Interviews with ASMP Founder: Simpson Kalisher

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

Interview

This interview was taped on March 26, 1993.

ASMP: When and why did you join ASMP?

Kalisher: I joined in 1949, possibly 1950, somewhere in that time period. ASMP represented, first of all, a sense of peer approval. Then, the second thing was the whole concept of establishing minimum rates. And being with a union was very much to my liking.

ASMP: How did you hear about ASMP?

Kalisher: I don’t know how I heard about ASMP but, certainly, I made the round of the agencies. I joined Scope, and Scope was very much involved in ASMP.

Scope was a cooperative agency; it was owned by the members. Charlie Reiche, the lab’s owner, was a member of Scope just as the photographers were. When they started off, they had a sales rep to do the selling. But by the time I joined, there was no longer a sales rep. We all represented ourselves, and that was it.

ASMP: Do you remember the first meetings you went to? It seems they were pretty rambunctious.

Kalisher: I don’t really remember formal meetings, because every time we sat down, we were meeting. At Scope, we had the back room for our lockers and camera equipment. We used to sit around there. We’d make our phone calls from there. And we talked.

ASMP had its headquarters on 42nd Street and Broadway, as I remember, in one little cubbyhole room.

“I started with one camera and two lenses, and I graduated up.”

ASMP: Arthur Leipzig (biog) told me that you had the people at Texaco walking on egg shells because they were scared, you were so tough about getting a fair price.

Kalisher: Yes I was.

ASMP: How did you go to work for Texaco? You just made a pitch and … ?

Kalisher: No, that was a situation where the graphic designer who did their house organ wanted to improve the level of photography. He set up a meeting; he suggested they get some professional photographers.

He got Texaco to call Scope. The president of Scope at that time, Victor (Vic) Jorgenson, came in with a portfolio of the membership. Texaco looked at the portfolio and said they wanted Simpson Kalisher.

Larry Heyl was the editor. He called Jorgenson up and said, “Send Kalisher back — but only if he buys a tie.” So I bought a tie and I went back. And then we discussed rates. ASMP was trying to establish minimum rates of $100 a day. I was very embarrassed, because I didn’t think my father made that in a week. But I felt that it was the minimum rate. So I asked for $125. Magazines were trying to hire us for $35 a day, or $75 a day. But this wasn’t a magazine; this was an oil company. So I wanted $125 a day. My justification for that was, gee, I could work for anybody for $100 a day. If you want me, then obviously … .

ASMP: Plus expenses?

Kalisher: And I got it: $125 a day plus expenses. I went out and did my first job for them in Illinois, which turned out to be a whole bunch of assignments — city, family, whole thing. They used the first story over two issues.

That, basically, was the start. I won all kinds of awards on the work I was doing for Texaco. And Texaco was winning awards. So the house organ, Texaco Topics, became a vehicle for the photojournalist.

Now, Texaco Star was a stockholder magazine. Their concept was, you know, all photographs of their workers had to be clean-shaven, starched shirts, that kind of stuff. The editor was much too corporate to want to use any of the kind of journalistic stuff I was doing. But he finally did use one of my pictures: a worker at night at an oil rig. He used it over a page and a half. That was a revolution.

ASMP: Did you get your negatives or transparencies back?

Kalisher: The transparencies I did not get back, but the negatives I did.

As a matter of fact, I once sold some negatives to Standard Oil. I wanted to do something for my portfolio from that shooting, and I needed the negative, but they couldn’t locate the negative. But when I did Railroad Men and they could locate a negative, they told me to keep it.

ASMP: Do you remember what cameras you were using at that time?

Kalisher: I started off working with Canons, 35mm. The Canons were not as sophisticated as they are now. Their viewfinders, by today’s standards, were very primitive and very difficult. I started with one camera and two lenses, and I graduated up.

“I didn’t want to deal with people’s vanity.”

ASMP: How did you get interested in photography?

Kalisher: As a kid, somebody showed me how to develop prints; I was something like 11 years old. As a matter of fact, it was before I was 11, because by the time I was 11, I was already sophisticated.

ASMP: The other day, you said that you’d gotten into photography by default.

