeing in color. Pete began taking pictures in his young teens and became a photographer in the early 1950’s when photography was black and white. He had joined the Army and got stationed in Queens, New York. Since he was already a photographer he was put in charge of the Army’s very first color lab. And Pete was an incredible opportunist and self-promoter so he used his time in the Army to go out and shoot, using Army film and Army time to develop and print a portfolio of beautiful color pictures. He developed them all in the Army lab he ran and Pete became the only aspiring photographer in New York with an all color portfolio at that time. His pictures were unique and as a result, Pete got incredible jobs. So his first big shoot was for National Geographic Magazine to photograph a six month safari from Alexandria to Cape Town, the whole breadth of Africa. The trip was sponsored by Air Stream Company, the maker of the silver aerodynamic-shaped trailers. On that Africa trip Pete took tens of thousands of Kodachromes and made some of his most famous, iconic pictures. He was the first photographer who photographed color as pure color and his vision revolutionized color photography. And from then on in Pete worked for all the greatest magazines and got the best advertising assignments.
The Pete Turner Studio was liked a Hollywood version of a photographer’s studio. It was in New York’s Carnegie Hall Studios and had 25 foot ceiling, a north wall of windows overlooking 57th Street, white formica cabinets, a shiny hardwood floor, and a red steel spiral staircase to Pete’s aerie, from which he would descend like a god to take pictures.
He always employed a studio manager and one assistant. Everyone who worked promised to stay on long enough to train their successor. So the assistant became the studio manager and hired the new assistant. This way Pete could pass on his legacy- how the lighting was done, what ‘look’ of models to hire, how his drinks were to be mixed… without having to personally train anyone.
At the interview I was given a photographic riddle to solve within one week. (I was not told that Pete’s assistants thought the problem was not solvable and I later found out they did not think I was up to the job.) The riddle was to find a location, a vantage point to take a picture with an extreme wide angle lens from outside an office building showing a man talking on the phone through the window. The wide angle lens would show the floors below and above in receding perspective, like railroad tracks. Pete’s assistants thought the only way to make the picture would be to hire a crane, because they assumed all buildings were perfectly square or rectangular. They gave me a Polaroid camera and told me to come back within a week – if I had any luck. Before I left I used the bathroom and noticed from the window that many building were L-shaped, and you could take the picture from the inside of the L across to the other wing of the building. So I went downstairs, found an L-shaped building that had windows you could open, looked in the directory for a business that would likely allow us to take pictures, found an ad agency, got permission, took the Polaroids, and returned to Pete’s studio a few hours later.
With the winning Polaroids in hand, I got an audience with Pete Turner himself. He was delighted how I had solved the photo riddle and had outsmarted his assistants. Pete was also impressed that I had lasted so long with Bill King. He loved hearing about Bill’s rule book, and kept guffawing “Bill does not share!” So I was hired into what was arguably the best assistant’s job in New York- as good as working for Richard Avedon or Jay Maisel.
Pete was outgoing, friendly, open and curious, the opposite of Bill. Pete had the presence of a Hollywood star, like John Wayne, whom he loved to imitate. Pete was tall, rail thin, with straight brown and silver hair of Prince Valiant length. In 1974 he was 39 and wore hand-studded and beaded jeans, a fringed leather jacket, silk turtleneck shirt, and a bracelet of real elephant hair. He was rambunctious, egocentric, and larger than life. Pete was fiercely devoted to his work and interested in little else.
Pete was pretty tough on art directors and ad agencies. When ad agencies hired Pete they got the pictures Pete wanted to take, not the pictures they wanted him to take, which of course led to all kinds of heartache. He was always shooting to please himself first and he made beautiful pictures for his clients, although not necessarily the pictures they wanted or expected. The agency would supply a drawing that had been approved by their client, showing they wanted the finished shot to look like. Pete would yes, yes them and then shoot the picture the way he thought it should be. Then the agency would have to surprise their client and sell them on the unexpected result. Pete was ruthless in billing as well. The agencies would ask him to provide estimates for complex photographs, which they would present to their clients for approval. It was my job to do the estimates, which frequently ran to $40,000 a shoot in 1975 money. They always wanted to see a low, medium and high estimate. After getting approval from the client for a low or medium size budget say, when it came to the shoot Pete would say it could only be done according to the high estimate and his bill would reflect that.
Pete called his studio “The Academy.” And it really was. Working for Pete was like getting a PhD in photography. It was a place to learn how to be a complete professional photographer and most of the people who worked for Pete went on to become successful professional photographers like Eric Meola, Anthony Edgeworth, Steve Krongard, and myself. Pete’s friends, whom I got to meet, were the top photographers of their era: Douglas Kirkland, Jay Maisel, Bert Stern, Art Kane and Henri Dauman. These were guys who had photographed the likes of JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mantle. Their work was published regularly in the top magazines and they were in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum. My awe and respect for these men kept me from talking to them more and perhaps learning something from them. I easily could have asked any of them to see more of their work and to give me feedback on my pictures, but I was too shy.
