In the early 1970s, I was based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it was only natural that many of my clients were in the business of exploring for and refining oil. I became accustomed to working in the “Oil patch” and routinely found myself climbing on drilling rigs and refinery towers to look for dramatic angles and photographs that were out of the ordinary. The assignments I enjoyed most were those where I produced the images for company annual reports, because those were the ones that permitted me to be most creative. We would discuss what the client wanted to communicate and then it was left to me to come up with the appropriate photographs.
In those days, there were a lot of photographers working in the oil patch, and coming up with images that were out of the ordinary wasn’t easy to do, and it wasn’t comfortable. I recall the first time I climbed to the top of a refinery tower two hundred feet tall carrying two Hasselblad cameras and a backpack full of equipment. But that was a piece of cake compared to the first time I climbed the ladder to the crown block of drilling rig in Wyoming, 285 feet above the ground, or sat in open the door of a hovering helicopter to photograph an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I tried to ignore what some people tried to tell me was dangerous, and in time I came to regard all of this as fun. It was profitable, too.
The picture below was the last one I made after a long day aboard a tow traveling down the Alabama River to the Port of Mobile. I boarded the towboat early in the morning and spent the daylight hours climbing all over it and the string of oil barges it was pushing toward a storage facility at Mobile. I was allowed to move freely and exposed several rolls of film working from every angle I could imagine, being careful not to fall overboard. When the sun set, I put my cameras aside and spent time talking with the captain and crew until we docked. Then, as I was about to disembark, I saw this scene from the deck of one of the barges, looking back toward the towboat with it’s searchlight beam scanning the dock. Though I felt like I was rocking and the barge wasn’t as steady as I wished, I set up my camera and tripod and made a series of exposures. Frankly I was surprised to discover, when I developed the film, that the barge had not been moving at all as I thought and the images were sharp. This one was used as a two-page spread in the annual report. Another daylight shot with the city of Mobile in the background also was published.
This image represented just one of several days I spent in southern Alabama. Each day’s subject was different. One day I would photograph construction in my client’s refinery; on another I would be making pictures of people on the job or in the boardroom. I would travel to drilling sites in the Florida panhandle or fly to Houston to make pictures in the plant where the company’s newest drilling rig was being manufactured.
I was a commercial photographer from the early 1970s through 1998, and I loved doing it. I never looked at the work as just making pictures, always reminding myself that I was in the communications business, creating images to solve problems, just as I had done in the advertising agencies I worked for during the previous fifteen years. I approached each assignment with the same intensity I applied in the making of my personal images, and the dividing line between fine art and commercial photography became blurred. I still often entertain the idea of calling an old client and asking for one more opportunity to visit their facilities to make a few personal images.
Today, young photographers tell me that assignments like the one I described above are not easy to get. Annual reports frequently are illustrated using photographs made by several different photographers hired because of their proximity to each required location. My experience was as a photographer hired to give the annual report a desired “look.” Often, my knowledge of a particular industry was an advantage and I required less direction than someone who, as one client told me, “Just took pictures.” In this digital age, art directors often feel that they can use their computer software to add a style or consistency to work provided from multiple sources. Travel expenses have increased since my heydays and fewer clients are willing to bear the added expense of flying a photographer all over the country. Indeed, the business has changed, but I still believe that opportunities exist for individuals who are willing to work hard, establish a personal style and and set themselves apart from the pack. You really have to want to succeed and you have to believe in what you do.