Interviews with ASMP Founder: Ray Fisher

Interview and transcript © 1993 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation.

Interview

This interview took place on July 5, 1993 while Ray was visiting 225 Central Park West in New York from his home in Miami.

ASMP: Ray, when you joined ASMP, do you remember what your membership date was?

Fisher: It’s either 1960 or ‘61. I was in Miami and Larry Fried (story), who was a friend of mine from college — we were college roommates. The first roll of 35mm pictures he ever took, because he had used only 120, was me in my undershorts in Miami. Larry had gone to New York when he graduated the University of Miami. We both went to the University of Miami. And he became active with Pix, the photo agency, and he got into ASMP and then a few years later, when I had gotten out of college, he proposed me and I got right in, no problems.

ASMP: Why did you join? Because of your friendship with Larry?

Fisher: That was one of the reasons. I wanted to be associated with the so-called “great” photographers. And I know a lot of people maybe won’t admit this, but one of the things was if you were freelancing, insurance was a great asset. They had an insurance policy which as a freelancer you could take advantage of.

ASMP: Did the $100-a-day minimum help you in your business?

Fisher: I don’t remember what the minimum was then. I think it was more than $100; I think it was $150 by then. And it was a guideline if you were working for people out of New York.

“I bought a little camera called a Wirgin”

ASMP: Why did you become a photographer?

Fisher: It’s a strange background. My father was a photofinisher. He had a place in Long Island, Astoria, a photofinishing place. He died before World War II and before the World’s Fair of ‘39, which was going to be a big thing for photofinishers.

So I had always been on the fringes of the laboratory end. I didn’t know that much about it; I was just a kid. And I don’t know if that was why, but for some reason I took a liking and started taking pictures with a small camera, then a better camera.

ASMP: When you were in high school?

Fisher: I don’t know if I took any pictures actually in high school when I lived in New York. I did once I moved to Miami. I bought a little camera called a Wirgin, no range finder, 35mm. I don’t remember where I bought it; I may have bought it from Lafayette Camera catalog, about $20. I took pictures with that before the World’s Fair in Flushing was built. I have pictures of the Trylon and Perisphere without any cover on it, just a skeleton. And I just took pictures of friends and places.

ASMP: You didn’t study that at college.

Fisher: No, I didn’t study that at all, because I was just a kid in school. But one of the pictures which I showed a few years ago, I still have no recollection on how I got the nerve to go to the dressing room of Joe Lewis, the boxer, after he fought Arturo Godoy. This was in ‘38 or ‘39 at Madison Square Garden. I took the subway, came into town and went to the dressing room after the fight and got in. And I have pictures of Joe Lewis in his dressing room after the fight. One of them is a great shot; I’ve blown it up — I still have the negative — I’ve blown it up to 20×24.

ASMP: What did you study in college?

Fisher: In college I took drama and speech, because I was always interested in the theater. But I continually took pictures. After New York, I moved to Miami. My mother was widowed and she moved to Miami thinking life might be a little easier. And I was taking pictures then; I took pictures all through high school, of all the yearbook activities, and would take portraits of people. By that time, I had a Speed Graphic, that was a big deal.

“It was radio, and they had the red and the blue networks”

Then, about 1942 — we had moved there in 1940 — summer came and I wanted to go to New York to see if I could get a job. I wound up getting a job at NBC. I worked at the National Broadcasting Company in their photo department. This was before television. It was just radio, and they had the red and the blue networks. It was NBC and the red network, which became ABC later, they bought them out. I worked there in the lab as a technician. My boss was Sid Desfor, one of the Desfor brothers. Max Desfor was a famous photographer with the AP; he took the picture of those people crawling across a bridge in Asia. There were three Desfors; [the other] may have been a picture editor.

ASMP: If you had it to do over again, would you become a photographer? Are you glad you became a photographer?

Fisher: Yes. Yes.

A few years ago, there was a young photographers’ contest that Life held. The last one they held was in 1950, and I was in college. Al Gescheidt wrote a letter to ASMP. He was one of the winners in the 1950 contest and he wrote, “How many photographers from 1950 were still photographers?” I wrote to Al and I said that one of the reasons so many photographers from 1950, who had been around a few years before that, were still around is because then you loved photography. You wanted nothing more than to take pictures. It wasn’t the money; you just wanted to take pictures. Today, I think they all want to do it just for the money.

