Interviews with ASMP Founder: Charlie Rotkin

Interview and transcript © 1992 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.

Biography

Charles E. Rotkin (1916-2004) began his career in the early 1940s by doing freelance photo work in New York City. By 1943, he had sold photo features to PM, the New York Sun, the Brooklyn Eagle and other outlets. He then joined the Army and was sent to the Air Forces Redistribution Command in Atlantic city, where he took portraits of Air Force personnel returning from the front. His pictures were widely used in various armed-service publications and also distributed to home-town journals across the land.

Later, he was transferred to Puerto Rico, where he remained after the war’s end. In 1946, he was appointed Chief Photographer for the Puerto Rican government’s Office of Information. (His wife Adele was named Photo Editor in the same agency.) That led to his first published book, a 150-page documentary sponsored by the University of Puerto Rico.

The archives show that, in preparation for his return to New York, he applied for membership in ASMP in 1947. However, his wartime and governmental work were seen as outside the Society’s scope. Unwilling to reject a widely known and respected photographer, yet also unwilling to bend its rules or make a special case, the Society asked him to withdraw his application until he was back in New York and shooting for publication again. He agreed, and when he re-applied in 1949, he was quickly accepted.

In addition to a range of committee posts before and afterward, he served as ASMP’s President from 1955 to 1957.

During the 1950s, he worked for Life and Fortune, and two of his photos were selected for The Family of Man exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art. He also founded a stock photo agency called Photography For Industry (PFI). In the 1970s, he began a 20-year second career as teacher of book-making and ethics at the New School University in New York.

Interview

Mimi Leipzig recorded this interview on May 7, 1990, in Rotkin’s Manhattan office.

ASMP: Why did you join the ASMP?

Rotkin: I was one of the earliest members. I was aware of it before I went into the military, though I actually did not sign up until I returned to the mainland after the war service. But I was always aware of it, and I always considered myself as one of the original group that helped put it together. I remember attending one meeting at the old Times Square Building, I think, just before I left to go into military service.

“They would assign the same story to half a dozen photographers”

I think the Society was just sort of a chowder-and-marching club until the very late ’40s or early ’50s. At that point, the Society was growing; we probably had maybe over a hundred members, I don’t know exactly, but I think it was beginning to take shape. There was no such thing as a minimum day rate, but there was a lot of talk about it. Photographers were getting screwed left and right.

The worst offender was Colliers, if I remember, and their practices were probably the most repulsive set of practices that drove everybody together out of necessity. And what they would do was, they would assign the same story to half a dozen photographers, not telling any of the other photographers that the story was assigned to somebody else. And we were all stupid enough to accept this. The theory was, you got paid all your expenses and everything else — and if the story ran, then you got paid. If the story didn’t run, you got some minor token fee.

And nobody saw that this was a contest. About six photographers were shooting all the same story and then giving the editors a choice of one out of six — of paying for one and getting six. Of course, word did leak out, and all hell was raised.

ASMP: What did you think the purpose of the organization was when you first joined?

Rotkin: I think it was a very straightforward purpose. Obviously, in those days we thought “union.” And we did go so far as to try and get a union — and we did get a union charter. And then somewhere along the line we lost it; that was after my time. But we did get a union charter which permitted us to set prices; that’s when the day rates came into effect.

Under the antitrust laws, then and today, trade associations cannot set prices, but unions can. So we had the majority of photographers working at Colliers, but it was a crazy situation, because you had nine or ten photographers doing 90 percent of the magazine. When the NLRB election came up, we lost the election. Colliers used to run a little bunch of postage stamp pictures in the back; it was a question-and-answer thing. It was total nonsense: They were not editorial pictures at all, they’d get them from anywhere for free — from the wire services, or wherever they could steal them from. But they’d run maybe a hundred of those things in the back of the book, with little questions — what is this? What is that? So when the votes came to be counted, the NLRB said that each photographer of one of those pictures had an equal weight to some guy up front who was supplying eight pages.

And on that basis we lost the election. But it did stimulate enough action to go for a union charter.

ASMP: This was about when?

Rotkin: This would have been the very early ’50s.

ASMP: This was before the ASMP became legally a union?

Rotkin: It was around that period.

We then got into, unfortunately, what got to be pretty much of a factional situation. And there are a number of people — and since one of them is still alive, I would rather not identify him, but he was an officer of the ASMP. He was not the president; he was one of the lower officers, maybe a vice president, treasurer, or something. He wanted awfully bad to be president. His public position was that unless you were president of the Society, you weren’t going to amount to anything in business.

My position was, if you were president of the Society, it was going to kill you professionally, because you wouldn’t have time for anything else.

“We will have a headless corporation”

Philippe Halsman was president. And Philippe, being the kind of wonderful guy that he was, wanted to do anything he could to enhance the Society, and money was always a problem. So, Philippe had done a book with Salvador Dali. And we were having some sort of a fund-raising bash, and Philippe came up with the idea that, if we could get Dali to come and speak, and maybe autograph books or something like that, it would make it a notable event. And any profits he made from the sale of the books, he would give to the Society. It was a very generous, certainly non-self-promotional operation.

