There was a time when I believed technology was a gift to creativity. I thought the internet had the potential be The Great Equalizer (part of me still does)and I marveled at the technological leaps enabling ever greater "advancements" in hardware and software capabilities, the purported savings of time and expense. But as the parabola of these "advancements" exponentially climbs I am slowly but surely losing my enthusiasm. It has taken the better part of 30 years to come to this conclusion. It could very well be that I am getting old and this is what happens when you get old, but I do think there is something to it. In a nutshell technology threatens the very existence of creativity. There I said it. To explain my reasoning requires a not so brief personal memoir of my love hate career in media which I believe also reveals the fate and transformation of late 20th century electronic media.
Before i get into the who, what, where, when of my story I need highlite the concept of Instant Gratification or I.G. if you're into the whole brevity thing. Instant gratification is the time it takes between the process of producing something and enjoying or ingesting it. It can refer to anything in our lives that requires effort but for the purposes of this tale it relates to electronic mass media. I.G. in mass media is a fairly relative concept. Prior to fiber based internet and 3 Gigahertz microprocessors it was more like distant gratification than instant. For example back in the day creating television required some serious skills by a team of people. TV was shot on motion picture film. They had to produce and shoot the content, develop the film (hoping it would come out OK) then edit, print it, and finally shoot it out into the universe on "airwaves" using rooms full of rather complicated equipment. It usually took hours for this. Thus when it came to reporting news events the producers of the 50's and 60's had to have their stories "in the can" several hours before the news was broadcast over the airwaves. Only the larger markets were able to afford this process so when portable video tape technology was adopted in the 70's not only did it create a whole new crop of smaller market television stations but content could be produced and presented even quicker by smaller teams of people. It was a technological leap that shortened the "news cycle" by a couple hours. These advancements continue to this day to the point that news cycles of the 21st century dont seem to cycle anymore, They just keep going on an endless conveyor. The concept of Instant Gratification is the very basis of the Promise of Technology. It is addictive and exciting until one day, like all addictions, it is not. Cue "I.G.Y" by Donald Fagan
When I was 16 I took a Radio, Television, Film class at Cibola High School in Yuma, Arizona. Cibola high had just opened its doors and the year was 1989. I would spend the first 2 periods of my senior day at Cibola producing mock news broadcasts, editing video on bulky video tape recorders, and creating fake radio commercials onto old school radio "carts" . I'd then drive my VW stationwagon across town and spend the rest of my day at Yuma High School learning the 3 R's and all that. I enjoyed the TV class but honestly just treated it like any other high school elective. We goofed off, made silly videos, and generally just annoyed our teacher. Going to school in the 80's in Yuma really was like a scene from Ferris Buellers Day Off or The Breakfast Club. But for one reason or another my teacher, despite our lackadaisical attitude, referred us to job openings as they came up. Right before high school graduation I applied for an opening as a news videographer and with a good word from my teacher got the job working nights and weekends at KYMA channel 11, the local NBC affiliate.
Instantly I got the mass media bug. There were deadlines and a general sense of hustle in the newsroom that was exhilarating and seemingly important. There were all kinds of cool and expensive "toys" to play with and there was always a sense of urgency. People were held to high expectations. In the morning I attended community college at Arizona Western College and in the evenings I'd enter "TV land" at KYMA "The 1's to Watch!". I was 18 roaming around free in my own assigned "news unit" vehicle listening to police scanners trying capture the action of real life emergencies before the authorities showed up and told me to get the hell out of the way. ENG (Electronic News Gathering) was my first role in mass media and it would shape a life long obsession and sometimes career, telling stories and capturing the moment on tape.
