Friday, July 21, 2006

Today is my birthday


Today is my birthday and as usual, a time for reflection. I look back over the year and try to figure out if I should be happy or sad with what has transpired. Let's start with the happy - I'm grateful to be alive and well. I'm sad that it seems that this year went by faster than last. That seems to happen more and more the older I get. For me that means that I should be in even more of a hurry to do all those things that I say I want to do - or to go to all those places that I've been wanting to go to. I've had a busy year - going to places that I've always wanted to go. In fact I've been on 5 out of 7 continents in a year's time.

Last year on this day, my birthday I sat on the side of a mountain in Peru, peering down at the ruins of Machu Picchu. I could write 10 pages of text and never be able to fully express the incredible awe and wonderment of that site. It was an experience that I will never forget.

As I sat on the edge of a high, rocky path and looked down at this ancient Inca city nestled in the creases of the Andes Mountains, I was awed by the shere beauty of it's majestic setting. I spent most of the morning with my family, watching the "mood" of this site - watching the clouds and feeling the mist that enveloped the mountain peaks - watching as shafts of light streaming through holes in the fog, struck the walls and the steps of this ancient village, making it suddenly appear, as if it was just being discovered for the first time.

It had been quite a journey just getting to Machu Picchu from New Jersey, although nothing in comparison to Hiram Bingham's journey in 1911, when he discovered this site. We didn't spend months hiking into remote areas of the Andes Mountains like Hiram did in his pursuit to find the last capital of the Inca State. We simply flew from Newark, NJ to Lima, Peru - arrived the next morning - flew to Cusco - spent the night - then took a 4 hour train ride through some incredible scenery - arrived and went to our hotel near Aqua Calientes, a small village - a half hour bus ride away, zigzaging up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Many people decide to endure the 4 day hike along the Inca Trail, arriving at Machu Picchu at dawn.

We visited Machu Picchu two full days and on the day we were to depart Agua Calientes, we decided to visit one more time. It is truly one of the greatest spots on Earth. It is inspiring, breathtaking, spiritual and almost any other cliche that comes to mind. One of those places that's better than you imagined - in fact beyond words.

Today, on this birthday, I'm not in any exotic place, but I'm happy to be where I am. Who knows where I might be next year on this day or for all the days in between. But that's what makes life exciting - like Forest Gump said " life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get".

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Wipe your knees before entering

When I first started out, I wanted nothing more than to shoot for the National Geographic. Me and thousands of others. Upon graduating from Brooks Institute in late 1975, one of my instructors came up to me and said "great news, I've gotten you a job at Boeing - in Seattle". You see at that time in America, corporations needed to fill some demographic quotas in order to keep their contracts with the US government. In other words, they needed to hire women and minorities. Since I was one of 6 women at the school and the only one in my graduating class I was offered that "token" job. Even though I was pretty young at the time, I was savvy enough to know two things -

1. I wasn't ever going to get anywhere being the "token" employee and

2. Working at Boeing and photographing "nuts and bolts" was not going to get me to my goal of shooting for the Geographic.

So, I turned him down and I wish I had taken a picture of the look on his face.

I moved back to the East Coast to center myself in the New York City area because at that time, it was the heart of the publishing industry. And it was a 4 hour train ride to Washington DC where National Geographic was headquartered. About every six months or so, I would put together a portfolio of my very best images, along with pages of story ideas to propose to the magazine. Robert Gilka was the Director of Photography - a legend in his time. He was also one of the most intimidating people I had ever met - not because he was mean or anything like that - but because he was the top gun for photography at the magazine and if I was ever going to get in the door at the Geographic - I had to walk through Gilka's door first.

The first time I went to see Gilka, I signed in at the desk in the lobby, got my visitor's badge and took the elevator to the 4th floor. I was met by his secretary who asked me to take a seat on the chair outside his office. As I sat down, I saw IT - there on his door was a doormat you know one of those bristly things you wipe your feet on. But woven into the doormat were the words "Wipe your knees before entering". I was beginning to think of ways I could excuse myself right then and there and leave, when Gilka invited me into his office. He asked me what he could do for me and I timidly handed over my carousel of slides to have a look at. As he clicked though them he made very few comments. But one of the comments I do remember was when he referred to a few of my images as "wowy zowy". When Gilka said your photos were "wowy zowy" - he meant that they were graphically stunning and appealing to slick art directors but in his opinion were not journalistic - didn't communicate a story. But he did offer an occasional "nice moment" which was just enough to encourage me. He also told me that the best way to get an assignment for the magazine was to propose a story that the magazine would be interested in.


