Interview and transcript © 1992 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Mimi Leipzig and Kay Reese recorded this interview in the kitchen of Roy Stevens’ apartment at 1349 Lexington Avenue, New York City, October 22, 1991.
“It was sometime in the late ’40s.”
Stevens: You are probably much too young to realize that when you get to be my age, your memory goes. I was having lunch with this old, old friend of mine — somebody I’ve known for a hundred years. In the last 25 years or so, we’ve developed a custom of getting together once a week for lunch. And on that occasion last week, we met at a place we like to have that weekly luncheon at. He was there when I got there, so I just sat down and I pulled my chair out. I was feeling really contrite. I was really mortified. I leaned over and I said, “Would you remind me, please, just what is your name?”
He looked at me, a little startled, but then he leaned toward me. He said, “How soon do you have to know?”
With that introduction, I want to thank you for being here. Come again soon.
ASMP: When did you join ASMP? Do you remember? Because I went to work for you on April Fool’s Day, 1955. And at that point, everybody was fighting about the Code. And you were already there, because you coached me.
Stevens: Oh, no, Kay, you’re wrong about that, because I had no motivation to join ASMP until you were there. And when I learned that you were there, I joined immediately. Next question?
ASMP: When did you join ASMP?
Stevens: I don’t remember exactly, but it was sometime in the late ’40s, because I didn’t get out of the service until 1946. [The archives show he joined in May, 1947. — ed.] I decided not to go back to Time Inc., where technically I was entitled to a job. I had been working for them before the war. I was working on an assignment, on a project they were doing for the Bureau of Naval Intelligence, so I had some deferment. But finally they said, here’s this healthy young man — we can’t win the war without him, so we’ll give him another three months. And then I went into the service.
“We received ‘rats and quats’, rations and quarters.”
Actually, I could have gone back, but pretty much to the same job, which was as a lab technician. Anyway, they said, we will promise you that we will give you freelance work. That turned out to be really the right decision for me. Not only did I get work from Life, but there was a tremendous amount of work to be done for the commercial departments, Time promotion and Life promotion and FYI, and it really was a good thing. In addition to that, the unit that I was in the Air Force, which was a publishing unit, was run by a group of Time Inc. people. Actually, the project that I was working on, when I worked for Time, was one that was discontinued because the Air Force decided it could do in-house if they had the right people. So they asked Time Inc. for a list of all their people who were in any branch of the service, and they gathered these guys up. It was sort of unheard of, but they had the authority to take people from the Navy, the Army and from whatever. And they gathered us together and organized something called “The Gunner’s Information File.” It was an Air Force publication project and the publications were mostly concerned with aerial gunnery.
At that time, I was living in my studio on Madison Avenue and 31st Street. The Unit was organized and assembled in Fort Myers, Florida. But after a couple of months of that, they discovered that it wouldn’t work. From a working point of view, every time that the designers needed photostats for layouts, or something, they had to send an airplane from Fort Myers to Miami. So it was costing something like $800 per photostat. You know, comparable to those toilet seats the Defense Department bought. So they moved us — guess where? To Park Avenue and 31st Street, and my studio was on Madison Avenue and 31st Street. We received what we used to refer to as “rats and quats,” an allowance for rations and quarters. I lived at home and went around the corner to the office. But I did have to do a lot of traveling on that project, so I wasn’t home very much.
“It was the right thing to do. I’ve never regretted it.”
ASMP: While you were on the project, did you meet ASMP photographers?
Stevens: I was the only photographer on the project. But the rest of the personnel— there were a couple of writers. One was a writer from Time, one was from Architectural Forum. Our art director, who joined our unit as a civilian consultant, was Bernard Quint, who subsequently became the art director of Life. Will Burton was our art director for a while. He became the art director of Fortune. And then there were a couple of other fellows who were not Time Inc-ers: designers, layout artists and people like that. There was Peter Blake, who was an Architectural Forum editor; those are the only names I can remember at the moment.
These were the people with whom I became quite friendly. So when the war ended, I had some contacts at those publications.
ASMP: But why did you join ASMP?
Stevens: Oh, I joined for obvious reasons. There was a need for such a group. As you know, we started off as a professional group. It was only later on that we were something like a quasi-union, or whatever. Aside from just the value of a professional society, there were economic considerations, which turned out to be increasingly important as time went on.
