How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photo Assisting

Mr. Negative

1998 Minneapolis.

After a string of random jobs (janitor, deli cook, house painter, darkroom printer) I fell into freelance photo assisting. Up to that point I’d been shooting black & white film with small and medium format cameras. But that’s about it. That’s all I knew.

Photo assisting became my technical education: large format cameras, color transparency film, strobe and continuous lighting, portrait and still life, on location — or in the studio. And best of all: free lunch.

Above is a photo of my assisting van, aka Mr. Negative. I bought it for $600 from the Gear Daddies band and glued outtake film in a pattern along the outside. The sliding door was bolted shut, there was no radio, heat, or AC. The windows were manual, and the ignition was hot-wired. No key required.

Voted ‘Best Black & White’ Art Car in the 1998 Wheels as Art Parade.

From There to Here

Tonight, I’ve come full circle. 34 years after graduating, my high school is inducting me into the Fine Arts Hall of Fame. PERFORMANCE OF “FOOTLOOSE” IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING!

Hall of Fame induction invite
1984 High School ID

The Freelance Hustle, Pandemic-Style

I delivered a talk this weekend on the subject of landing jobs, negotiating contracts, and getting paid to a crowded house at the Northern Exposure photojournalism conference in Minneapolis, hosted by the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism.

The conference was originally meant to be held live on the U of M campus. But like everything else academic, it was moved online for the sake of social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. The audience was packed with photographers from around the world — and, thanks to Zoom — I now have a recording to share with you and my students.

The Heavy Camera

A few of my favorites:

Aero Ektar lens mounted on Speed Graphic 4×5, with rangefinder.

This military grade lens was made for shooting 4×5 film from airplanes on recon missions during World War II. It has thorium mixed into its elements, and is radioactive.

Rollei twin lens reflex

I discovered this twin lens camera in a consignment shop out west. It was 1993, and I was living in a van behind my friend’s house in Boulder, working as a prep cook. I’d been shooting 35mm for years, and was hungry to switch up. A few months later I rode a camel across the Australian outback with this camera around my neck. It was the first cohesive body of work I ever made.

Leica IIIc 35mm

I found this little gem at a garage sale in NE Minneapolis, at the bottom of a cardboard box full of cameras. They wanted $40 for the whole shebang. There was a Hasselblad in there as well. (thx for the tip D.J. Bezek). This is my newest camera, and current favorite. It’s the same model that Robert Frank used to shoot his seminal photo book THE AMERICANS in the 1950s.

Sinar P 8×10

A photographer could go their entire career without shooting an 8×10 camera; I wanted to make sure that didn’t to happen to me. The great thing about Sinar cameras is that they are interchangeable, like legos. For a smaller format, this camera breaks down into 4×5, and shoots with a digital back in place of film.

IBM Selectric typewriter

When my dad shut down his machine shop, he sold off all of the equipment. Any tools that were left over, he divided between his grand children. But he saved the typewriter for me. After 50 years of sitting in a grubby, oil-infused environment, I can still smell my dad’s shop when I lift the cover and take a whiff. It’s my inheritance. And I’m not talking about the typewriter. What I mean is this: my parents sent me out into the world to become a journalist and tell stories. 30 years later, I’m doing exactly that. Thank you mom and dad for providing the tools.