MY LIFE AT POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY

When I lived in Queens between the ages of 15 and 18, attending Flushing High School, I lived on a street called Kisenna Boulevard.  Today the co-op apartments on the street are inhabited by Chinese people.  When I went back to Flushing a couple of years ago to settle my mother’s affairs, I discovered that the neighborhood was a more interesting place with Chinese restaurants and shops, and now Main Street was teeming with people, like downtown Shanghai, I imagined.  When I was a boy I lived in what was primarily a Jewish neighborhood and  I spent a lot of time visiting my school mate Michael Miller’s apartment, also in the co-op. Michael’s father and mother were well-educated lefties and their home was filled with books and magazines.  What attracted me most was the pile of Popular Photography magazines, which I devoured.  I knew only a little bit about photography, but I had started taking pictures when I was 12. I became a surrogate member of the Miller family and hung out there many hours – and a good part of the time I spent reading those old copies of Popular Photography which, by hook or crook, taught me a lot about technical photography.  Little did I know that someday I would be an editor at Popular Photography.

After Flushing High, at Cornell, I worked in the electron microscopy lab processing glass plates, made by a company called Kramer.  I also made prints of the 2 by 2 inch negatives.  I had a secure job because I could make good prints which the other people in the lab couldn’t. One summer break I got a job as the photography counselor at Camp Crystal Lake in upstate New York. Although I made a few dollars from photography I never thought of myself as anything but an amateur.

After graduating from Cornell my first job out of school was working as a researcher for the Life Science Book division of Time Inc, which is a story for another time.  The following year I took a new job working for Popular Photography and I soon became promoted to editor of the movie section.  In those days, “movies” meant 8 millimeter, and there were one or two articles every month discussing moviemaking techniques.  They were usually simpleminded, like how to make your kids look cute instead of like demonic toads.  I’m trying to recall what some of the silliest stories were, but whatever were they were the story ideas were recycled every few years. 

I got interested in the independent filmmaking scene in New York, and I was particularly susceptible to the diatribes of Jonas Mekas, who wrote about cinema in the Village Voice.  He was an hysterically enthusiastic advocate of cinema as a means of personal expression.  I attended many screenings of underground movies and got turned on by what I saw.  It was fun to think that you didn’t have to have a million dollar budget and Hollywood stars; you just picked up a 16mm Bolex camera and you could shoot a movie, which seemed like a remarkably liberating idea to me – so I did it.  My first film was Happy Birthday Lenny, and how I came about to make that is also a story for another time. It was shot with borrowed equipment and film stock contributed by the manufactures for testing. Today independent filmmaking seems to mean making a theatrical film for enough money to buy a house and taking it to Sundance.

Because I had access to motion picture projectors and I was interested in the underground film scene my friend Robert Christgau (who became a well-known popular music critic) and I ran a weekly screening.  The Eventorium was on West 100th Street on the corner of Broadway, on the floor below the Cherry Lane Playhouse, and for a year or so we put on open screenings.  We took the Eventorium over from the poet Frank Kuenstler and under our tutelage the Friday evening screenings were SRO.  We had some of the most interesting filmmakers in New York attend and screen their films and the films themselves were an eclectic mixture of the wild and the weird.  Dove Lederberg’s 8mm film comes to mind as the most vexing and funniest experience I had at the Eventorium.  Kodak had just leant me their new and brightest 8mm sound projector.  It was a robustly built machine with the brightest lamp and the fastest lens. Lederber’s film consisted of what was almost perfectly clear leader.  Par for the course in those days.  But there was more to the film than that:  To add to the effect Dove used holy dust stored a pouch hung on a lanyard around his neck and when the film began he poured it into the projector’s gate.

I didn’t like that and asked him to stop.  I put my responsibility to Kodak above my responsibility to art and the Eventorium.  I was too square and Dove told the crowd exactly what he thought of me.  I was a destroyer of art and just a minor functionary, a bureaucrat who was not allowing him to communicate the mystical message of the film.  I will admit that the squiggly patterns of dust and the spontaneous patterns they made created a curious effect but I couldn’t have him screw up the projector.

One of the great things about being an editor at Popular Photography in 1964 and 1965 was that I met a lot of interesting people, especially filmmakers like Stan Vanderbeek, Ed Emshwiller, Jonas Mekas, and people like painter-filmmaker Alfred Leslie.  I became friends with the comedic and eccentric narrative filmmaker George Kuchar and he narrated a track for one of my films.  Karl Freund came to the office one day.  He was the director of The Mummy and the cinematographer of I Love Lucy. The great André Kertész offered to mentor me but I was too stupid to take advantage of the opportunity.

During my tenure at Popular Photography, which lasted 18 months, a number of amazing products were introduced.  It was a golden moment in time, and some of these products had to do with stereoscopic photography, which became my passion. When I was a boy of 11 or 12 I had the feeling that there was something proprietary about my relationship with stereoscopic imaging and that feeling never left me.  If I were a religious person I’d say that God had given me a calling, but attributing the ego’s drive to the deity requires more than my usual share of egomania. 

When I was at Popular Photography the Xograph was introduced.  It was a joint venture of Harris-Intertype Corporation, which made printing equipment, Cowles Magazines (who published Look magazine), and Eastman Kodak (who used to be king of silver halide hill).  Xographs were mass-produced lenticular autostereoscopic prints that appeared first in Look magazine.  I got to cover that story, and I met Arthur Rothstein, who was in charge of the project for Look magazine.  He was a famous photographer who had been active during the Depression taking photographs for the WPA. 

