Past Loves

Don't Think, Just Take Pictures!

Below is an essay I wrote for the catalog of Wendy’s upcoming show, “Wendy MacNeil — The Light Inside” at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. January 20-April 10, 2016. Wendy was my photo professor at RISD and we are still great friends. Don’t Think! Just Take Pictures!!

I recently found a manila folder in my mother’s basement overstuffed with letters and ephemera from my college professor. Some of these notes are more than 35 years old, and all are written with a thin brown pen. Each one seemed to burst open and jump up and down with the same message: Go George GO! Entertain us. Work like there is nothing in the world except for you. Believe in yourself. Ignore the way anyone else is doing it . . . We all need that person who is our trainer, our biggest fan, our toughest critic. I had all of those people and more wrapped up in Wendy Snyder MacNeil. My relationship with Wendy began in the visitors’ room at an all-girls dorm at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, in 1975. I had been sent to that lonely outpost of old couches one night while passing through to visit a friend. Its walls were filled with photographs by one of the college’s teachers: a portrait of her grandmother, a stiff-looking French teacher in a grey cashmere sweater. . . I spent the night with Wendy’s pictures and they all became friends. I was on my way to check out the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I drove to Providence, and took the tour. When I came out on Benefit Street, I stared at the building that housed the photography department, and knew that was where I needed to be going to school. RISD was undergoing a transformational moment in 1975. The all-male faculty was shifting. Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind were retiring, but still running the place in their vision — which meant very loosely, but around strong ideas. In my first year, I somehow got myself on the committee in charge of choosing a new faculty member. I lobbied strongly for the woman who taught at Wellesley, whose images I had encountered in that visitor’s room. I knew nothing further about Wendy except for her work published inAperture, and that her photographs haunted me. The old guard seemed to want to hear nothing about hiring a woman. Francesca Woodman, a classmate of mine who went on to be a well-known photographer, knew Wendy from her photography class at Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and also advocated for her hire. I knew she was who I wanted to be my teacher. I pushed. When I came back to school for my junior year, Wendy had been hired and I was in her class. Wendy insisted that we work out of the place we feel; the place where all of our senses are at work. Her mantra to me every single week was, “Don’t think! Just take pictures!” I never understood the point of talking about art anyhow. I just knew how to feel pictures. I was lost at art school and Wendy was my way in. She would dress in layers and layers and layers, which always felt like a statement saying, “this is not about me” — a radical position in art school where most teachers insist it is all about them. She let me fill the walls with pictures — hundreds of them. She loved it when I squeezed a ton of oranges to bring fresh juice to everyone in class. She was fine with me playing audio I had recorded like a mole all week long. I realized that people opened their hearts out to me, often friends telling me things they would never tell each other. I started editing that dialogue into conversations they never would have had, then put pictures over that. Wendy saved my work for last. But there was nothing to say after I showed my work and it killed me. There was no room for dissecting the formality, the work was a mess by nature. There was no serious discourse behind the work; it was built for laughter and tears. Wendy kept me going. “It’s okay to create work out of joy,” she would say. “You don’t have to be tortured to make art.” “Don’t overthink it. Tap into who you are.” We got together once a month at a place that only served lunch called Julien’s. We would hide in a corner table and talk about almost everything except photography and her. I wanted to know what was ticking inside and she always waved her own life away. We didn’t gossip. She told me a story of buying plates and drinking glasses when a Woolworth’s would go out of business. During the cold winters, after dinner she would chuck the dirty dishes into the snow, let the animals clean them, then gather them up in the spring. I remember being so happy to know someone who “got” me in a sea of overindulgence in navel gazing. She told me a story from her visit with Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico. O’Keeffe told her that students appear on her door every day. “They are looking . . . looking . . . and what they are looking for is sitting right on the end of their nose.” Among all of the ephemera saved in my mother’s basement is a photograph of my mother and Wendy standing together. Both came down to New York City in 1975 to attend the opening of the Harry Callahan retrospective as the Museum of Modern Art. Both are beside themselves, almost spinning around in their own joy. Wendy is wearing the layers and layers of clothing my mother could never get over, and my mother was wearing a bright red dress Wendy delighted in. Taking the picture was a young photographer with an amazing teacher who allowed him to find his own rhythm by delighting in and sharing his own joy.

The Jewish Chronicle


I have never had a bucket list with big goals, but I do recognize big thrills. Being the featured cover story this week of Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle where I grew up is one I never imagined would feel so nice. My mother's phone has been ringing off the hook. Love that. Also love the writer, Toby Tabachnick who I met for the first time for a long chat at Pamela's in Squirrel Hill. Love reading my story through her prose.

The Art of Stillness


Just before the holidays kick into gear, I thought I would offer up something on, “The Art of Stillness.”


I photographed Pico Iyer , the great spiritual journalist and novelist in a bamboo garden in Beverly Hills year ago.  Recently Pico has done an amazing Ted talk and written a book called, “The Art of Stillness,” which suggests unplugging periodically to feel some of the things we block out with headphones, screens and busy lives.  It is not a mediation practice as much as a vacation from the distractions of your daily life to let your dreams breathe a bit.