Kalisher: Well, that was about the career choice. You don’t know what to do with your life when you finish college. I majored in history. But if World War II had not interrupted college, I would have been in the sciences. I loved math; I loved science; I loved all that stuff. But I did one year of college at Indiana University, went off to war, came back, and then the next science requirement was physics. This was the terror of all the guys I was going to school with, and it had me intimidated. I could take an exam and bypass physics, get the credit as if I had taken it. I felt that was an easy way out. I took the exams, which was a terrible mistake. Because, with what I know of myself now, had I taken physics, I would have done very well and I would have gone on in the sciences.

So I ended up majoring in history with a minor in journalism. I was interested in journalism, there’s no doubt about that. But I wasn’t going to teach. You know, the value of history is that you can reminisce over thousands of years — what fun! But there was nothing that I knew how to do.

Photography was the only thing that I knew. People told me I was good at it. Actually, I wasn’t. But they didn’t know enough to know it. And I certainly didn’t know it. So, I decided, I’ll be a photographer. I like photography. Why not?

ASMP: Was there somebody who encouraged you?

Kalisher: When I finished college, I lived with my parents in Flushing. A neighbor on the block had a lumber yard in Manhattan, if you can imagine a lumber yard in Manhattan. He knew a guy down the street, two blocks over, who was a professional photographer, who could possibly help. So I went over and introduced myself to Morris Gordon. He was the chief photographer at Western Electric.

I wanted Life Magazine. Morris looked at my work and suggested I do weddings — just get out of it. He was pretty discouraging.

I wasn’t going to be discouraged, because I really didn’t know anything else. So I kept working. What I didn’t know was that the stuff I liked was much better than the stuff I thought would sell. And at one point, I don’t remember why, I decided to show Morris what I liked.

And everything changed. I mean, he suddenly became very respectful. He offered to set up interviews for me so I could get a job as an assistant. And he did; he set up three interviews. I was offered two jobs out of the three interviews: Vogue Studios and Life Magazine assistant. I took a job as Nina Leen’s assistant.

ASMP: At Life.

Kalisher: At Life. Well, Nina Leen paid me. She was a staff photographer. I worked for her for about six months, and that got me started. I began to understand what it meant to make a quality print, and what it was to see the picture before you even clicked the shutter. Which is something I didn’t understand: If you take a picture, then have to run to the darkroom to see how it came out, you’ve lost the game. You should know before you get into the lab what you’ve got. You should really know what’s in front of your camera when you click the shutter. Or, if you don’t, you know that’s what you’re doing; you know you’re gambling.

ASMP: Do you remember your first paid assignment?

Kalisher: When I was in college, I was a staff photographer for a weekly local paper. I picked up an assignment for the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine.

I did photography in the Army for the regimental newspaper after the war was over. And I did a wedding when I was a teenager, before weddings were a big thing. I got $65 for that wedding.

I also did portraits for some of my neighbors, which taught me that I didn’t want to work for private people. I didn’t want to deal with people’s vanity.

“Everybody is going to be offended by Alaska.”

ASMP: Tell us about the assignment you had to photograph the Western Hemisphere.

Kalisher:
It was in a dream. But there’s background that’s required. First off, ASMP was fighting for minimum day rates of $100 a day, plus expenses. They were also fighting for first rights: that when you do an assignment, all you are selling are one-time rights to that work. That was a struggle.

I’ll give you another bit of background. Railroad Men, as you know, is the book I produced of my work. Saga Magazine had given me an assignment to photograph in a railroad yard. And that was my first trip into a railroad yard. I fell in love with the work.

The editor of Saga was fired before the work was published. Although I got a bonus for it, it was never published. When I went to do the book, I realized Saga still owned the first rights. I was in trouble; I had to go to the editors of Saga and ask them to release the first rights. Of course, they thought it was pretty funny: Here’s this young kid who did something which they didn’t want. So, sure, they gave me back my first rights.

One more thing. The Metro Group was a picture agency that sold stories to Sunday-supplement publications. Henrietta Brackman was my agent. She got me some assignments from Metro Group, but Metro Group was horrified with them. They didn’t like the pictures. They finally agreed to buy one bad one, but I don’t think they ever used it. The good ones, they left me, and I was able to sell those without a problem.

