Monday, April 2, 2007

Why I Turned Amateur

Why I Turned Amateur


Frank Calidonna

The wedding had gone very well with perfect weather, a sober and cooperative bridal party, no equipment problems and a relaxed pace. The bandleader gave me a nod. I acknowledged it and began to search for the bride's father. I found the father at a table and politely whispered into his ear that we were ready for him to dance with his daughter. The band seeing me do this began to play "Daddy's Little Girl". The father, now very drunk, lurched out of the chair and came at me screaming; " I told you I wouldn't do this. Don't you ever listen ???"

Bewildered, since this was news to me, I backed off quite shaken. I went to the band to explain that he obviously did not want to do it. A few relatives came up apologizing saying that he tended to become a bit strange when drinking. I was there for three more long, uncomfortable hours before I finally could pack up my gear and go home.

A few days before this incident I was reading an article on printing by John Sexton in Darkroom Photography (June 1990). He was describing in elaborate detail how he starts with a work print of very low contrast. He then makes smaller pieces of various print areas with different contrasts. He then lays these on the work print for comparison to help in his decisions about contrast, exposure, dodging and burning in the final print. It was a laborious process. I think he sensed that it might be a bit much for some readers so he threw in a little statement, " Remember, photography is supposed to be enjoyable!" That may have been a minor statement in the scheme of the article, but it had a profound impact on me.

Epiphany via a Playboy cartoon. The cartoon was quite old, part of a collection I have saved over the years. I was thumbing through it when I came upon Santa Claus. Picture tropical beach with white sand, turquoise water, a warm humid breeze and palm trees swaying. A thatch-roofed bar is doing a brisk business. Standing with a tall cool drink in hand and surrounded by a group of beautiful bikini clad women is an elderly gentlemen with white hair and a huge white beard. He is dressed in a sleeveless undershirt, has big red pants held up by suspenders and is wearing big black boots. He is telling the women, " There I was; stuck in a chimney in Des Moines, when I asked myself, ' Who needs this shit?'

That hit home.

Between the father of the bride, John Sexton, and the Playboy cartoonist whose name I do not know, I had to ask myself some pointed questions. Did I wish to remain a professional photographer? Did I want to become "just" an amateur photographer, lose my "Pro" status, and be a mere dilettante? I had to lose a lot of mental baggage before I could answer with a resounding, joyful - Yes!

Christmas of 1947. I opened my present and there it was. You pushed a button hidden under the leather skin, the front cover folded down pulling out the lens and bellows. Dad showed me how to look through the small reflex viewer and how to gently release the shutter while holding your breath so as not to shake the camera. Inside the box were two rolls of 620 Ansco film. We loaded the camera. I ran around the house dragging anyone outside who would come with me. I soon had people squinting into the sun while I snapped away.

Then came the excruciating wait, the first of a lifetime of waits. Dad took the film somewhere to be processed. I met him every day at the door asking for my pictures. It probably took a couple of weeks, but it seemed like years. Finally they were done.

They were blurry, fuzzy, gawky pictures of the family, but to me they were the most wonderful miracle. Dad brought home a huge album with black pages and a bag of corners. Each photo was lovingly placed in the album and dutifully labeled. Every roll of film after that was as exciting as the first; every wait unbearably long, and every set of prints as big a thrill.

My father also had a small German press camera, with which I was allowed to play. I would carry it all around the house and yard (I wasn't allowed to take it anywhere else) and focus on everything near and far. No item was too mundane. People, flowers, trees, the house next door, anything on any tabletop, bureau, kitchen counter, and especially all of my toys. I would spend hours just focusing on something and enjoying the thrill of seeing it in focus on the glass. This is still one of the most visceral thrills of photography for me today.

I obtained my first great camera in high school, a Rolleiflex with a 75mm Xenar lens. I then began to study photography quite seriously. My poor mother never understood the obsession. She felt there were far more important things in life than photography. Thus began the litany from my mother, repeated almost to this day (she is ninety-four and cantankerous), "If you paid as much attention to your studies as you do to that camera...etc., etc., etc."

There was such joy being a photographer. The satisfaction of producing something visual, from my head, using technical means with the added bonus that I could also get attention and approval. If I made the effort and produced a photograph I achieved something. I could get the satisfaction and applause or whatever I was or am seeking. The icing on the cake? The effort is definitely fun.

There are other lures of photography. There is a certain feeling that comes from looking at the world through optics. It is as much a thrill now as it was 50 years ago. I love the looking, composing, the control of lighting, calling on my knowledge of exposure, processing and printing that one uses to make a picture come into being. I find irresistible putting the puzzle together, and then the capture has meaning and gives satisfaction. This is the main reason I love architectural photography.

A portrait adds the element of capturing my feelings for the person on film and is the reason I now only do them now for people that I know and care about. My main love is gravestone monument photography, which combines the two subjects that fascinate me most, photography and funerary art.

