“Beautiful– Wish We Could Use It”

By David Vestal Back to

That’s what advertising art directors said in the 1950s when they saw my pictures. Skilled at self-deception, I brought them personal photos— just what the ad market wants least and can hardly ever use. I suppose I was prompted by a subconscious determination to stay out of the photo business.

My photos are personal. They’re about what I see and feel, and aren’t meant to get anyone to buy anything. One art director at a big ad agency picked up the prints I’d brought and slammed them edge-first on the table to straighten the stack. I still regret that I didn’t instantly walk out.

Digression. At that time the Museum of Modern Art was buying prints from me and from others for five dollars each. Edward Steichen chose that price “to encourage young photographers,” because Alfred Stieglitz had paid five dollars each for his own prints around 1900. A few years later Henry Ford upset the auto industry by raising his factory workers’ pay to five dollars a day. In the early 1900s five dollars had been money. In the 1950s it was an insult. I soon stopped taking MoMA’s fivers. If you’re going to give your work away, then give it with no token payment attached. Steichen liked my refusal, which saved his department a pittance. His judgment was poor but he meant well.

First toehold

After some years as a photo assistant, I finally got a toehold in the photo business. A bright magazine art director (not always an oxymoron), Cipe (C. P.) Pineles, said, in effect, “You’re an artist.

You have to pay the rent. Are you willing to do bread-and-butter work? Shopping-column product pictures. Robert Frank does it. It helps him earn a living.” I needed money and said yes. I like to imagine that in doing so I may have set Robert free. After I took on the product shots, he went on to photo- graph people instead of things for Charm magazine. I envied him.

I did those product photos for seven years. When Charm folded, Cipe went over to Mademoiselle and I still took the same routine pictures of routine objects for her every month—bottles of lotion and perfume, lipsticks, accessories, and gadgets.

That work improved my craftsmanship, and the magazines liked me— especially, they said, because they never had to retouch my prints, and because I delivered on time. “We need them yesterday” was the usual message. I learned lighting by experience. At the start I had to use eight lamps to make each of a dozen products look good in a one-column vertical shot of bottles and boxes. Seven years later I did such jobs better with three lamps. I also did a few “people jobs,” but my magazine photography was mostly a struggle to make dull products look better than they were so that people who didn’t need them would buy them.

I learned to stick black or white paper onto the backs of glass bottles to wipe out the printing on that side. Magnified by glass and liquid, it would otherwise make the more important words on the front of the bottle unreadable, especially in small photos in a magazine. Through such work I began to see how incompetent some product designers are. You’d expect a designer to look carefully at his product and make it easy to photograph clearly. Few seem to. It doesn’t occur to them. In this they are like many magazine and book designers: clever, but unobservant to the point of blindness.

They don’t see that an industrial design needs to support the product- maker’s sales message under everyday conditions even more than it needs to look nice in the idealized drawings that are shown to clients.

Escaping the dead end

After seven years, I left that dead-end work although I didn’t know where the next month’s rent would come from. I gave a month’s notice so they could get someone else.

Why did I quit? A story: One extremely poor product came to me to be photographed every month for the whole seven years. This was a flexible sheet of thin, colorless, transparent plastic with stamped-out stencil openings in various lip and eyebrow shapes. It was supposed to help inept girls apply their makeup. Instead it insulted their intelligence if they had any. Buying that thing was no sign of intelligence. The photographic problems were to make shapes of empty space distinctly visible against clear plastic, and to de-uglify the thing. This little obscenity came to me every month for seven years, and its latest photo was printed in the magazine every time. I was evidently expected to show it differently each time, or why send it again? I did that, every time, though never with great joy. It would have made more sense to use the same clear shot of it every month, but no. Now imagine making 84, always  different but always clear, variations on that inspiring theme. I grew weary.

Normally, I should tell you, the magazine sent 20 to 30 products to photo- graph every month. I delivered contact prints of them all, one 4×5 shot per product, and they used a little more than half of those photos. I enlarged and delivered the ones they picked. They paid $15 for each photo they used, and nothing for the rest. It was nothing to get rich on, but it earned me a modest living and left me a good deal of free time for my own work. That was good, of course, but the cumulative stupidity of those jobs wore me down over the years until I seriously had to quit. Very unprofessional of me.

Who did those shopping-column photos after I quit? I followed Robert Frank, and the photographer who fol- lowed me was Duane Michals. Years later I met Duane on the street in Santa Fe. He was very apologetic because he thought that he had taken that work away from me. I told him I had left by my own choice before he came along, and did my best to comfort him. He’s a nice guy.

I must tell you that in his first product- shot month Duane Michals photographed that lipstick-and-eyebrow atrocity much better than I ever did. (I don’t know about later—I never looked after that.) Instead of showing the product clearly, he played with it visually, using it as a take-off point for showing glorious reflections of light on bent plastic against a black background. You couldn’t tell what the product was, but the caption told that, and his photo- graph was gorgeous. Duane is a real pro, and I am an amateur for life. Don’t feel sorry. The day I got my amateur standing back was a great day. Call me Polonius: “To thine own self be true. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” That’s not true at all, as Shakespeare well knew, but I seem to be stuck with it, perhaps by some defect of character. For me the lesson of the play is, Don’t hide behind the curtain, or Hamlet will surely stab you through it.

Let me never delude myself into thinking I’m a professional photographer, although, strangely enough, I’m now paid enough from occasional sales of personal prints—mostly sales by art dealers—and from writing, to pay my photo and office supply bills in full without delay, and even have some money left over. That’s how it stands. I’m certainly not professional, but being professional is a state of servitude from which I’m glad to have escaped.

Nevertheless, photographing is what I do best. My other trades include teaching, writing, and editing. For all of them I trust that I have talent. But I’m no good at selling those skills, so they have to sell themselves on merit alone, which any businessman will tell you can never happen. He will be right, but still I have work enough to fill my days—more work to do than I can ever finish. That’s great. As for money, I can easily survive, though not much more than survive, without the salesmanship that I conspicuously lack. On the whole I am very lucky and privileged. All the work that I do now I believe in and enjoy. This seems miraculous, and I welcome it.

I think that my fortunate situation must come at least as much from what I can’t do as from what I can do well. Avoiding unnecessary entanglements may be part of it.

If you, too, are far from professional by nature, fumbling planlessly through life as I have done might do you good. Or maybe not. I really can’t urge this on anyone, but for myself, I like the way it has turned out.

There are, of course, routine disasters. Last week my darkroom was flooded when a frozen pipe burst, and one cold night my furnace went on strike. But phone calls brought help and those problems were soon solved. There will always be more troubles, but they’re nothing to worry about. Just stay calm and cope.

The thing is, even our inevitable troubles are interesting, and life remains good.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.