Many of us hold deeply that first photography assignment. It was the one that ignited your fire and started your dream. Mine was to be working for National Geographic…now a fantasy ( if it’s that) .
My first one happened when I walked into a county-wide weekly paper to see if they could use a stringer. I was much younger and a whole lot less experienced but a lot braver then. I put down my portfolio, a handful of B&Ws glued to black boards, my works in progress. The editor looked up at me and either liked my hutzpah or just felt sorry and took pity, and offered $20 an published image to string. Back then $ 20 seemed good and I really wanted the break.
They had a staffer or two. One, the main one. carried a Speed Graphic so he could contact the large 4x5neg multiple times and pump out “Handshake” shots or “The Ribbon Cutting” event for the paper and its attendees. He had three names so his credit line took up a lot of space. Maybe that was clever on his part. He got the “choice” jobs, grand openings, town meetings, check donations.
The other photographer, a lady, part time got the cutesy shots…the dog wearing a raincoat on a bad weather day, the grandma who paints Easter eggs in her basement to raise funds for her society, the amazing baby who could sit up and happened to belong to the biggest advertiser the paper had..
The editor couldn’t have been cast any better if it had been from Disney itself. A robust, snarly, grumbling guy with a desk full of random sheets of papers and clippings, half full coffee cup and a totally full ashtray. He was always sitting sometimes leaning back and often leaning forward growling. Typical of Jersey , you were just a last name… ” hey Pace”.
Among the cast of characters, I stood there with my samples, my Nikon and two lenses in hand as he told me to come back in a day or two to see what he might have. I did.
My first assignment was to go up to a reservoir in northern New Jersey, ” Something’s going on, the Perry White styled editor growled, ” see if you can get a shot.”
I was on my way , when the three named man smiled standing at the door, ”you’re wasting your time”, can’t do anything with that. he sneered. Of course not, I thought, who would buy contact prints of a reservoir? None the less, I went charging out like Jimmy Olsen from the Daily Planet…
When I got there to cover the reservoir event, a bulldozer had uncovered a overly large bone. Building had halted, no one was talking and nothing seemed to be happening. I left wondering how would I tell the editor that I just got a shot of a guy sitting on bulldozer. Worried that he would never use me again, the next day early I returned to find a staff from the Museum of Natural History along with some state officials on hand as they laid out an uncovered skeleton of a mastodon. I couldn’t believe it but was thankful I had a lot of film with me.
The only thing missing in their find was the head which they were furiously digging for, to the dismay of the builder. I couldn’t crank the Nikon any faster. At day’s end I raced back to my converted by night bathroom darkroom , enlarger on the bowl, trays in the tub, prints in the sink. Printing out my day’s coverage, I laid out my prints on boards as a story hoping the editor would like it. He did with a casual air. It ran 3 pages and I collected $200. To me it was a gift from the universe that welcomed a young guy into what became my fever.
They never found that head…but I found mine, and every once in while when I lose it, I think back to this story.
What was your first job…what got you going?