Whenever I put an image on film, no matter how pleasurable that process, nothing compares to the darkroom. Here I am in my artistic home. Here is where I feel my creative urge satisfied. Making a large print- and I do love really large prints - to the highest standard possible, with whatever emphasis I choose. This for me is the performance, as Adams said, in photography. The mental routine in printing is very important to me. If I am going to be an Artist with the capital A, this is where it will happen. I absolutely love the whole darkroom operation. It is exciting and satisfying.

I did all of the usual photographic things in college. I took pictures for the yearbook, spent all of my free hours studying this wonderful subject, devoted much time and money taking pictures, and listened to my mother's complaints.

Then followed graduate school, marriage, and poverty- basically in that order. I began teaching in a small New Hampshire village and took up my love affair with photographing gravestones about the same time, but my camera was mainly used to record the first years of my children's lives. Four years later we moved to Central New York. I began working in a school producing educational visuals. I started teaching photography at a local community college. At the same time I began looking at my free summers as a time to earn some cash with my camera. Now the thoughts of being a pro became somewhat of an obsession.

Why the obsession? Well, at the college it became apparent that students took the professional photographer/teacher more seriously than the amateur counterpart. I chafed, as some of the people I taught with were not all that good as either teachers or photographers. Yet they were pros so one had to fight for the student's attention and respect. I decided I would become a professional photographer. I studied the business aspects with passion and began to take small portrait jobs. The big day was my first wedding. Armed with a Graphic Century with a roll film holder, Graphic Strobo-500, and a fifteen-pound battery pack ripping the lining of my suit I started on the wedding/portrait path to being a pro.

This was in the early 1970's. I tried to meet some of the local pros. One of them was a friendly face, but the rest treated me as though I had the plague. I heard of the PP of A and subscribed to their magazine. The 70's were also the time when the "99 centers" were sweeping portrait photography and putting about half of the studios out of business. The PP of A journal discussed these people and the "weekenders", namely me, with the same tones one reserved for highly contagious lepers. To say that the wedding pros didn't welcome newcomers was gross understatement, but I persisted and stayed in business over twenty years.

As Rome, NY is a small town I did a bit of everything. Wedding/portrait was the bulk of the business, but I sought out whatever architectural work and studio product photography I could find. I even did a three-year stint as a game photographer for a pro hockey team. Rather than becoming more exciting and pleasurable my photography became a blur of doing the work, hustling more work, mounting prints, sorting negatives, chasing commercial accounts for payment, in short all of the usual hassles. Every job becomes a job and slowly the thrill of photography was replaced by drudgery. The camera was no longer this thrilling creative tool. It was just a tool. I found myself thinking that if I saw two more people say, "I do." I would retch.

So yes, John Sexton's question really hit me where I lived. The answer to his question at the time I read it was a very definite and disturbing NO. How did something so central to my life become this disagreeable? Somewhere along the way the photography became less important and the business became consuming.

Prior to the father of the bride, John Sexton, and the Playboy cartoon I attended a portfolio seminar at RIT given by Elaine Sorrel. Ms. Sorrel is a rep for some of the top photographers in the business. Her seminar was a mixture of very practical advice interspersed with some rather wrenching emotional insights. She wanted us to ignore all of the previous ideas we had been taught about picking work for a portfolio. Her basic message was photograph and show what you love and the money will follow. This to people whom had been taught and believed that you tailored a portfolio to the potential client. She said pick your clients with care. Give the art directors credit for brains. When they need the kind of photography you do best they will remember you. I really had to think about what was it I loved to photograph.

I began to think about why I wanted to be a professional photographer. Was it love of photography or love of ego? There are obvious profound differences. Did I really need to be a pro to be validated as a first rate photographer? Did pro status even guarantee that I was a first rate photographer? I had to deal with the ego issue first. Yes it is nice to be known as a "pro" among your photographic peers. Many pros are very accomplished photographers. The term professional means that one does something well. Amateur according to my dictionary can mean that one does something with less skill- amateurishly. To give up the aura of one for the other would be a blow to my ego unless I was really secure with my skills and talents. More than that I thought about Ms. Sorrell's advice and wondered if I would ever be able to earn any or enough money as a pro photographing what I loved. What did I want to do with my camera? With very mixed emotions I finally gave up my tax number, tossed the letterheads in the trash, and turned away the calls for wedding services.

My dictionary's other definition of amateur is one who does something for the love and pleasure of it, a lover of the activity. I remembered the thrill of taking pictures with my first old box camera. I remembered the joy when I would take out the Rollei. I turned amateur to get as much of that back as possible. I followed Ms. Sorrel's advice and decided to just photograph what I love. Money has not followed, but I have had many one-man shows many in some of the better museums in the area. Most of all my camera, and time spent with it, is a delight again. I spend many hours each week just photographing that which I wish to photograph. The darkroom is again a joy. For getting all of this back into my life I will be forever indebted to Elaine Sorrell, John Sexton, the father of the bride, and of course, Santa Claus.

Frank Calidonna

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