• What if I’d become a photographer?
• In college, the shutter bug bit me
• The professor who set me straight
“Mr. Scheerer has done it again,” said the professor. “His idea is worthy. His execution leaves something to be desired.” It was the spring of 1969, in a J-school classroom at Bowling Green State U. in Ohio.
It was a 100 level course, Photojournalism, taught by the handlebar-moustached Prof. Jim Gordon, who later became a bigwig with the National Press Photographers Association.
The assignment had been to take a photograph that “said” something, had a “message.” At the height of the Vietnam War, from which my college enrollment was keeping me undrafted, I thought I’d say something about the turmoil the country was going through. So, I got hold of a large American flag, grabbed a fellow student I was dating and stuck her in the middle of a cornfield (or a wheat field, I don’t know. .) a few miles south of the campus. While she was being eaten alive by mosquitoes and who knows what kind of corn or wheat bugs, I shot a few rolls of Tri-X and a box of color slides. I went into the darkroom and found one frame where I thought the look on her face as she eyed the horizon had just the right hint of foreboding to send a “message.” Just what it was is open to interpretation. Have at it.
Prof. Gordon, however, while critiquing each student’s photo, pointed out that in the case of my composition the horizon behind her was tilted. Darned if it wasn’t. I hadn’t used a tripod (because I didn’t own one). He praised the concept, but panned the execution.
Today, a couple of taps on an iPhone and everything’s on the level.
I took that criticism constructively. Ever since 1969 I have been acutely aware of the relationship between my camera’s viewfinder and zero degrees to the horizon. (When I recently told the Prof. Gordon story to my friend, Bill Gubbins, a brilliant fine art photographer, he cursed a blue streak at the teacher and his dogmatism!)
The photography bug bit hard. I bought a used SLR and some off-brand lenses. When my friends and I started an alternative newspaper, I became the de facto photo editor, taking advantage of Prof. Gordon’s letting me use the J-school’s darkrooms. (He was also the faculty advisor to the yearbook, and in the summer of 1971, my American flag photo appeared in it . . so, I probably owe him a thank-you for that as well.)
I started thinking photojournalism might be a cool career. When we began publishing a weekly newspaper for The Park, the weekly summer concert series down the road from BG, I got some DIY training in shooting, developing and printing:
This photo wasn’t taken at the Park, but at the Anderson Arena basketball court at BGSU during, I believe, a Doobie Brothers concert. I’d crawled up into the catwalk overhead – not just to shoot photos, but to escape paying admission. My companion and I went up around 4 in the afternoon. We brought a blanket that shielded us from detection, and we had a picnic; it would’ve been a long stretch without food and drink. It was a long stretch without a bathroom break!
Which of the two do you think is the better photograph? I can’t make up my mind. Wish Prof. Gordon was around (he passed away in 2015 at age 82). (Kind of a trick question. It’s a different crop and darkroom exposure time of the same photo.)
Ultimately, an opportunity for a job in radio news cropped up and a photography career was set aside (heh, heh, he said “cropped”).
I’m sure such a career would have included more mistakes like that I made with the roll of color slides I shot of the flag-adorned messenger. They’re underexposed to the point where it looks like it was an overcast, foggy day. I’ll just leave a few here as a cautionary tale. Inspiration and execution are two different things.
And, finally, some b&w outtakes from the flag session.