Ethan Hawke, Issue 27, Editor’s Letter

Over the past few issues, I’ve been writing about my meandering career path and the decisions that led me to where I am today as a photographer, director, television show host (that one still doesn’t sound believable) and editor of the magazine you’re holding now. This serialized tale of my early years as a photographer started in issue #25, and you can read the whole story in back issues or the Off Camera blog.

Working as a photographer at the Associated Press was not without its perks. I had a courtside seat at every Laker game, I practically sat in the Dodgers’ dugout (enjoying many a pre-game meal at the same table as Vin Scully), and could photograph any concert that came to Los Angeles. A particular highlight was photographing Kurt Cobain when he was on the In Utero tour. I was even given a cell phone pretty much before anyone had them.

The job at the AP always presented new challenges, and I often did two or three assignments in one day. A photojournalist is a lone wolf. Nowadays I have photo assistants, production designers, digital techs, and wardrobe and make-up specialists all helping me make a photograph. Back then, I had a camera bag, a Thomas Guide (it’s a detailed driving map of Los Angeles – look it up, millenials!), a 1981 Honda Civic with over 100,000 miles on it and maybe some beef jerky. Those were my tools. I still remember my Domke photojournalist bag – two camera bodies, six lenses, a light meter, film, a filter or two, a reporter’s notebook, pens and spare batteries. I carried that thing on my shoulder all day. I’d race to an assignment, Thomas Guide on my lap (and we think texting and driving is dangerous), find a parking space and try to figure out where I needed to be. If it was a big news assignment, I could just follow the scrum of photographers and news cameras. If it was a feature or something smaller, I’d have to be my own producer, which could mean finding a contact person, a vantage point or a hiding place.

I remember being assigned to photograph the Los Angeles Auto Show and asking for more specifics about the job. The afternoon editor Blair Godbout told me to “make something interesting out of that clusterf**k, and get back here in time to cover the hockey game tonight!” That was about as much information as I usually got, and then I was on my own. I got down to the LA Convention Center, found the press entrance, and started wandering the show with my camera bag on my shoulder, thinking, “What is interesting about a car on a rotating platform, and a bunch of pipe-and-drape booths?” I could hear the minutes ticking by in my head as I wandered through the show, looking for a picture that wouldn’t be a complete bore. I stopped for a hot dog, and as I sat there chewing, I realized that I was very anxious about not making a good picture. It is always a terrible feeling, and the only way to deal with it is to put your head down and work your way through the problem. Funny enough, I still go through the same thing to this day. There is no worse feeling for a person with a creative job than not having an idea, and no better feeling than finding one.

I wandered some more and came upon Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Tappet Brothers from NPR’s famous Car Talk. They were short, funny guys, and seemingly very friendly. I’d just seen an exhibition of a car with a pass-through from the backseat to the trunk, and I suddenly had an idea. The brothers were game, and in five minutes I had my picture: Tom and Ray climbed into the backseat and crawled through into the trunk of this car. (I didn’t say I always found good ideas). This was the kind of classic feature picture that the AP loved to run on the wire services. It had local appeal, but also national relevance. It was fun, and it told the story of what is appealing about an auto show – you get to check out new cars!

Driving back to the bureau I had that lovely feeling of relief; I came, I saw, I conquered, or at least I came up with a picture that wouldn’t get me fired. That night, after making some decent pictures of the hockey game, I drove the familiar route back to the AP through deserted downtown Los Angeles (and in 1991 it really emptied out at night). I used to love driving down 9th Street and timing all the traffic lights just right, watching them turn green as if under my command. I also liked the bureau in the late evenings; there were just a few people there, and the night photo editors were pretty low key, compared to the crew on the day shift, when things could get pretty hairy. I’d develop my film, print my picture and caption it. By that time, it could easily be 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., and I would sometimes take a moment in the lab to just let the day wash over me.

Looking back, I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a more perfect feeling of satisfaction and balance. I was a 24-year-old kid making my way in the big city. I would get this feeling of bliss after long day of working my butt off and testing my wits and resolve. I came to think of it as the afterglow. Tomorrow may come and be a day of frustration and pain, but that late-night moment spent recalling the day was perfect.

I loved talking with Ethan Hawke, no stranger to creative challenges. As you will learn from our conversation, Ethan is someone who’s tested himself on the highest level in multiple artistic pursuits. He’s taken on Shakespeare, film directing, novel writing, and perhaps his toughest foil – the critics who seem to want to break his spirit by calling him pretentious and over-reaching. Through it all he has maintained a boyish enthusiasm and found the courage to pursue his creative muses. He recently added documentarian to his list of job titles, making a beautiful meditation on creativity with Seymour, An Introduction, about an 87-year-old pianist who may have found the secret to happiness. As for Hawke’s secret, he believes that hard work leads to the greatest personal satisfaction. He says that awards and accolades will fade, but the times when he was seriously tested are the times that remain the most beloved in his memory. The afterglow. That feeling of coming out the other side, ready for whatever life throws at you next. That brief moment when you can bask in the pure and simple pleasure of a job well done.