The Understudy Years

First Draft Disclaimer: Most of this is a rough first draft. I haven’t paid much attention to crafting each sentence, spelling, grammar, etc – I’m just getting the ideas down, the polish will happen in a phase between this, and publication. Take it all with a grain of salt.

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My first few months working with Steve at Mackley Designer Portraiture were odd. I felt a sort of resignation to a life that was less than what I had hoped for in terms of significance and impact in the world. 

Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity and I dove in.  Steve taught me all of my first lessons in traditional studio work.  Back in those days, we still used medium format film for large group photos, digital SLRs for individual portraiture.  Steve still did hand retouching on big enlargements by hand. With paints and tiny brushes.  We had a film developer machine, complete with a silver recovery system, from which we’d sell the recovered silver to some guy who had a use for it. (Film is made up of a layer of by use of silver halide, the development process frees up the silver into the developer solution, which had to be collected and disposed of correctly). 

Steve’s strengths were as an artist, not a business man. He struggled to keep the rent and power paid. There came a point where he was hospitalized for some stress induced maladies. I took the lead, found a new, less expensive, and superior location to move the studio to, managed most of the shoots and and headed up the effort to get the studio moved while he recovered.  Our new space was gorgeous, complete with an editing and office loft, proofing room, two studios, a beautiful reception area, and a lovely set of windows to display work in on our highly visible main street location. 

Most of the work displayed in the windows and on the walls in our studio was mine- and yet it carried the “Mackley” watermark.  For a time, I was content with being the apprentice. 

One day as we were closing, Steve asked if I could sit down to talk for a few minutes. 

“How are you doing here? Are you happy?”

“Yes, of course, I love working with you here.”

“You are one of the biggest natural talents I have ever seen. If you were to move to a bigger city, you’d soon make a name for yourself in the photography world.”

I was flattered and didn’t quite know what to say. 

“I just wonder how long you’ll be satisfied working here”, he continued. 

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I wasn’t sure what he was really pushing for. I was recently divorced, my life was in shambles, and I was just grateful to have this part of my life functioning.  

“I want to just keep working here with you, Steve. I see us building up the studio over the years.” 

He accepted my answers, thanked me for the chat, and we went home for the night. 

This conversation would prove to be one element in an imminently erupting perfect storm.

I began noticing my actual feelings about the situation –  We were the most expensive studio on this end of the state. I did about 80% of the photography, and was receiving a paltry hourly rate for it, and none of the recognition.  

After routinely seeing people drop handsome sums of money on orders of the work I had created for them with Mackley’s name on it, my gears began turning. Steve was on to something.  


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