ASMP: How did you happen to find out about the ASMP?
Stevens: I really can’t remember. It was certainly a small organization when I joined. And it seemed to be kind of a mutual-admiration group, to a large extent. I remember Ike Vern and Jerry Cooke and Barrett Gallagher, Philippe Halsman … I think Gjon Mili probably was not in it.
ASMP: No, he said he wouldn’t join until it became a union.
Stevens: I never realized that.
ASMP: That was a big fuss. But when I met you in ‘55, the uproar was because of the Code.
Stevens: Yeah. I’m trying to remember if any of the Time Inc. photographers were in.
ASMP: Yale Joel?
Stevens: Yale Joel. And Cornell Capa was in. Anyway, it was the right thing to do. I’ve never regretted it.
“There were a lot of recriminations.”
ASMP: As I remember, you were important in some of the negotiations. Scuttlebut was that you were so principled that you gave up some of your work.
Stevens: Well, I don’t remember being involved in any negotiations. That is, you know, in the sense of a negotiating team or any such thing. But I remember that there was a period when we had voted on the Code, and the Code was accepted by the membership. And one of the key aspects of it was that we were not to work for less than $100 a day. And at the time, Time Magazine was a very important client of mine. I was doing a lot of work for them. I took a stand. I don’t remember what I was being paid.
ASMP: $35 a day? It wasn’t very much.
Stevens: But I did adhere to that, and I lost them. I think subsequently they did accept the Code, and I began to work for them again. But just how much time elapsed, I don’t know.
ASMP: Were you involved with the negotiations, with the publishers, at all?
Stevens: I don’t think so. I think Kay was doing that.
ASMP: I remember Barrett Gallagher pushing me forward and hiding behind me, so I was stuck with the publisher of Esquire. But the thing is, at the time, Roy, people were accusing each other of being scabs, of not going by this $100 thing. And I heard some very bitter comments from Simpson Kalisher, for example, about Charlie Rotkin, and I don’t know what he bases that one. I remember the guys at Scope were just bitter because they were trying to support Bob Smallman. Do you remember?
Stevens: Yes, I remember, as you do, Kay, that there were a lot of recriminations. And there were individuals who were breaking the Code. But I never got very close to that. You know, I just don’t know. And I’m not making any guesses about who it might have been because I’m sure that would not be an unprejudiced thought.
ASMP: What about the ASMP seminar that was held in Miami? Morris Gordon was organizing it, and we got a letter saying that the white people would be staying at one of the motels, and the black members would stay at one of the motels across town because, unfortunately, that was the way Miami worked. We sat and talked about it, the four of us, Ellie [Stevens’ wife] was there too. And we decided that we should speak up. I think it was you who went back to the organization. And the simple thing that was done was that the ASMP sent a letter to the motel in Miami saying that we wanted all our members to be together. And they did. It was the first time the motel had black people in it. So it was quite a revolutionary thing.
Stevens: I don’t have any recollection of it at all. As I told you at the beginning of this interview, one of my more positive attributes is I especially don’t remember unpleasant things. As I listen to you reminding me of this, the question that pops in my head is, why the hell was it in Miami in the first place? Why couldn’t it have been some other place? So this problem wouldn’t have come up.
“Hey, kid, I’m getting married. You’ve gotta go to work.”
ASMP: It had to do with Morris Gordon, and with Wilson Hicks, who was then at the University of Miami.
But what is puzzling, Roy, is that there were photographers who wanted to back the code, but they didn’t have the guts to stand up for it. How did you acquire that?
Stevens: Genes; genes.
ASMP: What did your father do ?
Stevens: Well, my father was a mechanic. He was a tool-and-die maker, except for a good part of the Depression when he couldn’t get any work in that field and he wound up driving a cab.
ASMP: But you grew up in New York. Did you go to school here?
Stevens: I did, to the extent that I went to school. I went to Morris High School, which is in the Bronx.
ASMP: Did you graduate?
Stevens: I graduated at night. My brother came home one day and said, “Hey, kid, I’m getting married. You’ve gotta go to work.” I had two years of high school at that time. He said, “I’m going to get you a job at my place. If you want to finish school, you know, you can go to Morris Evening High School,” which I did. And the only thing I remember about Morris Evening High School was that I slept very well, because I’d work all day.
ASMP: What did your brother do?
