I'm still upset. Shock, anger, and sadness filled my mind and heart yesterday, upon hearing that the entire staff of photographers at the Chicago Sun-Times and its suburban papers were let go. Approximately 30 people were abruptly dismissed. One of them, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Wrap your mind around that one. A major, metropolitan newspaper no longer has a staff of photographers. The newspaper industry that I was a part of for 27 years has sunk to a new high of lows.
I know most of the people who were dismissed. One is a great friend and former co-worker. I spent ten years working in the Chicago market. Some of it at The Daily Herald. Some of it at The National Sports Daily. I always wanted to work in a big market. I got there after spending three and a half years in Macomb, Illinois, at the Macomb Daily Journal. I worked hard and honed my skills to be able to build a portfolio worthy of the quality required to work in a competitive atmosphere, with some of the best photojournalists in the country at that time, in the 1980's.
I didn't make it to Chicago the first time I tried. And that's what this story is about. I knew I'd write about this someday. Yesterday's events made me think back. The timing seems right to share this story.
My photojournalism career began in Macomb in August of 1983. After a couple of years of working six days a week, and split shifts for $11,700 a year, I decided I had enough material and experience to attempt to make the big leap to the "big time." I had been working hard, at a craft I loved. Still do.
Maybe it can still happen, but back in those days, a person could call a publication, talk to the photo editor, and ask if one could drop in to show a portfolio to the editor. Whether there was a job opening or not, the editor would almost always agree to meet with the photographer, critique the portfolio, and show them around the photo department. It was possible to meet the picture editor eye to eye. Not deal with a human resources person via a computer, the manner in which business is now conducted.
A portfolio in those days consisted of approximately 20 single images and maybe a picture story or two. Nearly all the photos were black and white. The portfolio was not on a disc or zip drive. They were 11X14 prints, mounted on black matte boards. The stories were made up of smaller prints, presented in the order of the story, and mounted on 2-4 boards, taped together on the backside, and folded in on themselves.
It was not uncommon to spend an average of one hour per print in the darkroom, to achieve the technical quality necessary to put that image in your portfolio. It had to be PERFECT!
A luxury was to have two portfolios, allowing the photographer to apply for two jobs at once. The portfolios were mailed in "Fiberbilt" shipping cases. They were heavy. A cover letter and resume' were thrown in, along with recent clips and tearsheets of the photographer's work.
Of course one hoped for good news. To get the job. But 99% of the time you could be guaranteed two things. Acknowledgement that the portfolio had been received. And, if you didn't get the job, a typed note thanking your for applying, HAND SIGNED in ink, by the photo editor.
Now, 99% of the time, you receive neither.
So. I was ready for prime time. Or at least thought I was, after a couple of years of working in a small market. I made calls to The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and asked if I could come up and show my work, knowing there were no openings at the time. Both papers agreed to see me.
Jack Corn was my contact at The Tribune. Robert Schnitzlein was my contact at the Sun-Times. The Trib is on Michigan Avenue. The Sun-Times was across the street, along the river. A short walk. My appointments were timed perfectly. One after the other. Chicago was new, big, and intimidating. I hadn't been downtown, by myself, many times.
The Tribune was the first stop. I got through the lobby, and up the elevator to the floor that was home to the photo department. Once there, it was interesting to see how a big paper operated. There was a lot of activity. Quite a contrast to my one man show back in Macomb.
I met Corn, shook his hand, thanked him for agreeing to meet with me, and the two of us retreated to a small, quiet area, away from the fray. I opened the shipping case and invited him to look. During a review/critique, the conversation can flow, or it can be quiet. If it was quiet, I'd look to the editor's eyes as they looked at my work, searching for a sign in their expression as to whether the print was "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."
Corn wasn't too positive. I don't recall any specific words. What I do recall is this. As he sat there looking at my work, he was casually letting his cigarette ashes fall onto my prints! Indifference and disrespect. The whole process lasted about a half hour. I was given some feedback, none of it positive, and sent on my way.
Jack Corn is still alive. I hope he reads this blog. I want him to understand that how a person treats another can have a big influence on that person. There's nothing wrong with the brutal truth. But it's how it's presented. I want Jack Corn to know he was an egotistical asshole. At least that day.
I made the walk to the Sun-Times feeling like a beaten dog. I thought it couldn't be any worse there, but I wasn't counting on it.
The process at The Sun-Times was much the same as The Tribune. Check in, find the photo department, etc.
Robert Schnitzlein was no nonsense as well. But he spun his advice and critical feedback of my work in an encouraging way. Mr. Schnitzlein could tell I was still green, and not ready to work in Chicago. But he gave me constructive advice on how to improve my work. I remember him telling me, "We hire young, aggressive tigers."
He sent me on my way with goals, a smile, and told me to keep in touch.
The difference in how I was treated by one man and another man was 180 degrees.
Mr. Schnitzlein moved on to work for Reuters. I wish he could read this blog too. I would like him to know what an impact he had on me, and my subsequent work back in Macomb. He passed away in 2006.
I spent two more years in Macomb, then got my big break when I got a job at The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. And it is while working there, that I got to know many Tribune and Sun-Times shooters.
I believe there is a tie in with my story, and what happened to the Sun-Times people yesterday. Just how far the industry has fallen. Civility and respect too. The bottom line rules. Workers are expendable.
The Sun-Times people were called into a meeting, read a short statement, and sent packing. The Sun-Times executives dropped their cigarette ashes all over my friends yesterday. The opposite of how they conducted themselves 28 years before.
Different people. Different management. I understand that. But it is maddening.
An entire photo staff was wiped out.
And the dumb asses in "corporate" wonder why they're on the way to going out of business.