(A Master of) No-Money Fun

Bob Barnett just cracks up every time he sees this picture...

From a distance, the little boy appeared to be levitating in mid-air, near a precipice of the old school building. Completely and totally nonplussed, the boy seemed content to let his legs dangle from the ledge but the combination of the buttresses’ location and the sun’s shadows, gave the illusion that he was sitting in mid-air with no visible means of support. This apparition was occurring regularly and as the urban legend grew, more and more people would arrive to see the fascinating optical collision present itself to the assembled audience. The boy made no notice of the observers; each night he would sit for some period after the sun fell and then with no explanation, rise and climb down from the ledge and wander home.

An enterprising but curious photographer, once hearing about the phenomenon, set up shop early one afternoon and waited for the boy to return for another show. Arriving a few minutes after five, the boy went to the usual place on the old building, and sat there looking out over the small town. The photographer saw the eventual shadow arriving slowly from the East and he waited patiently until the combination of shadow and light effectively negated the ledge on which the boy quietly sat. Once invisible, he quickly took several shots although he knew that the first picture was perfect. He hurried home and developed the series; alone in the dark room, the images appeared almost simultaneously and the images were startling. The silhouette of the disinterested boy appeared to posture, almost loom ecumenically, over the city. While this was at least a decade before digital photography, the warmth of actual film was a critical component of the image. If shooting strictly digital, the images would have been far too pristine and binary to enhance the inbetweens which made such an impact to the viewer.

Thanks to his own amazement, he spoke in hindsight that he was glad that had to develop the old school way; the dark room allowed for vastly superior opportunities as compared to its heartless and looming digital cousin. The darkness allowed for more personal experience by being literally immersed in the creative process versus digitally manipulating the images through a series of available templates in front of a glaring, bright monitor. The contrasts of the dark and the light told the story but he knew the real beauty lay in its warmth of composition. By his own momentary pause or action, he was able to become part of the picture's creation; the ultimate money shot.

The picture ran the next day and due to its stark and elegant beauty, it was immediately picked up regionally and by the next day, nationally by all the wire services. The young photographer was lauded for his skill to capture such an image and although he was appreciative of the praise, he knew in his heart that this photo was easily the best thing he had ever done and likely the best thing he ever do. This realization troubled him a bit but the sheer volume of calls, coming from all over the country, drowned out his concern that he might have already had his peak at such a young age. The probing questions on the subject focused on the backstory and general motivation: What was he doing out of the ledge? Was he pondering suicide or some compelling life quandary? Was he despondent about the loss of a loved one? The photographer did not know the little boy’s motivation nor did he feel it was his place to make those inquiries but he patiently listened and returned vague, polite responses sprinkled with enough nouns to give the impression of straight answers. The truth was he didn't know anything except past the presented composition of the photograph and had no interest in interpreting a subject that had never asked him to become involved.

However, no matter his responses, the calls kept coming as his name was the only contact available, as the young man or the location was not identified. The photographer continued to answer the questions but he was growing tired of the inquiries for two reasons: the personal euphoria from the picture’s success was ebbing and the brutal truth that he was squatting on this little boy’s life. His camera may have taken the picture, but the little boy owned everything else and he felt like a parasite. He stopped accepting mysterious and unsolicited accepting phone calls from folks he did not know; rightfully determining that the interest in the photo would diminish with time.

Once the phones stopped ringing, he went back to the school building and sat on the picnic table that was near the ledge to wait for the boy. However today, as the shadows appeared, the little boy did not. This absence surprised the photographer and while he had made a conscious effort to leave his camera and gear in his trunk as he didn’t want to take another picture, it was still unsettling. But as much as he wanted closure between subject and reality, he also wanted to keep moving to the next subject without picking this one apart.