But Mr. X decided this was a diabolical plot to entrench Halsman as president. And he insulted Philippe at a public meeting, accused him of all sorts of chicanery. Philippe was probably one of the sweetest, gentlest, most straightforward people I’d ever met. But Philippe was also a very temperamental European, and he took this very personally: He resigned on the spot as president. Which is what the other guy wanted, because then he would step into the presidency. Obviously, Philippe was being baited into this thing, and he went for the bait.

However, there was a Board of Governors at the time. I don’t even think I was on the Board then, but the senior Board member was Wayne Miller. And Wayne was a very astute guy. He realized what was happening, so he called the Board together and said, “This is what has happened,” and detailed his opinions. He said, “We obviously can’t be trapped into this. So let us not accept Philippe’s resignation, and we will then have a headless corporation, but we do have a Board of Governors.”

As it turned out, Wayne, who was a senior member of the Board of Governors, became the acting president. And he then filled out Philippe’s term as acting president. I still had no official position there. But perhaps instigated by Wayne, though there were others involved, I was called. They said, “Since you are not involved with either one of these two groups and not even on the Board, how would you like to run for president as a kind of a peacemaker?” I said fine, so they put me up for election against this man, and I won, hands-down. And that’s how I got to be president of the ASMP.

I didn’t realize what a bear by the tail I had. It became, shall we call it, “a learning experience.” But that’s when the whole theory of day rates came into effect, and ASMP became a positive group.

“When you’re president of the union, we’ll scream and yell at each other”

I remember one wild meeting over at the old Vanderbilt Hotel. Bob Capa flew in from Paris to attend, and Gjon Mili suddenly showed up and said he wouldn’t join the ASMP until it became a union. And so we did become a union, and that’s when we set day rates and so forth. And that’s when people like Mili got involved and interested in it, and we began to try to enforce the day rates as best we could.

They were minuscule at the time — they were $50-$75 a day — but they were day rates. And what we began running into was, the magazines began paying it, but they would never admit to the fact that they were paying a union day rate. I was doing a lot of work for Life at the time, and I remember going out to lunch one day with Ray Macklin, who was then the picture editor. He said, “You’re wearing two hats; what am I going to do with you?”

I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “As far as I’m concerned, when you’re on assignment, you’re on assignment, and you’ll do your assignments. When you’re president of the union, you’ll come and talk to me and we’ll scream and yell at each other, but we’ll still be friends.” And that’s the way it was.

Meanwhile, there were a couple of people who didn’t like that. One of the more vociferous people immediately charged me with selling the union down-river to Time Inc., which was his privilege. But in fact, I think it was under my stewardship that we pulled recognition from Time Inc. as whatever we were — union or no union, the fact was they did begin to pay day rates. They began to pay all the holding fees and all the other things that we wanted.

So that apparently is where my biggest function was in the ASMP. I stayed on the Board for something like 14 years after that.

“The governor just called me”

ASMP: There were other things that happened during the time you were president that were very important, weren’t there? I’m thinking of the business of the magazine being responsible for someone who was injured on the job.

Rotkin: That was all part of this whole union proposition. It couldn’t apply legally, because we did not win the National Labor Board Relations election. On the other hand, we were operating under assignment, so therefore they were indeed responsible, and they begrudgingly accepted it. In Arthur [Leipzig’s] case, I believe it was This Week magazine he was working for when he was hurt.

A good ten years later, Danny Weiner was killed. And Danny was not on a Time Inc. assignment, although he pretty much regularly appeared in Fortune. The day he was killed, those of us who heard about it immediately rushed over to Sandra’s [Mrs. Weiner’s ] house. And Leo Leoni, who was the art director of Fortune at the time and a friend, walked in and said, “Quick, somebody tell me, was Dan on a Fortune assignment?” And they said, no, he wasn’t, he was on assignment for Medical World News. And Leo said, “It’s kind of ironic, but if he had been on a Fortune assignment, he would have been very well protected.”

I got involved with it because of another incident. My personal interest in flying — and also some industrial work I was doing — had put me in touch with the former governor of the State of Kentucky. And when Danny was killed, I called him and asked, “Who is your state aviation commissioner?” And he gave me the name and asked why I wanted to talk to him. And I told him that a friend of mine had just been killed and I was curious to know what kind of insurance arrangements there were. So he said he’d get into it.

About two minutes later, the phone rang and there was the State Commissioner of Aviation from Kentucky. He said, “The governor just called me and told me to tell you what we know about this situation.” And that’s when we found out that there was indeed a great deal of insurance that they had on the plane. So I think all those families got something out of that.

There was also the fact that it was an unapproved flight. There was a doctor, his assistant, Dan and a reporter from Medical World News, all working on a story on the coal-mining country down in Harlan County in Kentucky. When they finished, the pilot theoretically filed a flight plan with Louisville and Louisville said, “Don’t fly, you’ve got icing conditions in the mountains.” He flew anyway, and they iced up and crashed, and everybody got killed.

“Can you hold on?”

The fact is that the Society, even though it had no real strong official positions, was beginning to develop a certain amount of clout just by being there. I could remember any number of conversations with editors who knew less than we did. And we’d say, “The Society isn’t going to like this,” and they would immediately turn around. They didn’t know that the Society didn’t have any teeth at the time, except a certain amount of public opinion.

There were other things that very few people knew about. There have been at least a dozen corporate biographies on Time Inc. and Life magazine. Yet one story that nobody ever picks up on is the fact that ten of us walked out and pulled a strike on Life. _Life had run a series of pictures by three of our members, which ran for zillions of pages, and then they turned around and sold those pictures to a publisher as a book without consulting the photographers. None of them were staffers; they were all freelancers.