A photo that may be considered "wowy zowy"





So over the next 3 years, I would pitch stories - sometimes I would take the time to research a story and write a proposal and sometimes I would just throw out an idea to him - either over the phone or on one of my visits. I also researched everything that the National Geographic had done since it started publishing - so that I wouldn't pitch an idea that had just run in the magazine in a recent issue. I did my homework - I knew that magazine inside and out. Robert Gilka was a man of few words. Most photographers were in and out of his office in less than 15 minutes. I usually lasted a half hour - I would show recent work and then I would throw out one liners as story ideas - to which he would reply "done it", "doing it" or "don't want to do it".

One time I had a tightly scheduled day in Washington DC. I had a 10AM appointment at the Geographic, an 11AM at the Smithsonian etc. At 10AM I showed up for my appointment with Gilka - but he got caught up in a meeting and kept me waiting until about 10:30. I'm a very punctual person and one thing that really stresses me out and aggravates me is when someone - anyone - keeps me waiting. So when I walked into his office I was not in a very chatty mood. He apologized that he kept me waiting and I looked at my watch and said that I was in a hurry because I had an appointment across town at the Smithsonian in a half hour. Gilka knew the photo editor at Smithsonian - Declan Haun- because Declan used to work for Gilka at the Geographic. So he picked up the phone and called Declan to tell him that I'd be late - on account of him. I went through my usual list of ideas, showed my photos and then rushed off to the Smithsonian. When, I walked in the first thing Declan wanted to know was how I got Gilka to call him and let him know I was running late - I think that Declan was suitably impressed.

About a month after that meeting, I got a call from Bob Gilka and he asked me if I would like to come to Washington DC - that he had a job for me and would I like to have lunch. I almost dropped the phone. But I did go down to DC and Gilka and I and another photographer had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. When the waiter asked me what I wanted to drink - I ordered a Tsingtao - so did the other photographer and then the waiter asked Gilka what he wanted - he looked at me and said "what the hell is a tsingtao?" I said it's a beer and a pretty good one. So he ordered one as well and we all toasted to my first assignment at the National Geographic.

Incidently, a few years later, after shooting quite a few stories for the National Geographic Traveler, I got an assignment to shoot a story on Santa Barbara, California - my old stomping grounds when I attended Brooks. I sent a note to the photojournalism teacher at Brooks and he asked if I could spare some time and show some work to his students and talk to them. I did and I noticed that the teacher who had offered me the job at Boeing was sitting in the back of the room. When my presentation was over, he came up to me and said "you know you really should have taken that job" - over 20 years later and he was still stewing over it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

07926

I live in Brookside, New Jersey 07926. Brookside is a small town of about 1100 people located approximately 35 miles due west of New York City - or as some may say "the greater New York area". But when you're in my town, you not only feel like you're a thousand miles from NYC, you feel like you've just stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting.

When I moved here in 1994, residents told me that there had been more people living in Brookside during the time of the American Revolution, than there were now - 1994. I don't know if that statistic still holds true because "we've" grown in the past twelve years - but I wouldn't be surprised if it does. Back in the mid to late 1700's Brookside was not the quiet, suburban town it is today. Because of it's numerous natural resources of water, forests and ore, it was the site of sawmills, gristmills, iron mines and other supporting businesses of it's day. During the time of the Revolution, it was a dangerous place for a loyalist to be. Washington's troops were camped about 5 miles down the road at Jockey Hollow which is now New Jersey's only National Park.

Brookside is now a small quiet community within Mendham Township. The 4th of July is Brookside's big day. So yesterday (as we do every 4th of July) the residents of Brookside turned out to watch as tractors, antique cars, fire engines, homespun floats and marchers (including about a dozen pooches dressed for the holiday) paraded down Main Street. People lined the street or watched from their porches as the parade passed by. Anyone can be a part of the parade, and most people watching it know at least one person in it. As one of our officials delcared "It's the grandest little small town parade in America". Afterwards there's field games behind the Community Club for the kids and beer at the Brookside Firehouse for the adults. The "beach" is free to all on July 4th. Yes, I said beach - the Brookside Beach is located on the grounds of the elementary school and is the favorite local "watering hole" in town. In the late afternoon most people try to sneak in a nap between the picnics and bingo that starts at 7:00PM sharp down at the community center. I got lucky last night. I won a large plain pizza in a bingo round. July 4th is Brookside's biggest day and even locals who have summer houses at the shore, make it a point to be back in Brookside for the 4th.

