Christmas Letter to James Novak:
I recently re-connected with someone from my past who, outside of family, is by far one of the most influential people I have ever known. I am certain that Professor James Novak is probably oblivious to how much he changed my life.
I attended college later than most. I was eventually kicked out for not graduating and trying to attempt many degrees. It was after my first Philosophy class that I knew I wanted to continue toward a B.A. – and that required an elective in Art.
At that time I considered myself a curious, creative type person with no skills in painting, sculpture, etc. I played some guitar, but never once considered making one dollar from anything creative. I was more the logical type who kinda followed the herd in the way I dressed, lived and did the safe and right thing, never wanting to stand out from the crowd. I really never even looked at art.
I signed up for Photography 101 with Professor Novak and picked a good time-basically, not a morning class. As happens with much of what we do as young people, there were some pretty “artsy” looking girls in class and that probably was enough to keep me interested. We learned how to process film and were given some technical direction.
Loading film rolls in the dark was an acquired skill and not something you were able to do with confidence right out of the gate. Then the process continued for eight minutes in TMax developer at 68 degrees, agitated for five seconds every 30 seconds… (For the youngsters, in ancient times pictures didn’t appear on the back of our cameras; it was actually quite a magical process.)
I remember our first class assignment: “unique evidence of your existence”. The goal for almost every class was to figure out what professors wanted, regurgitate these ideas and get the grade. I was quite good at it and probably at the time had a 4.0 average midway into my junior year.
So with this arcane and mythical task, we went about the business of figuring out first what that meant, and second how to make a photograph of it? I followed what I now know is a common path – I would do a fashion shoot (which would of course lead to a job with Vogue in NYC).
I asked a friend to be my subject and set out to get the assignment done, still unclear what the hell Novak was taking about. Of course, we all stopped by the office and got even more confusing answers to the question, were shown photos that in no way got us closer to the understanding, etc. Images taken by one armed dwarfs in a New Orleans brothel, or an entire book of water tower photographs were of no help.
I set out into the world to find something interesting or a fire hydrant/water tower or hookers. We ended up at a construction site and I did some portraits reflected in puddles and also a few images of construction, wood and metal scraps-all the while hoping the camera settings were right.
I still remember the smell and feeling of seeing the first roll of film come out of the tank. Under a looming deadline I then went into the darkroom to attempt to print something that wouldn’t result in an F. At some point you just had to choose something and put it out there for class critique.
(For those of you who have never done it, this is when you put your masterpiece on a board in front of the class for everyone to discuss, and basically tear down! The board was covered with the ubiquitous five pictures of the students car or motorcycle, five photos of pets and the one sunflower with a girlfriend superimposed in the middle which I am sure happens every Photo 101 first critique.)
I placed my photo in the corner hoping to not draw attention and escape without much notice. The class started talking about which pictures they liked the best, clever printing tricks and subjects which were typically lauded.
After some discussions, I was happy that my image remained anonymously ignored. That’s when Novak, who had been relatively quiet, directed the class to my image and asked what everyone thought of it. I had no idea what to expect, but was sure it wouldn’t be good.
What followed is the hour that probably changed my life. As only Novak could do, he talked about this photo and how it related in every way to the history of photography: he spoke of the power of the photograph and how it wasn’t about being pretty, rather about tones and composition. He explained why it was the best image on the board – while I shrinked into my chair hiding from the praise and attention. It was a lucky shot in the dark.
I have no idea what why I choose that image to put on the board that day. What I do know is that photography is not just a passion; it is the one career that I was destined for. For sure the technical aspects are a challenge for everyone, but that thing that makes a good photograph has always come fairly easy to me; it is a language that I understand very easily. I am also very confident that nobody else would have ever recognized my gift or taken the energy to pursue it enough to find out.
I know it would have been just as easy for James Novak to plod methodically along his way toward tenure, retirement or whatever personal goal drove him into the darkroom every day to supervise us while we struggled and ruined countless sheets of photo paper. But he didn’t.
I took three more semesters with our crew and Novak. Although he never said it, I knew he had been teaching for many years and was openly weary of the politics, coddling required toward students and just uninspired work. It would have been so easy for him to go through the motions, but after the first critique, he immediately challenged me with using a large format camera by saying, “I can let you use this, but I’m betting you won’t get a usable photo all year”. The good news was that this class had many creative and talented students who were serious about the craft – we became great friends and spent a considerable amount of time learning everything we could, with our “Captain, my Captain” at the helm.