That’s when it became very apparent that we weren’t going to stand for this. Life got the money; the photographers did not. So ten of us walked out, including Mili, Cornell Capa, myself, Mark Shaw, and Bradley Smith. And we sat tight, and we finally got to the point where we won our point. Frank Campion came over to a meeting we had over in Mark Shaw’s studio and said, “Ed Thompson said that he can work without any five of you guys.” He thought he was going to split us, which was about the worse thing he could say. And Mili, who was the high man on the totem pole, turned to me (and I was certainly the low man in that pecking order) and said, “Can you hold on?” I replied, “Gjon, can you hold on?” He said, “Of course.” So I said, “Tell him to fuck off.” So he did. We made our point and we signed a deal with Time Inc. where all the rights would go back to the photographer. They would return everything in the way of negatives, except those actually in print, and they could hold them for ten days after the story closed, and that was it.

ASMP: So it was really a landmark.

Rotkin: It really was.

The thing that closed it was the personal contacts. Mili was close to Ed Thompson. Mili was also very close to Demitri Kessel. And I remember at one particular meeting, Mili was saying to Thompson, “I think Kessel is going to have one hell of a time crossing any picket line that I’m on.” Whereupon Ed caved in completely, and we got our point. And Ed said to the ten people, “The trouble with Macklin is that he thinks I want him to be a son of a bitch.”

“But they had become the Society.”

That’s where we were in terms of trying to put the Society together. I take a certain amount of pride that I was, by keeping a fairly low profile, bringing the two groups back together again. And we did get our union started. We did get people, like Mili and Capa and a few of the others who hadn’t been in before, to join. I don’t take the credit for that, but I do take credit for the fact that we did keep the Society together as a viable item.

I stayed on the Board for 14 years, so I obviously took a lot of positions on a lot of issues. I hope I did the right thing; I don’t know if I did or not.

ASMP: You don’t know now?

Rotkin: I think, in retrospect, that my instincts were good. I grew up in a family that had immigrated to this country at the turn of the century, and they were all very labor conscious. I had a fairly good idea of what the labor movement was all about. Once we had begun establishing a certain amount of clout, it was easier to get the magazines to go along.

After I had served two terms as President, I stayed on the Board in other roles. And we got into a situation where the Board was trying to expand membership and they decided that advertising photographers should come in, which on the surface seemed like a good idea. The advertising photographers really, if not by any standards we drew, were magazine photographers. Their work obviously appeared in magazines. So there was an approach made to them and they joined en masse.

In time, they began to dominate the Society. And after a while, they walked out, saying that the Society wasn’t doing much for them. But they had become the Society. So if the Society wasn’t doing enough for them, it was because they weren’t doing enough for the Society as members.

“He may have been our first honorary member”

ASMP: The Miami conference was held during the time…

Rotkin: I guess I went to one, but the Miami conferences were dominated by Wilson Hicks, who had his own coterie of people. They were very parochial. They almost became a private club of Wilson Hicks’ operation. Hicks was not very well liked at Life as a picture editor. In fact, he was pretty much of a bastard. After he left Life, he wound up in Miami at the University and then he pulled the conference together. They attracted a certain amount of notoriety because they were the only ones of their kind at the time. But, perhaps out of some personal bitterness or anger for the 14 years I was on the Board, somehow Hicks never saw fit to invite me down.

Another thing happened about that time. We presented Justice Douglas with an honorary membership down in Washington, because it turned out that Douglas was not only a helluva fine Justice but also a pretty good photographer. The thing that precipitated giving him an honorary membership was the fact that he had had a picture story in The New York Times Sunday magazine. It was something about the old C&P Canal, which I’m sure was sold based on the fact that he was a Justice of the Supreme Court, rather than a good photographer. But the photographs were very credible.

I remember going to Washington and presenting him with an honorary membership. And of course everybody was hoping that if any litigation came up he wouldn’t resign. What litigation did come up was many years after he was gone, so it didn’t make much difference. But he paid some dues and seemed to be very proud of the fact that he was an honorary member. In fact, I suspect he may have been our first honorary member.

“The presidency was not a stepping stone to success”

ASMP: Tell me something about the atmosphere of the ASMP while you were involved with it.

Rotkin: It as very loose; we were unformed. There was a great, big bridge to cross between the prima-donna artists and those who considered themselves members of the working class. That may be the broad extremes, but that’s what it really boiled down to. And yet there were people, like Mili, who obviously were sympathetic to the Society, but said publicly that they wouldn’t join until it became a union. And the same with Bob Capa, and there were a lot of other people.

We had a lousy experience with the unionization problem. I think we had some poor legal advice on it. We certainly should have been able to hold onto our union charter; I’m sure we had as much clout as the wedding photographers in Brooklyn had. But nobody really pushed very hard. ASMP was something to belong to; it was the only thing we had. I can’t remember if we even had any hospitalization or Blue Cross.

It was an association. Lawyers could have gotten it; writers were getting it. I think there was some talk of trying to affiliate with the Newspaper Guild. I don’t think the Guild was very receptive, because we were freelancers. I think if we were to approach the Guild today, it might be a different story. But on the other hand, I think the Guild would probably need us more than we need them.