As he finally got up to leave, the photographer saw the little boy sitting on top of the railroad trestle across the field from the building. He was equally oblivious to his new surroundings and appeared equally content to sit on the trestle, looking down into the river and throwing rocks and occasionally spitting into the water. The photographer fought the urge to open up his car trunk and take the picture: it would make a nice compliment to the original photo but down deep inside, he knew he had perfected the original image and had no interest in farming yet another variation on a theme. He decided he would go talk to the boy and began to walk up the path towards the trestle, in full view of the boy. He could almost feel the fourth wall breaking but he needed some closure and since he was no longer a participant in the image, the opportunity for this needed closure was literally at hand.

"Hello there” said the camera-less photographer as he approached the boy.

“Hello” said the boy, barely looking up.

"What are you doing?”

“Just looking at the water. Throwing a few rocks.”

“Why are you doing it?” The photographer was surprised as the tone of his own voice. It did appear that he was way past impartiality.

"I don’t know,” said the little boy with no reluctance.

“Why don’t you go to a movie or ride your bike?”

“I don’t have any money and I don’t have a bike,” said the boy. “I had a bike once but someone stole it. I decided not to ask for another one because I couldn’t ask my folks to spend the money.”

The little boy’s tone was not self-serving but more pleasantly realistic. While he did seem slightly disappointed that the bike was stolen but he did not whine or act like a victim. Although the photographer felt sorry for his loss, he did not feel compelled to give him some money to replace his bike nor did the little boy appear to be soliciting for contributions.

“I am the one that took your picture.”

“The one in the newspaper?” said the little boy.


“Did you get any money for it?”

“No, I was doing my job. I take pictures for the newspaper.”

“Will you get money for it?”

“Maybe, but I would have to win a ‘category’ award to do so.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that each year, newspaper photographers submit their work to review boards and the pictures go into different categories including human interest, news, essay, portrait and each year they award winners in each group.”

“You’ll win. That was a good picture.”

“Thanks. I want to thank you for helping. I would like to send you a framed copy with an actual photograph; not just a tear sheet from the paper.”

“You’re welcome,” said the young boy, “but I wasn’t doing anything except entertaining myself.” He didn’t acknowledge the offer of a free picture so the photographer decided not to repeat the offer. He had only met this boy once but knew that he heard and saw everything so repeating it again was not going to accomplish anything other than feeding his own ego or placating his own conscience.

They smiled goodbye and the young photographer got back to his car.

Eventually, the looming award came his way. As with many things, the reality of the award was somewhat watered-down due to the nature of the eventual surroundings. Held in an old and dark meeting hall in a rapidly aging hotel, the regional news and photography awards were whisked through as fast as possible in order to pay homage to the local television awards which reluctantly enduring their ink-stained brethren. The award ceremony was largely funded by the television stations as they were always seeking separation from their competitors; winning the regional awards was not exactly Nobel-level but it did allow some affiliate to tout their immediate and regional superiority for at least one sweeps cycle. The television personalities were sitting in the front; shined and buffed even more than usual, they were coming and going during the first set of awards. He noticed how tiny each of them were; anchormen barely filling out a size 36 tuxedo while the female personalities were caked with make-up and painted with some peculiar mix of ego and distant feat combined to create a death mask to their collective realization that they were never leaving this small to mid-market demographic, ever.

Walking to the stage surrounded by a half-hearted standing ovation, the photographer got a bronze-coated microphone, a chance to compete in the national Associated Press competition and five seconds to thank the newspaper and his subject. Behind him, a grainy image of the shot was displayed briefly as he walked back to his table. Once settled back into his space, he leaned over to his date and with a smile, pleaded for them to leave. Since she shared his opinion about public displays of insincere adulation and thanks to their low-ranking table being behind a column (and near the kitchen door), grabbed her handbag and stood up.

"That was a nice version of the shot on the wall,” she said. “A perfect storm of poor quality, poorer resolution and composed with all the interest of a seventh-grade art class.”

“Let’s go,” said the man. As he stood there and hefted the award, he was amazed at its lightness.

The couple and the little bronze-like statuette slinked out via the kitchen and out into the night.

