Up until the age of 28 when I entered graduate film school, just about every major decision I made was wrong. I’m not kidding. I had a true love for still photography, but ended up majoring in philosophy in college. My schooling was so erratic that I can barely keep track of it.
Let’s take it from the start. I was a poor student in elementary school. I never studied unless it was the night before, or in one instance where I had a crush on my teacher and out of the blue began to get A’s in physics of all things. That only lasted until I saw my teacher drive off with her boyfriend in a small sports car.
They assigned me to play the trombone in the school orchestra. I hated the instrument, but never protested. I also never practiced. When it was time to take tests to get into a specialized high school, such as music and art, I auditioned as a trombone player.
I had by that time been doing still photography for a few years, but it never dawned on me to try and get in based on this love. Instead I blasted the audition committee with a few bars of something and was quickly rejected. Why didn’t I just bring in some of my early photos; some of which still hang on walls of family members; and which later would help me get into film school?
I asked my father why would I have done that? His theory was that I simply had no idea of the future. But had there been some guidance counselor, or somebody who could’ve seen what I liked to do – things might’ve been different. I never spoke to anyone, not a guidance counselor, and not my parents, about which high school would be best for me.
My grades weren’t good enough to get into any decent high school, and I ended up in a rough high school called Clinton where everything revolved around sports and there was a lot of gang activity, and I spent most of my time just trying not to get beat up. I think back on my three years at DeWitt Clinton as prison time. I’ve spoken with others who went to the school at the same time as me, who had a great time there and have fond memories of the place. I don’t.
So then it came time to go to college. I just wanted to go to a school nearby, which turned out to be Lehman College. I remember standing in the crowded gym during registration, and you had to pick a major. There were long lines for the popular majors, such as literature, film & television, and so not wanting to stand on a long line, I picked my major – philosophy – because it was the shortest line during the admissions process. The idea of taking media studies or anything creative was just beyond my comprehension. I was standing still, but I was an unguided missle careening in the wrong direction?
To make things worse, I become something of a star in the undergraduate philosophy classes. I read the great philosophers and was eager to talk about them in class. I was especially good at logic and the professors kept giving me high marks. One day, after two years at Lehman, my philosophy teacher suggested that I change schools and go to the University of Buffalo which had a world-class philosophy department (whatever that means).
That was my next, and possibly biggest mistake. Yes, in the scheme of things, going to Buffalo to study philosophy was just stupid. Everything went wrong.
I think it was at my first high-level philosophy seminar, sitting in a room with eight other students and the professor, when a bolt of philosophic lightning struck me: philosophy was about building houses and waiting for the next philosopher to knock them down. Truth couldn’t be discovered through this sort of study. Whatever first principle you might hold on to, would eventually be overturned by the next architect.
I hated Buffalo. First off, it meant paying for school (nothing by todays standards), and that is something that my father is not exactly up to. It’s one thing to grow up in a poor family. It’s another thing to be on your own and poor. I end up taking all sorts of odd jobs, including for a while playing chess for money.
I never felt so alone being away from my family and neighborhood for the first time. Because I was in the cheap dorms, my neighbors turned out to be drug dealers and thieves. I fall in with them for a while, writing volumes in my journals about the goings on. Someday, I’ll put this in a book I tell myself. But I never do.
Since philosophy has lost it’s sheen, I take up literature.
Here I fall in with a different crowd, equally dangerous: everyone wanted to be a writer. All they talked about was dropping out of school and writing books. And so, with one semester left to get my dual philosophy / literature degree, I made the next big mistake: I dropped out of Buffalo.
Oh, my poor father. What I put him through. I had no money for train fare (Buffalo is a long distance from NYC) and in a blizzard, I hitched home. I arrived back in the Bronx a shell of my former self. Cold, wet, and utterly defeated.
It was around this time that I moved into an apartment in Flushing Queens with Lester. That year or so could be a book in itself; but for now I’ll just skip to the next mistake which was that I was for the first time getting the idea of becoming a photographer. Again, without guidance, and surely I wouldn’t have asked for any, I went about it in a half-assed way.
I looked in the newspaper want-ads for photographer trainees but never saw any positions. One day I see a want-ad for a chemical mixer in a big photo lab in Manhattan. Not exactly photography, but close. Again, I’m at the bottom, but I believe that somehow I’ll inch my way into the profession.
What does mixing chemicals in a photo lab have to do with creative photography? Uhm, nothing. But after mixing chemicals in a big vat of witches brew with a plastic paddle for 3 months, I’m promoted to color printer for commercial accounts.
For days on end, I print Pan Am ads. In the history of the company, I was the first one to ever make it out of the chemical mixing room into the printing room. That was the beginning of another odd pattern. I began jobs at the bottom, worked my way to the top, and then quit. I was always a good worker. I could do mundane tasks or complex tasks. But what I couldn’t figure out was how to do that creative thing, whatever it was at the time, for a living.
Somewhere in the period, I also worked as a can-carrier in a motion picture lab. (There’s a good Jerry Lewis movie about this). All I can remember from this period was riding the train back to Queens, and having hallucinations where all the straphangers became cans of film.
And since I was living in Queens, I did take two courses at Queens College. What they were, or why I took them, I have no idea. Probably to please my father.
After quitting the printing job, and the can carrying job, I did ask my father for help. Being a social worker, he pulled some strings and I wound up as – maybe this was the bottom – a mental health therapy aide (orderly) at Kings County Psychiatric Hospital.
Do you remember that old show Quincy where the would-be coroners are shown fainting away at the sight of their first corpse. My introduction to Kings County was a visit to the ward where they kept patients who were in the final stages of syphilis. Half the inductees quit that day.