ASMP: Do you think conditions have changed a great deal for photographers?

Rotkin: Yes, I think considerably. I would like to feel that we were part of those changes, but it may have been economic changes in general also. Certainly there was a great deal more respect for us, if not on the job, then certainly by management of the magazines.

This was very true at the magazines that I worked at. I was strictly in the news end of it, and I worked for the Time Inc. group for the most part, although I worked around for some of the others too. I worked for the old Holiday, and Business Week, and God knows who else.

I did a couple of vague assignments for Town and Country. I don’t know what category it fell into — either town or country. It was a fairly spectacular attempt to shoot some night aerial color with a film speed of ten or something. And it came off; we got a fold-out cover out of it. So I suppose that put me in the Town and Country group, but that was the one and only time. I never went in much for sports, although I would do a few occasional assignments for Sports Illustrated or some of the other magazines. There was a lot of work for The New York Times Sunday magazine, because the editor, Rick Fredericks, was very predisposed to people in the Society.

I was as busy as I felt I could easily handle, and none of this came through the ASMP. In other words, I don’t think it was my presidency that got me the work. In fact, I know of any number of times where I had to turn assignments down because of some damn critical issue that had to be solved and I couldn’t be away. There weren’t too many of those, thank God, or I would have starved to death. But there were enough to make me feel that the presidency was not an automatic stepping stone to success, contrary to what this other man did feel.

“I didn’t join it until it got itself condemned”

ASMP: Tell me about how you became a photographer.

Rotkin: I was fortunate. Very early on, when I was still just in my post-teens, maybe 17 or 18, I had some personal good fortune in that a friend of my father’s was a photographer who needed somebody help drag cameras along. And I was a kid and needed work. I think I had visions of wanting to be a painter, but I didn’t quite know how to go about it. Mostly I was interested in communications. I became friendly with, and I did work in some summer operations with, some people who eventually became the Farm Security Administration group. And I got to meet Roy Stryker very early on through these mutual friends, and got to meet people like Ben Shahn and Jack Delano, who even today is still one of my very close friends.

ASMP: I’m told you didn’t graduate high school.

Rotkin: I graduated high school, but I never went to college. I got a job working in the post office at night, and elected to take a steady midnight-to-8 a.m. shift so I could learn to be a photographer and work in photography during the day. And I didn’t mind it too much. It was kind of fun having your days free, even though I was half asleep most of the time.

But I was really quite close to this group. And when the war started and people were getting drafted right and left, Stryker invited me to join FSA, provided I didn’t get drafted, because he was not asking for any draft exemptions. He’d already lost Russell Lee, Jack Delano, John Vacho and Art Rothstein, and Carl Mydaus left to go back to Time and had already been captured in the Philippines. So he was getting very short of men. I think John Collier, who was almost deaf, didn’t go into service, because of his physical impairment. And a few women, such as Marian Post, came on. Esther Bubbly came on very late. Gordon Parks came down. Jack Delano had found him working as a Pullman porter while he was covering an assignment for FSA in Chicago, and Gordon was interested in photography, so Jack brought him into the FSA as a darkroom assistant. And then later, Gordon became a photographer, and he was a very talented and marvelous guy.

That was where my influences came from. I was interested in social theories of photography. I joined the Photo League like everybody else did at the time, although I didn’t join it until it got itself condemned, at which point I said, “The hell with it,” and that’s when I joined it.

ASMP: It was part of your rebellious nature.

“Sugarcane fields at 100 feet”

Rotkin: I suppose; that’s the way I was. At that point I don’t think I knew too much about the Photo League, and I don’t think I had any feelings about not joining it. I was working down in Puerto Rico at the time. We had set up a mini-FSA program down there, which was an interesting one. And again, evolved all about through the connections with Roy Stryker and the FSA group. Because at the time when I was first invited to join FSA, Stryker’s boss was Rex Tugwell, who was then Secretary of Agriculture. Tugwell left the Roosevelt administration to become governor of Puerto Rico. The war came along and I got drafted and got sent to Puerto Rico. So I touched base with Rex and he said, “Do a little service and then get back to me. I want you to set up a FSA program here in Puerto Rico.”

ASMP: When was that?

Rotkin: It was ‘42 or ‘43. So that’s what we did. And I stayed down there for five years, and then I came back and went to work for Stryker again. This time he was at Standard Oil. So I worked for Standard Oil for quite a few years. I had been doing a lot of flying and liked to fly, and he began pigeon-holing me as an aerial photographer, which I didn’t mind, except that I wasn’t getting any work except as an aerial photographer. And I thought, this is a pretty hazardous specialization.

When the Standard Oil project folded, he went off to Pittsburgh. He wanted me to go with him to Pittsburgh, and I said, not unless I get a fair share of some ground assignments. And he said, “Why should I give you ground work when I’ve got seven people who can do ground work and I don’t have anybody to do the flying?” I said, “That’s going to be your problem; it’s not going to be mine.”

ASMP: When did you learn to fly a plane?

Rotkin: I guess during the war. I didn’t even go to flight school. Because I had already done some amateur flying and was interested in aviation, I got tossed into the Air Force and wound up in a squadron that was very short on everybody. So, even though I had a temporary classification as an aerial photographer and a gunner’s photographer, everyone had to take turns as co-pilot in the cockpit of this beat-up old bomber we were on Navy patrol with. So you learned to fly the hard way. But I always was fascinated with flying.

