Learning the Trade: College

Robert Stinson poses under a streetlamp on the South Oval at Oklahoma University in January 1984. We were both photographers at OU back then, and remain friends to this day. I shot it with my Nikon FM2 on a tripod, with my 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and Plus-X Pan Film.
Robert Stinson poses under a streetlamp on the South Oval at Oklahoma University in January 1984. We were both photographers at OU back then, and remain friends to this day. I shot it with my Nikon FM2 on a tripod, with my 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and Plus-X Pan Film.
I cheated a little to make this image of a 1984 snowball fight: I asked my sister's roommate to pose for it. I made this with my 105mm on Plus-X Pan Film.
I cheated a little to make this image of a 1984 snowball fight: I asked my sister’s roommate to pose for it. I made this with my 105mm on Plus-X Pan Film.

My young friend Mackenzee Crosby was just accepted to Oklahoma University and intends to go to journalism school. These events left me reminiscing about my own experiences at OU in the early 1980s.

My educational experiences as an instructor have reenforced what I have always believed, that education is very learner-defined, meaning that it depends very much on how motivated the student is to absorb what the instructor is offering.

College, by extension, isn’t as valuable as it could be because many people get through it just to get through it. On the occasions when I taught college, students were all over the place: lazy, excited, cynical, fun, bored, motivated, selfish, ambitious.

I will add that as the years have passed, a college degree is worth less. For a while the mantra was “you need a master’s degree,” and now it is, “you need a doctorate.”

I made this portrait of my friend Anna Maria in 1983. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, ISO 32, with my 105mm. The light is a two-flash setup, one bounced off the wall to my left, and the other behind her. I thought she was beautiful in 1983, and I was not wrong.
I made this portrait of my friend Anna Maria in 1983. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, ISO 32, with my 105mm. The light is a two-flash setup, one bounced off the wall to my left, and the other behind her. I thought she was beautiful in 1983, and I was not wrong.
Using a red filter and Tri-X Pan Film, this is one of my earliest "fine art" attempts.
Using a red filter and Tri-X Pan Film, this is one of my earliest “fine art” attempts.

In any case, I learned very little of my actual tradecraft from classes I took. The overwhelming majority of my skills came from my motivation to be a journalist: shooting, working in the darkroom, getting published in the yearbook and the student newspaper, and getting work from various media. I couldn’t wait until a journalism class was over so I could go do some journalism.

I made this image of a pie-in-the-face event for the Sooner Yearbook in 1984. This was the day I met Scott Andersen, who was shooting it for the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper. It was shot on Kodak Plus-X Film with my 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor.
I made this image of a pie-in-the-face event for the Sooner Yearbook in 1984. This was the day I met Scott Andersen, who was shooting it for the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper. It was shot on Kodak Plus-X Film with my 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor.
This is my official "candid" self-portrait for the colophon of the 1985 Sooner Yearbook. I am holding a Nikon FM2 with my 105mm f/2.5.
This is my official “candid” self-portrait for the colophon of the 1985 Sooner Yearbook. I am holding a Nikon FM2 with my 105mm f/2.5.

I had in mind during my college years that yearbook and magazine represented better quality than newspaper, so much of the time, I tried to get the sharpest and finest quality from my work, and preferred to sell it to glossy publications instead of dailies. Having been a newspaper intern in the summers of 1982 and 1983, I knew that newspaper photography was, as a fellow photographer said to me at the time, “meatball photography.”

I got to know several of my fellow student photographers well, but none more than Scott AndersEn and Robert Stinson, who remain close friends and respected fellow photographers to this day.

It seemed like a big deal at the time to have a sideline pass to photograph Oklahoma football.
It seemed like a big deal at the time to have a sideline pass to photograph Oklahoma football.
A young lady I was courting at the time holds my then-new Nikon FE2 with the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor. She was a twirler for the band at rival Oklahoma State.
A young lady I was courting at the time holds my then-new Nikon FE2 with the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor. She was a twirler for the band at rival Oklahoma State.

My film of choice was usually Kodak Tri-X rated at about ISO 250, souped in Kodak Microdol-X, using the 1:3 dilution, 75 degrees for 13 minutes, thought at the time to produce better grain and sharpness. I experimented with all kinds of products, but came back to those again and again.

