The year was 1980, and I was at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. OK, so by that time I should have graduated college, but I took a few years first to work in my field. Long story.
So one day I get a call from a picture editor from The New York Times. They were doing a story on Muncie and needed a photo. The picture editor asked if I was interested and could go out to shoot something, anything, to illustrate the story and, of course, meet their deadline. Yes, I could!
The newspaper’s deadline was in a few hours. I needed to shoot, process, print and get the image transmitted to New York fast. So I hit the streets looking for something usable. The editor suggested kids playing because part of the story was about how Muncie is a great little town to raise a family. Luck shined in my favor, and I found a group of neighborhood kids skipping rope. I made a series of images with a long lens to stay unnoticed then moved in closer, using a variety of lenses and angles. When I felt I exhausted the situation I asked the kids to line up for a group picture. It was the easiest way to get their identification. Later I could just match names and faces to write a caption.
I finished the job, and the editor liked the pictures. He said he would keep my name in his Rollidex for future work. As promised he would call anytime there was a need in that part of the state. When I moved, I would update my information with the editor, and more work would follow.
When I relocated to Pittsburgh in 1990, I called the editor, who by now had become a good friend, and said, “Lonnie, I just moved to Pittsburgh, and I’m freelance! Anything you can throw my way would be great.” After he stopped laughing at me for moving here, he asked the most significant question of my life at that time, “How much work do you want?” I responded, “Eight days a week!”
For just more than ten years, Lonnie sent me assignments to keep me hustling three, four or five days a week. I covered West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania as far east as Williamsport. I shot for the National Desk and almost every department of the paper thanks to Lonnie advocating on my behalf. It was a great time.
Recently I have been editing my archive files, where I found the negatives from my first NYT assignment. However, one thing I noticed that was quite fascinating. I now think the most interesting pictures from that shoot, were those of that group of kids I did for ID purposes. It’s a ‘Spanky and our Gang’ kind of picture, maybe not right for the assignment in 1980, but today there’s a timeless quality to the image. It could have been 1880 as naturally as it was 1980.
The takeaway: always save your outtakes. I understand that requires a lot of hard drives. It’s expensive equipment that you will regularly need to update as technology advances. It’s not quite as easy as keeping 25 Bankers Boxes full of a box after box after box of film negatives. But believe me, in a few decades, you will thank me as you uncover your treasure trove of forgotten frames.