Years ago, I had the opportunity to take a week long workshop with renowned celebrity and portrait photographer Mark Seliger. He’d been cajoled and ultimately convinced by a friend to teach at the Santa Fe Workshops in New Mexico. Teaching proved not to be his thing so, as far I know, that workshop proved to be his first and last.
No matter. We hit it off okay and, like a skilled surfer knowing which swells to catch, I managed to be in the right spot at the right time whenever he went off on some unscripted and impromptu teaching exercise. It was in one of those moments that, in retrospect, changed me profoundly. In the midst of a torpid afternoon where motivation waned in the desert heat, he asked if I wanted to go into town with him to check out some stuff. How could I say no?
Off we scampered to some upscale peddler of southwestern objet de art situated in the heart of old Santa Fe. At the time I was a struggling and quite poor photographer; I vividly remember him just pointing at various furnishings and decorative antiques typical of a southwestern boutique and asking if they could be wrapped up and shipped to New York. That’s how people with money do it I thought.
In the midst of his treasure hunt, he came across a book, grabbed it from the shelf and thrust it into my hands. “Buy this” he matter-of-factly commanded. When Mark Seliger tells you to buy a book, you buy it regardless of how much, or rather how little, cash you have on hand. So I forked over the 50 or so bucks for this plastic sleeved, used 11×14 book of black and white photography.
That book, which I have to this day and will own until the last breath passes through my dying lips, was Richard Avedon’s magnificent book, “In the American West.” Immediately I fell in love with the large format portraits of gritty characters from the small towns and hard-scrabble junctions throughout the western US. His style of direct, simple portraits that connect viewer to subject spoke to my own desire to connect. Without question, Avedon’s influence has shaped the development of my own style over the many years since.
In fact, it’s the reason why today, as I write these words, I find myself in the passenger seat of my trusty 1988 Ford camper van as I head north along the 15 freeway, my home of San Diego hundreds of miles away in the rear view mirror. A small arsenal of cameras and photo equipment fills every nook not occupied by food or clothes. My destination, the town of Williston North Dakota, is still a couple of days driving ahead. In this unlikely destination lies my own “In the American West:” My opportunity to create a body of work in the spirit of the master and leave my own imprint upon the world.
Williston, for those who may not know, is the center of a an oil boom taking place in North Dakota. Though most regions over the past five years have shed jobs faster and further than a streaker can drop his pants, the oil drilling fields of North Dakota have created more jobs than there are men available to fill them. The result is a migration of fortune seekers to a region that’s become the embodiment of a modern day wild west. A black gold rush town where men work hard, rogues cause trouble, and the women are scarce – except for the prostitutes who are all too easy to find.
Well, so I’ve heard anyhow. I’m about to find out.