There is no commerical zoning in my town. The only thing you can buy in Brookside is a newspaper from the machine located outside our post office. We have our own post office and our own zip code - 07926. We don't get mail delivery to our homes in Brookside. We go down to the post office to retrieve our mail. I don't really know anyone who minds that - gives us a chance to talk to Pete or Rita, our postmaster and her associate, and catch up on the local gossip with friends - especially on a Saturday morning. You can also check out the bulletin board inside to read notices that residents have put up announcing bake sales or music lessons offered and that sort of thing. Shortly after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden's Ten Most Wanted flyer was posted on the wall along side a picture of someone's lost cat and someone else's notice that their piano was for sale. Also hanging on the walls are some wonderful vintage photos of the post office in it's early years when it was a general store. A couple of people in town decorate the windows for each season or holiday. Recently, a protest was staged down at the post office. An angry but not unruly mob of about two dozen people chanted "no standardization" . What caused this dissention? Apparantly, a postal inspector had ordered the removal of pictures, notices and other personal items displayed on the walls of this "federal" building in accordance with the new Postal Office policy "retail standardization". I don't think these postal officials were prepared for the outcry that arose from a community whose roots go back to our country's original dissenters. After our US representative sent a strong letter to some high level postal officials, things began to quiet down and return to status quo, at least for the time being.

Mendham Township - of which Brookside is a part of - is about 17 square miles with a population of around 5000 people. What's amazing is this township has over 55 miles of walking trails, 850 acres of parks and natural land and a beach. It also has 9 zipcodes - some people say more, but I will stick with the conservative estimate of 9 separate zipcodes that residents use in their addresses. Gets a bit confusing for surveys and fund raising. Getting, back to my zipcode, 07926 - which is unique to residents in Brookside and services about 500 postal boxes down at the post office. Unfortunately, at times this zipcode can very extremely problematic. For instance, American Express sends my bills to me regularly at this zipcode. But if I try to purchase a "Be My Guest" (a gift certificate to be used at a restaurant) I can't do it. Amex will not deliver these certificates to a post office box and yet when I ask them to send it to my physical address via Fedex I get routed to someone like "Chuck" in Bombay who tells me that my town and zipcode don't exist. One time I got so exasperated that I exclaimed " I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone". Apparently, the day that "Chuck" had his "Americanization" lessons, they didn't learn about the Twilight Zone, because he politely responded to me in his best "American" accent "What is this Twilight Zone?".

The other time living with the "07926" zipcode became a problem was during the last Census. Apparantly there's a law, that census forms must be sent to a physical address. So each form sent out that year was addressed to the physical addresses for all the residents of Brookside - with no supplemental zipcode or box number - just the physical address. Well, when the forms arrived at our little post office - our postmaster (who at the time was "large Marge" - at least that's what I call her - but that's another story for another time) sent them all back to the Census Bureau because they didn't have post office box numbers on them and thus in her eyes, not deliverable. Therefore the residents of Brookside had fallen into a "gray area" and were never counted.

I love it here in Brookside. I complain like other citizens of New Jersey that our property taxes are way too high, but I think I have found the nearly perfect place to live. A place full of history, wonderful historic homes, great schools, an old fashioned swimming hole in the summer which transforms to a skating rink in the winter, an abundance of natural beauty and neighbors who know you and look out for you. The kind of town you expect to see in a Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart.


When I'm asked "what exit are you from in NJ?" by people whose impression of New Jersey is based on bad jokes from comedians and now the TV show The Sopranos - I answer "the pretty part". I try not to be any more informative about exactly where I live because I prefer at times to keep it a secret. But every now and then we get "new" folks moving in and sometimes they want to change things - like erect a new cell tower because they can't get a signal on their cell phones. Most of us try to gently "enlighten them" about such foolish notions. And so far it's working.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"Luck" and recognizing opportunity

Whenever there was a disappointment or "downturn" in my life (large or small), my mother used to say "things happen for a reason". I would interpret that to mean that something bad just happened because something better was coming along. I took comfort in what my mom said because I'm a "glass half FULL" kind of person. I assumed she meant that "the reason" was positive. The word "luck" is an interesting word. Most of us would give it a positve connotation - luck meaning good luck. But there's also bad luck. What I think is - all of us have "luck" in our lives - and depending on how we recognize opportunities - depends on how that word will be defined for us.