ASMP: You loved it.

Fisher: Oh, yes.

ASMP: If you had it to do over again …

Fisher: I wouldn’t do anything else. I’ve met the greatest people; I’ve gone to great places; I wouldn’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t say it would work that way today; it’s not quite the same today, it’s an entirely different world.

“You’re supposed to go through channels”

I was at NBC for about six months, and I took some pictures there; I took pictures on my free time. Then I went back to Miami, finished high school and then went into the Army. I was in the Army almost a year before I finally got into photography. I was persistent about it. In fact, I was in an outfit in Wyoming and I wrote directly to the commanding officer of the Signal Corps Photo School in Astoria and told him my experience in civilian life and what I’d done.

You’re not supposed to do that; you’re supposed to go through channels, but I went right to the top man. I told him what I had done, and I told him I thought I’d be the greatest advantage to the Army as a photographer. And I got a request for transfer from the other end: They wanted me. So I came to Astoria and I stayed in photography for the rest of the war. I was in Astoria from July to the following spring. And then I went overseas in February of ‘45; the war was still on. I was attached to General Bradley’s headquarters in Verdun.

“The only profession where you could tell a five-star general what to do”

They had 12 teams of photographers and it was called the Signal Service Company 3264th. And each team had two still men, two movie men, one officer and three vehicles, and that’s it. The other typical photographic situation in the Army was a photo company where they had movie and still photographers, officers, lab men and repair men and the whole works. We had nothing but photographers, and we could be assigned anywhere under General Bradley’s command.

So some of our photographers were assigned to the British and French armies, and we could move around from one to the other. If we thought the pictures were better over there, we’d just move over there; we weren’t stuck with one place, like most of the photo companies were. And then our photos would go to whoever was nearest to get processed.

ASMP: So you learned a lot then.

Fisher: Yes. And when we left Verdun, we went up to the front. We wound up going with General Patton when he was going through Germany on the way to meet the Russians. I photographed Patton when he crossed the Danube with his old little Contax camera. He took a picture of his troops as they crossed the Danube, and I ran up to him with my Speed Graphic. He’d just put the camera down. And I said, “General, I’d like to get a picture of you with the camera.” He said okay. He held the camera up and posed, and I said, “Thank you.” And he turned around and said, “Make sure I get copies of those,” and saluted me and walked away.

I stayed in Europe for almost a year. I got discharged in Europe and worked for the government as a civilian. I photographed all the generals and personalities — Grace Moore, Eisenhower, all of them. I always used to joke, it was great, whether you were a sergeant or a civilian, it was the only profession where you could tell a five-star general what to do: “General, could you move over a little bit closer to the other gentleman and smile?”

“One time we went to Havana”

ASMP: Did you get a job working for the Miami paper when you came back?

Fisher: No. I freelanced in Miami doing mostly nightclubs and personalities and public relations stuff. And then two photographers — who became members of ASMP later; one was Larry Fried, another guy called Bob Gelberg, who still lives in Miami, he’s in advertising — they were going to the University of Miami and they both knew me and they convinced me to go to college. So I went to the University of Miami. Even though I lived there, I just gave up what I was doing and went to school full time.

As a matter of fact, we put out a magazine in college. Gelberg was always innovative. He started and got the University to approve a magazine called Tempo, which was a college magazine based on the Life magazine format. So it was probably the only-ever college magazine that was a picture magazine. Most college magazines were literary magazines: poetry and fiction and stuff. So we had him, Larry and me — which was actually one of the reasons they convinced me to go to school, because of the magazine — and a couple of other people who later got out of photography.

We put out this magazine for about three or four years as a college magazine, doing features around the campus. Sometimes we would even go with students who took trips. One time we went to Havana; this was long before Castro, of course. They took the drama department to do some dramatic presentation in Havana, and Larry went along and did the story.

I went along one time, all the way up to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, with two boys who were drafted. I followed them through the first days they were in the Army. We got permission from the Army, and I just went with them in everything they did. Got the haircuts and that whole business.

ASMP: You are a very skilled photographer, and this didn’t just happen.

Fisher: No, you work at it. There was a lot of stuff in Tempo — it was a great success. It won every award from the American Collegiate Press. And then finally we graduated and the magazine just disappeared.

