A zebra bit Bob Johnson as a child was taken to see strippers by his mother for his sixteenth birthday and lived with a 250-pound Vietnamese potbelly sow named Gwendolyn. He is a published photographer, produced & published playwright, journalist, communications professional, and a whole lot more. I will tell how the new york times published my photo.
I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. The only thing I remember from my childhood is being interested in becoming was a magician. When I couldn’t make my sister disappear, however, I gave up on that career idea.
One thing I did take a liking to — thanks to my parents — was live theater and, in particular, musical theater. I remember spending hours listening to albums of cast recordings, reading the liner notes, and being mesmerized by the production photos.
Somewhere around that time — perhaps a few years earlier — I received my first camera (a pocket 110 camera by GAF). I played around with the camera some and enjoyed it, but it was an expensive hobby — developing a roll of film back them would set me back more than several weeks of allowance. So my photography efforts were minimal.
In high school, I listened to cast albums and became involved in some high school and community theater productions. I never got to photograph productions but always enjoyed looking at photos of productions that I was in.
Before heading to college, my dad gave me a camera: a Pentax K-1000, a classic entry-level camera that you can still find and purchase today. I carried it with me everywhere but did not use it much because, as a hobby, photography was still not very affordable. I’d use the camera to photograph some friends and for an occasional class project.
How The New York Times Published My Photo?
The job market in the late 80s wasn’t so good, so it took me a year to land my first job as assistant director of public and cultural affairs at a two-year residential junior college in North Carolina. In addition to my communications duties, I would serve as the campus photographer, and I would be required to teach photography. There was a catch: for me to take the job, I would have to complete at least one photography course. So the summer before I started the position, I took a summer course in photography.
I enjoyed the course, and one of my photos became the cover of the inaugural issue of a ‘zine called Now What?. It helped that a pen pal I had from the fifth grade was the editor of the publication.
After completing the class, I arrived at my new workplace and had my own office, photography studio, darkroom, and classroom. Over the course of five years, I became an excellent photography teacher and captured many images for the local newspaper.
Honestly, I didn’t enjoy being a campus photographer. Most of the images I captured weren’t very exciting: people eating hot dogs at the annual faculty/staff picnic, students moving into dorms, and important “grip and grin” shots of donors with the school president.
What I do not — and never will — miss is the tight knots in my stomach that I would experience as I brought a roll of exposed film into the darkroom to see, after developing the film, if I had captured the image that I needed. Were everyone’s eyes open? Was the exposure correct? I was happy to say so long to that job.
Photography took a back seat when I returned to school to earn an MFA degree in theater from the University of Maryland. It wasn’t until four or five years — and several jobs — later, when digital photography became more commonplace, that I started picking up cameras again. I was director of communications at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan and started capturing church publications with a spiffy new church-owned Olympus digital camera. For personal use, I purchased an inexpensive Fuji point-and-shoot camera to use for fun. Digital SLRs were still very expensive.
While I was at St. Bart’s, I got to know a decent amount of media folk, including The New York Resident editor. During a conversation we were having, I mentioned that I was looking for some freelance work, and I found myself writing arts and entertainment profiles and reviews for the publication. During my time writing for the publication, I was assigned to write a profile of Charles Busch, and, as a result, a fabulous image I captured of Charles Busch became the cover image for the issue with the profile.
It was about that time that I really started to enjoy photography. I was free from rolls of film, darkrooms, and/or expensive developing costs. Digital photography opened up a new world to me. Not only did I get instant gratification from seeing the images that I captured, but I could capture images for hours at a time and not worry about the cost.
I carried my Fuji camera with me everywhere. I took fun images and selfies (before selfies were the thing) with Joan Rivers, Rita Moreno, Chubby Checker, Frenchie Davis, Yakov Smirnoff, and a few others. Eventually, I upgraded to an Olympus Stylus Verve, which was still not as good as a digital SLR, but I captured some lovely images on it.
Finally, during the late spring of 2008, while I was between full-time jobs, I purchased my first digital SLR, an entry-level Nikon. The D40 was (and still is) a great little camera. I fell in love with it and ventured out into the city to capture all sorts of images — from fashion week in Bryant Park to random strangers in the city to Coney Island.
What I really wanted to do, though, was capture performance shots. I can’t remember why, but I contacted the now-defunct Pearl Theatre Company in Manhattan to see if I could take photos of The Oedipus Cycle’s production. They were skeptical at first, but, ultimately, I got the volunteer gig.
As it turned out, The New York Times was reviewing the production, and the theatre company needed photos. Guess whose photo was used? Click here to find out (https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/03/theater/reviews/03oedi.html).
I wasn’t paid. It was a volunteer gig. Was it worth it for a New York Times credit? Yes indeed.
After that photoshoot, I continued to offer my services as a volunteer photographer. Photos from one shoot wound up in the CD liner notes of a Christmas album, New York City Christmas: A Benefit Album for ASTEP (https://www.ghostlightrecords.com/new-york-city-christmas.html). Other shoots led to long-term paying gigs.
Back when I received that pocket 110 camera or looking at those photos in cast albums, I never thought that I would have production images, by me, appear in The New York Times or album liner notes. Nor did I ever imagine that my photos would wind up in a Smithsonian affiliate museum.
Photography is not a lucrative field for many, but it is a field where someone can get some wonderful experiences. Some day, I’d love to become a travel photographer and take amazing images around the world. Will I ever earn a living strictly from photography? Who knows — especially with this pandemic. But I will always enjoy photography and always be happy that photography is a skill set.
If you are interested in pursuing work in photography:
- Learn about light. Learn about exposure, ASA, depth of field, and the rule of thirds.
- Read books about photography. Amazon has a huge selection of photography books (read the reviews before purchasing) or, better yet, browse photography books at your local library and bookstore.
- Watch videos on YouTube, take courses on Udemy.com, or sign up for the online iPhone course at PhonePhotographyschool.com.
- For fun, watch John Water’s wonderful film Pecker.
- Learn PhotoShop. Period.
The best way, though, to learn about photography is to take photos. Start capturing images. Use the camera you have — cameras in smartphones are amazing. Pick up your phone, go outside and start taking some amazing images.
Also read How I Started a Visual Imaging Studio