The award, along with a hundred other names, made a few local papers deep within their local sections. Within a few weeks, the photographer forgot all about it and went back to work. He was being back into the swing of things when he was called into his editor's office to be informed that the photo had won the regional Pulitzer competition (a difficult but not an impossibly challenging accomplishment) but was still under consideration for THE Pulitzer Prize. That was the big league; no rubber chicken in a regional chain hotel ballroom that both time and civil rights forgot. This is a pure competition and the effort is strictly on the backs of the award committee. Your work stands alone and if you win, a plaque and a check for twenty-five thousand dollars show up at your house. No fake adulation or whoring your work for some media toadie; it is the coolest award to win for both professional and convenience reasons.

There hadn’t been a Pulitzer winner, even a regional one, for over fifty years from a small paper thanks to the scorched earth policy of the global media cabal. The simple fact that more pictures provide more opportunities for success, the more is more theory allowed for platoons of talented photogs to be dispatched to any and all types of news with the hope that due to the sheer numbers of attempts will garner the best and the brightest work available. He would be in the running for a national Pulitzer if he qualified via this regional competition.

The photographer heard the word “Pulitzer” and felt his ass pucker. That was the big leagues for his profession and the ultimate rite of passage as it was one of only a few first-tier awards. Several disciplines have similar achievements: winning a major tournament in golf or tennis (excluding the French Open and the PGA), the National Spelling Bee or winning the Indianapolis 500 (when the race still meant something). In this heady company, there were only three things only surpassed it in his world: a Nobel Prize, being named the country’s poet laureate or being a Beatle.

This award easily leaves the second tier far behind: secondary event gold medals, process patents, low level Oscars and Emmys, the World Series of Poker, the Superstars competition and National Book awards look like a grade school perfect attendance medal. Further compounding this, more pedestrian achievements of law partnerships, game show champions and CEBS’s aren’t even on the radar in the world of recognition.

“The Pulitzer? Are you sure?” said the photographer. “Did you say ‘Pulitzer?” He drew the word to its full three syllable beauty and allowed it to come out as “Pull...It...Sir.”

His editor looked at him straight into his eyes and said, “Yes.”

The office was silent for a few moments and the editor continued. “There is two things I don’t kid around about and both of them are the Pulitzer Prize.”

He stumbled out the door and grabbed his assignment sheet. There were a few interesting challenges but in light of potential Pulitzer consideration, he numbly went through his day's shots without thinking. He got to an assignment, took the requisite roll of shots and drove to the next one. By the end of the day, he was troubled that the whole process was becoming mundane and a profession which he loved was at real risk of losing his interest. After continued thought, he allowed himself to fantasize about the whole issue. If he were lucky enough to receive the prize, he would have to find something else to do as once one achieves some level of temporary perfection resulting in an award, one of two options appear: (1) To attempt to achieve that perfection again, or (2) Take the achievement as a sign to find something else to achieve.

He developed the photos at the paper and made the final crops and corrections and handed them to his editor. The editor reviewed them as they walked down the hall and expertly made a few small notations to further improve the shots. They walked by the production people, who took the galleys and began making the changes for the morning edition. The photographer was done for the day and continued to walk towards the parking lot. He fell into lock step with his editor, also leaving for the evening, and began to talk.

“How are you holding up?” asked the editor.

“I am finding it hard to concentrate.”

“I am not surprised and if you are curious, the Pulitzer buzz continues.”

“Of course I am curious. By the way, thanks for keeping it out of the newsroom. If everyone knew, I don’t know if I can keep it together.”

“Well, everyone knows but they are treating it like a potential no-hitter.”

“So much for my anonymity.”

“That was gone a few weeks ago. Even if you are listed as a national finalist, the days of freedom are over.”

“I don’t know what I am going to do.”

“Are you questioning the profession?”

“No, I am questioning everything but the profession. What concerns me is that there is a real chance that nothing is going to be fun for a long, long time. I don't even enjoy digital photography: you can shoot two hundred images and be as sloppy as you want knowing you are alter anything you have shot and toss the rest away without getting near a darkroom. You don't even need to buy film: it is like having unlimited bullets and just spraying them across everything in your path. After awhile, it is fairly asinine.”