While I was still down on the island, Tugwell left and the new governor was a sweet, good-hearted character, but he didn’t know very much. I was already on the staff. We had set up this photographic department and had this little program going, and he called me in one day and said, “There’s an Army base that’s just been demobilized. I want that property for post-war housing and the Army won’t give it up. They claim it’s being utilized and occupied, and we know damn well it’s not. Can you get an airplane and take some pictures of it?” So we rented a twin Piper Cub and went out over the treetops and made a lot of pictures of this deserted Army barracks where there wasn’t a soul around, including anybody at the gate. And the governor got his military base. That started me off on flying very low.

I put in a couple of years there, and we set up a whole miniature FSA program there. We brought some of the old FSA photographers down. We set it up along the lines of the FSA in Washington, with their methods and operations. We built a big lab down there and it was quite a successful program. Then my contract ran out and I was getting a little stir-crazy being on an island, and Stryker saw the aerials. I had begun flying at very low levels — sugarcane fields at 100 feet, it was quite interesting — and he said, “Come up and do it in for Standard Oil.” So I did. But I did get to do a lot of other things. It wasn’t until he went off to Pittsburgh that we got into this philosophical hassle about it, and although we remained friends, I refused to go to Pittsburgh with him.

ASMP: What was the philosophical hassle?

Rotkin: The fact that he wanted me to do aerials, and I didn’t want to do only aerials.

ASMP: And he never accepted that?

Rotkin: No. But we were friends, and at that time a bunch of the refugees from Standard Oil got together, including an ex-Life photographer by the name of Jack Burns and a former partner of mine by the name of Arnold Eagle (interview), and we formed this little group called Photography For Industry. We began to apply the techniques of documentary photographer to industry. It was successful for quite a while.

“This was a landmark approach to corporate photography”

We were one of the earliest cooperatives in the business. And then, eventually, we went different ways. Arnold was more interested in film. And Miller [Simon], for whatever reason, dropped out. And then Jack Burns decided to get into the camera-supply business out in California. So the company broke up. I bought the name of it and the goodwill (such as it was), and we each took our negatives. So I keep the thing going in name, although it’s pretty much inactive.

We did a lot of pioneering work in trying to put the documentary touch to corporate photography. This was at a time when, for instance, Magnum wouldn’t even hear of doing an annual report. Now they won’t do anything but annual reports. We did a tremendous annual report in 1949 for the Republic Steel Company, and from there on we did a bunch of them. We did Kennecott Copper Company for four or five years in a row. This was a landmark approach to corporate photography; it had never been done before. If Roy could apply the FSA standards to Standard Oil, I saw no reason not to apply the FSA standards to Kennecott Copper, or Republic Steel. Which is exactly what we did, and it worked.

And I built up a reasonably good reputation as an industrial photographer. But that’s all pretty well gone now. A couple of years ago I could see the handwriting on the wall. I was getting older, and art directors were dying and changing and leaving, and the younger ones were coming in. They had never heard of you; they didn’t want to hear of you. So I got involved more in writing. I don’t think I’ve made a picture for profit in three or four years now. I still sell a bit of stock.

“Nobody foresaw the terrible inequities of work-for-hire”

Even in the early days of Life, I had a sixth sense that a photographer was never going to make any money on his assignments, but there was a potential for making money with the reuse of the pictures. So from day one, my agreement with Life was that I got all my stuff back and I owned all my own stuff. And there were only two other photographers at that time who had that arrangement. Mili was one and the other might have been Brad Smith or Arnold Newman. But in those days under the old copyright law, if they paid for it, they owned it.

You asked me before, what else did the ASMP do that was significant? One of the things was we developed a very fine counsel in the persona of a woman by the name of Harriet Pilpel. And Harriet not only was very knowledgeable and a pretty wonderful person, but she was also involved in the copyright committee as a consultant. And the McCarran Committee was then exploring the rewriting of the copyright law. So she got them to invite me down, as President of the Society, to testify before the Committee on inequities in the copyright law.

She was very much involved with all the changes in the copyright law, which were for the most part beneficial to the photographers. When the law finally got passed — it took them something like ten years before they got the thing worked out — nobody really foresaw the terrible inequities that were going to come out of this work-for-hire thing. And it’s only now, in the last few years, that we realize how serious a problem it is. And there are now concerted efforts, by the Society and a lot of the other graphic-artist people, to get this thing ameliorated somehow.

In those days, we were very happy to have the pictures automatically become our property under the new copyright law. We were very happy that we could sue and protect our work. We were very happy that we were granted automatic copyright the minute we created a work. All of these things were tremendous pluses for the photographers. The bad side of the coin was that we didn’t know enough about the work-for-hire situation, how it was going to be transmogrified, if you want to call it that, by the lower courts against us. But then this Reid case came up about a year ago, and the Supreme Court reaffirmed the writing of the Copyright Act of 1976.

“The Supreme Court ruled, believe it or not, nine-to nothing”

ASMP: Tell me about the Reid case.

