Making Something Out of Nothing

I had it all ready. For the last few days, I have been thinking intently about what I’d write about. Profound thoughts and feelings were flowing out of me like a stream overflowing it’s bounds and just as morning arrived and I sat down to pour my heart out, and sing my song of life to you, something happened. I had lost my loving feeling. My heart these last days was swelling with the delicate perfume of a bygone era, where a woman’s touch, or the shape of the nape of her neck, or the song of a woman’s stockings as she was crossing her legs would make me swoon. It was all so nuanced and so beautiful and profound, but here I am at my desk ready to write and coming up empty.

But fear not, for there is a lesson to be learned other than that the wheels go round and round, and it goes something like this.

In the fall of 1988, I was beginning to feel on top of the world. I had begun to receive a modicum of success as a photographer and was receiving praise from a number of different sources (especially those that were beginning to fill my deeply empty pockets). I was feeling full of myself, which was a nice manic high to the years of unrest and emotional turmoil that preceded it.

I had been photographing CEO’s and was right in the midst of this corporate work, looking deeply into their moneyed souls and enjoying it, when along came Bennett.

Some years before, he had helped start, if not actually began my career as a commercial photographer. At another date I will pay Bennett the homage that he deserves for choosing and trusting me with the assignment of a lifetime, but this is not the story for today.

This is a story that transpired some years later, where Bennett and I had become friends of sorts, and we were used to working together on assignments.

One afternoon, I received a call from him asking me to come to his office the next morning. When Bennett called, I obliged and promptly at 8 am (Bennett was a fastidious early morning man, which suited me perfectly) I arrived at his office. He was always immaculately dressed: shirt pressed with a bow tie, slacks with a crease you could have skied down, and with polished shoes to a high military shine.

One of the things I loved about Bennett was his office. He always had a perfectly laid out mock-up of the brochure or project he was working on, on a sideboard in his office. He would love to show me the design and scale of each page, which quite honestly, I loved to see. Seeing the project in horizontal form with its ebbs and flows, typographic treatments, scale of photographs, always seemed to add an extra perspective to the finished project.

This morning however, all I saw on the long settee behind his desk was a cover design for a new brochure. There were no content pages. I asked him about the project (secretly hoping he might ask me to photograph for him), when he looked at me and pointed to the cover and said,  “Here is the problem.” With that statement, he began to slowly unravel the story I am about to tell you.

Bennett had a great habit of hiring very well known photographers and taking a chance on them for uncharacteristic assignments. For the job that lay before us that morning in 1988, he had hired one of my favorite LIFE Magazine photographers. A photographer whom I thought was extremely talented. Bennett in his usual fashion gave latitude and freedom to the photographers that he chose, but he was very exact and demanding with the results. You’d better produce for him, or you were out!

Bennett described to me an assignment that I thought was wonderful. He had asked this photographer to make a portrait at an airfield in New Jersey with a blimp in the picture. As I was told the photographer went off to New Jersey to photograph his assignment. Some days later, Bennett called this famous photographer and inquired where the film was, and this is where an important lesson is to be learned.

Our photographer, responded that he did not take any pictures, because there were no pictures to make. He had tried to find something of value but in the end he was simply sorry.

Well with this, Bennett in his perfectly coiffed clothes and polished shoes, exploded and metaphorically popped every button on his tightly pressed shirt, and exhorted our now infamous photographer to listen very carefully to what he was about to say.

“Of course there isn’t any photograph. There never is, it is your job to make a photograph where there are none!” And with this slammed the phone down and called in old reliable me to take over from that point.

So now the moral of this story is that although, I love the work of the LIFE Magazine photographer, I totally agreed with Bennett. Rarely if ever, am I in the right place at the right time. I have to make pictures where there are no pictures. It is my job and I do it very well.

Just today when I thought I would find that hidden jewel of a thought or feeling that would rise to the surface with the poetry of life that would move you to tears, I am left with a blank desk and paper and the thoughts and wisdom of Bennett.