Stevens: He was in something close to photography. He worked for a company which made motion picture trailers, which we now call “Coming Attractions.” And I was the water boy in the art department. There was this huge room in which artists and letterers — hand letterers — would sit and do their thing. And they had these little jars of water on their tabourets, I think they call them. These little tables alongside, and when the water got too dirty, I had to change it for them. And I had a lot of other chores.
“I would sit there at the table, absolutely enthralled.”
ASMP: How did you become a photographer?
Stevens: My older brother, who was working — he was one of the executives in the art department — was interested in photography and was interested in camping and canoeing at Lake George. He spent all his summer vacation time up at Lake George. And he would take snapshots with a folding Kodak. The time came when he graduated to something a little more sophisticated, a Voightlander, a folding Voightlander. He gave me the folding Kodak, and I would take it to work with me.
The company was called the National Screen Service Corporation, at 630 Ninth Avenue, which is still a much-utilized building. It’s on Ninth Avenue around 46th Street. And they had an unobstructed view right across the rest of the West Side to the Hudson River and the Palisades. And I remember that one day I had the camera with me, and there was a tremendous electrical storm coming in from the west. And there was a fabulous cloud formation in the sky. It was one of those things, where at one point there was a break in the cloud so the shafts of sunlight came through the clouds. I was so mesmerized by that that I got out my camera and made a picture of it — black and white.
Well, to go back a little earlier than this, when my brother would come from his vacation at Lake George, he would take over the family dining room. There was this big table in the dining room and my mother had a cloth on it that she was very proud of. Well, my brother would lay two inches of old newspaper over that table, and bring in these little trays of developer and hypo and rinse and so forth. He put a little red bulb in the ceiling fixture. And I would sit there at the table, absolutely enthralled. You know, they had no such thing as reels and tanks in those days. You had to get the roll of film into the solution, see that it was thoroughly wet, and you’d sort of pull it up in a U-shape and run it through the developer. And it just stayed with me. I had an older sister, who was married to Tommy, my brother-in-law, who just recently died. But he was really responsible for fostering and developing my interest in photography.
“I started with ‘A’ and I went and called on everybody.”
I graduated from Morris Evening High School and I continued in this job at National Screen Service, which was really a dead-end job. But Tommy saw that I was interested in photography. You must remember that this was during the Depression. He was a chemist; he was working for Standard Brands. He subsequently became Director of Research there. He was a newly married young man; he was working and my sister was working. He didn’t really have any money, but he suggested that he would borrow on his insurance policy to give me tuition. I was very much interested in the Clarence H. White School of Photography, which at that time was housed in a brownstone building that they owned on 143rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam.
I was working, but I was so determined to go to Clarence H. White that I concocted a pitch to my boss at National Screen Service. I persuaded him that I could do my work at night. You see, by then I’d graduated from water boy. I was responsible for a photo file of all the art work that they were doing. This photography was done under one of those animating cameras. (I don’t know if you know what an animating camera is — I won’t go into that.) All the art work that was turned out, and it was a prodigious amount, was photographed on 35mm film — motion-picture film, those huge rolls. A paper print was made from the negatives and an index was kept. It was a great big loose-leaf book, and there were a couple of dozen categories — Wild West, love scenes, stuff like that. And I would photograph them and I would have these paper prints made. And I would cut out the paper prints and paste them in the proper category.
The art work was constantly being used. When it wasn’t used, it was just put up against the wall and I had to take it and file it. They had this long, long narrow room with these steel bins arranged in alphabetical order, and I would spend several nights a week filing these things, or pulling them out, making a photographic file. Anyway, the boss of the department granted me this change in working hours, for which I was very grateful, and I went to Clarence H. White School, and it was really quite a thing. I’d go five days a week from nine in the morning to five at night, and then I’d get on the subway and rush down to 46th Street and do my night stint. And I’d get home at two or three in the morning, and I’d get some sleep.
My mother was very considerate of that. When I got into the school, she looked for an apartment in the immediate neighborhood.
ASMP: Were you the youngest child?
Stevens: Yes, I was the youngest of three. We moved to an apartment that was just a short walk from the Clarence H. White School of Photography. The course at Clarence White was a year, and when I got out of that, I continued to working at night. It worked out so well, I didn’t make any waves. I wanted my days free. You know, I was a photographer now — I was a graduate of Clarence H. White School — but I needed a job. As I remember it, oh, it was quite a process. I took the yellow pages and looked up photographers. I started with “A” and I went and called on everybody. When I got to Mc…what was his name? McDonald, Mclaughlin, something like that, a wonderful guy who had a studio also in the 40s. It was strictly a one-man studio. He had one assistant. He had several commercial accounts.