Rotkin: The Reid case (Committee for Creative Non-Violence v Reid) is well-documented. The thing started four or five years ago when a sculptor by the name of Reid was commissioned to do work that was going to be placed in front of the big office buildings in downtown New York. And he did the sculpture and it was a very successful. And this Committee for Non-Violence — it seemed ironic in a way, that here was a presumably progressive thinking group — decided they wanted to tour the work. And the sculptor said no, it was not strong enough. It was built for one use in one location, and it wouldn’t stand touring, and he refused to let it go on tour. And they said, “You can’t stop us; we own it.” And he said, “No, I own it.”

And that’s when the lawsuit started. It went through a whole bunch of lower courts and Reid kept losing, but he kept appealing. And finally it got to the Supreme Court last year and the Supreme Court ruled, believe it or not, nine-to nothing in favor of Reid. The Court said that the work-for-hire rule applied and, in this case, he had not signed a work-for-hire agreement contract, and so he did own the work and had full control of it.

ASMP: And the work-for-hire rule was?

Rotkin: If you signed a work-for-hire agreement, you were working for hire, is what it meant, and they owned the work. But unless you signed the agreement — unless both parties signed the agreement, and the Copyright Act of 1976 is very specific about this — then the work for hire does not apply. Unless you are a full-time staff person, in which case, if you’re getting withholding and pensions and medical and so forth, then the employer does indeed have a right to the work you produce.

“I suggest you go back and read the law”

A few years ago, I was invited to talk to the Southern Chapter of the National Press Photographers Association down in North Carolina. And my topic was copyright and work for hire. Now, the Southern Chapter of the NPPA embraced something like eight or nine Southeastern states, and there was quite a turnout there. At one point during the question-and-answer period, a young man got up and said he had just been fired from the Atlanta Constitution as a staff photographer. And so he had gone up there and wanted his negatives, and they wouldn’t give them to him.

I asked, “Were these pictures made after January 1, 1978?” And he said yes, they were. I asked, “What was your status up there? Were you on their staff?” He replied, “Practically.” I asked, “What does practically mean? Did they take withholding out?” And he said no. I asked, “Were you member of their pension plan?” And he said no.

I asked, “How did you get your job?” He said, “I’d been freelancing for them over the years and they called me up one day and said, come to work, so I went to work.” I asked, “Did you sign a work for hire agreement?” He said, “No, I don’t even know what it is.” I asked, “Did you sign anything that sounded like one, even if you didn’t know what it was?” He said no. I said, “Okay, then you go back to the Atlanta Constitution and you say you want anything that you shot after January 1st, 1978. They’re yours, under the terms of the copyright law.”

I didn’t hear anything for a week or ten days, and then I got a note from this guy saying they’re still fighting him on it and can I cite a copyright law? And I sure as hell could. I had a copy of the Copyright Act, and I cited chapter and verse. Paragraph so-and-so, line so-and-so distinctly says a work-for-hire agreement must be in writing and signed by both parties. And there was no way you could get around it; it was there. So I xeroxed that page from the Copyright Law, and sent it back to him.

About a week later I get a telephone call from the chief attorney at the Atlanta Constitution and he said, “What are you trying to do to us?” I said, “You belong to an erudite newspaper of some responsibility, and what is your position there?” He said, “I’m chief counsel.” I said, “Then you understand what the work-for-hire agreements are?” He said yes.

I said, “I don’t think you do. If you’re insisting that you own this guy’s photographs, I don’t think you understand the work for hire agreement. He was working for you, but he was not a staff member. And he was not getting withholding taken out and he was not getting pension. And he did not sign a work-for-hire agreement. I suggest you go back and read the law and then call me back.”

He did, and he called me back and said, “I owe you an apology.”

ASMP: And the kid got his negatives.

Rotkin: Yes. I said, “If you want to charge him two cents for each piece of cellulose, go ahead. But aside from that, he owns the images.” And that was that.

So, the ASMP did have a good influence in those days of precipitating the changes in the Copyright Act. We were not alone; there were a lot of other people involved. There were something like 200 consultants brought in like myself from various places. But Harriet was the spearhead for us, and I’ve always been very grateful to her for that, and I think she had a great influence in the legal aspects of the Society.

“We required that they act as professionals”

ASMP: What do you think of the ASMP today?

Rotkin: Not very much.

ASMP: What’s the matter with it?

Rotkin: I think they’ve become so money-hungry and so publicity-oriented by the advertising aspects of photography that they have lost sight of their origins. Now their big focus seems to be on photographers buying space in the annuals for $2,000 – $3,000 a spread. Maybe it makes financial sense, but I don’t know that it makes any moral sense. Granted, there isn’t as much editorial work as there used to be.

But the fact is, when the advertising photographers came in there was a big drive to change our name. So we did. We began to call ourselves The American Society of Photographers in Communication, and nobody knew who the hell we were talking about. So we went back to ASMP. There was a lot of changes, of course; there was a lot of growth, because they opened it up to the point that anybody who ever appeared anywhere could be a member.

Well, that was all right, and then all of a sudden they decided that they were going to dictate as to how much you had to earn as a photographer, which was never our intention. We changed the bylaws very early on; I was involved in the change of the first constitution to the second constitution. I helped write the second constitution. And all we said was, we required that they act as professionals, and that an important part of their income come from magazine photography; but we didn’t specify how much. Then they started demanding tear sheets.

“Story killed, don’t take it personally.”