Yesterday I was in the car today driving and listening to an “On Being” conversation with Krista Tippett and Pico Iyer.    My wife Stephie was in the next seat talking to a friend she had not spoken to in a long time - hearing about some health issues she did not know about.  At one moment, Pico said , "if I talked about water and tea, I was probably stealing from the Dalai Lama because he often says that the most important thing without which we can't live is kindness. We need that to survive. And he says kindness is water, religion is like tea."


At that very moment, when Pico paused, I heard Stephie say, "I so want to be there for you and take care of you."

#picoiyer #randomhouse #tedbooks #artofstillness #dalailama #langestudio

And So it Began

2015.10.28 I have told this story many times but it is true. I was in Nashville on March 15, 2003 for a photo shoot, sitting talking to a stranger on a couch at a friend’s house just before a dinner party. The door opens and Stephanie Cook appears. Sporting a fun shirt covered with pastel flowers, a beer, and a guy she had been dating. For no logical reason I said to the stranger sitting next to me on the sofa, “I am in trouble.” And I was. I asked a friend to run interference when we went out after dinner so I could talk to Stephie. The next day I went out to her home in the country, and took lots of pictures. That all seems so crazy now, but I was being pulled in ways that were totally out of my control.

7 weeks later, Stephie was landing at Laguardia for her first trip to New York. I hired a car to ride out to Laguardia Airport, pick Stephie up and have the car leave us at the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. We walked over into Manhattan, took a picture of our feet walking into NY together, then walked up to Balthazar for breakfast.

And so it began.

Barnsley Gardens

2015.10.27 Stephie and her Dad - Barnsley Gardens - 10.29.05. (Photo by Tom England)

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older Then we wouldn't have to wait so long And wouldn't it be nice to live together In the kind of world where we belong

You know its gonna make it that much better When we can say goodnight and stay together

Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up In the morning when the day is new And after having spent the day together Hold each other close the whole night through

Happy times together we've been spending I wish that every kiss was neverending Wouldn't it be nice

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true Baby then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do We could be married And then we'd be happy

Wouldn't it be nice

You know it seems the more we talk about it It only makes it worse to live without it But lets talk about it Wouldn't it be nice

Good night my baby Sleep tight my baby

Joan Rivers

I remember the working title of the book as, “Why Men Like Big Boobs - the Joan Rivers Guide to Plastic Surgery.”   It later became, “Men Are Stupid...And They Like Big Boobs.”

When Joan Rivers first saw the plastic boobs she said “no, no, absolutely not, I won’t wear those.”   When she emerged from the dressing room, she was sporting them like a pro. The shot ended up on the cover of her book.  This shoot also appears in the Break Thru Films documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” - see clip below.


I remember using my entree into Joan’s world to get into a gay club in Chelsea to see her several nights later.   I was dying of thirst the whole show.  There was a glass of water on my table but I didn’t dare reach for it.   I would have choked.  I have never laughed harder or longer in my life.


Weeks after that Stephie and I saw Joan in Nashville.  She was completely insane from the moment she stepped on the stage. So wrong. So caustic. So incredibly funny. Afterwards we went backstage and she was the sweetest, warmest, kindest person you have ever met. 


 #shootyourlife #liveyourlife #joanrivers #pieceofwork  #comedy

Archive Hunt

Roger_EbertI get called all the time with very specific requests for images. If I have a great portfolio of iced cream, they will call to see if I have ever shot hot soup. I know about not being everything to everyone, but I have shot so many things -all the same way mind you! - still - they need to see the soup. Hot! It forces me to comb through the archives. Found this one today of Roger Ebert. Shot in Chicago. Of course.


I once ran into a RISD classmate of mine in the lobby of the Conde Nast building. This was in the days I was starting out and would begin on the top floor and work my way down the interior steps and never hit the lobby without an assignment. He said he struck out getting work in the building, but was really only into shooting celebrities. He lived for sharing that air. I never did.

I photograph celebrities the way I photograph everyone else – searching for that place we are all connected. I was never into bathing in the bright light. I always appreciated what makes talented people really special, beautiful, charismatic. I just found it everywhere. 

Still…people want to see the famous people. I have shot my share. From many of Jim Carrey’s movies to Channing Tatum defying gravity. From Ewan Mcgregor in a lion’s head on the set of “Big Fish”, to the cast of Seinfeld and Honey Boo Boo. I never once asked for an autograph – with the single exception of Sophia Loren.  After our shooting, she put on lipstick and pressed her lips on the linen napkin. I had her sign that.

>>Fame Portfolio<<

The Shop Brooklyn

I fucking love this video. It gets to the heart of what I am trying to do. Dan Lyle was our tour guide of his shop, "The Shop" in Brooklyn. I love the fan on the ass. I love the dog in the fire hydrant movie shot off an iphone. It felt like Dan would hug me or bop me with a baseball bat depending on how I looked at him. I probably deserved both. Shot this in two afternoons, edited it in two days. Delivered. Onward.