“That’s when I really began to learn something.”
One account that I’ll never forget was Adams Hats. Adams had a big store on Fifth Avenue, and Mac, as we called him, did a lot of photography for them. And I, of course, as the sort of gofer in the studio, would often have to take prints down to Adams. But you could never go to Adams unless you wore a hat. [Laughter] Mac had a number of hats behind the front door and when you went to work for Adams, you’d damn well better wear a hat! I wasn’t with him very long, but I know that during my time with Mac — it was during the summer, when I never wore anything but an open shirt and slacks, or something — I always felt very foolish. Because these were hat hats, with a brim.
ASMP: Didn’t they have any straw hats in the summer?
Stevens: They didn’t have straw hats, or caps, or anything appropriate for a kid. So I’d grab a hat and usually carry it all the way.
I was with Mac for some months and then, for some reason or another, I left there and continued to look. I got another job with a big commercial studio at 480 Lexington Avenue — the old 480 Lexington Avenue, which has since been demolished and replaced by a modern skyscraper. Almost every space in the building was occupied by a photographer. It had very high, high ceilings, very well suited for photography studios.
Anyway, I got this job with Miller & Miller, or something like that. They were a big, successful studio. They had big commercial clients, such as Lee Carpets. And that’s when I really began to learn something about darkroom work and developing and printing. Because a lot of their prints were very large prints. I know they had an 8×10 enlarger that accepted 8×10 negatives. I worked with a young man who was somewhat older than me, but he was the darkroom man. I learned a lot there.
“A huge tilt table was built to photograph models from various angles.”
During that time, I got married. We looked for a place. My bride announced one day that she had found this loft-like space on Madison Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets — 126 Madison Avenue. She also found another space, much more elegant, in a much more elegant building, practically around the corner on 30th Street, closer to Lexington Avenue, but that was $65 a month. We couldn’t afford that studio. But the one on Madison, which was only $40 a month, was right behind the building that she worked in on Fifth Avenue. It was perfect.
I think we had $300. Our total resources was $300, which was largely from wedding gifts. So we took that $40 apartment. I was married in the fall of 1939, and it was about that time that I got the job at Time Inc. doing darkroom work for the Bureau of Naval Intelligence. That was also when I got very well acquainted with Andreas Feininger, because Andreas set the project up, and I was hired to take it over from him. It was a highly classified project. Time Inc. was doing these recognition manuals for Naval Intelligence and they had these incredibly skillfully done, beautifully done models of every single German and Japanese battleship and plane known at that time.
ASMP: This was before Pearl Harbor?
Stevens: This was before Pearl Harbor, and there were a lot of negotiations going on between the United States and Japan.
This special table was built and this studio was set up. This was not in the Time and Life Building, which was at that time on Rockefeller Plaza, but across the street from it, in an old building where they had an outfit called Pictures Inc. Pictures Inc. was a Time subsidiary that they set up, I suppose for tax purposes. It was really, in effect, the processing division for Life and Time. They did all the processing for the Life photographers. Within that, this recognition project was set up, on another floor. The table was built, this huge tilt table, which permitted these ship and airplane models to be photographed from various angles without constantly shifting your camera. The table would tilt and rotate. Anyway, I worked on that for, oh, almost a year before I went into the service.
“Everybody was issued an 8×10 view camera.”
And, as I told you earlier, the unit that I was in wasn’t created until I was going through basic training and various experiences, some of which were very funny. Like the time that I was pulled out of a Replacement Depot in Oklahoma City, which was the place that men who had finished their basic training were sent, awaiting shipment to wherever they were needed. They rousted me out of bed one night, in the middle of the night, and said, “Get down to the motor pool. You’re going to be a truck driver.” [Laughter] Some request had come in, apparently, as was the Army way.
ASMP: Did you know how to drive a truck?