Now, in my dream, the Metro editor, whose name was Anderson, calls me in and asks me to do a photograph for a two-page spread of the Western Hemisphere. One shot; two-page spread. And mind you, this was around 1949 or 1950. I begin to calculate how high you’ve got to get to see the Western Hemisphere. Even with a wide-angle lens, you’ve got to go up 50 miles or more. I tell Anderson that there isn’t a rocket made that would get me up that high.

He says, “Well, we’ll develop one.” I reply that it would cost millions of dollars. He tells me, “We’ll cover expenses; don’t worry about expenses.”

Now, I’m just starting out and, by God, if I get this shot, I’ve got publicity all over the world. I am made! Wow!

What about my fee? He says, “What’s your day rate?” So that was it. I’d be up and down in a few hours; $100 for me and millions of dollars in expenses. But I feel the publicity would be worth it. If it doesn’t come out, it’s an embarrassment; but I’ve got to take the chance.

Now, they’re not going to pay a penny more in expenses than they have to pay. They’ve done the calculations and they’ve decided at what point I should be far enough up to get the shot. That’s the apogee; one shot; come right back.

I’m now scared. I talk to Charlie Reiche, our lab man. Charlie is a very bright, knowledgeable, sympathetic human being. I ask, “Charlie, what should my exposure be?” And he replies, “A tenth of a second at f/4.” A tenth of a second? I’m in a rocket; it’s going to go so fast. Charlie says, “No, at the apogee, it just hangs there; you can shoot at a tenth of a second and it’ll be fine.”

So I get out to LaGuardia Airport; the rocket’s going to take off from LaGuardia. The press is involved, there’s a lot of coverage. I go up and I come down. And there’s a motorcycle messenger to take the film in to Charlie. But, to save expenses, I have to take the subway.

By the time I get into New York and get to the lab, the print is already made. It’s marvelous; not a problem; there it is. And he has this big print; there’s the Western Hemisphere on one photograph. I figure I now am made.

So I bring the print up to Anderson. Anderson looks at it. And I expect, you know, praise and everything. I get a very studied, quiet, somber response. What’s the matter? He says, “Look at the way Alaska is hanging off the west coast. Everybody on the west coast is going to be offended by Alaska. We can’t use it.”

That’s when I woke up.

“That’s the one thing photography gave me: my self-respect.”

ASMP: It shows how concerned photographers were about getting those rights established. There were the expenses. It was on everybody’s mind.

Kalisher: But there were so many contradictions in the business. Editors and publishers were concerned with things that I wasn’t concerned with. The way Alaska looked was not my concern. I did a fantastic photograph and lost it because he didn’t like the way Alaska looked.

ASMP: Didn’t you say earlier that, since you realized freelancing was so tough, you weren’t going to take any guff, you weren’t going to be regimented?

Kalisher: Yes, that’s true. I was asked, at one point early in my career, “Why should I give this assignment to you?” Now, I was young and I was just starting out. And I had heard about payola. Of course, I’m not saying that’s what this was; I don’t really know. But my interpretation at that point was, I was being asked if I would. And I replied, “The reason to give me the assignment is because I’m the best man for the job. There’s no other reason.”

I got the job. But I also learned later that, if I had given a kickback for the job, I would have been competing with all the guys who gave kickbacks. Because I didn’t give kickbacks, I only competed with the people who didn’t give kickbacks. We were in two different worlds. I knew, if I did any job in which I lost my self-respect, there would be no reason to be a photographer. That’s the one thing photography gave me: my self-respect.

“Now I see that the museums are business.”

ASMP: The Family of Man show was in 1955. Did you have a picture in that?

Kalisher: Yes.

ASMP: That was when it was finally recognized that photographers were shooting out on the street.

Kalisher: What it did was give some legitimacy to photojournalism as an art.

ASMP: You and Garry Winograd had already been arguing about that.

Kalisher: Garry and I became good friends, very close. Our backgrounds were different, and our view of photography was different. Later it became very similar.

Garry, so far as I’m concerned, was a genius. He was extremely bright and intuitive. He brought me back to where I began. You kind-of lose sight of things while you’re working, because of the pressures of work and what you learn and what you need. You need success; you need acceptance; you need all kinds of things.

