Archive for house organs

Photojournalism, house organs and the kid…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 7, 2015 by wordsandpixels

Flushing, NY — April, 1963 — I walked cautiously, full of fear; the steel I-beam beneath my feet was only about a foot wide. Underneath the I-beam lay 360 feet of nothingness. You looked down and your stomach filled with butterflies and your head spun around until you were dizzy. Yesterday, a steelworker fell to his death. I didn’t see him fall but I heard — and felt — the dull thud of his body hitting the dirt earth.

I am atop the mess of girders, cables and cement that will become Shea Stadium, a $24.5 million, 55,300-seat baseball stadium in Flushing, New York. I am here because a friend of my father advised me that if I wanted to earn some money — a lot of money it turned out — the way to do that was to take pictures and write articles about various products being to used to construct or make the stadium come to life. It turned out to be like shooting fish in a barrel. Fun. Creative. That experience was to set the stage for the rest of my career.

There are many definitions for the word photojournalist. One is a photographer who shoots photo essays for magazines like LIFE, LOOK, or NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. But since the former two are out of business and the third was just sold to Rupert Murdoch, perhaps we ought to look elsewhere for our definition. So maybe it’s a photographer who tells story with his or her pictures. That works. In my case, I can add the ability to write stories to accompany your pictures. Thanks to my father. He taught me to write, take pictures and sail. All useful skills. He also taught be how to paint houses and boats, but that’s another story.

The reason I’m telling you this story is, in 1963, every company that made a product also published at least one magazine. Some published more than one. Some, like IBM, published magazines (theirs was called “THINK”) that rivaled LIFE and LOOK for art direction, writing and quality of photojournalism. There were so many magazines that a man named Con Gebbie published a catalogue of them. You guessed it; my father introduced me to Mr. Gebbie.

“Kid,” he explained, “it’s real simple. Find yourself a big construction project and get someone to write you a letter of introduction. Now go down and take some general pictures of the overall project. Write what we call a ‘boilerplate’ story about who, why, what, when and where of the project. Now take some specific pictures of the manufacturer’s products. Write captions for all the photos, and write a letter to the editor of the company magazine, which is called a house organ. Put everything in an envelope and mail it to the editor. I guarantee that most editors will pay you good money for your hard work.”

“You’re kidding, right?” was all I could muster for an answer.

“Nope. Take my word for it. It works,” was his answer, and it was all I needed to get going.

When I got to the construction site, the general contractor gave me a hardhat and told me not to hurt myself. Over the course of that summer I took pictures of every product I could find. U.S. Steel. Goodyear tires. Caterpillar tractors. Even Sloan urinals. MamiyaI used a Mamiya C2 camera to take those pictures; it was a beater 120 roll film twin-lens-reflex with interchangeable lenses. I had three: a 65mm wide angle, an 80 mm normal, and a 180mm telephoto.

I was fortunate to meet a really helpful guy whose job it was to take x-rays of the steel welds. He had a van outfitted with a complete darkroom to process the x-ray film. We became fast friends and the passenger seat in his van became by office, my home away from home. It was also a great place to get out of the hot sun.

Every night I would go to my real home on Long Island, in the darkroom built by my dad and me, and develop the film I shot and make the prints to send the editors. I would stay up late at night typing captions for the photos and letters to the editors to sell the story.

Mr. Gebbie was right. Those editors welcomed the fruits of my labor. In the course of that spring, summer and fall I earned over $7,000. Before you reach for your calculator let me tell you that’s about $50,000 in today’s dollars. Not bad for a 15-year old kid from Bayside, Long Island, New York.

Although I thanked Mr. Gebbie with a letter and a phone call, those thanks paled next to the long-term effect he had on my career as a photojournalist. And the photojournalism of 2015 may be light years away from that of 1963, but the art of story telling is not.

The author at “Dinoland” in 1964, at the New York World’s Fair.

The author at “Dinoland” in 1964, at the New York World’s Fair.

The following summer I worked as a photojournalist for the Sinclair Oil Company, at the New York World’s Fair. More about that in the next installment.