My hometown had two daily newspapers. The Courier-Journal came every morning and The Louisville Times in the afternoon. The Times was distinguished by its use of photojournalism with two-thirds of the second section front page regularly given over to a photo essay covering a single subject or event. Shot in black and white with Nikons and Leicas, these stories told with pictures awakened me to the narrative power of images. I also loved movies, and a local TV station's afternoon movie was a great way to see lots of movies, including classics directed by John Ford, David Lean, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. In my teens I discovered world cinema at the Crescent Art Theatre through films directed by Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, and others.
I was drawn to visual storytelling and fortunate to be at Western Kentucky University during the inception of the school’s renowned photojournalism program. Seeing my first photographic image form in a developing tray was a magical and profound experience followed closely by a workshop taught by Bill Strode, a Pulitzer Prize photojournalist. I managed to secure employment as the darkroom supervisor in the WKU Audio Visual Department. With essentially unlimited access to equipment, film and processing, I pursued photography using 35mm rangefinders, 8X10 view cameras and everything in between.
I took a semester off in my fourth year to work as still photographer and general crew person on a low budget horror movie filmed in Louisville. The Asylum of Satan was, to be kind, not a good film, but I have fond memories of that first filmmaking experience. William Girdler, 0ur writer, producer, director, editor, and composer had ingratiated himself with many established Hollywood filmmakers, and our crew was star struck when we were visited by Charles G. Clarke, a director of photography whose career had begun in 1915. We were mesmerized by his stories and intrigued by his prediction that some of us could earn a living making movies.
After graduation I traveled for four months, eventually landing in Jacksonville, Florida, where I began looking for any kind of photography related work and came upon a newspaper help wanted ad seeking an Assistant Cameraman. A week later I started my first and only staff position. The pay was truly dismal, but the job provided the opportunity to work with an experienced photographer and a group of experienced filmmakers. Working those two years with cinematographers Charlie Bregg and Charlie Barth on commercials and industrial films and with photographer John Reitzammer on still shoots and multimedia presentations, I learned the fundamentals as a camera assistant, photographer, darkroom technician, photo editor, grip, electrician, delivery person and floor sweeper. The gorgeous assistant accountant, Barbara Whiteford, and I began dating. We enjoyed the excitement of a forbidden workplace romance until everyone knew about it. A few months after our wedding we set out for Chicago.
Arriving on January 1, 1976, I sought gainful employment and a thicker outer layer. Chicago had a thriving commercial scene in the mid-1970s, and my work as a freelance motion picture camera assistant began in earnest while my pursuit of still photography was relegated to personal work. In November, 1977, I became a member of I.A.T.S.E. Local 666, and worked regularly with cinematographers Andy Costikyan, Jack Richards, Paul VomBrack and Bill Birch on commercials, documentaries, feature films, made for tv movies, and episodic television shows. Much of the 1980s was spent working alongside the great Chicago based camera operator James Blanford, who often described earning a living in motion pictures as being like “finding money lying on the sidewalk.” Working with Jim it really was like that. Productions as a camera assistant included thousands of commercials, the feature films My Bodyguard, Major League, Red Heat, Above The Law, and The Package, numerous TV movies, the episodic TV shows Chicago Story and Crime Story as well as work on CBS Reports and 60 Minutes. My fifteen years as a camera assistant were challenging and fulfilling, but I wanted to shoot.
In 1989 I began my work as a cinematographer. It was gratifying to get such a positive response and the support of producers, directors and fellow cinematographers as I sought work as a director of photography on commercials. While things were a bit sketchy in the beginning, projects were soon plentiful with each job requiring a distinct pre-visualization and the execution of a visual plan. Productions included commercials for Nintendo, Kraft Foods, Sears, Alfa Insurance, Home Depot, McDonalds, 7-11, Southwest Airlines, Lean Cuisine, Cheerios, Tsingtao Beer, Farm Bureau Insurance, and US Cellular. After several years shooting only commercials, I began finding my way back to feature film and television production as a camera operator and 2nd unit director of photography. Projects as a 2nd unit dp included the feature films The Ice Harvest, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Fred Claus, Stir of Echoes, The Grudge 2, and Nothing Like The Holidays, as well as the episodic TV shows Early Edition, Prison Break, and Crisis.
At the end of the last century, filmmakers experienced the beginning of a great technological upheaval as motion pictures started the transition from a film based photochemical process to digitally recorded images. The revolution started in the late 1990s with Sony and Panasonic high definition camcorders, received a jolt from the aggressively marketed RED camera in 2005 and made the final transition to digital domination with the introduction of the Arriflex Alexa camera in 2010.
While film negative has essentially been replaced by digital technology, the things that matter most haven't changed. Cinematographers still seek the optimal perspective, composition, and movement as we form and control the light to tell stories with pictures.
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