When I was working as a magazine photographer and only as a magazine photographer, I shot ten stories for every one that ever appeared in print. It was because in the news department, you got driven out. I remember the entire Life staff working on a huge story one Labor Day weekend. About 10 or 11 great steamboats were going to be tied up in New York Harbor on Labor Day, and they had people all over the place. They had photographers riding boats, and photographers in Europe; it was all on the joys of steamship travel. All culminating in this enormous picture, which I had the layout for, for a fold-out cover. I crawled up to the top of the ventilating stack of the Port Authority ventilator down there at 38th Street and stuck some planks across to the top of a ten-story building there. I hung a view camera off the end of it and got a helluva shot of all these boats tied up out there. And I had the cover and some pages, but there were about 25 pages in the whole essay; everybody and his brother was in the act.

It was on a Saturday night; the magazine used to close on Saturday nights. So they closed it, put it to bed and everybody got drunk and went home. And about 4 o’clock that morning, there was a terrible excursion-boat fire up in Toronto. Something like 400 people were killed. And how the hell were they going to run a story on the joys of steamboat traveling when that same weekend 400 people die on a steamboat? So they killed the story, which they had to. Fortunately, they found something in the bank to run instead, and they got the magazine out. But Thompson, bless his heart, in his own crazy sense of humor, sent telegrams to everybody which said, “Story killed, don’t take it personally.”

This is what you were up against. So when this so-called Admissions Committee wanted to see tear sheets, no way. I remember there was a youngish woman who worked for me as an assistant, then became a photographer on her own. Scratched out a bare living, but she did scratch a living out of it. She worked for some textbooks and she worked for a few magazines. She did some family-portrait type things, but she was a professional photographer. And she applied for membership and she got turned down. She came to me in tears. And I asked, “Why did they turn you down?” She said, “I couldn’t provide any tear sheets.” And I said, “You didn’t have to.” And I wrote a sizzler of a letter, after which the whole attitude was changed, and I think that [the requirement] then was dropped.

Now I understand they’ve tried to put it back up again. Now they’ve got a screening committee. So, you asked me what I think of it: I don’t think a whole lot of it. I think they tried to make it into an elitist club, and that’s not my idea.

ASMP: It’s got a pretty large population for an elitist club.

Rotkin: And then they broke it up into chapters, which may have been necessary.

ASMP: What do you think of them charging for going to meetings?

Rotkin: What you have here is chutzpah. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the classic definition? A kid kills his mother and father, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. That’s what you have now.

When you build a society of photographers whose interest is in earning a living as a photographer and creating an art form, and then charge them to go to meetings of their organization, something is wrong. And I don’t want to hear about real estate costs; I don’t want to hear about building costs. I don’t want to hear any of that garbage — I want to hear what the hell the original purpose of this organization was and why it’s stayed together as a group. And if you can answer those questions honestly, then you can tell me why you can charge money to go to a meeting.

“It’s our boat, and you get the hell out of here”

ASMP: What would you have been if you hadn’t been a photographer?

Rotkin: I really don’t know. It seemed to me, from the time I was a young man, after I became less enamored of being an airplane pilot or an Indian chief, that I always wanted to be something in the art field. Many years later, in the course of an assignment, I met a most charming man who turned out to be an admiralty lawyer. And as I look in retrospect, maybe I could have been an admiralty lawyer; that involves boats. But that is in retrospect, and I say it with a certain amount of amusement. It was typical of some of the “wonderful” things that we would run into.

I had some connections with this admiralty lawyer because I’d been working for the Cities Service Oil Company, and they had a bunch of tankers, and they sent me to Sweden to photograph the trial runs of some of them. This man was their legal specialist. When you start building hundred-million-dollar tankers, you need some lawyers around. His firm was also apparently the U.S. representative for the French Line. And we were out one night and he asked, “How would you like to photograph the sea trial of the new liner for France?” I said, “I think we can get a Life story out of that.” So I called the picture department and suggested it, and they said, “Great, go! We won’t send a reporter with you, but when you get to Paris, that bureau will assign a reporter to you. You can go down to the shipyard and get on board and photograph the trial.” The French Line was also crazy about the idea, so that’s how we arranged it

But when we got there, they wouldn’t let us into the shipyard. Why? Because under the maritime tradition, the company that has bought the boat doesn’t own it until after it has passed its sea trials and has been accepted by the company as meeting specifications. So the shipyard technically still owned the boat, and they weren’t about to have any photographers on board in case the damn thing blew up, burned, or anything else. They said, “Until we turn the thing over to the French Line, it’s our boat, and you get the hell out of here.” It happens.

ASMP: So you had to write the story.

Rotkin: So we wrote a piece about it. But here I had traveled 5,000 miles to do this story. Everybody was surprised, including the French Line and the lawyer. I called him in New York and he said, “I don’t believe it. I’ll call you right back.” And about an hour later he called and said, “They’re right. It’s their boat, it’s not the French Lines’ boat.”

“I lose it when it goes over the curve of the horizon.”

ASMP: What do you think the future of photography is? What do you think the young photographers have to look forward to?

Rotkin: It’s going to be different. First of all, in spite of everybody who says that there’s a shortage of editorial space, the fact of the matter is, there isn’t.

I wrote a book some years ago on functioning as a photographer. Around that time, I talked with Eddie Adams, who was one of the more illustrious people of our craft, and he pointed me in the right direction. I found out that, as of six or seven years ago, there were over 12,000 publications in the United States — weekly, monthly or daily — that were using editorial photography and using it well. And I would say that there are probably a third again as many today. Now, there’s a good reason for this, and you have to understand some of the technology.

