How I Launched My Career as a Fine Art Photographer
“That’s a crap shot,” Dad said looking at my 8 x 10 black and white photograph I shot of people in the distance walking away.
I was eager to share with my parents my photos I had not only shot but developed and printed in the darkroom in school.
“What about this one?” I asked as I presented him with a landscape image.
“Another crap shot,” he continued. “Who cares about this background? No one’s in it.”
For Dad a good picture was your subject facing you as they stood in front of a recognizable landmark, sign or location posed and smiling. He was our family’s photographer and cameraman. From the minute I was born Dad was using an 8 mm Keystone film camera to document our family. On rare occasions he would hand it to Mom to shoot him. Invariably, he’d yell at Mom as he waved his hand in frustration. It’s uncanny how you could hear his screaming even though the film was silent.
Dad had a couple of still cameras. One was a Polaroid. I loved when he would peel off the top layer of film and watch the image appear. It was like magic.
Thinking I might have found a picture Dad would like, I pulled it out of my Iford photo paper box and placed it on the kitchen table. It was a high contrast black and white print of my boyfriend’s profile. There was no gradation and he had an androgynous look.
“What is this? A man? A woman? You can’t see anything. Another crap shot.”
I didn’t take Dad’s comments personally. He saw photography differently than I did. This was 1972. I was seventeen years old, a freshman at Harpur College often misheard of as Harvard and majoring in Fine Arts. I was thrilled to be two hundred miles away from home. For the first time in my life, I was living with like- minded people. I weighed 105 pounds, was 5’4” and had brunette hair down to my waist, which I was no longer straightening. Mom always liked to say my hair was as wide as it was long. It was a source of contention. If I didn’t want a fight when I went home, I would gather my unruly otherwise known as frizzy, perfect hippie hair in a ponytail.
It was spring break and I had just finished my first couple of months of school and was eager to show my work to my family. I was coming into my own, finding my form of expression unencumbered by the constant abuse I experienced at home.
By the time I graduated college in 1975 at the age of twenty, I learned how to be independent. I held a couple of jobs during my studies and managed to save a few dollars. I was going to do what I wanted to do which was not get a teaching degree, not becoming an art therapist and not getting married and having babies. I was going to pursue a career in the arts.
As I found my way, initially making a living as a graphic designer and multi-media director, I continued to take photographs. I converted my five hundred square foot one bedroom apartment on East 85th Street in Manhattan to a darkroom at night. Blackout material went up covering all windows — two in my bedroom and two in my living room. The bathroom didn’t need any sealing up. It’s where I processed the film and developed the prints. My bathtub had trays lined up one after the other –one to develop, one to fix, and one to rinse.
I lucked into buying someone’s old darkroom equipment and ended up with two enlargers. One was a Bogen and the other an Omega. I loved the printing process and spent hours doing it — framing, reframing and changing exposures. I experimented with placing objects directly on the paper. Those images were called photograms. It excited me to see my creations come to life in the developing tray. Much like watching Dad’s Polaroid image appear when I was a child. Eventually, I started shooting sequences and underexposing them leaving only a hint of the image. Then using Marshall oils I would paint on them as if the paper was a canvas often creating impressionist images. They each had a narrative.
My beloved Canon FTb was armed with a motor drive and several lenses from a 28 to 135 mm. It was my first camera, which I saved up for and bought at 47th Street Photo in New York Cit. I rarely left home without it — didn’t want to miss a photographable moment.
On a holiday in Mexico, while walking out into the ocean to climb onto a boat, as I held my camera up high, I was hit by a wave. When my Canon FTb was declared a paperweight due to saltwater damage, I was devastated.
Something changed from that time on. I replaced my manual FTb with a newer Canon model that had both automatic and manual features. I’m not sure if it was the new camera or my desires, which impacted me.
I was no longer interested in schlepting my camera alone or with my additional gear. It seemed cumbersome, just one more thing I needed to take.
The darkroom equipment in my tiny apartment started to collect dust. I decided to sell it all.
Eventually, my desire to tell stories started to grow. I had always kept diaries but never fathom myself as a writer. Grammar was not my thing and still isn’t. I was pulled to the West Coast to get into the entertainment business. After months of making calls to an Executive Producer of the Arts & Culture series at the PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, he agreed to meet me. Having nothing to show other than an idea, I was honored when he awarded me my first documentary. I entered the world of documentary television as a visual artist not as a journalist and treated my first film the same way, storyboarding every shot.
My career in television grew and photography became a thing of my past. When I went on vacations, I often wouldn’t bother packing my single-lens reflex camera. In time, when the consumer Hi8 camcorder was introduced, I would travel with it eager to shoot. My focus was on filmmaking. Whatever I snapped with my small point-and-shoot still camera was just a souvenir to remember where I was. I had become my father taking photos of people in front of signs, sites and buildings.
I looked forward to getting the prints back and always ordered two sets. The extra copy I mailed to those who were in them. My albums were filled with these snapshots and my drawers were stuffed with the negatives. I was never organized like my father, who with his ornate penmanship, wrote on the back of each photo the date, place and names of the people in them. This was a habit he had started a long time before. His World War II South Pacific photos were carefully labeled. In his letter to his bride, my mom, he gave her precise directions on how to preserve the photos and negatives. I was thrilled to have all these records of his life, their life, and our family life. It ended up a treasure chest of material for my personal films.
I shared a passion with my long deceased father to document people, places, and experiences. As much as we were similar in that way, there was a huge difference. I was also driven by creative expression.
It took the smart phone to bring me back to my early passion, photography. They always say the best camera is the one you have with you. As I travel the world for pleasure, for work and for education, I’ve been documenting my journeys, capturing still moments along the way.
I’ve launched another career as a fine art photographer. It has been a joy to see how I can impact people with just a single image. It doesn’t require raising funds, putting a team together and finding distribution. As I have released my images at group exhibitions in Europe and in the states and now with my first solo show, I’ve heard from so many, “These are yours? You do this, too?” Yes, creating images was how I began my life as an artist. Decades later I came back to my early passion.
As I write this, many of us are at home, sheltering in place, due to Covid-19. A silver lining is my solo photo exhibit called STILL MOMENTS has gone virtual. Now, anyone can enjoy it. Click this link to view.
I’m also doing virtual live walkthroughs of the exhibit taking you on my travels where I shot them and sharing with you the insights about the images. The next one is April 19th. You can register for it here.
If you’re interested in future ones, please join my mailing list at GayleKirschenbaum.com .