My main tools at Channel 11 in 1990 consisted of 40 pounds of barely functioning Sony television gear. (The really nice state of the art equipment was reserved for TV stations with large budgets usually in the top 50 U.S. towns by population. ) Yuma with 40,000 people was market #160 or so. On one shoulder Id hold a large 3CCD camera and on the other shoulder hung a bulky 3/4 inch video tape recorder (VTR) connected to the camera by a thick umbilical cord. These were some of the first versions of solid state video cameras. The prior versions being tube cameras that had been used in TV since they were invented in 1927. Tube cameras were huge and heavy. They could also easily ruined by pointing them at a bright light for more than a couple minutes thus "burning" the image permanently to the cameras tube sensor. CCD cameras could be pointed straight at the sun, which I did frequently just for the fun of it. These Charged Coupled Device camera sensors would be the basis for the first successful (and super expensive) consumer digital cameras in the mid 1990's. Incidentally in 1990 Adobe Photoshop V.1 was also released for the Apple Macintosh, itself only 2 years old. I would argue Photoshop was the genesis of the desktop media revolution and a quantum leap toward Instant Gratification.
Working at a TV station was real excitement for a teenage boy from a hot, boring border town. I hobnobbed with the local "celebrity" news anchors, the faces on TV, who were all trying as hard and as fast as they could to get another job in a larger town where increased salary and clout fed the often inflated ego's that the industry attracts. Immediately I was seeing things and going to places few people got to experience. Yuma had a Marine corp air base at the time so I got to witness all kinds of new fangled military tech and action first hand. A couple months into the job I was shooting inside the Golden Knights Army Parachute team's C-147a airplane as the team lept out at 13,ooo feet. Holding on with white knuckles I held my breathe as the plane dove in a controlled spin so as to meet the skydivers as they reached earth creating a grande finale for the spectators. Across the aisle of the plane I watched as the young female reporter I was assigned to turned green, then white, then slumped over unconscious in her seat her arms floating up in the air like limp noodles in the zero gravity of the dive. Upon my return to "newsbase" I retold the story to fellow newsroom staff and was chastised and ribbed that I didnt "roll camera" on my reporter's unfortunate and potentially humiliating aerial episode. "Always roll on the action" was a mantra driven in throughout my time in TV. I was witness to lots of grisly car accidents, house fires, and border town crime. But my favorite "news" to shoot had nothing to do with chasing ambulances and fire engines. Monsoon season in the southwest meant flash floods and I loved tracking storms into the desert or suburban neighborhoods to film the the drama of wild nature. One of my nightly tasks was shooting the background for the weather portion of the newscast. I'd go out an capture a gorgeous Arizona sunset and come back to the station to edit the clip. Minutes later it would be broadcast across southwest Arizona. The I.G gap narrowing.
A couple years later I moved up to the beautiful ponderosa forests of Flagstaff, AZ to continue college at Northern Arizona University. My major was photography and most of my time was spent in the darkroom developing and printing film or roaming the canyons of the Arizona high country with the 35mm Minolta camera my dad bought for me. I had no idea at the time that the days of film were coming to an end. A videographer gig at a podunk and super fun TV station in Flagstaff helped keep beer money in my pocket, gas in the tank of my little 4x4 Isuzu, and complimentary ski passes (press pass) to the local ski area Snowbowl. A highlite of that job was shooting a classic horror " Late Night Movie of week" show. Kinda like Elvira if you remember her (Yes I know I am dating myself) but with super goofy middle aged guys who just wanted to laugh and have fun. I had a fabulous time at NAU and received creative influence that would stick with me for the rest of my life. Shout out to Sam Minkler, a Navajo professor at NAU who turned me on to alternative and experimental photographic techniques that I still use to this day. Sam's still teaching at NAU afaik!
