Snap Shot

I never set out to be a commercial still life photographer. It was 1975, I had graduated from college the year before with a BS in Education and my part-time job as a cashier at the Yale Co-op was not cutting it. Teaching positions were rare then and I was starting to get very discouraged.

It was time to start looking in other areas. Just as I landed a position with a local newspaper to run their ad department, my father called me from his office in Manhattan. He sounded alarmed and complained that the recession was killing his point of purchase display business and since all his customers were always “screaming for product photography!” he needed me to help him start a photography service division and save his business.

I loved taking pictures and was rarely without my 35 mm Yashica Electro X, but the only thing I knew about commercial still life photography was from watching my father moonlight in the dug-out crawl space of our basement when I was a kid. He’d disappear under a black cape behind his 8×10 Deardorff view camera to shoot box after box of Nabisco products. He gave me the job of handing him his big wooden film holders and we got all the cookies and cereal from the sets – for free! What was better than that?

I had to make a decision. To get there I would have to take a train from New Haven into Grand Central Station and two subways down to West 18th Street – two and one half hours later I would finally arrive. What should I do? Take the job in New Haven with the newspaper or start, from scratch, a professional photo studio? Luckily I was too naïve to realize what the latter would entailed.

The perceived glamor and excitement of the city and my father’s desperate pleas (that sound in his voice!) beckoned. We dusted off his large format camera and my father taught me everything he knew about lighting. “Bathe the subject in light!” he’d say, as he’d wave the hot tungsten lights around almost igniting the objects in the process. After we had set up a section of his vast space in the loft, no work came. My father’s display business suddenly picked up and it became very quiet from my distant spot at the far end of that old building.

Nothing is bleaker than a cold rainy winter day in New York City.  It was on such a day while sitting at my desk facing a blank wall when I realized that no one was “screaming” for photography. I discovered that these so-called clients already had their own freelance photographers and that my father in his moment of panic months before had exaggerated the need for a commercial photography studio. It was time to return to Connecticut a total failure at 24.

One of my father’s salesmen, Jim White, (I’ll never forget his name) seeing my turmoil took pity on me. “You have to make cold calls!” he said, opening the bottom drawer of his desk and slapping down a huge business directory called the B2B Red Book (remember this was 1975 – no internet.) He showed me how the directory identified businesses that used professional photography and wrote me a script for what to say on a little 3 x 5 file card. I got up the nerve to make my first calls, and when I actually got an appointment to show samples of my work I was terrified – especially since I didn’t even have a portfolio!

The first shooting job I landed was of a beautiful precious stone and crystal necklace for an ad to run in the New York Times. Astro Gallery of Gems on Madison Avenue still exists today and little do they know how much that first job meant to me. I made a lot more calls, (that yellow file card finally fell apart) got more appointments and more accounts, switched to strobe lighting, moved into a larger studio space on West 21st  Street, learned my craft and become a commercial still life photographer. After twenty years I had an impressive client list including Revlon, Avon, Estée Lauder, Kobrand Liquors, Warner Communications and many more national and international accounts.

For years I couldn’t understand why my father had been so unsympathetic about misleading me. I had written it off to his sometimes endearing yet often maddening impulsive nature. It wasn’t until after he died that I started to look at it differently. I think he knew something about me that I didn’t. He set me on the path, then stepped out of the way. Maybe he hadn’t been so impulsive after all. In asking me to help him save his company he saved me. I will be eternally grateful. Through it all I learned how to survive in a very tough business, work with all kinds of people, and be inspired by a medium that has no limits.