Possibly the greatest and scariest moment in any creative person’s life is when they cut the cord and strike out on their own, leaving behind the safety of a salary, a steady job, and the comfort of the workaday 9-to-5 life. Those of you who’ve followed these letters since good ‘ol issue 25 know I’ve been recounting my journey to that very cord-cutting moment and re-examining the decisions and events that formed me as an artist.
After my less-than-triumphant exit from the set of Loaded Weapon, where I was employed as an on-set unit photographer, I took stock of the situation. I was in my mid-twenties, had less than $1,000 in the bank, and no prospects. Granted, I was supporting only myself, with very manageable living expenses: a $700-a-month single apartment in the Hollywood Hills with a Murphy bed I made myself, a Honda Civic, a few cameras, a clunky desktop computer, and my portfolio. As the beneficiary of a photography phase my dad had gone through in the early ‘80s, I was also in possession a Pentax 6×7 medium-format camera with two lenses. This was the camera I used for the portraits of actors I’d been shooting on film sets, and it was by far the most valuable component of my master plan. My portfolio was a box of 4×5 chrome slides that I had framed in larger, 8×10 black cardboard frames, and which required a light table to view. Each one of these slides was a copy chrome of the original image, which I painstakingly photographed at a local lab with a borrowed 4×5 camera. I had one portfolio; needless to say, there was no budget for a second.
I’d decided to try being a full-time freelance photographer about midway through the filming of Loaded Weapon, and now that that time was upon me, I realized I hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about being one. This was pre-Internet, pre-email and pre-digital everything, so I was on my own, making up my business as I went along. Did I mention I had no idea how to run a business? I remember using Excel to create a grid with spaces for job numbers, titles, dates, fees and collections, and looking at the blank fields as though they would magically fill up with photography jobs.
My office appeared every morning when I lifted the Murphy into the wall and stepped over to my (I’m not kidding) homemade, wobbly desk and turned on the computer. I’d write letters to photo editors and make phone calls to set up appointments to show my work, often while still in my bathrobe. Sometimes, I’d realize it was lunchtime, and I still hadn’t eaten or even brushed my teeth. The world was going on outside my window, but I was mired in the Doldrums of Freelance, struggling to cope with the feelings of hopelessness and isolation that went along with my chosen profession. (I learned later that taking a shower, eating, and getting dressed before starting work was a great way to simulate a commute of sorts to the office.) When the inactivity and despair got to be too much, I’d hop on my bike and ride up to the Hollywood sign. The sheer physical exhaustion helped, and I spent many afternoons contemplating my future while looking through the back of those letters and into the hazy brown-gold city beyond. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing the trial by fire that every freelance artist endures when adjusting to a career with no schedules, timecards, or interaction with other employees. It was brutal. I could see the fear and concern in friends’ eyes when they stopped by and found me way too excited to see them, dying for a long conversation with a human other than myself.
But slowly, I started landing a few jobs, albeit not very glamorous ones. I was hired to photograph the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle characters at a tennis event with then-preteen tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams. I photographed a Baskin Robbins employee making an ice cream cone with seventeen scoops (I can’t for the life of me remember why), and I got some work doing corporate portraits in Los Angeles. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Gradually, my excel sheet started filling up with jobs, and I had to figure out how to get over the next freelancer’s hurdle – getting paid. I spent a lot of time at the Hollywood public library in those days, looking up and copying standard invoicing forms, re-creating them with my logo and address on top. I added categories to my excel documents, focusing on who had paid me and who hadn’t. (Little did I know I was creating an aging report.) Finally, I’d make a column for monthly earnings, so I could chart my progress. To give you an example of where my business was then, my first six months looked something like this: October, $560; November, $1,220; December, $1,190; January, $1,840; February, $170; March, $1,100. I still remember with complete clarity the abject fear February struck in my heart.
One day around this time, I came home from a particularly grueling bike ride and found my front window open. Strangely, one of my matted portfolio slides was lying on the lawn in front of my apartment. I got a sinking feeling in my chest. I ran to the kitchen and opened the cupboard where I kept the Pentax hidden away. It was gone. I found my portfolio scattered in the bushes by the window; apparently the thieves didn’t find my work too valuable, and luckily for me, took a look inside the case before tossing it away elsewhere. I sat in my apartment and sighed, knowing I was now a professional photographer without a camera, and dreading the call to my father to let him know the Pentax was gone. So much for the glory of starting your own business. If it’s obligatory that everyone weather a low point in his career, I think I crossed mine off the list that day.
Kevin Bacon has been a fixture of cinema my entire life. He grew up on film, and was famous when most of us were still figuring out who we wanted to be. At times, his life must have felt like a blur of opportunity. I’m always intrigued by people who manage to hang on when the roller coaster of life starts going a million miles an hour, and boy did Kevin hang on. I so enjoyed hearing his stories, his perceptions of the film industry, and about his desire as a young actor to control his destiny. I would argue that Kevin’s work and career got really interesting when he stopped trying to control it. Kevin came up in a time when there were distinct lines drawn between leading men and character actors, film actors and television actors, and above-the-title vs. below-the-title billing. He struggled for years to stay on the right side of this line, and it led him down a path that got narrower over time. One day he said, “Screw it. I’m going to take the roles that seem interesting, and not worry about anything else.” He took a small supporting role in JFK, and he was riveting. Subsequent parts in A Few Good Men and Apollo 13 cemented his status as an actor who was eminently watchable, no matter the size of the role. What courage it takes to step back, re-evaluate, and let go of expectations about who you’re “supposed” to be. The rewards for such personal honesty can be great, but the leap is terrifying. Kevin made it, and emerged with the best work of his career.
– Sam Jones, August 2015