Formal wear & an SLR is sort of the societal equivalent to the clipboard & the confident smile. That is to say that they gain you access to almost anywhere & grant you anonymity. They make you invisible….sort of. This is doubly so when you have a friend who attended Harvard & understands that you are hard pressed for work. A degree from Harvard, it seems comes with invitations to all manner of things & some of these things need photographers.

So now it’s the tuxedo, the SLR, & the invitation from the Harvard blood-sucker. It’s a nice change from the clipboard, the smile, the wave, & the silent prayer to St. Francis de Sales in the hopes that I don’t get my ass arrested. The pitfalls of a degree in history. This time, I have an invitation & a little patch to pin onto my lapel, still, I feel a hell of a lot less welcome.

For starters, I don’t get on too well with artists. I mean, just because of how I paid for college I know a LOT of artists. I dated an artist, I’ve lived with an artist. For little while, in college, I lived in an apartment that smelled like a studio & not in the good way. Sometimes, over those nice tame Chicago winters, we’d have to open the windows because we were getting light headed. Six people, two photographers, four artists, one three bedroom house in the near west suburbs.

We’re probably all going to die of cancer. I might be more than partially responsible for that. Dark room, chain smoker, & yeah, that’s a great combination.

Things have changed a lot haven’t they? Back then, the photographers raised a lot of the stink & took up half the basement. Today, yeah, those same people would really only need the space of a laptop & a few feet in the closet….Pending backdrops & lighting kits, & fuck it, still less room than the typical artist.

I only lived there for a year. I couldn’t stand it. I was the only one there majoring in something that wasn’t a fine art. Something realistic, you know, Theology. You know, because, well, Jesus Fucking Christ, I would have made a horrible Goddamned priest, wouldn’t I? I make a horrible goddamned Catholic, slightly better now that we have a liberal pope that’s not homophobic, but yeah…

I mean, I’m still friends with the girl I was living with, doinking, head-over-heels in love with, but, you know, now it’s small doses.

When we all get together over the holidays, Harvard’s wife will run interference for me. She’s a good girl. He’s been talking to her for more than ten minutes, it’s time to call him over here. It’s time to interrupt.

What the fuck was he thinking dating her in the first place?


She gets on my nerves like no one else can, but she’s becoming a really good person. She’s living out in LA now & she’s doing things that make me proud that I know her. Seriously proud. Unions, soup kitchens, she got a good job in Hollywood that bumped her up a class & the moment she realized that, yeah, life was so much easier for her & that extra money opened up so many more doors, she got political & grew a heart.

Mind you, this is a hot little ginger that came from the same poor ass Irish Catholic neighborhood the rest of us did. It just took her longer to realize that there was an upper-middle class or even rich people.

But she still irritates the shit out of me. I’m very proud of her now, I love what she’s doing, but she still irritates the ever-loving shit out of me.

You see her on the street, you give her a hug because you know her & you still like her. Then she kisses both of your cheeks & it takes all of your will power NOT to say: “Listen, bitch, that shit flies with Aurélie, because she’s French. But you’re a Chicago fucking Biddy, act like it.”

Which, you know, is the Chicago equivalent of the far more polite: “When in Rome, ginger.”

I know a lot of photographers too. Most of which took to it for the exact same reason I did. You know, that whole, we have to figure out how to pay for college thing.

Back then it was lucrative. The last days of Kodachrome.

Back in the day, if you wanted good pictures, you had to go to people that knew how to combine strobes & reflectors & filters in a way that will make an overcast Chicago autumn afternoon look like sunny Southern California. Now there are programs that do that for you.

Back then, an SLR & a little equipment & good old know how can earn you the price of a semester in the first month of break, including books, & a little extra for travel. Now you are competing against idiots with Ipads & Adobe. People that don’t know who Robert Capa & Bob Krist are & certainly don’t understand the rules they can teach you.

That meant that we spent a LOT of time in the art department, which meant that we knew a LOT of artists.

The difference between a photographer & a fine artist is attitude. A photographer is only the center of attention when he, or she, is taking on the duel role of the director. Otherwise they are hiding in the shadows watching the action & trying to be as invisible as possible. Artists come with a lot more drama.

With artists, the attention is on them. As a race they are a hell of a lot more theatrical. There is more meaning & substance & they have to do a lot of talking to show the brilliance & the meaning behind their work. Photographers let the work do the talking. You don’t need Capa to explain the meaning behind his picture of Trotsky (which you can find at the Art Institute of Chicago, you know, if you’re interested).

It’s an attitude that irritates the shit out of me. Artistically & personally. If you have to explain your work, you didn’t do it right & if you feel the need to explain it, guess what, you’re pretentious. The most a photographer is going to do is explain how he pulled off the image, you know, so you can do it too if you’re in the same situation.

Harvard landed me a gig at a fine art showing on State Street.


With the Champagne & cheese crowd.

Double shit.

Now I have to put up with artists & the upper-class for a lower rate of pay than a shotgun wedding.

“We want the pictures Black & White. We want them reminiciant of the Art Deco era. We want them to reflect the artist. Something that you would take if you were a photographer at the birth of the sky-scrapper.”

