I got a Pentax K-1000 as my "big present" for my Bar Mitzvah. I still remember the way the film smelled going into it, and the way it sounded when you took a picture. There was a deeply satisfying click that you could feel in your teeth. At Northwestern I double-majored in art, though declaring it was sort of bullshit. You couldn't get into the photography classes unless you were an art major, so I did what I had to do. I actually had no intention of completing the requirements of the major; I just wanted access to the darkroom.
Upon graduation I had amassed a leather-bound portfolio of hundreds of extremely "artistic" black-and-white photos, all lovingly developed by hand under the pretenses of my false major. Since my actual major was Performance Studies -- a snobby combination of theater and literature that allowed one to avoid the physical rigors of serving on a stage crew -- I graduated with no moving pictures to my credit. Not even a self-serious short film. So I used that portfolio of stills as the centerpiece of my application to both USC and NYU graduate film school. Both schools were extremely prompt with their rejection letters. I made my way to Los Angeles anyway as part of a comedy/improv troupe born at the Improv Olympic Theater in Chicago. To supplement my sporadic income as a room service waiter/commercial actor/ SAT tutor, I dusted off my Pentax K-1000 and started a business taking headshots for actors. Since I had no studio and could afford no lighting equipment, I advertised the merits of "natural light" headshot photography, and relied almost exclusively on extremely shallow depth of field to make these portraits pop. Weirdly, my services were in high demand.
Years later, in the midst of directing multiple almost-good-enough television pilots, actor after actor would enter the audition room and hand me -- the director -- headshots taken by me -- the one time headshot photographer. Sometimes, thereʼd be a funny "look at us now" exchange. Other times weʼd pretend not to know each other, like refugees from an unfortunate one-night stand.
I hung up my Pentax right about the time all of the film labs in Los Angeles were going out of business. The way people feel about yoga, or transcendental meditation, that's what hours in the darkroom were for me. I seriously equate a decline in my ability to relax with the steady disappearance of darkrooms in our society. There is nothing more fulfilling than watching an image that you captured weeks or months ago slowly appear at the bottom of a dangerously toxic bath of chemicals. Since digital technology has destroyed everything I once loved about this sacred art form, I get my rocks off in a different, frankly much more expensive way. I design and build television shows around images in my head. The arched windows at the end of the White House hallways on 1600 Penn, or the view from the Dunphyʼs couch to the staircase behind it on Modern Family. You might guess that they were built in service of the funny stories we are telling on those sets; in fact sometimes it is just the opposite. I picture these things, share them with collaborators, and they become the inspiration for silliness and stupidity, and occasionally -- if the network's not watching -- artfulness.