Pete believed in having his assistants do everything and he treated us as his confidants. He would tell the assistants what he wanted, how he wanted it and how to do it and then leave it up to you. That applied to not only everything photographic, the lighting and cameras but also to running the business. His assistants spoke with the art directors and made all the arrangements for each shoot, booking the travel, buying or hiring special equipment such as helicopters, cranes, “water effects” trucks, and even paying the vendors and doing the client billing. Pete was great fun to work for, but he could be maddening and difficult, since he saw his assistant as his personal servant. The job could be demeaning; the responsibilities included giving Pete back rubs and baby-sitting for his four year old son.
Pete also had a fairly primitive sense of humor that included practical and humiliating jokes. One great favorite, which I had the privilege of being the butt of, would take place at the first big shoot any new assistant worked on. When it was time to begin, and the models, stylists, and makeup team were on the set, the ad agency people and their clients sitting around in directors chairs drinking Chivas Regal, Pete’s favorite music blaring, Pete would descend down the spiral staircase from his nest on the balcony, perch himself on the chair, and say OK Jeffie, give me a camera. As Pete reached for the camera he would secretly hook the strap around his pinkie, them with a scream drop the camera and shout, “YOU IDIOT!”. Instead of smashing on the floor, it would dangle from the strap, swinging back and forth like a pendulum while Pete laughed his top volume donkey laugh and the assistant (i.e. me) would hope the 15 elegant people sitting around did not notice he had just peed himself.
But I was assisting for the best photography work around, and any abuse suffered along the way was well worth it. I spent so much time there photographing, setting up my own shots; I almost lived in that studio. Pete let you use all the film you needed and he paid for that. It was a great experience.
About once a year Pete worked for Playboy. We shot the Playmate of the Year one freezing January near Pete’s summer home on eastern Long Island. He rented a vintage Duesenberg and posed her on the hood, naked. She began to turn blue, almost freezing to death. Pete’s suggestion for how to warm her up was to go back to his nearby summer house and put her naked between us in bed, but she was having none of it. He usually had better luck, I did not. Pete also loved to shoot at El Mirage Dry Lake, north of Los Angeles and we photographed another Playmate out there. We photographed in California often, as well as all over the United States and sometimes overseas.
On one trip we went to Greece for 10 days to photograph the Parthenon and then on to Egypt for a week to photograph the pyramids. The sun was so strong in Egypt that we could only shoot early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I had all day free. We were renting horses and camels from a stable across from the Sphinx, they stood in the background of the pyramid shot. Their owner, “Lami,” was a gracious, warm, and perceptive Egyptian in his fifties. He offered me a horse and guide to explore the desert during the day. So I galloped off across the Sahara with a stable guy as my guide, stopping at Bedouin tent camps for a visit and drinking glasses of fresh mint tea. My guide had me wear an Arab style headdress to protect from the sun, and with my black beard was able to pass for a local guy, albeit one who did not speak. I had never ridden a horse in open land, able to go in whichever direction I wanted. On the last day I thought to finish our ride with style and rode toward the corral at a full gallop, headdress streaming behind in the wind. All the teenage stable guys were hanging out leaning against the fence, cheering and watching my Lawrence of Arabia imitation. At the last moment the horse veered left and I didn’t, instead executing a triple gainer over the horses head. I got up in time to see all the stable guys laughing so hard they fell over like a line of dominos.
When the shoot was over at the end of the week Lami invited our group of six to his house for dinner. We met his wife and many children and had an exquisite multi-course meal on his verandah overlooking the Sphinx. In the evening, after sunset it got cooler and his children brought out stacks of djellabahs and kaftans for us to wear. After dinner, the stable guys brought around horses and camels and we rode across the darkening desert to an enormous tent night club, with music and belly-dancing. Hours later, when we came out, the animals were gone and a warm van was waiting to take us back to our hotel.
Pete and I also went on safari in the Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve in Kenya for a week. There I saw a wildebeest being born and a cheetah taking down a young Thompson’s gazelle. We hiked through half a mile of gummy bird shit to see Lake Nukuru with its thousands of brilliant pink flamingoes. It was an incredible, primeval experience. We hired a teenage Masai “warrior” to model for us and afterwards he invited us back to his kraal to show us to his wife and shy 1 year old son, and have a tea. The Masai liked to enlarge the earring hole in their ear lobes so they could put sticks or rocks in there. I gave one guy an aluminum film can for his ear but later saw it discarded on the ground, not his idea of cool.
