When ‘No more of his film, thank you’ signified my improvement as a news photographer

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Of the first compliments ever paid my news photography, one in particular was of the more backhanded variety. It was a case of negation than of positive expression. Someone just wasn’t happy and wanted me gone. Indeed, there were circumstances, and they require a bit of explaining.

While moving around the country during the 1980s, I was a stringer—a freelance correspondent—for a succession of newspapers. I would be asked to submit photos with my stories. Never having taken a photography course, I had little idea what I was doing, but the camera’s automatic exposure setting compensated for my lack of technical ability. I do have a strong natural sense of design, though, so at least my images were well arranged. One of them from any sequence was well enough arranged and lit to use in print.

My reports would be typed up and delivered to the newsroom with the roll of film. If I was a great distance away, they would be dropped into the mail. Then, within the next two or three weeks, the story would run in the paper.

a203In the mid-1980s, I was a stringer for the Salt Lake Tribune while living in the southwest corner of Utah, some 300 miles from Salt Lake City. The Trib had me covering the remote city of St. George and the whole of Washington County, doing a couple of stories per week. When news was breaking, like a speech by the governor, I’d read my story over the phone. But mostly my editor, Bob Bryson, wanted features. One of the better ones was about a family-owned motel, a local landmark being razed in order to build condos. The property owner, a man named Gates, recalled how, during World War Two, his father would help out travelers by giving them gas coupons. “They could be the biggest cotton-pickers in the world, but he’d never turn anyone away,” Gates said. “It used to gripe my mother to death.”

Up to this point my photos had been hit-and-miss, mostly miss. But this time I got a dramatically lit portrait of Mr. Gates looking somewhat wistful in front of the old Gates Motor Court sign. Editor Bryson remarked on my improvement–a real confidence-builder.

I waited four years for the next compliment, the backhanded one. By then I was living in Clinton, Michigan, and stringing for the Toledo Blade. As well as circulating throughout northwestern Ohio, the Blade went out to subscribers and newsstands in three southeastern Michigan counties: Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale. Clinton, in Lenawee County, was ideally situated right in the middle.

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One day, my editor—whose name is forgotten—asked me to go to Hillsdale, the farthest outpost of Bladeland, to get a photo and man-on-the-street reaction to the verdict in a murder trial. The day before, the jury took only two hours to decide the defendant had used a hard-to-trace muscle relaxant to kill his wife. Then the cotton-picker cashed in an insurance policy and moved to Tahiti, where he was living with a new wife when authorities found him.

I drove 45 miles from Clinton to Hillsdale, made a lap around the courthouse square, and wondered how I would ever get a photo. Torpor blanketed this town of about 8,000 people. At least the courthouse was open—the courtroom, too. The chamber of justice smelled of fresh lemon wax, and a clacking clock broke the silence. All was dark except for a lamp on the judge’s bench. Ever so furtively, I approached his empty chair and filled my viewfinder with the pool of light and artifacts that lay in it.

Did I then drive the 110 miles to Toledo with the film? Or was it spirited there by Mercury? My story and photo appeared the next day. The sight of it spreading across four columns left me shocked. In just 24 hours my desperation had been transformed into exaltation. No photo of mine had ever run so large, and this was a picture of nothing. It was a lesson about the strength of an image and the power of my own conceptions.

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Yet this was my high point with the Blade. It was a guild paper—unionized—and the photo staff now refused to process any more of my freelance film. They didn’t need competition from a stringer who was willing to drive a 200-mile round trip, Clinton-Hillsdale-Toledo-Clinton, to behold his photo spread across the top of their page, all for a $50 story fee and another $15 for the photo. I did two more stories with my own photos, but that was it.

Things worked out well enough for me, though. By this time I’d caught on as a regional correspondent with the Ann Arbor News, a five-year relationship that only ended with budget cuts. I was happy stringing for the News and had many great assignments, from covering an appearance by Dr. Kervorkian (his lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, did most of the talking) to a doing a feature (with three of my photos) about a 92-year-old woman who was closing the dress shop she had operated for 60 years.

And it was during this period that I received the next compliment on my news photography. I’ll always remember how honored I felt when one day the News’ photo director, Colleen Fitzgerald, said, “You’re a good photographer—for a writer.”

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