I stopped by the campus many times over the years, but he was not there any longer and I have not spoken with him for probably 15 years. I just learned that he kept up with some of the other students, but I am certain her has no clue that I have and continued to labor passionately to perfect the art and craft of photography – a goal which is unattainable and probably why it is so consuming. I am a working professional and enjoy a fair amount of success in the field. As others in the industry know, just being able to make a living doing anything creative is a feat in itself.
Despite being seemingly unprepared for class and scrambling to find something to occupy our two hours, I am aware now that as with everything he did, it was a calculated plan. I am also keenly aware now that he didn’t just push me, he learned as much as he could about the type of person I was at that time and challenged me in a way different from others – a personalized gameplan.
I still photograph weddings remembering him telling us to put the camera to your face and focus on what happens inside of that square frame. That is truly one of the best ways to attempt to make a good photograph – it is that space that the world plays out in. I remember spending two hours in class listening to him talk while looking at stills from the history of photography that seemed more powerful than a motion picture. But also as important was photos of his Mom’s house as he found it after she passed and how deeply personal and important that photograph was to him. Those pictures still resonate with me as I photograph today.
In this season of Black Fridays, wish lists with gadgets and bad sweaters, I am hoping this letter serves to remind others to keep your senses open, be aware, as well as remaining open to give the best gift of all – yourself. Yeah, the big cliche moment, but true. You may never know how insignificant a moment may seem but in reality may be so powerful as to change someones life.
Most important however is that I am finally able to recognize this man and finally say, “Thank You.” I am not asking that others do a “Five Day Challenge” or pay it forward in any way, but just wanted to just take a minute to tell this story and reach that one person, or teacher, who needs to hear it.
I am still fascinated by the magic of photography, find myself peeking at the “digital negatives” before I go to sleep after a 14 hour wedding day. I LOVE what I do and am thankful that Novak identified and nurtured the one thing that I was destined to do for a living.
I still have this first photo and am looking forward to seeing you again soon and giving you the print for your wall! In the meantime, I will be out looking through my lens for “unique evidence of existence” and smiling.
Merry Christmas Everyone.
In 2008 I was fortunate to land an assignment in Chicago shooting a Kimpton Hotel the same week as the election. I knew months in advance that I was going to have an opportunity to capture unique moments in history-regardless of who won.
As the hotel began filling up with bloggers, writers and news photographers, I tried to call in some favors with friends who shoot for the NY Daily News, Getty Images, etc. to get press credentials to the northern part of Grant Park. After much effort, I resigned myself to the realty that there would be no ticket to the main event for a wedding photographer! So I moved to plan B knowing I would be hanging out with all the “commoners” who would be crowded into the other side.
In my fifteen years doing photography, my mantra has been that if someone is standing next to you with a camera shooting the same thing, you’re probably not in the right place. With this in mind, I was considering setting up a studio lighting station and doing some full length, perfectly lit portraits-but there was no power and schlepping a generator downtown wasn’t feasible. I decided to go as light as possible. I also had no idea whether I would be able to get into the park looking too professional and without a press pass.
Earlier in the day, I took a taxi to Obama’s precinct in an effort to get something different. I ended up talking with a polling station worker who captured Obama on her cell phone walking into the voting booth-I guess this is a bit different type of cell phone photography-picture of an actual cell phone? I kept looking for images throughout Chicago, but everything seem too contrived; usually between moments, I can shoot details or a fun portrait of the ring bearer in order to tell a story of the day. Some of the daytime portraits were part of the atmosphere in and around the city.
Following much deliberation, I headed out with one small camera bag, my new Nikon D-700 and a handfull of memory cards in order to capture history. Once inside the park, it was a surreal environment. Perhaps I looked the part, maybe it was the grey hair or my confident stride, but I gained access inside the roped areas and roamed wherever I wanted to capture these images.
As the night moved on, I studied almost everyone in order to be prepare for the moment the winner was announced. All the years spent photographing weddings, ceremonies, environmental portraits and composing architecture went into capturing these historic photographs; most of which I have never shown to anyone until now.
Once I returned to the hotel, the atmosphere was energized with those who spend their lives creating news. All the photographers with credentials informed me they were so far away from the President giving his speech, unable to move from the bleachers and only able to get images on their 400mm zoom lenses-which still weren’t that effective. Turns out that being denied credentials was one of the best things that could’ve happened!
Some of the additional images included in this gallery have been made within the last four years. However “mushy” this may sound, although this glimpse of epic moments in history are compelling, I believe the portraits and weddings stories I have captured over the last four years are more meaningful in telling the story of America-one family at a time. I love what I do!