I don’t remember the date, but vividly remember the day; will never forget it. It was a light snowy day in New York City. Walking up from the subway with my hand on a pocket full of cash, those were the days of American Express and Diners Club and I was far from fulfilling the qualifications at 15, at a time of qualifications. Christmas filled the air on 42nd street. As I got closer to Willoughby-Peerless, the biggest camera store of its day, my excitement was electric. I was about to buy my first professional camera. I did my research and decided on a Nikon FTN with a 50mm 1.4. This was certainly an upgrade from the Kodak Instamatic my mother bought for me a couple years earlier. The snowfall obscuring the neon light sign of this department store of camera equipment as people moved through the revolving door was like a Currier & Ives postcard. As I walked into the store there was a flurry of activity. Sales people surrounded the famous actress, Gina Lollobrigida. She had recently taken up photography. It wasn’t uncommon to see celebrities buying camera equipment there, it was Willoughby-Peerless. Frank Sinatra reportedly bought a Nikon, with a motor drive, an expensive and big deal at the time, to shoot ringside at the famous Ali-Frasier fight at Madison Square Garden. His pictures were published in Life.
Understandably trying to get salesperson wasn’t easy. Finally one came by and told him what I came for. He looked at me and said kid, that’s not what you want, let me show you, and proceeded to get a Yashica from the counter. No thank you, I want a Nikon FTN. Reluctantly he got one, opened the box and there it was. In my mind the camera was glowing. I felt like the kid in a Christmas Story who wanted the BB gun, except instead of shooting my eye out, it was forever glued to the viewfinder.
As the salesperson was trying to show me how the camera works, I loaded a roll of Tri-X film I brought with me, threaded the neck strap, and left the store almost leaving the box behind and the sales person in mid-sentence. I was hoping my first few frames would be of the famous actress; unfortunately she had left. I walked throughout NYC for hours making pictures.
I grew up with the Daily News, New York’s Picture Newspaper. They had over 50 photographers on staff back then. After my father read through the sports section, I’d look at the pictures. They had a great centerfold spread of a life in NYC everyday. I was mesmerized and learned the photographer’s names by heart. I studied their work, and in time would be able to identify each photographer’s style. It was my tutorial. I later studied the work in Vanity Fair; still a big fan.
Photography became my living, never a job; I’m as passionate about it today. When I get a box from my favorite camera store I’m still like a kid in a candy story and can’t wait to open and try it out.
Life is somewhat ironic. Eight years later, working with United Press International there was a press event with Gina Lolabridiga. Now with 4 Nikons and a variety of lenses, I shared my story when I bought my first camera. We talked photography for more than an hour at the 21 Club. She posed for an exclusive picture after all the other photographers left.
I can’t help to this very day, when I see snow obscuring a neon sign I remember that day at Willoughby-Peerless and remember the time my future began.