I was thinking that this would be good experience for a writer, and that the writer should experience everything. I was assigned to the night shift. I’ll tell you one quick story. One night, I’m in the ward alone, when three cops arrive with a guy handcuffed behind his back. They pass through the two security doors, and tell me to sign for the guy. I ask why he’s being brought here and they tell me that he just murdered his wife, and needs to be held for psychiatric evaluation. With that, they remove the cuffs, and leave him in my charge. He’s a small heavily muscled guy who just stares at me without moving. I suppose I was just waiting to be killed. The other orderlies are off somewhere, probably selling drugs they were stealing from the hospital. So he continues to stare at me for an eternity, and then moves slowly into a corner of the empty ward and begins doing push-ups; counting off each one. He does a lot of push-ups, then he turns and says to me: I need to do that, otherwise I might hurt someone again. I move slowly into the nurses station, lock the door behind me and watch him through the glass. He sits down in a chair and just stares off into space for a while. Then puts his head in his hands and begins weeping. I still remember that sound and how it echoed through the halls.
I won’t go into what happened in that hell hole other than to say, I never wrote about it because – even though I was on the other side of the glass – it was difficult to know who was more dangerous, the patients or the staff.
After a few months of the night shift, I give up on the idea of experiencing everything, and went back to Buffalo to try and finish my degree for one semester. Now – get this. I was so screwed up, that I finished the semester, but didn’t turn in one last English paper I needed to graduate. I couldn’t bring myself to write the last paper – which of all things was on Kafka (one of my favorite authors at the time).
So by this time, I’m coming back to the city, maybe I’m 25 and I still don’t have a college degree and no ideas about jobs; but the writing kick has returned so I look for jobs at publishing houses.
Another mistake: I get a job as an order clerk. I copy ISBN numbers from one piece of paper to another. From one box to another. But I have a plan. I make an arrangement with the boss to work there for one year if he’ll agree to fire me so that I can get unemployment insurance.
The truth is, I never could find anything that I liked doing and get paid for it. My boss follows through with the plan and after one year I end up in a basement apartment in the Bronx trying to write. And trying is the operative word. Now that the pressure is on, I have nothing but writer’s block. I torture myself over every word. After a year, I’ve only written one very short story and unemployment insurance is used up.
And finally, I don’t know how the I got the idea, I try to get into graduate film school. Only problem is that I still don’t have my undergraduate degree. I dash off a paper on Kafka in one night. My adviser at Buffalo says that I had been one week away from not being able to graduate when the paper came in. But it’s accepted and I get my degree.
With that I apply to NYU Graduate School. Somewhere during this time I had written a very long screenplay with Lester that was about 450 pages long. I used to write my scenes every day on the train going to the publishing house. So with that screenplay and a bunch of photographs, many taken when I was 15, and a film I had made as a teenager, I was accepted into NYU.
The head of NYU has gives me a personal interview (which I find out was rare) and tells me that although the script isn’t very good, anyone that could put so much effort into a script should at least be given a chance.
Only problem was money. So at 26 years old, I talked my parents into letting me move back home for one year so that I could work (at the publishing company) and have enough money to get me through the first year at Grad. School along with loans.
That was the first thing that I did right.
When others were getting places in their careers, I entered NYU Grad. School, and for the very first time in my life – found something, some place, that I enjoyed and where I fit in. I loved it there.
After running out of money, I began another long string of menial and manual sorts of jobs in the film business: carrying sandbags to hold down equipment; and eventually worked my way up to gaffer, and grip and got more and more responsibility. I was offered a job as cameraman on a low-budget comedy – and here was my next mistake. I turned it down. Why? That I do remember. I wanted to be able to express my own voice. The cameraman, or lighting director were at the whim of the director, script, actors. You could do beautiful work in the service of pure crap. So I left that part of the business and started writing screenplays.
That was not a mistake, because eventually one of the screenplays was picked up by a major studio and a famous director and had the green light when Lee Marvin (who was going to star in the movie) died. Then the whole deal fell apart. Okay, not a mistake, but anyone with any real drive would’ve gone on and done another script, or whatever it took. I was so sick of writing that I gave it up completely.
Around this time, owing money to the bank for my student loans from film school, my loan went into default, and whatever money I had in the bank was frozen. I got to a point where I didn’t have money to look for a job. And therein is another series of pretty demeaning jobs for someone that had been at NYU Film School. The low point was working as a secretary for a public relations firm. I would have to make coffee for guys that were holding meetings that were much younger than me. This was the low point. This was that Gone With the Wind moment where you say: I will never go hungry again.
And that’s where the computer programming episodes come in. I went back to school at night and studied programming at Columbia University. I had to start at the bottom yet again. And I did.
So let’s just put an ellipse in now… and maybe I’ll fill in the part about how I actually wound up doing photography again…
But to arrive at a point where I’m doing what I want to; where I wake up looking forward to the day; that has not come about easily. I was in the car the other day when Frank Sinatra was on the radio singing, My Way. Talk about my way…
And so here I sit, with requests for advice coming in all the time about how to become a professional photographer. Do you really think, after reading this, that I’m the best one to ask? Did the route need to be as rough as it was? How much of all those experiences that I can only touch on here are related to my shooting? A lot. And I haven’t even touched on all the personal dramas that went on with family and love interests during this time.
But I do have one bit of advice though. If you are doing what you enjoy, whether it’s a hobby (I don’t like that name) or for a living, then whatever happens you can’t really have any regrets. It’s when you go into something that you think you’re supposed to be doing, but that rubs you the wrong way, that you look back and wish you had at least continued with your passion. And it doesn’t mean becoming a professional. I shot stills at every opportunity for ten plus years before the idea of making a living at it became a possibility. And how can I look back at those years with regret? In the case of photography, it just means that you keep on shooting.