Fine, I’ll mount the 19mm, bounce the strobe & get a nice natural vignette that will save me a step in Photoshop. If we were still in the age of Kodachrome, I’d use Neopan & up the silver with a matte finish to give it that turn of the century shine. Instead I’m going to take it into the computer, douse it with far too much Cyan, & desaturate. You won’t get the same shine, but you won’t know the difference.

Of course, you don’t say any of that to your clients. They won’t understand a word of it. If they did, they would know exactly how close you are going to get up on them with your 19 & they’d hire someone with an Ipad & Elements.


“Sure, I can do that.” Harvard certainly knows I can, I’ve used him & his wife as guinea pigs more than a few times in the past when I was trying to work out the perfect slow-sync for a Lake Shore Drive backdrop & then abruptly turned around & really only used that for the first dance at weddings.

And then, you know, the shoot came on Friday night & I was surrounded by, well, by the incredibly rude & condescending.

In that crowd, you’re the help. You’re even the help at shotgun weddings, but there is a different attitude behind it, you’re the help, but you’re also the talent…even with bridezilla.

Cue Harvard to follow you around & apologize for the rudeness of his friends.

“I don’t understand, if you’re poor, why don’t you buy a business & let your money do the work for you?”

“Listen,” Harvard whispers, “I’m sorry man.”

“If you need a job, why didn’t you go to college.”


“Well it’s not our fault you didn’t go to an Ivy League school.”


“You, with the camera, get over here, I’m not going to wait all night for you.”


“I don’t understand why you had to hire one of them. That tuxedo is obviously a rental.”

“I’ll take you to Vaughan’s & buy a few pints. You’ve been doing a good job of keeping your mouth shut.”

“Why Canon & not Nikon? Isn’t Nikon the professional brand?”

Them is fighting words.

Why Canon? Because when you are a poor high school graduate, you can do more on a Canon for half a price of a Nikon with the same manual functions. Why Canon? Because in the last days of Kodachrome, fuck it, the lenses were just as good & the body meant fuck all because the CMOS was still crap no matter what brand you brought. Why Canon? Because when you’re just starting out & your other photo-jockey friends came to the same conclusion, swapping equipment was cheaper than renting it. Why Canon? Because now Nikon uses Canon processors & still charges twice the price. Because once you get locked into equipment You’re not going to buy all new lenses & strobes. Because for a while, in college, I shot sports & bands & Canon just makes that sooooo much smoother.

I once, in graduate school, did portraits for Melissa Bean & Jack Franks & got in trouble for suggesting that they run together as “Franks & Bean.” Jack found it funny, Melissa was, well, a bitch about it. This shot was harder to deal with.

And then you have those questions. You know, THOSE questions. The ones that come from the other people that own SLRs but have never had to use them to make a living.

You get them at weddings too, form the people that will follow you around & later insist that their pictures are better than yours.

“I thought you were a professional, why aren’t you using your big lens?”

Clearly, the upper one-percent has those people too.

You mean my telephoto? Sometimes, you have to fight the urge to take it out & mock them. You seriously want to know why I’m not using a 100 at an art show with about twelve-feet between the walls? Does someone have male insecurity issues? Let me guess, you have the $150 75-300 that came in the kit along with your 18-55? Oh, wait a minute, let me guess, you dropped some money on the vertical grip too, because it made you look more professional & you don’t have to stop & think about the extra weight when you’re out in the field.

I forgot what magazine it was in, but there used to be adds mocking celebrities that used the Kit lens. “Sheryl Crow uses the kit lens.”

Springsteen, you know, had a good laugh about that. I might be a fan of his music, but let’s be realistic, he missed his calling, the man could have been the next Bob Krist. Take a moment to look over his work, the dude is a pro.

I know a man like that, Aurélie’s husband. The man that Before Sunrise is a biography of & NOT just a movie. He’s working as a computer programmer & doing the world a disservice by not working as a photographer. Dude has more talent in his little finger than I have after decades of experience & he only brought a camera of his own last year.

“I just don’t understand why you people want to be poor.”


The more they drank, the more I heard shit like that & Harvard made sure to follow me like a little lap dog, apologizing along the way…I should have made him my reflector bitch.

It wasn’t the first art showing I’ve ever shot. It wasn’t even the first I shot on State Street. I did one, years ago, where I ran into the Cusacks. John & Joan. You didn’t get those questions with them.

With Joan it was “do you not know who my brother is or do you not care?” It sounds pretentious, but really it was a “thank you for not following us around all night.”

With John it was, “Just have a drink, everyone else is.”

And then the look of confusion when you stop & ask, “what’s Hunter Thompson like in real life?” Because, you know, he might be a celebrity, but he knows one of your gods…personally.

In either case, it was a totally different class of wealth there. The people took the time to learn your name & didn’t really confront you about poverty.

To be fair, full disclosure, I rented the tux at the last minute & had to safety clip the pants to get them to fit. So, you know, I did have a sort of Charlie Chaplin look about me, still, don’t point that out, or at least, if you do, rib on how I look, not the obvious lack of income that comes with a rental. Be nice to your photographer, we know how to add an extra chin & few more pounds.

“Do you want me to hem those?” Harvard’s wife asked.

“No, it’s a rental & I know you’re TRYING to be domesticated now, but I don’t want an organic chemist hemming ANY of my clothes.”

And then, well, do you know the looks you get when you walk into Vaughan’s dressed in formal wear?


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