The Story Behind the Stories (Part Eleven)
Some of my professors at Syracuse University found me to be quite disturbing and disruptive. I tended to push the boundaries of photography to explore different ways of adding visual oomph to the process of communicating within that medium.
What they found disturbing was that I tended to set trends that were adopted in toto by many of my classmates. My black and white printing style (using ultra high contrast paper), which I employed immediately on returning home from our semester abroad, drew me into a one sided verbal altercation with a photography professor who publicly denounced my photographs, much to the dismay of everyone else in the journalism school who immediately adopted my techniques – and were still being used in the darkroom by the next class, which I saw first hand when I returned for a visit a couple of years after graduation.
Europe in 1970 was such an intense experience for me that it only seemed natural to employ a technique that caused my photos to scream rather than whisper.
I took normal, stood it on its head, shaking the change out of its pockets all over the floor.
I almost got booted from a required course by publishing the first full frontal nude seen in the United States, years ahead of John Lennon’s sans clothes image with Yoko Ono on his album cover. The assignment was to create a magazine cover. I chose to use a photo of a nude female student with a paper bag over her head. The theme was an imaginary album cover for the rock group “The Mothers of Invention”, entitled “In a Plain Brown Wrapper.” If you are familiar with Frank Zappa’s music and career, you can understand how this image would have been a perfect fit for them.
When the time came for a class discussion of everyone’s work, my layout was missing. The teacher explained that I was given an ‘F’ on the project for the blatant, provocative nudity, never seen before. While I was doing a slow burn (certainly not my first at the university – I had several clashes with teachers in different departments over their antiquated definitions of ‘art’), the other students in the room began to get agitated and vocal.
What absolutely positively blew me away during this class discussion was that without any prodding from me, the rest of the students demanded to see my layout so they could judge the level of offensiveness themselves. It was the first time I saw that spontaneous level of support from a group of my peers, and it was most exhilarating.
As the professor went around the room permitting each student to render judgement regarding the way I completed the assignment, my scowl turned to a definitive smile very quickly. The professor was so impressed with the genuine exhibition of support that he decided on a compromise. He withdrew the ‘F’ from the assignment and simply did not give me a grade at all for this project.
Lenses for cameras run the gamut from ultra wide angle (around 17mm) to extremely long telephoto (500mm). The 50mm lens is considered ‘normal’ and was what 90% of the class used 90% of the time they completed their assignments. I did not like this perspective (still don’t), so I created a new one with the extreme wide angle 20mm lens my father bought for me in Tokyo. When used correctly – it is very important to keep the lens absolutely perpendicular to the horizon to avoid distortion, it renders an amazing perspective, especially when used around 6-8 feet from the subject.
Walking the streets of Munich permitted me the opportunity to focus on people engaged in their typical day to day activities. Once you become adept at using this wide-angle lens, there is no need to even raise the camera to eye level to compose your photo. It has enormous depth of field, so virtually everything his sharp when the focusing ring is pre-set to about 6-8 feet. I laugh about it now – I designed the first auto focus camera 40 years before the advent of digital, auto everything photography!
It was unusual for me to have color loaded – 95% of my work was black and white, so when I spied this young boy with blue pants, a red cap, and a yellow balloon in hand, I threw myself into first gear and smashed down on the throttle.
Holding the camera in front of me at mid chest height, I snapped a single image as we strolled past one another. The wide angle created the perspective I was looking for, and I was overjoyed after editing the roll of film after development. The image had such a dramatic effect on my classmates that one of my friends adopted this perspective for the photos he created as a National Geographic photographer for over 30 years.
While I don’t claim to be an innovator of anything photographic, it was amusing to see the reactions of so many people to the techniques I employed in an attempt to define I guess what you would call a style of seeing for myself. The 20mm lens became one of my best friends for a very long time.
Florence Italy, 1970
Paris, France, 1970
Newark Airport, 1997
San Francisco Airport, 1996