After I graduated, I went to work for the University. I worked for the University for a little over a year as their first official photographer. They used to hire professionals from around town to do things, but I helped set up the photo department. Then the Herald asked me to come to work for them. I was there for 16 years.

“You could talk shop with people whose opinion you respected”

ASMP: Do you have any feeling of what the ASMP has contributed to your own professional life? Has it been a help, or just an adjunct? Do you think it’s had any influence on the way that photographers work?

Fisher: I think the main thing was it gave you interaction with other photographers. It was a place to meet other photographers and talk over problems, and maybe find out things.

ASMP: You could talk shop.

Fisher: Yes, you would talk shop with people whose opinion you respected. I think that was one of the biggest assets.

“I was hoping to take them to Key West”

Miami is not exactly the forefront, but they don’t treat pictures with as much respect as you would expect. I know when I get a phone call from somebody in New York about some pictures they may have had of mine they want to use, they’re always, “Can we use them? What will it cost?” In Miami, they don’t even call; they just use it.

And the newspapers, of course, they always use copyright pictures. I had an incident where I had some copyright pictures that were shot specifically for a bank and they started using some of the executive portraits in the Herald. And I said that I would bill them. I wouldn’t bill them a lot, $35 for a little head shot in black and white, and I figured for the local paper it was fair. They said they wouldn’t pay it — go collect from the client; it’s his problem, he gave us the picture. And they still feel that way.

They had paid in the past, and all of a sudden they didn’t. I was going to take them to Small Claims Court, but Sue [Mrs. Fisher] said it’s not worth the aggravation. The funny thing is, in order to take them to Small Claims Court, I’d have to take them about 30 miles from downtown Miami, which would have been a real burden to an attorney. I was hoping to take them to Key West so they’d have to travel about 250 miles for a lousy $35 bill, but it didn’t work.

They still felt that way: “We got the picture from a press agent.” The New York Times, if you look in the theatrical page, constantly it will say “Martha Swope, Guys and Dolls.” Which means they got it from Guys and Dolls, and they figure Martha Swope doesn’t get anything — they got it for free.

“You shoot every politician with the Capitol in the background”

ASMP: What sort of stories did you cover for the Herald?

Fisher: Everything. Not just Miami; all over. One time they sent me to Washington. I was there for 10 days and I covered 50 assignments. What happened was, I had approached the editors around November, right after the election, and said it would be a great idea to do a whole set of pictures on how our representatives, congressmen, senators in Washington live and what they do, because we voted them in. And I never heard a word.

All of a sudden, about three months later they called me in and said, “We’re going to send you to Washington to do what you suggested last November.” I did the National Cathedral. I went around and took every statue they could find of George Washington, because it was Washington. And then I went to every senator’s and congressman’s office and stayed for several hours in his office, in his home and what they did.

Then there were some lawyers who happened to be in town, who were getting approved to practice in front of the Supreme Court; I shot the picture of them in Washington. And, of course, you shoot every politician with the Capitol in the background. So I had to get them in the office and bring them out. I did all of it, and I didn’t think it was a lot of work.

ASMP: What camera were you using at that point?

Fisher: A Nikon … could have been a Leica.

ASMP: Did you bring a lot of lights with you?

Fisher: No, I had one strobe. Everything was natural; it was all black and white. I still have the negatives. The great thing about the Herald was, every few years they would purge their files and throw everything out, including the negatives. So if you had access you could get the negatives before they tossed them out. I don’t know if they do it today, but they would throw everything out.

“He’s an ex-Vice President”

There was a librarian who was there for many years. Then they got another librarian when she retired, and he was an idiot. Nixon lost the election to Kennedy and he figured, “What’s Nixon? He’s an ex-Vice President.” He threw out all the pictures of Nixon from the file, for space. He’s not there anymore.

While I was at the Herald, Miami Beach had three conventions: The Republican was there in ‘68, and four years later they had the Republican and the Democratic.

I traveled all over the state. I took pictures of one of the governor’s inaugurations and I was the only photographer there with a 35mm camera; everyone else was using 4×5 or 120. I was the only one with a 35, and I had a lot of pictures printed. I always shot 35. In fact, there was a while at the Herald where I paid for my own film, because they didn’t buy it. So I just bought bulk film, loaded it myself and shot pictures. I wanted to shoot 35, and as long as the pictures were okay I wasn’t going to argue with them. It was also an excuse to keep the negatives.

