Full Circle – My Journey back to Photography

In 1977 I graduated from high school, where I had been a photographer on the yearbook staff. I loved what I was doing and wanted to pursue photography for a career. My family was in the process of relocating to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – and as a photographer, I was excited to see a new place – and actually I feel like the move to a new place stirred something inside me, like new surroundings sometimes do. I was in my element, documenting a new place, exploring and trying new things. It was exciting.

I enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to study photography. During that time, through a friend at school, I started doing freelance work for the Associated Press. I was enjoying learning about art and photography, and I especially liked photojournalism.

After my first semester at the Art Institute, I was a little antsy – I wanted to travel. I asked a teacher in Pittsburgh about other schools I could transfer to – and I was told I should look at Ohio University, University of Missouri, and New Mexico. Well, this an easy decision for me. I decided to go to New Mexico!

Going to New Mexico was, in hindsight, one of the best decisions I have ever made. It helped me to change and grow in more ways, physically, mentally and spiritually, than I can even count. I met some good, life-long friends, learned some indispensable lessons, and decided to NOT make photography a career. That’s right, I decided not to pursue photography for my career.

To give a little more background, my dad had wanted me to study mechanical engineering from the start. Studying art was a bit of a divisive topic in my home. After a year (maybe 3 semesters) of studying art, I started to look for summer jobs for photographers. Needless to say, the job boards were literally loaded with engineering jobs, and very, very, very few jobs for artists (closer to none). I realized then that I really didn’t have it in me to be an artist, to make photography my career.

Recalling the discussions (arguments) with my dad, I started to realize that he might have been slightly more realistic than I was about career opportunities for artists. Swallowing whatever pride I had left, I called my dad and told him I was going to switch my major. Needless to say, I made his day.

I tried engineering for a semester, then discovered computer science. It was a relatively new major in 1979, and I thought it would be worth a try. I registered for a few computer classes, and it turned out to be something that I fell in love with. Computer science combined my technical skills with my love for art – my love for creating. Could it be a major that was scientific, yet artistic?

So, to expedite things, and because I was running short on college cash, I decided to return to Pittsburgh and finish my education at Pitt. I could live at home, commute to school and finish pretty quickly there. It took me a couple more years to get my degree, but it was well worth it. In total, my degree took about 4 and a half years. Not too bad for switching from fine arts to computer science mid stream.

So, fast forward 35 years, and here I am. I’ve spent the last 33 or so years as a computer programmer, learned some indispensable skills, and worked with some remarkable people. What happened to my photography, you ask? Well, I continued photographing, developing my own film (even in my tiny apartment in Fairborn, Ohio where I could only work at night because I didn’t have a real darkroom) and using those skills whenever I could. For the past 20 years, my darkroom equipment has been in mothballs, but I continued to take pictures from time to time. I also helped friends that wanted to learn about film, and learn more about cameras, and photography.

So, here’s one of the remarkable things. Computers and photography have merged since cameras are all digital now. Film and the old way of doing things is pretty much gone – now. There are people, like me, that hang on to film, or experiment with film – but I’m realistic enough to realize that film photography is waning and digital technology is the way of the future. I don’t think interest in film will ever disappear, but serious work will almost always happen in digital. I’m smart enough to see the proverbial writing on the wall. Digital is faster, less expensive, and better than film in all the ways that really matter. Niche uses of film may always remain, but digital is king.

I think this is very cool though, since the tech skills I’ve learned can today be used for photography – I was never very good at post processing with film and paper – but Lightroom is awesome. So, now, I can do things I could never do with my enlarger. Now, I can use my skills with computers to enhance and expand my photo skills.

A few years ago, in a moment of spontaneity, I called the photo editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and asked for a freelance job shooting high school sports. I really didn’t expect to get a job like that – but the following Friday I was taking photos at a high school football game in Oswego, Illinois. I was excited, and enjoyed sports photography like I had years before. I’ve been doing that kind of freelance stuff for a while now, on and off – enough to give me a little taste of the photography that I love.

So, that’s my story – how I’ve come full circle with photography. I guess you could say that my career in IT helped finance my love for photography. I’ve also been collecting antique cameras for a while now, and love shooting with film when I can. I love the feel of a well made, solid steel, vintage 1970’s SLR in my hands. I also like mentoring kids who want to learn to take pictures – and who want to learn about the history of photography. I hope I can retire from my computer work someday, and maybe teach photography. Maybe I can fit some Lightroom training in there too (I’d hate to waste those computer skills).

Do you have a similar story? Maybe, unlike me, you’ve done everything perfectly in life. But, maybe you’ve changed direction in your life too, maybe more than once. If you have, I hope, like me, you can rediscover something that meant a lot to you many years ago. Maybe something like photography!