WORKING FOR TIME-LIFE BOOKS
It's late 1967 and we've just moved into our new digs on New York's Fifth Avenue. Not the fancy part, but downtown at 28th Street, practically in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
Right around this time our sales rep, Art Aaron, brought in a new account that resulted in some interesting assignments. These were for Time-Life Books, a division of Time Inc., who were starting a new series called The Time-Life Library of America. Each of the volumes would contain articles on various aspects of contemporary life in their region. Our mission was to produce photographic essays on the people who populated the Middle Atlantic States (Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania) as well as the shakers and movers of Washington D.C.
For the first volume we elected to use an 8x10 view camera with black & white film in order to achieve a distinctive "look" that emulated and paid homage to the early-20th-century German portrait photographer August Sander (1876-1964). The use of such a large format coupled with a 300mm Symmar lens yielded wonderful tonal ranges and a short depth of field that made the subjects really stand out from their surroundings. It also lent a certain dignity to the portraits. Happily, the editors agreed to try this.
We began the project by driving down to Philadelphia to photograph Edmund Bacon, the renowned city planner who had transformed so much of that city during the 1950s and 60s. While there we also did a Quaker peace activist from the Friends Service Committee. Then we scooted up the Northeast Turnpike to Allentown to do a local politician in the back yard of his row house. Following this was a visit to my parents, who lived nearby, and it was back to New York to see if the editors liked our approach. Thankfully, they did.
After this came the big trip, which took us first to an oil refinery near Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to to do a powerful portrait of a hard-hatted worker seated on a mess of pipes. We also worked in nearby Wilmington, Delaware, but for the life of me I can't remember the subject.
It must be noted here that I haven't seen these books for over 25 years, and an online search of the used-book vendors yielded only one copy, at price I wasn't willing to pay. Even if I had copies, I couldn't use the photos as they are still covered by copyrights.
The next stop was Baltimore, where we photographed a surgeon in an operating room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As this was indoors, we had to use our Balcar studio strobes for sufficient light for the large-format camera. Between the huge camera and tripod and all of the lights, our rented station wagon was filled to capacity. From there we went to the new planned community of Columbia, Maryland, to do the architect in charge of the project. The whole place was, at that time, a muddy contruction site, so we had a bit of cleaning to do later.
A stop was made at Annapolis for an outdoor portrait of a naval cadet, then down to Salisbury on Maryland's Eastern Shore. We were a bit nervous there as this was a very conservative area and our subject was an African-American teenage girl who was involved with the local equal rights struggle and whose life had been threatened. Fortunately, there was no trouble.
A long drive took us to the western end of Maryland and an open stretch of new, yet-to-be-opened highway. There we photographed a state trooper standing by his patrol car. Then it was north to Pittsburgh.
The remaining shot for this volume was of a group of coal miners coming off work, with the gray, grim mine entrance behind them. They were amazingly cooperative, and enjoyed the whole experience. After this we drove into the nearby town for lunch. When we exited the coffee shop we were met by the local police, who were none too happy and wanted us to meet the mayor. Our New York licence plates had attracted their attention, and they at first accused us of being union organizers. My partner's appearance didn't help either, what with his long hair, beard, and generally unkempt look. Remember, this was during the height of the Vietnam War. They calmed down on discovering that we were both army veterans, and that we were working for the mighty Time Inc. And so they let us go.
We drove straight through to New York that afternoon and evening, happy to be back home.
The next volume in the series was called The District of Columbia: The Seat of Government. The subjects here were the power brokers of Washington, so we decided on a more reportage approach, using twin-lens Mamiyaflex cameras, Tri-X B&W film, and portable strobe lights. Since the equipment was small enough, we decided to fly down on the Eastern Shuttle instead of driving on the two separate trips there. In fact, on the first trip one of our lights malfunctioned, so I had to fly back to NYC to get a replacement, then return for a total of three flights in one day. That shuttle was a fantastic service; you simply went to the LaGuardia Airport without a ticket or reservation, and got on the next plane in line. When it was full, or no more than 30 minutes (I think) from the last flight, it took off. Payment was made inflight. The planes used were old Elektra turbos.
As the work took several days, we stayed at a Holiday Inn just across the Potomac River in Arlington. And rented a station wagon from Hertz.
The first jobs were to photograph various congressional leaders and their committees. The one I remember most was the Agricultural Committee, who claimed that this was the only time ever that every member showed up! And I especially recall our session with the House Minority Leader, Gerald Ford, who engaged me in a long conversation about building a home darkroom. This was before he became President. We also did something that I doubt would be allowed today — park our car under the Capitol steps and march right in with equipment cases in tow. Security was lax in those days.
Security was also rather lax at the White House, where we drove right in and parked at the door to the West Wing. A guard did check our papers, but still. Actually, President Johnson was out of town at the time, and we were to photograph his special assistant, Joseph Califano, who was called the "Deputy President for Domestic Affairs" by the New York Times. After we finished, he showed us into the Oval Office for a quick look around. I was sorely tempted to liberate a souvenir, but didn't.
The other jobs we did for Time-Life Books involved noted gardeners amid their fancy plants, shot in Virginia, Washington, and Pennsylvania. I have only the vaguest memories of these.
As our business grew, our increasing overhead and payroll would no longer allow us to work for their rates. But it was fun while it lasted.
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.