There were times when I shot color at the Herald with a one-shot camera. It separates the pictures right in the camera. It was a big camera with three holders. There were filters in front of each holder and there were beam splitters. The image came in one lens and split into three different places. You shot at one exposure and everything was balanced and they would develop everything; they wouldn’t have to make separations because they had three different things to make engravings from immediately.

ASMP: You came up here to teach location photography at the Javits Center for the Photo Expo in ‘92.

Fisher: Yes. It was how to take pictures of people on locations — personalities. I would always take pictures of personalities. In fact, I still like taking pictures of executives in their offices. I feel they’re more relaxed on their territory, instead of bringing them into a studio and making them sit there under the lights. It depends; if you’re shooting for a magazine and you want a tight head … But I find I can do very well on location, I always have. Ninety-nine percent of my pictures of people are taken on location.

“Why did he pick that one?”

ASMP: Sue told me you now have pictures on display in the Miami Airport.

Fisher: Yes, they have public art in Miami and they hired 19 photographers to photograph a piece of public art. You were given a particular one to do, though if you didn’t want it and there was another you preferred, you could juggle around. So I picked one which was a William King statue of a man and a child; it’s at a police station in the southern end of Dade County, near where the hurricane caused the most damage.

I shot it at sundown. I went back several times to get the lighting right. I shot it at sundown with a prism lens, so the statue is repeated; it’s pretty effective.

The picture of the artwork had to be your interpretation; it couldn’t be just a documentary — here it is in black and white. So some people did it very moody with things in the foreground, and some of them you can’t recognize. And I did mine with a prism lens.

Another thing recently was, the Miami Library System was having an exhibit where they asked about 40 artists in Miami to do a self-portrait for the show. They asked me, and I thought about it for a while, then I created a giant contact sheet, about 30 by 30, with 36 pictures on there, all of me. The identical same picture repeated 36 times, and one of them is marked with a red square as if that’s the one I chose, like a contact sheet. And the fun is, when people stand and look at it, they wonder “Why did he pick that one?”

“The last thing is they become artists”

ASMP: What are your plans? Are you going to do a book using these kinds of imaginative pictures?

Fisher: If you do a book, you really have to lay out the book first and make a presentation, and I haven’t taken the trouble. You have to show them a dummy. The great publisher of books is Dave Duncan.

I just look at photographers now who start out young, in high school, and they take pictures around the high school, then they take pictures for the high school paper. Many of them today want to do sports. And then they get into college and start doing pictures for the newspaper, and maybe for various fraternities on the side to make some money. If they’re really devoted to photography and want to go into it, they start stringing for one of the wire services or a local newspaper, and take pictures on campus. Sometimes they get to string for the local AP.

Then, if they’re good, they’ll get a job for a local paper, or just for the local AP office. And if they’re good, they’ll go to a bigger newspaper; they’ll go to the Times or a major newspaper. And if they really want to go further, they can try to get into a magazine or an agency. It depends on how they want to grow and what they want to do.

But then, I find, after they’ve been working for magazines for a long time, they figure they don’t want to start running anymore. They want to start doing corporate work, for advertising agencies or for annual reports. After that peters out, they become artists. That seems to be the way they seem to be going today: The last thing is they become artists. Even Avedon is shown in the museum as art.

“When he dies he’s going to burn all his pictures”

ASMP: Do you have any idea of how many pictures you have?

Fisher: My black-and-white envelopes go up to 17,300. So there’s 17,300 envelopes and each envelope contains at least 36 negatives. You’re going to have to multiply that. My color, I have 50 boxes and each box has 100 plastic sheets and each sheet has 20 slides on it. You’d have to figure that out, too. It’s a lot.

ASMP: Are you going to leave all this to the University of Miami?

Fisher: I don’t think so. I don’t think they would appreciate it, I really mean it. I haven’t decided what we’re going to do with it. I’m not going to dump it down the drain; it’s going somewhere, but we really haven’t decided.

I know of one photographer, whose name I don’t want to mention, who said when he dies he’s going to burn all his pictures because he doesn’t want anybody to take advantage of his work. This photographer is always in the courts suing people for misusing his pictures and he always wins because he’s very efficient at proving the ownership and proving the use. It’s unbelievable what he does. The pictures that he’s never copyrighted, he doesn’t want them abused and used by people without permission.