I also met one of the founders of what some people call virtual reality (and people in academia call by the more exalted name “augmented reality”).  Mort Heilig was a filmmaker and inventor who designed a machine called Sensorama which eventually resided on the Santa Monica Pier collecting quarters.  Sensorama was a stereoscopic simulator, kind of a nickelodeon at warp drive 11.  Mort used 35mm film with an unusual diagonal film path and left and right circular images creating a one-of-a kind format.  You looked into the eyepieces and saw a superb quality stereoscopic moving image accompanied by vibrations, smells, and winds; on a trip through Manhattan you could smell the city streets, the seat you were sitting on vibrated, and you felt the wind in your face.  But it was Nadja the belly dancer who drove the boys wild. The machine made a racket because it had a 35mm intermittent movement in it but despite that it wasn’t digital using teraflops or gigapoodles the result was spectacular.  Mort also designed a theater layout that I think is identical to the OMNIMAX theater design.  In one of his patents he teaches a design with stadium seating plus a domed screen.  Meeting Mort was a trip because we shared the drive to build devices to reproduce the visual world. Mort died about 10 years ago.

I also covered the introduction of Super-8 in a story that appeared in the May 1964 issue. Kodak, to avoid problems with the Justice Department, informed its competitors about its specifications.  If you wanted to deign Super-8 cameras and projectors you paid a minimum licensing fee and Kodak gave you the specifications for the format and cartridge so that, for example, Bell & Howell – a big player in amateur moviemaking in those days – could announce and release products on the same day that Kodak did.  Pop Photo decided to get a scoop and I was sent to Bell & Howell in Chicago (because Kodak was so tight lipped) and wound up writing an eight-page story about their Super-8 cameras.  It was there that I met Arthur Cox, the brilliant lens designer who years later was supportive of my work in stereoscopy. B&H’s agreement with Kodak was that they could make no product announcement until May 1st, but some issues of Popular Photography were distributed a week earlier on the newsstands, which caused Kodak to have a conniption fit; then I was sent to Rochester for the following issue to write about Kodak’s introduction of Super-8 – kind of anticlimactic because the first story I wrote made it appear that Bell & Howell had invented and introduced Super-8. 

 The editor of Popular Photography at that time was John Durniak who was an energetic guy and a lot of fun if you liked brash.  John paid for his sins by getting balled out by Herschel Sarbin, the publisher of Popular Photography.  Leaving One Park Avenue through the deserted hallways in the evening was entertaining because I got to watch the hoards of roaches running out of the water coolers, but this night the main entertainment (or embarrassment) was watching Herschel and John standing next to the bank of elevators having a one sided argument since John wasn’t saying much while Heschel screamed at him.  Kodak was pissed off at Bell & Howell getting the glory and since they were the magazine’s major advertiser I could see why. The barrier between editorial and advertising was permeable and only lip service was paid to editorial integrity.  “I am going to let you live with this Durniak,” Sarbin yelled.  But John was only getting what he had given me a few months before when I wrote a product review of a Zeiss 8mm camera.  My first line was: “What hath Zeiss wrought?”  The 8mm frame is smaller than your pinky nail and Zeiss had made a camera that was the size of volleyball and weighed as much a toddler playing dead.  To call it a klutz would be to demean what was an example of feature loaded precision engineering but that’s the word that comes to mind. Zeiss’s philosophy of design was that people would pay more for bigger and heavier.  Their 8mm camera was doomed anyway because of the imminent introduction of Super-8. After looking at the published story Durniak called me into his office. “I am going to let you live with this Lipton,” he snarled. I have lived with this even in the still watches of the night.

But that’s not all, as the pitchmen like to say in TV infomercials.  Next came the Philips Compact Cassette, which for something like 30 or 40 years was a standard way to distribute music.  The Compact Cassette was a reel-to-reel cassette that had been introduced for dictation purposes or for recording sounds of your kids’ singing, but it soon caught on with the music industry and became the basis for a distribution format that competed with the LP and was widely used in automobiles.  I covered that story too, or I had an editor cover the story because I couldn’t write every article in the movie section.  I could have done it under noms de plume, but other people needed work. 

 I wrote an article about the use of plastic lenses in photography and interviewed the legendary head of optical design at Kodak, and author of several books on lens design, Rudolph Kingslake. Once again Kodak got pissed off because I didn’t go through their PR people.  Mike Sullivan was my contact there and although he was a truly nice man I knew Kodak would either never let me speak to Dr. Kingslake or put restrictions on the conversation.

It was also at that time that Nikon introduced its single-lens-reflex 35mm camera, which was a pivotal moment in the transition from rangefinder 35mm cameras to single-lens-reflex cameras.  I wrote a research report that became the basis for the story that was written about the introduction of Nikon.  Up until then the only SLRs around were the Asahi or Honeywell Pentax (which was a good camera but it didn’t have the panache of the Nikon), and the Ihagee Exakta which was a clunky camera and didn’t count for much with professionals.

 I had an amazing education in media and photography at the tender age of 24-25.  This experience had a great influence on me in my life as an inventor.  As I watched technologies emerge I got a feeling for how products were designed and manufactured.  By visiting Bell & Howell and Kodak I not only functioned as a reporter but I also began to absorb the spirit of product development and to understand what it was all about. The most important thing was this: I saw that it was possible to dream up an invention and to literally out of the air create a product.

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One Response to “MY LIFE AT POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY”

  1. wmmartin Says:

    Boy do I ever remember the Eventorium and in particular that Dov Lederberg film about Van Gogh–we must have been in the same room together as it played. The avant-garde film scene in New York at that time was unparalled. And how it has changed up there in the almost half century.

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