My friend Carlos has asked me about how I got my career started. I have talked about part of the story before. Now here is some more of it.
I can’t really say that I was planning on taking pictures for a living or that I even knew that was a worthy goal. Sounds funny now, looking back on more than thirty years of work: translite photography on more than two hundred and forty feature films and some significant television series. Sounds like I am bragging. Okay, sure. But for me, it sort of just happened…
I came to California to go to school. I was a religious sort of guy and did the church thing, if you will. I know it is not considered polite to talk about religion or politics in genteel company, and maybe even a bit dangerous in Hollywood, so I will just ask you to forebear my oafish behavior, maybe even skip the parts that you think are silly and just jump down to the pictures. For the rest of you really tolerant folks, here is a bit more of the story.
I was encouraged to come to a Christian college by my church. My mom and dad really did not say much about what I should do or even that they wanted me to do a particular job or career, but in my family, we were just expected to go to college. Somewhere. In fact, I seem to remember that 90% of the graduates on John Marshall High in Rochester started college somewhere. My youth pastor pushed me into going to Los Angeles Baptist College (LABC) in Newhall. I was okay with it. California was the subject of popular song and aspirational dreams of many a Minnesota boy. California Dreamin’ was more than a song to us. I could imagine seeing the sun almost every day and not having to forsake its rays for months at a time. Very attractive idea. So off I went.
I really fit in pretty well. I found my self to be an average fish in a small pond. Little tiny school. And I picked a small major, Biology. We often had just a handful of people in my upper division classes. And we really knew our professors. Dr. George Howe was the department chair, a botanist. My sophomore year he did something special for me. He bought me a set of tires for my car so I could continue to drive to school. Really. He loved field trips and so we often went cruising the chapparral in his Chevy van. I think that chapparal was a code-word for desert, at least it seemed that way. Pretty hot for a Minnesotan. But I got used to it. And I got to know Placerita Canyon a bit. Home of the Oak of the Golden Dream, one of the coast live oaks. I spent the day in Placerita on Monday of this week at the Disney Ranch doing a promo for Lifetime. Brought back good memories to sit beneath the coast live oaks, Quercas agrifolia. It was in this canyon that gold was first discovered in California. And home to LABC, my college.
So, why did I tell you all this stuff? (Hey, its my blog, okay?) But really, it was here that my career journey began. We had a requirement to do a “Christian service assignment” every week. We had to turn in a slip of paper to Mrs. Button every time. True story. I pulled a good one. There was a family in Saugus that had an afternoon Bible club for kids in the neighborhood. And they had asked for a helper. Enter me. Every Thursday afternoon I was picked up and spent the time with the Joneses. I learned quickly that if I dawdled a bit, I could hang around to eat supper with them. They had five kids and were a great source of friendship and home cooking. More on the Joneses below.
So, being a tiny school, when they needed a photographer, they could use me. I didn’t have to be great, I just had to want to learn more. And the school had a darkroom. So I guess I knew more than anyone else; not a big statement, but true. And I could shoot film and process it as my work study job. Interesting program. The government paid a big share of the wage and the school got to have us help where needed. And I learned more. I suppose that there are things like this today. I learned Ektachrome processing and did some color printing with my little Unicolor drum. Mostly used the Nikons and sometimes my Rolleiflex. I had discovered color correction filters. I could use a 20M (magenta) to control the excess green color in classroom lighting. Hey, I was the expert. One filter and I had it licked. I even did some illustration photography for a textbook that Dr. Howe edited. Plants. Horsetail ferns with pop apart stems, among others. I studied the wild mustard flowers with some help from the Hoya filter folks. I got a B-390 and a U-360, mounted them to my Nikon, and could actually record on film the nectar guides on the flowers that were almost invisible to the human eye. Honeybees see about like Mr. Magoo or Don Quixote. They need nectar guides. Like we need golden arches. But I digress…
As a young man, I heard the saying, “It’s not what you know it’s who you know.” I really did not care for that idea much. Didn’t seem fair to me. But it turned out to be how I found my career. I took five years to complete my four year degree in Biology. And we hung around for a bit more so that my wife could finish school. In 1975 I set out for Minnesota again. I did not last too long, surviving a summer job at Libby’s canning factory as a seam checker and then selling men’s suits for JC Penney for a few months. I just did not see much future in those things. I did better in Los Angeles, working at a camera store. So I returned to Reseda Photo. I loved photography and found myself happy among the years of dust in the back shelves and straightening around the darkroom chemicals and generally spouting out my knowledge to listening ears. Still just making enough to pay rent and buy film and paper. Oh, and a little food. My wife had asked me on the long drive to Minnesota what I would do if I could do anything I wanted to do. Out popped, “Work for Bob Jones.” Remember the Joneses? Bob had a gift of encouraging people. Guess I needed what he had. So, one day he came to Reseda Photo and asked me to lunch. “Would I manage a Christian bookstore for him if he opened one?” I said yes.
