When I was a teenager I stole my father’s camera.
It was a Canon FTb-N, heavy as a brick and fully manual. All metal, it was an SLR with a bright 50mm lens, 1/1000 shutter speed, and a hot shoe mount for a flash. A good, solid, semi-pro camera, especially for back in the mid 70’s.
It wasn’t that I was particularly interested in it. All I wanted to do was take some pictures of my pet lizards. I had a Arizona horny toad that I’d managed to keep alive and healthy for a couple of years, and when I found my father’s camera in the hall closet I thought I’d try taking pictures of it. Sunlight was coming through one of my bedroom windows, shining on my old green bedspread, and so I put my critter there on the bed and aimed the camera at it. The camera wasn’t all that hard to figure out. Focus was a no-brainer, and I somehow knew to match the needle with the circle for the light meter. When I pressed the shutter button, it made a healthy whack-clunk sound, which was strangely satisfying.
A few weeks later my father had developed the film and gave me my prints. I was surprised by how well they turned out. Amazed, actually. For not knowing a thing about what I was doing, it worked out pretty well. This encouraged me to experiment further.
I don’t think I ever asked him if I could use the camera. I just took it over. My friends and I went out on long walks and I took pictures of the silliest things, but I was slowly getting the idea of how it all worked. Most of the pictures turned out stupid, but a few were real winners. My dad must have been impressed, because he relinquished control of the camera to me without a word.
His company had accounts down at the local camera stores, and my dad arranged for me to use them. I’d take the bus across town every other day to drop off film and buy more. For my birthday he bought me a zoom lens.
When I was a sophomore in high school I started taking the camera to school. There I captured some goofy shots of my friends and classmates, but timidly, stealthily, I started taking candid portraits of girls. Girls playing soccer, talking with their friends, sometimes dancing. They were turning out rather well. I began bringing the prints to school and showing it to them, and giving them copies if they liked the shots. Many of the girls didn’t like it, but some did. Some liked it a lot. Thinking back about it, many of these girls were pretty but didn’t realize it, or for some reason had a bad self-image, and just the fact that a boy was inclined to take their picture made them feel better about themselves. Of course some of them were just vain. The end result was that I started making some close friendships with girls, who until this point seemed unapproachable to me.
One of these girls started taking me shopping and buying me clothes so that I wouldn’t look like such a dork. I had no fashion sense, and my parents were more inclined to get me weird polyester crap that you’d find on old men in Florida. Finally, toward the end of my high school experience, I was kind of cool and somewhat accepted. I owe that directly to the camera. Instead of Jerry the geek, I was Jerry the photographer.
In college I took a lot of photography courses, and one of my instructors was a prodigy of Ansel Adams himself. This is when I stared becoming an actual expert, understanding light and color, depth of field, and darkroom techniques. I was doing so well at this point my dad bought me an entire darkroom setup, and gave me a room down at his office building to set it up.
Soon after this I got myself a business license and had cards printed up. “Davis Photography Ltd.” Everyone wanted to know what the “Ltd.” was about. It means “limited company” and is used primarily in England, but my friends and I just thought it looked cool, so that’s what I used. Then I put an ad in the paper and started getting a lot of work.
I specialized in doing model portfolios, brochures, and weddings, but what I really wanted to do was album covers for rock groups. This never happened, though I did take a few shots for the band I was involved with. Weddings felt like shooting portraits in a war zone, and I bowed out of that even though it was my biggest income.
The old Canon FTb-N was traded in for a professional Canon F1 with a 7fps motor winder. I also had a fully automatic Canon A1 for more informal situations. I never did a lot with lighting because I was more of a candid portrait artist than a formal one.
I remember this one model I was shooting; we were doing bikini shots around my parent’s pool, and after twenty minutes she said, “Hold on” and took her bikini off. “I want to get some nudes,” she told me.
“Okay.” Not a problem for me. I think I did a good job hiding my sudden nervousness. I kept expecting my mom to look out the window, and had no idea what would happen. I had her pose on the diving board, then by the water, then told her to get into the pool. The lighting was perfect for the pool shots, the ripples in the water obscuring details but revealing enough to be alluring. The angle was wrong, though, so I got into the water with her and got some great shots at the perfect angle. What made them so good was that I was catching her reaction to me being in the pool with all my clothes on. She thought it was hilarious and her smile was genuine.
Bit of a portrait tip for you: Fake smiles backfire on film, but genuine smiles always shine. They’re precious and golden. Do anything you can to get your subject to laugh.
After this I started asking some of my regular models if they’d mind doing nudes. Most of the time the answer was a big NO, but on occasion there would be a hesitant yes. Nudes were very interesting for all parties concerned; the model, the photographer, and the viewer of the pictures. It stems to the fact that people are interested in seeing intimate moments, because that’s when people are the most vulnerable and the most real. Walls are down when someone doesn’t have clothes on. There’s a trust, a sensuality. When it comes across on film it can be magic.
Amidst all this I was also working for my father, doing promotional shots for his industrial equipment and services. There was this one job in Sacramento where I almost fell off a building. My brother’s company was removing gravel from the roof of a high rise building using one of my father’s vacuum trucks, and there was this dramatic 6 inch pipe snaking all the way up the side of the building. Unfortunately I was having a problem getting good shots of it. The view was best from up top looking down, but I had trouble getting the perfect angle. So without thinking about it I started climbing down the outside of the building, hanging by one hand and one foot while I snapped away. The workers thought I was suicidal, and in retrospect I guess it was. I couldn’t get back up, but I could get to the balcony below and to the side. So I jumped and landed on this balcony fifteen stories up, surprising the hell out of an old Norwegian guy who was standing in his bedroom dressed in an oversized pair of boxer shorts. I tried to explain what was going on, but I don’t think he fully understood. I don’t think he cared. He was lonely – apparently no one ever visited him – and he didn’t want me to leave. He immediately gave me a beer and a sandwich, and started showing me his old family photos. It took a half hour to get out of there.
During all this time I was also trying to become a professional writer. It was rough juggling two major goals at the same time, and after some long, deep soul searching it became apparent that one or the other would have to take a back seat. Writing is what I’ve always loved – it even predated photography.
I sold the cameras in the summer of 1984 to finance a love affair with a girl in San Francisco. The affair only lasted a few months. I was heartbroken for a decade. But now that the pain is gone, I miss those cameras. And while I’ve long-ago graduated to digital, there are occasionally days when I miss the delicate art of chemicals, film, and paper.