If you're still reading this, you're probably hoping I get to the point - any point. Back in 1977, Tom and I had just returned from our honeymooon in Europe. Actually it was a month long sojourn through parts of Europe to shoot and build our portfolio. I remember long days, camping out (sometimes in the car), eating cheap, and taking pictures for the love of it. Tom may remember things differently - but that's for him to tell you.

When we returned, we edited our photos, culled them down to what we thought were the best and made an appointent to show them to the art director of Travel & Leisure, who at that time was Adrian Taylor. I'm going to back up here a bit chronologically speaking, in order to explain the "luck" part of this blog.

In the summer of 1976 - our country's bicentennial - Tom and I got our "lucky break". We had recently graduated from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA and had moved back to the East Coast. Adrian had also just relocated to New York City from the San Francisco Bay area. His roots were in Bucks County, PA - same place Tom grew up. Adrian's son Clem, was Tom's brother Tim's good friend. So there was a connection - a "it's who you know" connection. So now we have that "luck" factor and "who you know" colliding together in the universe and creating a moment in time where fate can take it in any direction depending on how we force it's hand.

I will try to retell the story as correctly as I know how - about the day Tom first met Adrian Taylor. It was a hot summer day and Tom had arranged to meet Adrian at his NYC apartment. When Tom arrived at the appointed hour, Adrian was in the street hailing a cab and told Tom that someone had just stolen his bicycle and he was in hot pursuit of the culprit.Tom (not knowing what else to do) took a seat on Adrian's stoop and waited for his return. I remember Tom telling me that he wasn't sure if Adrian was telling the truth or just blowing him off. At any rate he gave Adrian the benefit of the doubt and waited. Some time passed and believe it or not about a half hour later Adrian showed up riding down the street on his bicycle. That was the beginning of a friendship and ultimately a major turning point in our lives.

Fast forward to that day in 1977 when we showed Adrian our "honeymoon" photos - not the kind of photos you may be thinking right now. We went into the projection room at the magazine feeling somewhat confident of what we had to show but came out feeling like we were the greatest photographers on the planet. That's because Adrian gave us the greatest gift of all that day - belief in ourselves. We were very lucky - lucky to have the opportunity to show a portfolio to the art director of Travel and Leisure and very lucky that the art director was Adrian Taylor. After that meeting,we were pumped and ready to start our careers and set the world on fire. Adrian also selected some of those images to use in the magazine's special section on Europe - thus not only giving us the opportunity to make some money - but more importantly the opportunity to get published - and in a major magazine.

Over the years our relationship with Adrian and Travel & Leisure blossomed. It was a wonderful time in our lives. Traveling everywhere and getting paid for it and building a reputation in the publishing world. Every assignment that Adrian gave us was a bit more challenging and bigger than the next. But it was his encouragement and guidance that turned our raw talent and naivete into both personal and professional growth. He also gave us opportunities. Opportunities to shine. I'd like to think that we not only recognized the opportunities, we embraced them and went out every time to make the best photographs we could. I for one always wanted to raise my own personal bar. I thrived on the positive feedback we got from Adrian. The last thing I wanted was to disappoint someone who believed in me.

Knowing Adrian had other benefits as well. He is a man who has great taste - in art, in decor, in design etc. etc. etc. He made me aware of artists, photographers, furniture designers, writers, architects that I had never heard of. In essence he educated me in the finer things in life. My only regret about that is I can't afford my own taste now - but that's another story. He was a mentor in many ways.

As I look back at those "salad days" I realize how fortunate we were - that Tom was from Bucks County, PA, that Tom's brother Tim knew Clem, that Clem was the son of Adrian, that Adrian moved to NYC from San Francisco, that Adrian was the art director at Travel & Leisure, that Adrian's bike got stolen that day, that Tom waited for him to return, that we spent the money we got when we got married on that honeymoon trip instead of on a new refrigerator, that we used our honeymoon trip to shoot photographs and most importantly that Adrian was the man he was and gave us exactly what we needed - belief in ourselves.

We still keep in touch with Adrian - not as much as I would like. And he's still the same guy - encouraging me to raise my bar. So my advice to anyone starting out - recognize your opportunities, believe in yourself and don't always play it safe. That's what I got out of knowing Adrian. And like my mom used to say "things happen for a reason". It's up to us to take it the rest of the way and define what the "reason" is.

Here are some of the photos that we shot over the years for Adrian and Travel & Leisure: