Becoming Josh, the Photographer

I always felt that I had an artistic side, but from a very young age, it translated into athleticism, particularly, baseball. So much so, that in high school, I was a baseball player with full intent and the capability to be recruited to play for a university. With that intent, during my senior year, I went to my high school counselor, and asked, “Please just put me in whatever so that I can just get through it and be fine.” For reasons of her own, she put me in a digital photography class, one of the first to be offered in California. Although respectful, I was often distracted from what was required by the teacher and opportunities that I found more exciting to shoot. In particular I was drawn to capturing candid moments and nature shots.

Needless to say, this did annoy my teacher as I often did not do the work as was assigned. However, as much as I often did not follow the assignments, she never paid attention what I was taking photos of. A balance was missing in her style of teaching. Looking back, if she had paid a little attention to my work, constructively criticize and compliment it, I probably would have been more inclined to learn about some of the technical aspects of photography.

That year, the local newspaper had a contest in conjunction with Earth Day. They announced that they would be looking at student photographs and the best ones that coincided with Earth Day would be included in the newspaper and the students would be interviewed. The day before the newspaper was due to come by and judge the photos, my teacher had asked me if I had done my Earth Day assignment. “Nope”. She rightfully got annoyed and told me to go outside and get it done. So, I took two photographs total. That's it. 

I get to school the next day and the teacher behaved as if someone had peed in her Cheerios. The paper had selected both of my photos, nobody else's. I don’t think that the magnitude of what happened really sunk in at that point. I was still focused on baseball. But looking back, my two photos were the only two selected out of all the students and dozens upon dozens of photographs

Following that event, my focus was primarily on baseball until I got hurt. At which point, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. What I did come to realize during that time was if I had a camera in my hand, you could put me in the same place at the same time with 10 other people and what I would come up with was completely different than everybody else.  But I didn't think about it seriously. It was just a thing, but I knew that I enjoyed it.  

Cut forward to a time when I had been dating my girlfriend, now wife, for maybe a year and I was up at her parent’s property. I don’t recall where other family members were, but I was distracted by a bee working its way through some flowers and trying to take pictures of it landing. From the top of the deck, her mom, now my mother in law, yelled, “Josh, when you're done, can you frame that for me?” And all I thought was, “what?!?”. That picture, it exists. It's a small four by six picture frame and it’s on their wall. That picture to me is the beginning because something about her asking that, flipped the script. It made me look at everything a little differently.

Basically, someone liked what I was doing. And so, I went home and no joke, a month later, the universe opened up. I got a phone call from my aunt Stacy, who did not know that I was thinking about photography. She's an amateur photographer and she's talented. She had bought a new camera and she asked if I wanted her old digital camera. It was a Rebel 2000, the very first iteration of Canon’s, professional DSLR and I went, “oh shit! Yeah, I do!” I remember getting it and I was scared that the difference between looking at a screen on those little square Instamatic cameras and framing a picture would not translate to looking through the eye of the lens. But it did and I started taking pictures of everything. My nature photos started to come to light and that's when I started the Facebook page. I did that to solely show the people that I grew up with what I was doing to see what they thought. Interestingly, for my family and those that knew me very well, they were surprised that I ended up in a creative space. Unlike my team mates, certain friends and acquaintances, they were shocked. They were like, “who is this guy?”   

The more time went on, the more I loved photography, but I knew that I had to figure out how to monetize my skill, so I asked my wife her thoughts. She came up with the idea of putting my nature shots on greeting cards. My gut, jock mind set reaction, was “no”, but following some discussion, she convinced me. Off I went to Michaels, bought the necessary material and made about 20 cards. Then, went door-to-door to every business that I could think of in Pleasant Hill, Lafayette and Walnut Creek to get rejected by all but one shop. Right across the street from where we lived, twins ran this great market that my wife and I used regularly and got to know the owners quite well. I don’t even think that they even looked at what I was selling, but just said, “Yes, put them on the rack over there”. Writing this, I realize how important Nate and Matt, the twin owners, were to my kicking off my photography career. I certainly need to drop by to let them know. 