So I went to work for Bob. I met a lot of interesting folks. He kept me busy for a few years. Something happened to his family and to mine. His dad and mom passed away. Part of their estate was Pacific Studios, a specialty company that made translite backgrounds for the movies. In my family, Terri and I had twins, making the count of kids go to three. I needed more income. And Bob thought I might work out to help them at Pacific. He and his sister could use someone who they knew and trusted to be in there. I fit the bill. I got hired because of knowing someone, not so much something.
But I did have an 8X10 camera of my own and had actually shot pictures with it before I started at Pacific Studios. Maybe less than ten sheets of film. That was more than most had done. And I understood how it worked and how to use it. I knew how to level the back and load the holders. And I could shoot film with confidence. I knew light meters and darkrooms.
Long ago, people would refer to “8X10 glossies” as a way to talk about a professionally made prints. The gloss could be increased by drying the paper on a ferrotype tin. This process made the picture really shiny. Then the offset camera man could shoot plates with a halftone screen so that the pictures could be printed on paper, like in newspapers and magazines.
What I shot was 8X10 sheet film. And then I projection printed it onto the translite film to make the background pictures. I located a copy negative for the first motion picture work I ever did recently and will present it here. There are two shots from Riverside, California.
This was the view towards the Riverside Courthouse from the feature film Buddy, Buddy, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, directed by Billy Wilder. The Production Designer who hired me to make it was Daniel Lomino, oscar nominated for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I did get a praise for the backings on stage from Billy Wilder. For a kid (of about 29?), it was gratifying.
Not all goes well with work. I had a problem. We had to print them in two parts, as they were longer than our darkroom allowed (only 30′ long). And for some reason, we were not set up to color them at that length. (These were black and white images that were typically hand tinted with oils on the back to make them a “colored translite.”) I told the Production Designer that we needed to do this on the stage. He asked me an important question. “How long would it take to color the middle area?” I was not a scenic artist, so I asked the one who did our work. He told me it would take two hours. So I reported that to Mr. Lomino. Two hours. Later I talked with him. He told me it had taken four hours. Normally one might imagine that a couple of extra hours would not be a problem. And one would be wrong. The extra two hours came as a delay in the shooting of the film by the company. That was unacceptable to anybody. I am sure it cost somebody some serious money. And it cost me the relationship. Mr. Lomino never called me again.
I learned a lesson here. Don’t ever be late and build in more time than someone tells you it will take. Oh, and maybe, don’t believe everyone you work with. As you can see, I am not a perfect person. I strive for excellence. Someone has said, “Nobody bats a thousand.”
So I came to work at Pacific Studios because of someone I knew. And that person trusted me. I ended up in photography because I loved it. Still do. I could have imagined some other work, doing good and helping people in need or the sick. I can always do those things to my fellows here. And I believe that I should. We all have the opportunity.
The old advice still holds true. “Pick a job that you would do anyway, even if they didn’t pay you.” Maybe we can remember to say that to a young person sometime soon.