We photographed a variety of famous people. Pete shot many of the covers for the CTI jazz label so I met some great jazz musicians like George Benson and Hubert Laws. We also photographed Gregg Allman for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It was Gregg’s 27th birthday and I was 27 too. He showed up at our studio by himself, no entourage. He was a quiet, unassuming guy, a little shy. A while later someone came with several changes of clothing for the shoot. The shirts were all hand-made: white with air brushed pictures of women and angels on them, with embroidery and rhinestone studs; beautiful 1970s rock star shirts.
At the time I wore a solid gold quarter note around my neck. The note part was hollowed out in back, like a little spoon. During the shoot Gregg asked to see the note. He said, man I sure do like that note. I said thanks, I’m mighty fond of it too. A little while later, “Brother I sure love that quarter note.” When Gregg admired it for the third time, I knew I had to give that note and gold chain up to him. He is wearing it on that 1974 Rolling Stone cover. Hours later, after the shoot, he was getting ready to leave and his wardrobe person was packing up the shirts. I knew it was do or die and said Gregg those shirts sure are beautiful. He grinned and said, take any one you want, brother. So I got a spectacular rock star shirt. I wore it only once, to a party; but you really had to be an Allman or Jimi Hendrix to wear that kind of shirt.
Pete did a fair amount of work for N. W. Ayer, the oldest advertising agency in the country. Among their clients were the US Army which Pete had shot for before my time with him, and DuPont and Goodyear. One of Ayer’s art directors, Jay Forman, a regular guy, born and bred in New Jersey. Jay fancied western attire, he wore shirts with mother of pearl buttons and cowboy boots, but he looked more New Jersey than Montana. Thank goodness Jay never went so far as wearing a Stetson. I believe it would have overpowered him. One time Jay hired Pete for an industrial shoot at a horrible gritty place, some type of chemical refinery in Delaware. Jay showed up wearing a beautiful new pair of suede boots. We parked the car on a service road about a quarter mile from the refinery and Pete and Jay went looking to find the best angle to take the picture. I stayed with the gear in the car and watched them walk around the plant, through fields of muck and mire, back and forth for twenty minutes or so. They came back drenched in sweat and I saw Jay’s suede boots were covered in toxic waste. Pete then told me to set up the cameras right there on the road in front of the car. Jay turned green, then red, realizing that he had been taken on that forced march solely for the benefit of his suede boots. Pete burst out in his raucous donkey-like laugh, delighted with his trick.
I had wonderful adventures with Pete and great respect for his determined pursuit of his own vision. He was a very smart guy and incredibly generous to his assistants. We all were proud to work for him. Assisting had taught me how to make a living as a photographer. After 2 ½ great years of working for Pete it was not easy to leave the security and fun of his studio, but it was time to go out on my own. I was 29 years old, it was 1976. I had enough gear to start off, my portfolio was as good as it could be, and I had someone design stationery. The eleven letters of my name stretched across the top of the page in 72 point type. I showed the letterhead to Pete, he clucked “gee your name is awfully big, but I guess that’s all you got.”
Pete introduced his assistants to his clients. And he didn’t mind us calling on his clients. Before I left Pete’s, I brought my meager portfolio over to show Jay, to get his advice. After a perfunctory look, Jay said, “Nope, you’re not ready, I don’t think you’re ready to go out on your own.” I was dumbfounded, speechless; I felt like saying, “Oh, thanks Jay, OK, so I guess I’ll leave now, could you just open the window so I can jump.”
Three weeks later Jay called me with my first advertising assignment. He had me photographing an industrial process for DuPont chemical where huge coils of wire, 10 foot diameter coils of copper wire, were dipped by a crane into a tank of boiling sulfuric acid. The place smelled so awful that Jay wouldn’t get out of the car, he just said, “Go photograph the coil.” And there I was standing over a boiling vat of acid — it was like an 8 foot by 12 foot tank, a dumpster-sized thing of boiling sulfuric acid – it smelled god awful – and I perched myself on the rail and shot down with a wide angle lens and made the shot. It was like being in Hell, the smell could fell a tree, and if I had fallen in only the fillings in my teeth would have been left, but there I was trying my hardest to make it “creative.” Jay just wanted to get out of there fast because it smelled so bad and kept yelling his artistic advice from the car, “Jeff! Hurry up!”. I rushed back, developed the film, made prints, sent them to Jay that night and held my breath. He liked the shot, so my first advertising job was a success and Jay recommended me to other art directors.
Now that I was officially a photographer, all I needed was an income. A friend helped me get a waiter’s job at Allen’s Bar on Third Avenue. I worked four shifts in a row, Saturday lunch through Sunday dinner, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m at a clip, earning enough money to live on so I could spend all week I looking for photo jobs. Every waiter and busboy there was an aspiring actor except me and my friend who was getting started as a film sound recordist. The bartender had played cops in a number of TV shows and one movie.
I began to get work from N.W. Ayer, Book-of-the-Month Club, Mobil Oil, and Esquire and New York magazines; and after a year was able to retire from my job as a waiter.
And that’s how I got to be a photographer.