Stevens: Well, they checked the files and they got a dozen guys who had drivers licenses and they said, “Okay, they can drive.” But what I’d never realized was that driving one of those huge trucks was nothing like driving an automobile. It was not only manual shift — I’d learned on such a car — but you had a double shift, and instead of four or five, there were eight or nine gears. Well, they put me in this truck and I was driving around and around this motor pool track. I was having all kinds of trouble. And finally I got into the wrong gear and I stripped the gears and they threw me the hell out of that. It was lucky I wasn’t court-martialed or fined for the cost of the truck or something.
By great good fortune, a few days after that, I was pulled out of that unit. Somebody had looked up my record and found that I actually was a graduate of a photographic school and had worked in photography, and they said, “Oh, we’ll teach this guy photography the Army way.” So they sent me up to Lowry Field in Denver, which was the Air Force photography school. Everybody was issued an 8×10 view camera. They taught me how to expose a film and develop a film.
ASMP: Did you do aerial photography?
Stevens: No, I hadn’t gotten that far. I never finished the course, because while all this was going on, the Air Force was organizing this unit, this Gunner’s Information File. And before finishing the course at Lowry Field, I was pulled out of that and transferred to Fort Myers, Florida, as I told you earlier, where this unit was being organized. And that began my experience with the Gunner’s Information File, with which I stayed for the rest of my time in the service. It was really a wonderful experience. I learned a lot about photography, and I met all these wonderful guys who were art-oriented and journalism-oriented.
“His painting and photography had a relationship.”
ASMP: Do you remember going to ASMP meetings that were kind of uproarious?
Stevens: Yes, I remember meetings very well. As a matter of fact, I’d make it a point not to miss a meeting.
ASMP: What do you remember about the meetings?
Stevens: Well, in terms of parliamentary procedure, every once in a while somebody would have to get up and remind us that there was a procedure and we really ought to make some effort to stick to it. There was a lot of spontaneous commentary from various people. People would just sound off when they felt like it. But, you know, it was usually a small group.
I’m trying to remember … Kay, you probably remember better than I, where did we meet?
ASMP: The Newspaper Guild had a place. That was when the old Blue Ribbon restaurants were down there.
Stevens: We often would have dinner at the Blue Ribbon. One of those fine $3.95 dinners, right?
ASMP: Do you remember when Dali spoke? He said, “When Dali speaks, listen! Because it is wisdom and it germinates.”
Stevens: No. I can appreciate that. He probably was right. I feel that way when I speak.
ASMP: He said his painting was very close to photography.
Stevens: Dali really said that his painting was close to photography? That does surprise me.
ASMP: Yes. He said that photography was the art of the future, and that his painting and photography had a relationship.
ASMP: Philippe Halsman had a exhibition of very modern pictures, down in Soho, surreal pictures.
“Every time I hear a story like this, it really surprises me.”
ASMP: Do you remember anything about the meetings, what went on, or behind the scenes? Issues that you were involved in at the time?
Stevens: One of the aspects of the meeting that I remember clearly was the fun after the meeting. We’d go out to the Bellmore cafeteria, or some such place, and have coffee and a nosh or something.
Part of this after-the-meeting exchange was very valuable. It was a much smaller group than at the meeting, and we’d really have an opportunity to exchange information about market conditions and clients, which was most helpful to those of us — and I would assume it was most of us — who were really struggling to make a living.
ASMP: Did you find that people shared information?
Stevens: Yes, very often. There were always a number of people who kept things close to the vest. But, for example, with Arthur [Leipzig], and Bernie Schoenfield, and a couple of other people, we were quite helpful to one another. I know there were situations when I couldn’t do a job, or a client needed a second photographer, and on a number of occasions I recommended Arthur and Bernie Schoenfield, just as they did me on some occasions. So in that sense these after-the-meeting exchanges were quite helpful. We were really much closer in those days when we were a smaller group.
ASMP: You were much more gemütlich. I remember how the photographers got together to finance Gene Smith when he was sick.
Stevens: Every time I hear a story like this, it really surprises me, because I don’t think of myself as a very giving person.