Up to about 15 or 20 years ago, the way a newspaper or magazine would be made was, the copy would be written, the photographers would go out and make photographs, and they would have plates made for the letterpress. A zinc cut was made of a photograph, it was nailed on a block of wood, and the block of wood was stuck in between a bunch of columns of lead type. The whole thing was bound together in a form, they inked it and ran a piece of paper over it, and that’s how they made a newspaper or a magazine. The quality was generally pretty good. But letterpress had a limit: After about 30,000 impressions, the plate would start falling apart. The big newspapers, which had to have 200,000 or a million newspapers every day, couldn’t get the paper out with a plate that would fall apart like that.

So they developed what was called the stereotype system. It’s a way to make duplicate plates for a letterpress. If you go in to the Times press room today [1992], you’ll see 25 or 30 presses shoulder-to-shoulder all turning out the same thing.

But the major change-over was to the photo offset process. On a letterpress, a photograph was etched into a zinc or copper plate to make the raised halftone dots, and then the plate was inked and pressed against the paper. An offset press had an intermediate rubber blanket that would roll over the plate to pick up the ink, and then the paper was pressed against the rubber blanket. So the image was “offset” or transferred, first from the plate onto the rubber blanket, and then from the blanket onto the roll of paper. It increased the life of the plate almost indefinitely.

The problem at first was that the quality wasn’t always good because you were transferring a second-generation image. But they improved it to the point where the quality of registration and color became so good that it was just as cheap to turn out an entire page of photographs as a page of type. So take a page the size of The New York Times. If you do it in offset, making a photograph that big doesn’t cost any more than printing a page of type that big. And that was the breakthrough.

Then there was another final refinement of the process, called web. The web press was a huge hunk of machinery. I went to photograph one many years ago up in Buffalo, and the engineer said, “Do you think you can get this in one picture?” I said I wasn’t sure. He said, “Why not? Don’t you have enough lights?” And I said, “That’s not the problem. The problem is I lose it when it goes over the curve of the horizon.”

“There is a bigger market than 25 years ago”

Instead of printing sheets of paper, the paper was in a roll and they would just pull it across each printing cylinder. Each cylinder was individually inked with fast-drying inks and there were ultraviolet drying lamps between them. When the paper got to the end, it was chopped into pieces and folded into a magazine or a book. It was the development of this whole high-speed web offset process, which was cheaper and faster and just as good (if not better) than the old letterpress process, which opened up this market tremendously.

And all the big labor fights between the old-time unions and the newspapers were over whether they were going to go offset. Well, the newspapers won all those fights. But you still would have a bunch of old editors who didn’t want to spend the money on photography and they had no use for photography. If you went into the City Room of the Times 25 years ago, you’d hear the city editor yell, “Send out a camera.” Don’t sent out a human being or a photographer, send out a camera. And he went and came back with a head shot. Or you’d go to some big public function and there would be 15 photographers around, one guy was on a ladder and everybody was passing up Speed-Graphic plates to him. So he would stand there and shoot for everybody, and this is what journalism was at the time.

But it doesn’t exist any more. Now you have the 35-millimeter camera and the offset press; the quality is fine now, and so are the flexibility and the cheapness. So I think that there is a bigger market in terms of numbers of publications using photographs, and using them editorially, than there were 25 years ago.

True, there are a lot more photographers. But if somebody were to do some sort of a study, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratios are better!

I think there isn’t much chance of a young photographer getting a job in a big-city daily. I have a friend down in Atlanta whose son is a journalist, a reporter. He works for a small paper in some little town 40 or 50 miles from Atlanta. I was visiting there six months ago, and I asked, “Kenny, what are you doing these days?” He said, “I’m the ecology editor for this paper. We come out every day. We have an ecology department, and I have a photographer assigned to me and he goes out and shoots things on ecology.” This used to be unheard of. If you were a sports photographer, you photographed sports. If you were this, you photographed this.

But now flexibility is critical. I think the best thing in the world that a young photographer could do is get a job on some small-town paper — sweep out the darkroom, go for coffee and do a few other things — but learn how the paper is made up. The whole thing is done electronically. I see that in my own little publication, The Rotkin Review; we set all the type here on a computer and it looks just as good as anything else you can buy. And we go to libraries and individual professionals; it hasn’t made much money yet, but maybe it will.
Related Links

Three of Charlie Rotkin’s books are still available. His pioneering aerial photography books, which made a tremendous impression on the public when they were released, are now found only in the used-book market.

Europe: An Aerial Close-Up. Published in 1958, this coffee-table book comprises 200 photos taken from helicopters and light planes, sometimes without official blessing. It provides spectacular overhead views of well known landmarks in postwar Europe.

The U.S.A.: An Aerial Close-Up. First published in 1962 and reissued in 1968, its images vividly and pointedly showed the natural and man-made beauty of our environment.

Professional Photographer’s Survival Guide (Amphoto, 1982) is still available through Amazon. It’s filled with useful information for the professional photographer, and was used as a text in Rotkin’s classes. Topics include editorial, commercial and advertising photography, portfolios, queries, assignments, contracts, secondary uses, equipment, pricing, establishing a reputation and promotion.