WE MOVE TO FIFTH AVENUE
New York City, late 1967. Since the end of 1965, my partner Jim Houghton and I were renting studio space from an older, well established advertising photographer on East 22nd Street. As our business improved, it became increasingly apparent that all the commotion (steady stream of models, loud rock music, parties at night, and other good things) we created was slightly upsetting to our host/landlord. Bruce never said anything, but you could tell. So we decided that the time had come to get our very own space.
Our first call was to the Helmsley real estate firm, who made several appointments for us. Our needs were specific — 2,500 square feet of floor space, no columns, ceiling about 15 feet high, good location between 23rd Street and 59th Street, no farther west than Sixth Avenue, and (most important) CHEAP RENT. After some false starts, they actually found the perfect place. The entire fifth floor at 253 Fifth Avenue, between 28th and 29th streets. And for less than $500 a month! This then became the new home of Steinbicker/Houghton Inc.
Of course the place was a wreck. Interior walls were all in the wrong places, there was virtually no plumbing, the wiring was prehistoric, and the building dated from the Civil War era. But SPACE galore! 25 feet wide by 100 feet long, very high ceiling, a modern front elevator from the 5th Avenue entrance and an ancient freight elevator from the 28th Street service entrance.
So we got to work. With our own bare hands we demolished all of the interior walls and paid a carting company to take the trash away. Then we decided on a new layout that made good use of the space (diagram, left). All of this took place in the evenings as we still had business in the old studio.
Luckily, my partner's father was a skilled carpenter who drove in every night from Hempstead to direct us. In about a month all of the new walls were up. The only professional help we had was an electrician, who installed a heavy line for our lights and air conditioning, and a plumber who put in a water heater, rest room, two darkrooms, and the sprinkler system. And they both gave us a good price.
After painting the walls and ceiling pure white, inspections by the fire and labor departments, and some final finishing touches (like furniture) we were ready to roll.
A TOUR: What was a bit unusual was the Conference/Living Room, which was really a place to hang out with clients, models, and friends. It was a virtual 15' cube, with a large plate glass window overlooking Fifth Avenue. The walls and ceiling were white, and the floor white vinyl tiles. A white globe with a ceiling fan provided illumination. In the center was a large glass-topped table surrounded by natural color director's chairs. The modern Italian cabinets were also all white. People could spend hours here, just chatting, eating, drinking, whatever.
The photo on the right is of the building, as it looked on July 19 2006. The front windows have been replaced with sectional ones, and what had been an importer of decorative antiques is now a Quiznos Sub shop. And the rent is no longer under $500/month. Pity.
The Office was again all white, with white laminate surfaces. Here, and in reception, for the floor we rented a sander and ground down the century-old wood, stained it, and used a poly finish. Departing from the white theme, in the Reception Room we had the upper half of the walls plus the ceiling painted by our artist friend James Visconti to form a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. There was a very old and rather elegant wooden bench along one wall.
Opening from the studio was the Dressing Room with a huge illuminated mirror, makeup table and clothes racks. Models would spend hours in here getting their hair done and makeup put on.
The rear of the studio area, marked Client Area on the diagram, was all black — ceiling, walls and floor. There was a pool table, director's chairs, and a powerful stereo system with massive speakers and dozens of the latest rock records, along with my beloved classics.
The rest of the studio area, marked Shooting Area, was again pure white, with a neutral grey floor for color balance. Here sets were built, shot, and taken down. Modular wall units could be assembled many different ways. There was a huge Mole-Richardson wind machine on wheels, the type used in Hollywood studios. And overhead scaffolding for those high-level shots. Cameras and lenses were kept in a safe, and film in a refrigerator. Finally, a large electric service panel allowed us to plug in a dozen or more heavy studio strobe lights, which drew thousands of watts of juice.
The photo below shows Jim at work in the studio. Courtesy of Hardy Baeumler, who worked for us circa 1979.
So far, If I were doing it today, I'd do it the same. The Darkrooms, however, would have to go. Nearly everything is digital today and film can always be sent out for processing. This area would now house computers running Adobe Photoshop.
For the historical record, the now-obsolete Print Darkroom had two Omega D-II enlargers plus a Pako contact printer along one wall, and a 15' sink along the other. The Film Darkroom had an 8' stainless steel deep sink holding five 3½ gallon deep processing tanks, all automatically temperature controlled. With this we could process a dozen rolls of 120 film at the same time.
Just outside the darkroom was an a finishing area, with both film and print dryers, a dry mounting press and a print trimmer.
Below is the business card of our sales representative at the Fifth Avenue studio.
If anyone is interested, I'd be glad to discuss more of the technical details. I sold my interest in the firm at the end of 1979, and by the early 80s it was out of business — a victim of savage cost-cutting by corporate accountants. CLICK HERE to read about the abortive attempt by nearly all of New York's commercial photographers to form a guild that would regulate prices.
Interested in photography? Check out my "Assisting Avedon" blog.
SO, just what Little Adventure am I up to now in 2013? Why, just the most challenging one of them all! CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT.
Interactive travel guides with a difference, using innovative software developed by Sutro Media for Apple's iPhone, iPad, and iPodTouch.