The Life You Learn With
Well, he wasn’t just some teacher. He was the Dean of Photography at the Kent State University Department of Photojournalism and I was an arrogant freshman who, unfortunately, had tasted a thimble-full of success in the world of professional photography. Protected by supportive well-wishers for too long, I had no clue how much I was still a beginner. So, full of myself, I went off at the first guy to actually critique my work.
Which was not a wise thing to do to a dean at a major university.
Early 1960s, Kent State was the Berkeley of the East and there I was, hanging out with the artists and hippies, most often at a bar called the Fifth Quarter. I was living the dream, something that started when I was a young boy growing up in Columbus, Ohio.
My folks, both public high school teachers, had given me a camera, a little Kodak Brownie Starfish, that they managed to get through saving Green Stamps. I was in Boy Scouts and, encouraged to go after the photography merit badge, I ended up taking a shot of my dad sitting in his chair with his pipe in his mouth.
Classic. Totally fun.
We lived in a close-knit community and soon everyone heard what I doing. One of my dad’s friends, a prominent medical doctor, was a shutterbug himself, even having his own darkroom. He told my dad, “Have Little George come over and I will develop his film for him.”
Wasn’t long before we were in that dark room putting my roll of film through the tanks. The moment I saw the first image develop right before my eyes, I was hooked for life. I had actually found something that I could do that was uniquely mine and where I wasn’t like everyone else.
After high school, I applied and got accepted by Kent State University for photojournalism. However, being on my own for the first time, instead of walking the line and applying myself to the dream, I proceeded to major in partying.
I literally drank myself out of one of the best opportunities of my life. Realizing that I had flunked out of school, I said to myself, “Well, George, you can’t go home. Your dad will kill you.” You see, in my family, there were three acceptable professions. You could be a doctor, lawyer, teacher or some kind of professional. You could go into the clergy. Or, last but not least, the military.
Still optimistic about what I could do, I imagined myself like my Uncle Tip, who had been a mustanger in the Army during World War II. He was such a hero in my life.
Uncle Tip was one of key soldiers who pushed the famous Red Ball Express for General Patton, a predominantly black convoy unit that supplied the troops during Patton’s campaign throughout Europe. Although he enlisted as a private, he ended his career in the military as a full Colonel. When I was growing up, I used to go with Uncle Tip to pistol competitions and he let me tag along with him and the other World War II vets as they drank bourbons, smoked cigars and told stories.
With Kent State rightfully showing me the door, I said to myself. “I will go into the military. I will go to Vietnam and become a great war correspondent. ”
Bottom line, I wanted to be like Gordon Parks, who, in my day, was the Jackie Robinson of photography. During a time when America was still segregated, Gordon Parks rose to prominence as the first African American to be hired by Life Magazine. With that accomplishment, Parks broke made a way for any other black man to make it in the world of photography. Parks showed young men like me that, if you applied yourself, the limits were gone,
Many decades later, I had the honor of actually meeting Gordon Parks near the end of his career. By that time, he was well-known not only as a photographer but also as a composer and movie director, specifically of the blockbuster film, Shaft. “Be true to yourself,” is what he said to me with a smile. I was so overwhelmed at meeting Parks that I completely forgot to ask him for an autograph or a photo.
At nineteen, thinking I would be a war correspondent, I enlisted with the U.S. Navy but instead of photography, I got assigned to running radar on an aircraft carrier. The more I wanted the dream, the more it seemed to be getting away from me.
After doing my time in the Navy, I ended up in Los Angeles. It was the height of the 1960s and the Hollywood music scene was the place to be. I started taking photographs of music legends such as Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin playing at clubs such as the Troubadour The Whiskey A GoGo and the Rainbow Room. The day that Music Connection Magazine named me as one of their top photographers my life seemed to be finally back on track.
Truth was that my life had turned into an all night party. I hadn’t learned the lesson yet. Instead of grabbing hold of success, I was still choosing to major in hedonism. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
Didn’t take all that long for me to hit bottom and lose everything. Cocaine addiction, alcohol abuse and an earthquake that busted up my studio landed me right at the bottom. Everything that mattered — my family, business, life-long dream – down the toilet. I even pawned my photography equipment to buy drugs. Three heart attacks (where I flat-lined) almost did me in completely.
Then came the day that I finally decided to end it. I had nothing to live for. I took all the drugs and alcohol I had, everything and I passed out in the bathroom of a crack hotel. I woke up, shocked to still be alive. In the mirror, I saw someone I didn’t recognize.
I stared at myself and wondered, “What ever happened to that kid with the Brownie camera?”
Somewhere, deep inside, maybe because of the church-upbringing, probably because of the prayers of my parents and those who still loved me, the tide began to turn. I managed to get arrested which ended up being a blessing in disguise. The arrest landed me in front of a pessimistic judge who, contrary to all her instincts, didn’t throw me into jail but instead ordered me into a court-ordered recovery program. “I don’t know why I am doing this because people like you hardly ever change but I am going to give you 180 days in a rehab and then the next time I see you I will lock you up for the rest of your natural life”.
It was the chance I need to turn thing around and after a lot of sweat and tears I put my addictions behind me and have stayed sober ever since. I eventually went back to college and I got my Bachelor of Arts Degree in counseling with a minor in web design.
After the journey I have gone through and the bad choices I have made, you would think I would be a cynical pessimist. Quite the opposite. I am the external optimist. I am the glass half full guy. I am the ant that dropped the rubber tree plant. I am the ram that can knock down the dam. Not because I did things right. No. It is because God has shown me great love, compassion and mercy, in spite of every dumb decision I have made.
After years of living the life you learn with, my dream of creating exceptional portraits that reveal the true nature of the person being photographed, by means of the passionate way I see them is alive and well – which is a miracle in itself. I have my own studio, expanding clientele and growing prominence in the field. In this I know, I stand at the feet of giants who have gone before me. Gordon Parks. Yosef Karsh. Ansel Adams. George Hurrell. Masters who works will endure forever. I owe my art the best and I don’t tolerate from myself anything less than what I feel they would produced.
I am a happy man. I love what I do. And I get to do it.