In 1993 the digital influence on photography was in its infancy but there were huge developments making headlines that were hinting at the end of the line for film. George Lucas was reportedly making a 4th Star Wars using newly developed computer generated graphics technology. In addition he would be re-releasing "improved versions" of the original trilogy to include CGI enhancements Lucas had always wanted to add. Regardless my college professors were largely silent about the digital realm's influence on photography. CCD based digital cameras, tiny versions of the huge Sony TV cameras I used at KYMA in Yuma, existed but were pathetic in their image quality and storage capability. My Dad purchased a Sony Mavica for $800 right when they came out. Those first Sony Mavica digital cameras stored images on magnetic floppy disks and were no more archival than a roll of toilet paper They were also wildly expensive but you could operate it with one hand and they used no film. Sadly every single one of the photos taken with that camera has been lost in digital space. (I'll be writing a future post on the concept of "digital archivalness".) Computer graphic processors were in the same boat but already on an exponential trajectory of advancements that would begin what I un-affectionately refer to as "embraced obsolescence". Indeed my senior photography exhibition shunned the established craft of silver gelatin print making I had spent years learning. With Sam Minkler's encouragement I printed all my photographs with new state of the art Xerox color copiers available at Kinkos 24 hour copy centers. These copiers could take slides and negatives and spit out gorgeous large col0r prints in seconds. The I.G. interval was shrinking and quality was increasing. What once took hours to make a single 8x10 analog color print in a photo lab was now reduced to seconds at a fraction of the cost. Even the archival qualities of Xerox prints proved very robust. To this day I still have 30 year old beautiful Xerox printed art pieces. Some are even outdoor yard art. Except for Sam. My photo professors were not impressed with my decision to shun tradition but I produced what I thought was a strong senior exhibition. My actions would be a harbinger of things to come. Analog photography outside of niche artistic endeavors would be all but obsolete in the professional realm within 10 years of my graduation in 1996.
The day after graduating with my bachelors in fine art I moved to Phoenix and got a job as an editor/photog at the CBS affiliate KPHO. Did I want to start the real world the day after college? No, I wanted to explore the world and figure some stuff out but societal norms and parental pressure held tremendous sway at the time! As far as the TV career ladder goes a top 10 market like Phoenix metro might be the last market anyone aspires to. Pay is decent, budgets are high, and opportunities for advancement are plenty. I gained lots of experience at KPHO but felt stymied and punched down by the egos that ruled the newsroom. I just couldn't deal with all that bullshit. I was just a kid at 22 but far more accomplished and experienced then virtually anyone else my age and even many of my peers that had been working in the industry for years. More importantly I just wasn't happy living on the massive concrete pad that is Phonix is built on top of. I missed the dramatic canyon country and cool breezes of northern Arizona.
It was at this point I also began to see through the thin veil of corporate controlled news content. I learned in school that original FCC licenses were to be held by upstanding licensees producing content "for the good of society". Yet I felt most of what I was assigned on a daily basis was mere noise and fill that was increasingly causing unnecessary fear and anxiety. FOX news, well before they veered to the political right, was beginning to garner attention with a flashy, high paced style. Their content more resembled "infotainment" than real news. Following CNN's lead of 24 hours news many TV stations began producing multiple hours of this type of news daily and they needed content to fill the void. Soon everyone in the industry was copying this style of programming. It just didnt sit right with me and after 2.5 years in Phoenix television I swore off the industry altogether, or at least I thought I did. (Cue Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry)
I left KPHO in dramatic fashion sending a mass intranet message to everyone in the newsroom declaring in no uncertain terms , "I would see them all in hell". Oddly, even though it seemed obvious I was trying to burn some bridges I was offered a promotion and was asked not to resign from the station. But my mind was made up and I left Phoenix forever. First on a 2 month road trip through the Pacific Northwest with co-worker and kindred spirit Jeff Cooper then back to Flagstaff to try my luck at being an artist.
This was the most free and creative time of my life thus far. I used the analog photography skills I learned at NAU to compile a portfolio of 35mm slides and B/W film. I also created a series of what I considered cutting edge large format photo sculptures. Working out of a hilarious darkroom I built in the laundry room of a cabin I rented in the woods I cranked out some great art. I shared the space with my Queensland Heeler Abbey and a 60 year old ex-Navy Seal named Paul that smoked unbelievable amounts of pot and told great stories. I had some fun art shows with other local artists and my work depicting the forgotten culture of Americana, old Route 66, and stark Arizona landscapes was well received. But my artwork wasnt paying the bills. Film supplies were not cheap and Flagstaff wasnt exactly a great art market. A great place to create art yes, to sell no. I took a graveyard shift at the same Kinkos I used for my senior project and when I wasnt helping artist freak nightowls like myself i'd spend the wee hours experimenting and printing my own photographs using those same Xerox color copiers which by now could output an even quicker and higher quality print then a couple years prior. Using this new technology that was a "work perk" (There were at least a half dozen other employees using the perk to fund create their own art.) I embarked on a series of large multi panel photo sculptures. The pieces consisted of paper, acrylic, and found materials like old barnwood and metal signs I'd collect along old Route 66. I was very proud of this work and did have some financial and critical success but I was still just scraping by and the graveyard shift was beginning to take a toll on my body. Id work a 4 night on 4 night off schedule on a rotating basis and during those 4 nights off I would revert back to a daytime schedule. This really screwed with my seratonin and I started to resemble a vampire trying to live in full daylight. Desperation was setting in.
