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Becoming a photographer

From: Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer

Video: Becoming a photographer

I had to get away from my parents when I was 14. I was ready to leave the nest probably earlier than a lot of kids. Every opportunity I could, I hopped in a bus and go to New York City and just wander around. My dad gave me a camera and my history professor told me that he was going to go South America for the entire summer and he is going to take two students with him. So, I convinced my parents to let me go with this guy and so I spent three months traveling throughout South America at the age of 14 with this crazy history professor. It was an amazing experience. We went to every single country. I had a little reporter S Minolta camera that took 72 frames on a roll of 36 pictures. It was very economical. And I just fell in love with photography and that's -- I didn't know what being a photographer meant, but that's all I wanted to do from the age of 14.

Becoming a photographer

I had to get away from my parents when I was 14. I was ready to leave the nest probably earlier than a lot of kids. Every opportunity I could, I hopped in a bus and go to New York City and just wander around. My dad gave me a camera and my history professor told me that he was going to go South America for the entire summer and he is going to take two students with him. So, I convinced my parents to let me go with this guy and so I spent three months traveling throughout South America at the age of 14 with this crazy history professor. It was an amazing experience. We went to every single country. I had a little reporter S Minolta camera that took 72 frames on a roll of 36 pictures. It was very economical. And I just fell in love with photography and that's -- I didn't know what being a photographer meant, but that's all I wanted to do from the age of 14.

My father was actually adamant about me not being a photographer. It's very interesting when it was time to go to college of course I wanted to apply to -- I didn't want to college. I just wanted to be a photographer, whatever that was, and my Dad insisted one, that I go to college, which I thought was a complete waste of time before I went. And two he made sure that I went to college that did not have a photography program. I didn't know at that time he had been a photographer in World War II. He never mentioned it once, despite my complete fascination with photography. It turned out my father had thought that if he had told me if he was a photographer, since I was really interested in photography, then it would have been encouraging me. 'Well you did it.' I created my own major in college and I convinced my art professor, let me create a photography major, which didn't exist.

At my college art professor who let me do all this, one day he said, I have a friend in Tennessee who is the Director of Photography in a newspaper and he and his wife Helen run this little photo agency called Image. And I said what's a photo agency? He said, well like you send them pictures you have taken and they sell them. Well, so I put a box of my pictures that I'd shot for the yearbook. I printed them, put a hundred pictures in the box, scribbled my name on the back and sent them to this guy and two weeks later he sent me a check for like $3,000. This is like 1972. That would be like $20,000 today.

Jack one day said, what you are going to do when you get out of college? And I said, be a photographer. He said, well how you are going to do that? He said, what do you have, you have a portfolio? I said, no. Okay, and I never met this guy. I only talked with him on the phone for years and so he said look, a friend of mine is a Director of Photography at Time magazine. His name is Jack Durniak and if you want I will set an appointment for you. So, I went up to New York City with my yearbook under my arm and my little portfolio and John gave me an assignment literally on the spot and it turned out that John was always looking for one young hungry photographer every year.

And so I didn't know this, but I was sort of anointed as the young hungry photographer and so John started giving me all the assignments no one else wanted to do which I didn't care about. Then the third assignment I got was, I didn't realize that it was kind of a booby trap assignment. There was a woman named Sarah Caldwell who was a famous opera impresario and she is a really interesting woman. Very powerful, big, sturdy stocky woman and I didn't know, but she had a reputation for eating photographers alive. She hated photographers.

All week Doug Kirkland offered to teach me how to light, how to shoot color, and so did David Burnett and I kept saying, okay, well tomorrow we will get together. I think I was like in denial. I was like so scared I didn't want to think about it. So instead of like going to Doug Kirkland, one of the greatest photographers in the world who offered to teach me how to light, I just never got around to it. So I took up train up to Boston. I went to her house. Somehow I thought I would take her outside and shoot in open shade and it will all be fine and of course, the day I got up there, it was pissing with rain, dark, dismal Boston, a horrible, gloomy, wintery day. This is in late October.

And I go into her house and her mother is in a wheel chair. She is really unhappy that I am there. I could tell it just like, "take your pictures and get out of here" and she was like really unhappy to have me or any other photographer there. And I had not brought any lights. I didn't know how to light and just as I am as about to sort of say thank you, knowing I'd shot these horrible, blurry, globby, dark miserable photographs, there is just a loud knock on the door and there is a CBS film crew that's come to do a documentary about her. And they walk into the house and they light the entire house. I mean they literally lit the whole house like it was a movie set. And so I kind of slunk into the background hoping she wouldn't notice that I was still there and started shooting over their shoulders and they lit it-- it was amazing. These guys really, they were just-- they just descended on this poor woman.

So they left. And I am still sitting in the corner and shocked that like, thank you God, how did this happen. Her phone rings and she gets on the phone and so it's a limousine service telling her they couldn't pick her up and take her to New Hampshire the next day for rehearsal. So, I said, could I be your limo driver? Could I like -- I will rent a car and I will drive you to New Hampshire and I will be your servant for the next day or two and I will just hang out. I'll be quiet, I won't say anything. And she smiled and said, I have always wanted-- I love that Beatles song, 'Baby You Can Drive My Car.' She said, you are going to be my limo driver, like a Time Magazine photographer is going to drive my car? I said, yes.

So I rented a car and drove her to New Hampshire. I had pictures of her asleep. I basically just became part of her life and I stayed for a week. And at the end of the week she said, she was going to Mexico to start the development of a new opera. And she invited me to go with her. So, Time Magazine at this point is like beyond ecstatic. I mean this little punk kid who is being thrown out in the lake who should have drowned, suddenly the women who is supposed to eat me alive, now I am her limo driver and I am flying to Mexico with her.

So, it was the cover of Time Magazine. Time was thrilled. So many times I have been sort of just about to-- basically the parachute is not going to open and then something happens at the last minute that saves it and turns it in a much better than-- if I would have known how to light, I would have taken the pictures and left. I still look back and I pinch myself because I think if that CBS film crew hadn't knocked on the door at that moment, I always wonder if my life would have gone in completely other direction.

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Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer

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Rick Smolan
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