Once you get good at something, it’s easy to become arrogant about your skills and their value. When I entered the photojournalism program as a junior at Syracuse University, I reeked of self-importance. I convinced the head of the department that I didn’t need the rudimentary introduction to darkroom techniques class, so was given permission to bypass everyone else and go right to work. With an air of superiority, I carried my enlarging supplies past my classmates as they prepared for their tutorial. Haughtily walking down the hallway towards the darkroom, I forgot that there was an abrupt left turn and marched directly into the wall, snapping my glasses in half.
I got exactly the humiliation I deserved -- but it did not seem to the impart the impact it should have had on this 19 year old. Being the only arbiter of value in the universe, I decided which classes and assignments merited my undivided attention. I had nothing but contempt for people who hadn’t reached my ‘level’ yet, and nothing but unbridled ‘envy’ for those who surpassed my skill set.
Some of the required classes made me wince: I was told my education would not be complete without an intro ‘Art’ class. I had absolutely no interest in anything other than photography. The one project I submitted for my grade was actually a tonal chart made in the color darkroom. My arrogance was so extreme that I attended my ‘final’ with a shopping bag filled with two pounds of Mexican marijuana I had acquired from my friend Karl on the way to class that morning. My project bought me an ‘A’, and by lunchtime, it wasn’t even a wisp of a memory.
I was also forced (at gun point if memory serves me) to take a film class. Having as much need for a 16mm film camera as I did for a swimsuit in winter, I trudged through the course, eliciting as much mental anguish as I could muster. Our final project was a three-minute-long film, of a topic of our choosing. Looking for the easy way out again, I went into the photo studio with a buddy of mine (actually a very good natured guy) who possessed the physiognomy and wardrobe of a bank robber cum axe murderer. I had him read a deathly dark poem. The first two-and-one-half-minutes of my ‘movie’ was total darkness, prompting my instructor to inquire if there was a technical issue. Assuring him there wasn’t, we continued. The last 30 seconds (which I actually shot) was of Jim hanging from a noose in the studio as the monologue droned on. The teacher threw an incredulous stare my way and awarded me a ‘C’ for my efforts, far more than I deserved.
We were given an assignment to interview someone in the field of photojournalism. I choose the publisher of a major magazine located in New York City. The interview was intended to occur over Thanksgiving break, and I headed to the big city with three of my friends in tow, dropping them off at various location on the way there. I never made it to the interview. Creating a dialogue off the top of my head, I contrived a question-and-answer session so stunningly good it was read by my professor before the entire class as a distinguished piece of journalism. I spent my time in the city roaming the streets looking for film fodder. I found plenty. Walking into the public library, I sat down across from an older gentleman intensely perusing a book. I carefully photographed him, got up and left.
While I treasured this image, it received scathing reviews from some of my classmates, claiming I shot with too long of a lens, causing proportion errors between the hands and the face. The citizen in question actually had massive hands, but my defense was shot down. I received a B+, which I considered to be an ignominious failure.
I continued my mission to become a recognized street photographer during my two-year stint at the university. While an admirable number of commercial courses where available to help me learn the tools of the trade, my head was elsewhere. No one had told me that after graduation I was going to actually have to secure employment to make a living. Talk about a rude awakening.
I took the requisite journalism courses to round out my photography skills with commensurate classes in writing. I eschewed the use of the clanky and clunky mechanical typewriters we were forced to use, knowing full well that one of the graduation requirements was the ability to type 30 words per minute error free. When it came time for this tour de force, I enlisted my friend Ric. He had already passed the exam; we used each other’s names; took the test and switched papers. I turned in his perfectly worded example and he quietly folded up my page and stuffed into his back pocket.
No diploma without his assistance. Thank you Ric. I still hunt and peck on the keyboard today, 50 years later.