Paper on Metal depicting the shuttered "Transylvania 2000" coal smelter in Clarkdale, AZ
One day while in my graveyard shift induced, melatonin deficient stupor one of my old TV buddies in Phoenix mentioned a unique photographer position possibly coming available in Flagstaff. KTVK, anindependent family owned TV station in Phoenix, had a satellite news bureau in northern Arizona. It consisted of one photographer and one reporter based in the historic Monte Vista hotel downtown Flagstaff. There were no immediate supervisors, no newsroom drama, and the pay and benefits were great. Id get a company car (Tahoe 4x4), credit card, gas card and most of my assignments would consist of light feature style stories about interesting people and places in northern Arizona. Last but not least my old favorite subject matter weather would be a regular "news" item. Seems that Phoenix TV viewers were infatuated with the fact that it snowed in Flagstaff and I would be required to be out rolling on the action at all hours when it was falling from the sky. I breezed through the interview and got the job, quickly got a girlfriend that would become my wife, bought my first house, and I got to bring my dog Abbey to work every day. Electronic news gathering had successfully baited me back into its clutches.
In the following 2 years I would have some of the most exciting and intense adventures of my videojournalism career thus far. I was assigned cutting edge laptop VTR editing equipment, the first of its kind, that would allow me to produce TV content anywhere there was a power outlet. The instant gratification gap narrowed yet again. I had some epic assignments. I accompanied the Park Service on multiple search and rescue missions within the Grand Canyon aboard various helicopters . I followed Sammy Sosa a bit while he pushed for a homerun record. On this same assignment in San Diego I was called on to cover a grisly drug cartel mass murder south of the border in Rosarito where 45 people had been executed by firing squad. Truck loads of teenagers armed with automatic rifles patroled the area as security as we reported for CNN. I flew over the Grand Canyon in an antique Ford Trimotor. I got to paraglide off an ancient volcano and got to crawl all over northern Arizona which is still one of my favorite places in the world. I proved myself indispensable as I frequently produced news content without the need for a reporter. This was referred to as "one man band" style reporting and it would become the norm as newsroom budgets sharnk into the 2000's. The honeymoon didnt last long though. KTVK was purchased by a huge media corporation and slowly, then quickly things changed. Analysts were brought in to dictate what the news department needed to be covering to get more viewership and ad revenue. My assignments turned into more drama hunts and sensationalism and less time producing feel good stories.
The last straw broke at one of the most tragic events in U.S. history. 5 hours after the mass shooting at Columbine high school I was in Littleton producing content for CNN affiliates across the United States. In the following days hundreds of reporters and journalists from around the world would descend on the grounds of Columbine High school and literally camped out. All while friends and family of the victims converged on the spot to mourn the fallen. For me it was a sickening display of predatory behavior by the press. I suppose it was important that we transmitted the pain of that event for others to see but my concience felt as if I were violating peoples emotions in a deep dark way. For days we were there reporting non-stop. A the time it was a historic tragedy for the United States and unfortunately the first of many such tragedies to follow. After the 5th day I broke down in weeping heap. I was done. On the plane ride home I realized just how done I was and decided over the Rocky Mountains that the end of my career in TV news was near. Within a year I proposed to my girlfriend, quit my job, bought an old RV, and decided to be transient for a while.
Coming soon... the second half of the story!