“Well, let me put your mind at rest. If you stay in the business, and you likely will, it is going to be anything but fun.”

“That is my conclusion as well.”

The two shook hands and the photographer walked out into the lot, stowed his equipment in the trunk and drove home. He called his girlfriend and suggested they go out to dinner and decompress a bit from a long week’s work. She thought that was a good idea and within an hour, they were both well into their third drink as the day’s pressures and events began to subside.

“How was your day, dear?” said the girlfriend with a teasing tone.

“It was fine. Still thinking about what I am going to do when I grow up.”

“That makes two of us.”

The night was pleasant and the conversation supportive. In the morning, the photographer woke up and decided to get out of the house as more and more of the daily surroundings were taking on a claustrophobic tone. He wandered down to the college and grabbed some coffee and a stack of both local and national papers. He used to do this regularly and it felt good to try to get back into a routine. His plan was to scan each paper, paying particular attention to the photography and guessing the photographer. Most professions have patterns and news photographers are no different; most shooters fall into comfortable patterns in both perspective and composition. Each event would effectively cloud these patterns to the untrained (and equally uninterested) eye but within the fraternity of photographers, signature styles stood out for ease of recognition. His work was still under the radar but due to the handful of national shots he had enjoyed but his was not a complete unknown signature.

The morning passed quickly and when he was finished with his exercise, he felt refreshed for the first time since he heard the “P” word. There was a few interesting tips he had picked up from the review and he had made some notes in his journal to make a conscious effort to try them out. He, like most photographers, had to keep shooting on the off hours to keep themselves sharp. The events of the day dictated their attention but one had to practice other types of shots, ranging from portraits to nature scenes, to keep the eye sharp. The anonymous days and generic photos were over: any shot from now on would suffer unfair the scrutiny of the Pulitzer award.

He began to walk home; slightly optimistic that he was becoming excited to try out a few new techniques. The afternoon was open so he began to think about a few places he may visit to experiment with some of the ideas liberated from the morning papers. He stopped at the local camera shop and chatted with the owner. They were friends for several years and he always felt safe within the clubhouse. They would talk about the latest technical enhancements but would always end up talking about filters, lens and other legitimate and non-digital tools of the artist. They mutually loved the art and science of photography and found time in the dark room as both therapeutic and restful. He was a few years away from truly having his own style but it never hurt to stay on top of the ever-changing options without going totally native.

The owner kept looking at him with the impression of someone waiting to hear the whole story about something that hadn’t been offered. As they wandered through the store, each topic presented by the owner was taken by the tired photographer was quickly summarized. This effort would result in further silence until the photographer came up with the next subject, which would be dispatched with equal efficiency, thus leaving the two with nothing to say.

“You seem to want to get things out of the way,” said the photographer.

"Don’t you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?”

“You won.”

“I won what?”

“You just won the Pulitzer for Spot News Photography.”

“Wow. I knew that it was looming but I didn’t want to think about it. I have been told it is a real honor to win the regional award and there is always a chance at the real prize.”

“I don’t blame you but you have your facts a bit mixed up. There is no regional anything; your picture won the Pulitzer. No regional Pulitzer...the Pulitzer Pulitzer."

“Well, that makes for a more interesting day. By the way, is there a bike store nearby?”

I spend way too much time letting people that I was born moderately poor but the purpose of that information is not to pull any heartstrings. The main motivation is to allow others to appreciate the concept of entertaining one's self or the better-known colloquialism of ”no money fun.” Some of the best times have resulted in the perfect storm on no money, no expectations and no pre-occupation with logic. I encourage people to enjoy an experience and/or adventure without hauling money out of purses or pockets. This is not implying that being a cheap bastard is the way to go. On the contrary, make sure you tip generously, pay your fair share and when in doubt, throw in that extra buck. The point is (because there is always a point) not to equate entertainment and enjoyment directly to your cash outlay. Go out, have some fun and leave the man purse at home.

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