“He was sort of an unofficial-official photographer for the Yankees”
As a matter of fact, something happened to me not long ago that really stood my hair on end, apropos of this kind of thing. I got a phone call recently one day out of a clear blue sky — and when I say recently I mean within the last couple of years — and this young man’s voice said, “Hey Roy! How are you?” I said, “I’m fine, how are you? Who are you?” He said, “Don’t you remember me? This is Bob Adaminko.” Bob Adaminko, a good Russian name. And who was Bob Adaminko? Bob Adaminko was an assistant of mine who lasted at the most six months. He was a real Dead-End Kid from the Lower East Side, a big bruiser of a kid; he could have picked me up and tossed me across the studio. But he appeared to be very much interested in photography, and in those days, when black-and-white was the photography we did, I was very compulsive about my prints, that they be absolutely perfectly spotted. And an important part of any assistant’s job was to spot. I would usually spend the first week teaching an assistant how to spot.
Well, Bob never quite learned how to spot. He was good in other ways. I don’t know why we separated; I probably had to let him go. But it was a clean break, and I never heard from him. And you know, life went on, I did other things and I totally forgot about him. This phone call that I got was 25 years after he worked for me. I said, “Why are you calling, Bob?” “Well,” he said, “I was interested in knowing how you were. I never forgot you, Roy. I’ll never forget you.” I said, “How come? I don’t think you lasted very long with me.” He said, “Because you really cared about teaching me. You used to take such pains to teach me things, and you were always so kind to me. And you always said encouraging things.” At the time he called me he had married, he lived in New Jersey and he was working for his father-in-law, in something to do with textiles. Bob was working for his father-in-law and he wasn’t very happy.
He thought he was being discriminated against because he was not Jewish. His wife was Jewish and therefore, his father-in-law was Jewish, and he felt he’d never really been accepted by the firm. He was also still very much interested in photography. And he was very much interested in baseball. One of the things he wanted to tell me was that he was sort of an unofficial-official photographer for the New York Yankees, which gave him access to the field and the dugout, so he could take pictures. So he insisted that he take me, had to take me to lunch, had to see me. So I met him somewhere down in the garment district for a fabulous lunch. That’s the kind of thing that surprises me. So maybe I’m not such a bad old guy.
[Break in tape]
“My slate was the Code.”
ASMP: You coached me on how to apply at the ASMP. They needed a girl in the office, and you explained to me the political situation. So I met them at the end of the day. They’d been looking for an executive secretary for a month, but each man had such a stake in his own position that they couldn’t agree. So thanks to your coaching, I went into this smoke-filled room, where there were ten very mad photographers at Broadway and 42nd Street in that old office.
Stevens: Who was the president at the time?
ASMP: Charlie Rotkin had just been elected. And Ike Vern was there, and Cornell Capa.
Stevens: That was the one time I ran for office for the ASMP. I was running for president and Charlie beat me.
ASMP: It was a crazy political situation. Thanks to your coaching, I looked each photographer right in the eye, and he had this big job description. One wanted a membership chairman, one wanted a publications chairman, one wanted a treasurer, one wanted somebody to run the office. And I said to each one, “That’s right. That’s exactly right.”
Ike Vern was the only one who was cool-headed enough to realize what was happening. And he leaned against the wall and said in his big voice, he said, “Well, you have to allow her time for bathroom functions.” It was so funny. I took the job. And I thought that you all hired me because I was so sophisticated. But much later, Dick Saunders advised that it was because I was a minister’s daughter, and the photographers thought I was too dumb to cheat them.
Why did you run for president?
Stevens: I don’t know. I was nominated, and I was dumb enough to accept.
ASMP: Did you have a slate? Did you have something on your mind that you thought that the ASMP should be doing?
Stevens: If I did, I don’t remember. Well, my slate was the Code.
ASMP: When Charlie ran against you, was he elected because of different ideas, or just because it was a personality thing?
ASMP: There was a fight with Bob Smallman. He wanted to run badly.
Stevens: Well, Bob Smallman was at one time president, wasn’t he?
ASMP: Acting president, when Wayne Miller went out west. And it was sort of an interregnum there with a tremendous amount of fights.
Stevens: I really don’t remember the circumstances. I know that Charlie was very aggressive and very ambitious, and he wanted very much to be president. I probably wanted to be too, but it was probably just a vanity thing. As far as a slate goes, I really don’t remember. It seems to me as Kay points out, strengthening and getting the Code adhered to was probably uppermost in terms of importance.
“I’ve gotten so rich as a photographer that I don’t care about it.”
ASMP: What do you think about the ASMP today?
Stevens: I really have not been close to it in recent years. I can’t remember when I was last to a meeting, and I’m sure that there’s nobody in the present membership I know.
You might even ask me what do I feel about photography today.
