So here goes...
Photography: First Love
For John, his falling in love with photography came with thunder and lighting effects, so to speak. He was a high school graduate, and quite lacking in confidence that he could make a name for himself. One day, his sister’s husband, Ric, showed him a camera, and he “borrowed” it. The word “borrowed” is in quotation marks because he did not ask permission to use it. His curiosity got the better of him, and he took that little camera – a Canon QL17 rangefinder – loaded it with film and pointed it at everything he could see – plants in the garden, frogs and even cockroaches. He was thrilled! It was in the days of film, and in order to save on cost of films and processing, he limited himself to one roll of film. He challenged himself to produce at least one good picture from each roll of film.
Ric was excited that someone shared his interest in photography, and invited John to see his darkroom. Again, John was filled with wonder upon seeing images begin to appear on papers soaked in developers. With whatever savings he had, John began to build a darkroom under the stairs of his mother’s house, and went on to do black-and-white printing. He wanted to see his photos right away, and could not wait for photo shops to process and print his pictures, which in those days meant a wait of a few days.
He was showing off his pictures to anyone and everyone who cared to look at them. At that time, he had no concept of portfolios, so all he was carrying around were 5”x7” photos.
One of the people who appreciated his photos, and thought he had “an eye” for photography, was the general manager of a printing press whose client was the publisher of a small, low circulation travel magazine, “Manila This Month.” He took a few of those photos and showed them to the publisher. The publisher offered John P500.00 a month (just for comparison, the minimum wage then was P120.00 a month) for his photography – but that was to be inclusive of use of his equipment, films and processing, and prints; plus all his travel expenses, as well as the salary of his assistant. Obviously, P500 a month was not enough to cover his “cost of doing business.”
This was in 1970, I was 24 and working with that magazine as a writer. Our first assignment together was to do an article on rattan furniture manufacturing. When I was advised that the photographer assigned to this project was waiting for me infront of the building, I went down. On the driveway, I saw a huge white American car – a Pontiac Parisienne, a young Chinese in his early 20’s, wearing white long-sleeved trubenized shirt with rolled up sleeves, black rimmed glasses, and hair stiff with pomade. An even younger assistant was carrying his black camera bag, while inside the car sat his (actually his mother’s) driver. I worked with other photographers before, but they usually came alone, so I was shocked to see a three-man party, and said to myself, “All that's missing is his mother!”
During the long ride from Manila to Cavite where the factory was, I tried to engage him in conversation, but he was painfully shy and answered me in monosyllables or one-word answers, so after a while, I gave up trying. At the factory, he went straight to work, and was quiet the whole time except for one-word instructions, “dito” (here), or “doon” (there) that he mumbled to his assistant. On the other hand, I was having an animated conversation with the owners of the factory, and sometimes with the workers, whom I also interviewed.
We were done by noon, but the owners would not let us go without getting us to accept an invitation to a seafood restaurant for which the town was known. John sat with his assistant and driver at one end of the long table, and quietly and quickly finished lunch – I believe in two minutes flat – while I savored the food – oysters in vinegar and onions – and the conversation with our hosts that lasted about an hour. As he waited quietly and seemingly enraptured with his camera, John was simply oblivious to all of us.
In the next few months, I gave him a few more assignments to accompany my articles, sending him to photograph the University of Santo Tomas a few times, and handicraft products at S.C. Vizcarra’s. I also introduced him to my other photographer-friends.
After I quit my job at Manila This Month and in the next couple of years, we went from magazine to magazine, offering our partnership with me as writer and he as photographer. At a men’s fashion magazine that we briefly joined, I quit when my boss decided not to publish a story on a restaurant manager because the restaurant was not going to advertise in the magazine. Besides, while my pay was okay, John was only being offered gift certificates for his photography and I did not think that was fair.
After a couple of years of partnering together, John and I talked about what we liked to do, and we agreed that we both liked travel and adventure. From that analysis, it was easy for us to decide that we would do travel articles. We boldly approached Sunday Times Magazine, and offered them a story on the Moriones Festival in Marinduque, since we were planning to go there with friends. I asked how much they would pay for the story and photographs, and the editor said “P100.00.” John and I discussed the offer and while we found it low, we rationalized that we were both inexperienced, and were willing to start at the bottom by accepting the low fee. However, when I asked further, “How much would you give for travel expenses?” I was both disappointed and aghast when I was told that P100.00 would cover all – payment for the article, photos and travel expenses. It was a rude awakening and we very quickly realized that we could not live on income from travel photography, at least not from local magazines.
At that time, John had a friend whose brother owned Trebel Industries, makers of pianos and inventors of the one-man-band (precursor of electronic pianos that can produce music as if from different instruments). They needed a photographer to photograph a young protégé named Cecille Licad. The company was then handled by an agency called Nation Ads. John got the assignment, and so, we got introduced to advertising.
Since advertising work was still quite irregular, John volunteered to assist a British Broadcasting film producer, Hugh Gibb, who was doing a 16mm documentary film on the Philippines. In the course of this assignment, he and Mr. Gibb went all over – Manila, Cebu, Banaue and later on Mindanao. In the meantime, I decided to enroll as a special student in the College of Fine Arts and Advertising in UST, but stopped without finishing the semester because President Marcos had declared martial law.
John was in Marawi in Mindanao with Mr. Gibb when martial law was declared in September, 1972, and both hurried to fly back to Manila. Mr. Gibb returned to Hong Kong, unsure if he could finish his film on the Philippines.
The young art director at Nation Ads, Veyong Rollamas, introduced us to other advertisers– Motolite Batteries and Apex Motors. Even though there was political turmoil and the economy was down, there were photo assignments streaming regularly from this advertising agency. We decided to establish our own studio and to rent a place where we could hold office and build a darkroom. The ad agency offered us the space (bodega) where they kept all their old newspapers and magazines, but the next day, the offer was withdrawn as the owner’s husband said he would use the space for his law office.
I felt bad – being edged out like that, so I got a copy of the Manila Bulletin to look for office-for-rent ads. Although John was picky about where to set up our studio (No to certain areas of the city, and no to certain streets), he did not have the patience to inspect places. I had to do this all by myself. Then when I found a place that I liked, he came along. After a few days of searching, and inspecting different office spaces, I found one – Room 306 Rufino Antonio Building on 60 Buendia Avenue, Makati. This was our first studio. The landlord, represented by his young daughter – younger than John and myself, gave us a generous offer. The monthly rental of P215.00 included free electricity and water, and while we were moving in, the landlord’s carpenter, electrician and plumber would serve us for free. All we had to do was buy materials (1/4 plywood was P4.00 each, while ¾ plywood was P25.00). Aside from putting up partitions so we could have a darkroom, the carpenter also built our cyclorama.
We had earned P1,000.00 from supplying the Nayong Pilipino Ethnographic Museum with black-and-white prints of John’s shots of Ifugaos and Maranaos, and subcontracting the printing of photographs done by Dr. Robert Fox, and we used this money to pay the deposit and first month’s rent, and buy construction materials.
As soon as the darkroom was built, and the enlarger was installed, we had our first printing order – from another advertising agency.
To be continued…