At the beginning, Garry was verbally inarticulate. He could not express himself in words at all. But he knew how to pick an argument. He would come in with, like, hundreds and hundreds of pictures. He cared about all of them, but they were never edited. He expected his friends to edit them for him. At one point, I had to tell Garry that I just couldn’t look at his work any more except when it was hanging on a wall. It was heating me up emotionally; I was getting all caught up in his problems instead of mine.

Garry was very opinionated about photography. He had a narrow view of photography, which at the same time allowed for certain expressions that went beyond his narrow view. The way I proved myself to him as a photographer was when he saw Railroad Men before it was published.

So, when The Family of Man happened, Garry was way ahead of what Steichen was doing. The Family of Man was a giant essay with an editorial point of view, which contradicted the kind of advice Steichen gave me when I first met him.

ASMP: What did he say?

Kalisher: I had a series of nudes that expressed a point of view. He said, “Don’t do that; it’s editorial and it’s got nothing to do with photography.” He gave me a whole lecture about the business of photography, and I went out of there very depressed. After The Family of Man, I wanted nothing to do with Steichen any more.

ASMP: Because The Family of Man was too editorial?

Kalisher: Because he was hypocritical on too many levels. He was a very slick businessman who knew how to use the art world. I’m at a point now where I see that the museums are business — Garry would say, show business.

“I wanted the statement to be visual.”

ASMP: You argued with Gjon Mili about that book, Picture.

Kalisher: Mili assumed to know what photography was, and I couldn’t care less about the Life definition of photography. I didn’t like what Gjon was saying. I didn’t like the pictures he liked. I didn’t like his point of view. He represented Life Magazine’s point of view. To him, a good picture was a full page. But to me, the picture makes a statement, about the subject and about the photographer. It makes a statement about the medium. It has nothing to do with a full page. I’ve found great photographs in family albums — snapshots that are great photographs.

The point with Life Magazine was, you had to “get it” right away, or it wasn’t worth a full page. I say, make the statement. We don’t need any other material; when the statement is made, we’re done.

I wanted the statement to be visual. I wanted it to represent my photography and not some editor’s point of view of illustrating a caption. I was never interested in illustrating captions; that was not my thing. And Life and all the picture magazines looked at the picture story as illustrations for captions. I just wasn’t interested.

“That picture was set up.”

Garry was into his own thing. Garry felt that photography should be, you know, a moment preserved and represent some kind of confluence of action that no other art form could express as well. It had nothing to do with the printed page, and nothing to do with picture stories. Garry was a terrible professional. There were too many assignments he just couldn’t handle because, I think, he was trying to interpret things his way.

Garry did things that bothered me. He did a story for Ginsberg’s Eros Magazine, “Love in the Subways.” And I was very upset. First of all, there wasn’t much love in it. But the last picture was, theoretically, a couple; the strongest word I could use for it is that they were smooching — they were barely necking. But it was done in a way to make it look like something was going on. That picture was set up. I got nauseous when Garry told me he set it up.

It’s not that I’m an honest man. But that was not my conception of what Garry represented.

ASMP: What happened to your book called Sticks and Stones?

Kalisher: It’s still going to happen. Maybe when I make enough money off my fingerprint thing [a computerized image-tracking program], I can afford to take some time off to finish the work and buy the printing. I can print 50 copies of the book and be done with it.

ASMP: Like a portfolio.

Kalisher: Yes. I just like to get the statement made.
Related Links

Simpson Kalisher’s published works are available from secondhand book dealers and from www.simpsonkalisher.com (which also offers selected images).

Propaganda and Other Photographs. Text by Russell Baker; paperback, $20. This “is not a book of single minded artistic purpose. It is a book of range and variety. Still, it is clear that there is nothing arbitrary in the selection and sequencing of these photographs. They comprise a collection so carefully sequenced one becomes lost almost in a rhythm of reality, of shading and contrast, within which Mr. Kalisher sets his drama.” — from the book’s Afterword.

Railroad Men: Photographs and Collected Stories. Folklore in the tradition of Americana, this book was originally published in 1961 to international acclaim. Hardcover first editions, when available, go for $150. Alternatively, it is offered on a CD-ROM for $19, featuring the photographs, text and the actual voices of the men heard as Mr. Kalisher recorded their stories.