I had three camera bodies, a Nikon FM, which I bought in January 1982, a Nikon FM2, which I got in 1983, and a Nikon FE2, bought in 1984 when a friend suggested it instead of another FM2. All of them had the MD-12 motor drive.

I had four lenses in my basic bag through college, a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Nikkor. The 105mm was my go-to favorite, since it was sharp, light, bright, and easy to use. Near the end of my college life I got a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.

This is the Nikon FE2 at the end of its life in 2003, right before I sold it.
This is the Nikon FE2 at the end of its life in 2003, right before I sold it.
One of my roommates, Matthew Hyubich, poses for an illustration of students falling asleep while studying, which I made for the Sooner Yearbook with my 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor.
One of my roommates, Matthew Hyubich, poses for an illustration of students falling asleep while studying, which I made for the Sooner Yearbook with my 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor.

I used the darkroom in Copeland Hall, which was shared by newspaper and yearbook students, and which was often quite a mess. Most photographers and dilettantes never understood that the chemicals – developer, fixer, stop bath, wetting agent – were anything other than water, and tended to spill them, contaminate them, use them up and not replace them. I became the de facto manager of the darkroom, and cleaned it all the time.

Oklahoma University tried to do a "Hands Across OU" thing while Hands Across America was going on, but it came up short, as in this image I shot with my 200mm f/4 Nikkor on Tri-X Pan Film.
Oklahoma University tried to do a “Hands Across OU” thing while Hands Across America was going on, but it came up short, as in this image I shot with my 200mm f/4 Nikkor on Tri-X Pan Film.

I had a crush on at least four of our Sooner Yearbook staffers, but no one on the Oklahoma Daily staff. I never dated any of them, though I certainly tried, and was mostly alone for my time in college.

I shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium before an OU football game. A few seconds later I dropped clip-on metal lens hood from my 105mm Nikkor lens to the ground below. Fortunately, it didn't hit anyone.
I shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium before an OU football game. A few seconds later I dropped clip-on metal lens hood from my 105mm Nikkor lens to the ground below. Fortunately, it didn’t hit anyone.
Robert lived in a basement apartment for a while during that period, and installed this chair by hanging it from some pipes.
Robert lived in a basement apartment for a while during that period, and installed this chair by hanging it from some pipes.

I used all my own darkroom gear, including tanks, reels, and chemicals, since I could almost guarantee the other photographers would compromise the supplies in the darkroom. During finals week in an art class in 1983, I souped some slide film in the chemistry they provided, which had been contaminated, and which ruined my film, forcing an urgent reshoot.

Once, when I was walking home with my backpack stuffed with photo gear, I heard some frat turds yelling at me, “Hey, nurd!” Yeah, frat guys in college: a topic for another day.

At one point I dropped by The Tulsa World and showed some of my stuff to the managing editor, who kept asking, “You’re a student?”

In the fall of 1985, I got a call from The Shawnee News-Star, and started my career as a news photographer.

This was one of my favorite images from the era, of the bonfire prior to the 1984 OU-Texas game, shot with my 105mm f/2.5.
This was one of my favorite images from the era, of the bonfire prior to the 1984 OU-Texas game, shot with my 105mm f/2.5.
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1 Comment

  1. “…as the years have passed, a college degree is worth less.”

    Looked at another way, it’s worth more than it used to be — especially if you don’t have one. I’ve lost track of how many employment opportunities I missed because I didn’t finish a degree. It’s the reason I’m the stay-at-home parent and my wife is the breadwinner in our family.

    “I shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office…”

    Is it weird that the first thing I noticed about this image is the two cigarette butts on the ground?

    ***

    My first instinct upon reading this was to say: “I wish I’d known you then”, but of course I was a child, so it would have been weird. It’s possible that you and I crossed paths at some point. I attended an OU football game (just one) with my Dad in the early 1980s. But I don’t recall the date — or even the year — so we will never know. It was the only time I was on the OU grounds until the 2000s, when I too got a press pass to cover a game or two there.

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