Stevens: While I’m interested in what is done in photography, I’m a little surprised and bewildered by the fact that my personal interest in photography has really waned considerably. I almost never take a picture. Elinor and I were away all summer and I had cameras and film with me, and I don’t think I shot two rolls of film. I probably made pictures of my granddaughter and my daughter, but as far as photographing for photography’s sake …. That’s why I probably don’t have lunch with Arthur more frequently: I feel a little guilty and self-conscious. He’s still so active. Last time I had lunch with Arthur, we had this conversation about my files. Arthur gave me detailed instruction on how to organize them and identify them and index them. And he said, you know, you have things there that are worth money. And I still haven’t done it. I guess because I’ve been so successful and I’ve gotten so rich as a photographer that I don’t really care about it.
ASMP: I think it’s perhaps because it’s something that you’ve conquered and learned. Mili did that; he would do one kind of work, and then that’s it, it’s done. And he would reach for a new aspect. His work evolved.
I remember meeting Kertesz and looking through his boxes of pictures. And he had boxes and boxes and boxes of the same picture. It was like a Johnny One-note. And Mili’s boxes, every single thing, you’d think it was a different photographer. Aside from that, I think we all kind of agree, you reach a certain point and it’s time to explore the next area of life.
“I was just lucky to have those initial contacts.”
ASMP: Before we close this interview, let me ask you a couple of questions. Going back to when you were an active photographer, what did you do about fallow periods?
Stevens: I would worry.
ASMP: Did you do anything? How did you manage to get work?
Stevens: Let’s go back to the very beginning on that point. To this day, 130 years later, I still do not really fully understand why I ever chose to leave Time Inc. and go out as a freelancer. It was totally contrary to my upbringing and my personality. I was so indoctrinated, by my mother especially, on the need for security. I’m sure that the Depression was a tremendous influence on her — and on me, but I was young. For my mother, the only thing to do was to get as much education as you could, and then start taking civil service tests. And while you were waiting for results of the civil service tests, try to get a job with AT&T, or GE, or GM — any big company or corporation.
As I told you earlier, Time Inc. was obliged to give me a job, and they would have given me a job as a lab technician. I probably could have spent my entire working life there, as many people did. As a matter of fact, when I was already in this apartment, and I didn’t have my studio yet, I was working out of here, and I set up the darkroom here. As things went on, I got busier and busier, and I was really working pretty much full time. I found that I couldn’t do my own lab work, which I had been doing. I hired, on a freelance daily basis, one of the top printers in that Life lab, who by then was no longer with them. I don’t know if you ever heard of him, John Hickey. I worked out an arrangement with John where he would come here as a freelance printer and work in my darkroom and I paid him his day rate.
To go back to your original question: I would worry. Selling was always very difficult for me. I never had a rep. I tried reps a couple of times, but it never lasted very long. I guess I was just lucky to have those initial contacts with that group of professionals from Time, Inc. with whom I was in the Army. And my getting acquainted with Bernard Quint, who was in the art department at Life, he was the art man before he became art director. And all the people I got acquainted with in the business department were very helpful in sustaining me while I slowly began to make other contacts.
“In every case, I was able to sell them.”
I remember Arthur [Leipzig] would do a lot of calling on people and a lot of exhibiting. Arthur has always emphasized the importance of exhibiting, and I can appreciate that, but somehow I never — well, I’ve had one exhibit, but that was very early on. I had an exhibit at the Village Camera Club; it was really very gratifying. Jacob Deshin critiqued it, and he did a column in the Sunday Times.
ASMP: I hope you still have a copy of that.
Stevens: I don’t know. That was the time before xeroxing. But I was worried about getting work, I guess that exhibiting was probably the furthest from my mind.
ASMP: Well, it wasn’t an easy time. People have told us about editors letting photographers bid against each other for jobs. It was a tough road before the ASMP rules took hold. Did people ask you to work on spec?
Stevens: Yes, there were a couple times when people asked me to work on spec. But by this time I was so Code-conscious that I just never did. And I guess I was lucky enough not to have to. There were a number of things that I did as — what did we call them in those days? — independent productions. I did a number of those and I think, in every case, I was able to sell them.
ASMP: How did you decide what to charge?
Stevens: Usually, I placed myself at the mercy of the publication. And I can’t ever remember a situation where what they offered was so outrageous that I just left in a huff.