It happened, that my cards were a hit and kept selling out. Now, it became apparent to me that I needed to display my work in a larger format. So, I went down to Cheap Pete’s frames in Walnut Creek and bought about $800 worth of frames, framed some of my photos and went off knock on business doors again… pretty much to the same response, “nope”.

Finally, Bianca’s Deli in Moraga agreed to display my pictures, however, they put them up on the walls like they were art, not for sale. So, nobody asked what they were, and I couldn't bear the idea of asking them to change their approach of selling my art because I was so grateful to them for just accepting to show my photos. Then, Anne Mercer of Orchard Nursery in Lafayette, CA saw my cards and the pictures at the deli in Moraga. She contacted me and said that they would love to do a little community art show for me. This is a little gem of Lafayette that was established in 1946. I flipped out and was so excited. We found a Saturday morning that worked for us, I went and bought these $5 easels that would shatter if you walked passed them too quickly. I had all my pictures up and sat there all day. Friends and family showed up and bought everything. No strangers, just friends and family. But that paid for the frames and gave me the opportunity to do it again.

I later got the opportunity to do the same thing after hours at a wine store in Pleasant Hill. However, it became very clear to my wife and I that I wasn't making any money. The Facebook page had gone viral at that point, my reputation was actually building, however, there was no money. I wasn’t losing money, maybe making enough to pay off the frames, but wasn’t growing past break even. Kimberly, forever pragmatic and logical said, “you’ve got to learn how to do weddings. You can't do this anymore.” She was absolutely right. But again, in my head, at that point in my life… weddings? Nooooo.

Then, two days after that conversation, I got an email from a cousin, not one that I talked to often, just one of those that I’d see at family events, give them a hug and that's it. But they emailed me, and it said, “your dad told me you were taking pictures. Here's the number to the guy that shot our wedding. Call him if you want.” And in my head, I went “*&%$!!!” because two days earlier Kimberly had said you’ve got to learn to do weddings and now this email, so I relented and gave the photographer, Eli Pitta a call and he agreed to meet me for coffee. Little did I know that he is one of the most well respected, talented and busiest photographers in Northern California, I had no idea. He also shattered every single romantic preconception I had about what a photographer was and looked like. He was five foot seven, bald, and he looked like a bulldog. Just this squat, little man with a mustache and a “don't mess with me”, presence about him. So, we met and chatted over coffee.  I don't think that he even looked at anything that I had done. Not my website, Facebook page, nothing. But I came straight out and asked him if I could work for him. I'll never forget it, he said, “yeah, but I may tell you to f-off in a week”, which is his way of saying “if it ain’t for you, you certainly can't work with me.” That's all I needed, the competitive athlete in me kicked in and knew that I can make this work.

I stayed with him for two years. He never told me to leave, but he was really difficult. Nothing was given to me with him. He didn't pay me a dime in two years, not once. For my wife, this was very difficult as it goes against her character to allow uncertainties, because despite the tutelage and my skill, in fact you can be the best photographer in the world, but it may never work out, so for her, it was tough. Kimberley remained patient, despite me being gone most weeks for five days at a time.

Despite his difficult nature, Eli never treated me like an assistant. He let me shoot the whole time. At the beginning, he was relatively gentle. Got to be here, shoot that, get out of my way. As time went on, he got harder and harder. He would walk up to me, grab the camera off my body, with the strap still around my neck and pull it down so that he can see what I had shot Either he would put it back down or go, “damn it!” walk away and go redo what I had done.

After the event or wedding, he would take the memory cards from me and I would follow up with him a couple of days later. By then, he would have looked at every single image I had taken, which could be about two thousand photos. That’s a lot of additional work! He would proceed to blast me for all the bad work, just rake me over the coals.  However, he would then explain to me exactly where I should have been standing, how the ISO and aperture should have been set and diligently teach me how to do things right. He did this for every photo shoot for the full two years that I worked under him. Despite his abrupt nature while on shoots and his perfectionist eye for detail, he patiently taught me a lot of what I know today.

