Thanksgiving 1972 was a pivotal time in my life. Returning home for the weekend, I knew that I was facing flunking out of college after only one semester. A long conversation with a friend that weekend convinced me to transfer to the local community college and switch majors from International Relations to Mass Media.
After developing my first roll of film, it was obvious I had found the correct path forward. This photograph came from that first roll of film. The subject was Judy Tedder. A decade afterwards we married.
The photography department at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in Trenton, NJ didn’t believe in lectures. Yes, there was some ‘class’ time, but the real instructions took place as William Barksdale and Stuart Thomas would sit on stools outside the darkroom, reviewing wet prints straight out of the fixer. One day, after I had struggled for over an hour to get a print I was satisfied with, Stuart nodded his head and said “Yup. That’s one way to print it”. Valuable lesson learned.
During this time the late Louie Dimitia and I took Saturday morning workshops with Jim Coleman at his home in Belle Mead. A psychologist and photographer, Jim brought a unique and very opinionated perspective to those Saturday discussions. He believed that an artist does not 'own' the meaning of a work. Rather, when a viewer looks at a work of art, the viewer interprets it from his or her own perspective. That's probably why I prefer to 'name' my photographs simply by identifying where and when there were taken.
Oftentimes Louie and I would, upon arriving early, open the back door, stepping over Hush, Jim’s killer dog and make coffee, shouting to Jim 'wake the fuck up'.
The highlight of those countless Saturday mornings was the morning Jim arranged to have George Krause join us. We silently cried hearing him speak of the time someone broke into his rented car and made off with six months worth of negatives and work prints.
When the summer of 1974 arrived, I decided to spend the next year working, saving up money to attend a four year school. So the next year was spent working in the Congo. Not the Congo in Africa, but Congoleum Linoleum in Trenton. I was told that I was the first new, full-time hire in a decade. While I doubt if that was true, but by the end of the summer the factory floor was divided between those with 15 years or more experience, and, for lack of a better description, college dropouts and druggies. One friend would take aside every new hire, hand them a map of all the hiding spots in the factory, telling them to memorize and burn it. While working in the Congo, Matt Olszak and I drove into Philadelphia one Saturday and purchased almost matcing Rollei SL35’s (mine was silver; Matt's was black). Louie totally loved to pronounce the name of the 25mm lens I purchased, “Distagon!” he would shout with wild abandon.
During that period Louie and I continued to devote most Saturday’s to photography. Many mornings were spent at the Englishtown Flea Market in central Jersey. The cold winter days there brought the best memories, such as the older man laying beneath a blanket on a couch, yelling at his sons to throw more wood into the 55 gallon metal drums; or the woman in tears we met near the end of the day. She had arrived to setup her table before sunrise, when the weather was in the 40’s. She drove into a large patch of mud just behind her table, and thought she could get help moving the car at the end of the day. She didn’t count on a cold front moving in. By the time we crossed paths, what was once mud halfway up her rear wheels was frozen solid. Lacking shovels, we shrugged our shoulders and walked on.
In October 1974, Matt Olszak and I flew up to Halifax to visit the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. We were well received and informed that the school reviewed applications as soon as they arrived. While Matt and I were having dinner one night in Halifax, a waitress walked in the front door for the beginning of her shift. Her appearance brought out a huge smile from one of the waiters. His smile quickly disappeared as he waved and said “Hi Mary (or whatever her name was) as she walked past as if he didn’t exist.
My application was sent in early November. Not hearing anything by April, I submitted an application to the Center for Photographic Studies in Louisville, KY, and was accepted within a week. Within a few days, I finally heard from Nova Scotia, wondering why I had never responded to their letter of acceptance. By that time my heart was set on Kentucky, so off I went in August 1975.
Moving to Louisville was the first time living on my own. The first night or two was spent in the downtown YMCA while looking for an apartment. Ended up with a furnished apartment in a carriage house just off of Cherokee Park. $75.00 a month. While I enjoyed living in Louisville, other than some casual portraits of fellow students and the staff, there is very little of the work done there worth looking at. The one exception was a photograph taken one evening during a trip to Chicago. I was walking past a hotel and spotted a wedding / reception through a window. The photograph could have been a still from 'Stella Dallas'.
The Center was the creation of C.J. Pressma, a Louisville native. Housed in an older building near the waterfront, it brought together a small and eclectic group of dedicated young photographers. It felt more like a collective than a school.
After one semester I decided that I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree. As a non-accredited school, the Center was not in a position to award one. So back home to suburban Trenton it was, where I spent the winter and spring working as an assistant to the college photographer, and putting together a portfolio which was sufficient to gain admission to Cooper Union in New York City. A couple of the answers on the application may have helped as well. To “What do you do better than anyone else?” I answered, “Grow hair on my face. And to “What religion are you?” I answered “unorthodox Trotskyist.”
While the two years at Cooper improved my art, my attention and time was split between photography and politics. As someone who has always been interested in history, some of my best work done at Cooper are the casual portraits / snapshots of students and professors, capturing a period of life as an art student in the East Village in the mid-1970’s.
Living in the city reinforced the approach to photography first developed at MCCC; quick and casual compositions with a reportorial approach … never crop, use natural lighting as much as possible and never use a studio. When I think of the work done during that time, the time at Cooper always merges with the two years spent in the city and across the river in Hoboken afterwards as a single stream. My best work was done walking the streets, camera in hand. One of the classes was led by Joel Meyerowitz. This was my first experience working seriously in color. Without meaning to, I violated two of his firmly held beliefs; never include words in a photograph, and the image must always be sharp. Another class was led by Eve Sonneman, a sweet, sweet lady.
As a graduation present, my older sister Polly gave me a Rollei 35. Dear God, what a terrific camera. When it was lost a decade ago my heart was broken. When son #1 gave me a Rollei 35 as a Christmas present in 2015, I screamed with joy. While I enjoy my digital Nikon SLR, it’s nothing compared to the Rollei SL35, the Rollei 35 and the Kowa 6 in my collection.