About a year and a half working with him, the relationship changed. It was still teacher student, but there was no more B.S., I knew what I was doing. This became perfectly clear one day when he called me and said, “the guys are getting ready at the Hilton. Go take care of that and meet me at the venue.” This was the first time that he had ever told me to do something that he could not redo if I messed up. I looked at Kimberly and said, “Eli just told me to go do something alone.” And she said, “Oh, shit.” I went out and did the shoot.

Soon after that shoot, you could tell that he was pushing me out. He has a hard character, so he would never come out and say, “well, I’ve taught you everything I know, it’s time that you were on your way.” He just pushed me out without saying anything, but I knew it was time to go. 

My first jobs on my own did not go so well. Actually, the second one went well, but I conned the system. The first one was a bar mitzvah and I got to the synagogue and was ready to go. Grandpa sat down next to me and said, “are you the photographer?” which I confirmed. “You know, you can't photograph the ceremony. It's a sacred event, cameras can't be in there.” In my head, I thought, “oh okay, if Grandpa tells me so, I’ll wait out here.” Little did I know. Mom was in there, livid because I wasn't in there. I didn't know that. Lesson learned, confirm all requests with the person that purchased your services. The other lesson that I learned at this bar mitzvah was to set expectations. The reception was in a cafeteria.  If you’re taking pictures in a cafeteria then it will look like it's in a cafeteria. I can’t make a cafeteria look like Hawaii! They weren’t too pleased, but I learned a lot.

The second job was a wedding, a big one. when I accepted it, I hadn’t really considered how I would have to plug myself into the Eli role. I wasn't going to do all the things that I would do with him. I had to do all the things he did. I didn't know how to pose people yet. I didn't really know how to find locations within a venue that were great for photo shoots.  

About a week before the wedding I panicked and called Eli. I didn't tell him I was panicking, but I asked him if he had a second photographer, if I needed a second photographer for a job, who would it be? He gave me a name of another photographer, who I called and hired for the wedding. To ensure that there was no concern from the bride, I told her that this was a gift, that I wanted a spoil her with a second photographer to ensure that we captured all the moments. I didn’t mention that he was there to do all the things I didn’t know how to do yet. The second photographer was a professional. He’d come up and ask, “hey do you need me to take pictures of the cake.” Of course! In my head though, I was thinking that I would have forgotten that with all the things going on. And he did that for the whole day. He saved me. At the end of the day, combined, we had so many great shots that the bride was delighted.  Now, that cost me three quarters of the fees, but without him, it could have spelled the end of my new career.

Lessons learned and following the first two shoots, I scaled back, slowed down a little bit and started doing family shoots and simpler events. Initially, weddings were terrifying. Until you have all the equipment you need, get accustomed to smaller events and weddings to the point where you understand the rhythm of weddings, it is frightening. However, once you learn the rhythm then it becomes like Zen, at least for me. All weddings are different, but there’s also a methodical process that happens at every one of them. Then there’s the candid shots, that's my gift, I love the candid stuff. Once I was comfortable with the ABCD and E’s of a wedding, I knew that I was not going to miss anything. It was at that point that I truly became comfortable and time seemed to slow down. This is what I love the most.

If you can shoot a wedding really well, you can shoot anything at all. It's a moment in time for that couple, so you can't miss anything. If you miss the kiss, it's gone. But it's also a microclimate of every job you'll ever do. The reception is every party you'll ever shoot in your life. If the party is indoors, that becomes every indoor party you'll ever shoot. If it's the ceremony, it's every ceremony that you’ll ever do. In between is candid work, which is every event you'll ever do in your whole life, whether it’s the cocktail hour at a wedding or another social event. It also teaches you how to make people comfortable with you in very intimate moments. The photographer is more than a point and shoot robot, but a director, a motivator and trusted source that is documenting your life at that moment in time. They are telling your story through the eye of a lens.

It’s been a hell of a journey thus far. I have learned a lot and continue to do so every day and with every photo shoot. I left Eli four and a half to five years ago. I’m coming up on your 10 from the moment I started making those cards. There are a lot of experiences in those years, I’ve grown a lot with a great mentor, an exceptionally supportive wife and without a doubt, some luck and taking the right risk at the right time to continue the journey forward.