Where: Reseda, California
I received an email from Jeff Sedlik, “Warren is dying and he is asking for you.”
During Warren’s tenure Reseda High was considered by many to be one of the best high school photography programs in the country and spawned a remarkable number of careers in professional photography. Images from Reseda High alumni such as Ron Contarsy, David Radler, Jeff Sedlik, Jay Silverman, Gil Smith, Jeff Widener are recognized today by millions around the world.
I was in Manhattan when I received the email from Jeff and immediately thought of my first trip to Manhattan in 1976. I was fortunate to have just won the Scholastic Magazine Grand Prize as the Best High School Photographer in North America. Warren brought me to Manhattan to accept the award (image below) and view my portfolio in the then Kodak Gallery on 43rd and 6th (now the International Center of Photography Museum). I was 17, it was my first exhibition, and this Valley Boy from Reseda caught the bug for New York City which turned out to play an important role in my career.
I was able to reach Warren by phone and told him I would come to see him. I was on a long business trip and could only hope that he would still be with us by the time I made it to California. I did make it to the King’s house to visit with Warren in hospice care.
While sitting with Warren I looked around the room that was filled with amazing prints from his students, prints of his own wonderful images, numerous awards and even a signed Karsh of Winston Churchill, but the most poignant object for me was a paperweight on the coffee table. The paperweight was composed of the capital letters KISS. KISS was often called out in class by Warren and stood for, “Keep it Simple Stupid”. It was and continues to be the compositional foundation of any successful Reseda graduate’s work because the most memorable images are those that tell a compelling story with singular impact. Now its easy to say KISS, but quite difficult to pull it off. The term is attributed to the head aeronautical designer of the Lockheed’s Skunk Works that produced some of the most sophisticated aircraft ever to fly. And the concept is cited in this Forbes article by Amy Rees Anderson which starts with the quote by C.W Cernan, “Genius is the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple” and Anderson then speaks not about design but to business with, “Too often, people over-complicate things in business in an attempt to display their intelligence…”.
Because of Warren’s reputation, the Reseda High Program attracted many of the most promising photo students in Southern California. It was quite competitive and it would be fair to say there were some boisterous personalities. One way Warren managed this environment where egos would sometimes get out of control was to simply point to a sign in his office which said, “Don’t Tell Me How Good You Are, Show Me”.
I distinctly remember taking my dripping darkroom tray with what I thought was an amazing print for Warren’s approval and being told to dodge this, burn that, e.g. reprint it. And then reprint it again. And then on the third attempt watch him point to the sign which of course meant, reprint. But that process to me was never destructive and only nurturing, it turned me into the photographer and printmaker I am today.
Warren also exposed us to amazing photographers and photographs that few at the high school level would have known. He would show the works of Eddie Adams, William Albert Allard, Richard Avedon, Paul Caponigro, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Yousef Karsh, Brian Lanker, Jay Maisel, Arnold Newman, Joe Rosenthal, Pete Turner and many more. I only mention these few names as I have been fortunate to have met them and in some cases the honor to work with them. Seeing great works of photography at an early age fueled my passion for photography.
I remember in my first year at Brooks Institute where the drop out rate was close to 50% seeing fellow students bellowing that they could not handle the pressure of the assignments and deadlines were totally insane. Those that eventually dropped out never saw Warren’s sign or had to deal with the challenging assignments Warren would give us in High School like, “Create a photograph of a loved one but that person cannot be visible, critique will be on Friday.” Many of my fellow students in college were not exposed to the great works of photography as I was by Warren, and it has been all of this which reinforced all that is creatively possible and sustained me through tough times.
Today I oversee and print many of the images at Epson professional photography trade shows. Amongst my Epson colleagues I have, at times, a semi-annoying reputation for being a perfectionist and making multiple prints until I’m happy. That level of perfection is also in play with just about every form of marketing communication of which I’m involved from video to graphic design to advertising. But what my colleagues don’t know is this zeal is not to make me happy, but what was drilled into me by Warren with the goal of getting that understated, but so critical subtle nod of approval vs being directed to that damn sign!
I am fortunate to have the trust of many of the greatest photographers in our industry. These photographers have seen how I work, due to my training at Reseda, and as a result they have confidence that their work and their reputations are in the best hands. There is an old adage amongst professional photographers that you’re only as good as your last job. For me I feel that I’m only as good as my weakest print, video, graphic design or ad. On a daily basis I act on what Anonymous is credited with saying, though I suspect it was really coined by Warren that, “Excellence is the difference between what I do, and what I’m capable of.”
As I learned of Warren’s passing I closed my eyes and went back in time. I could almost smell the fixer and see the double door entrance to the color lab, the dichroic enlargers and the accompanying color analyzers and timers, the light trap into the black and white darkroom, the studio lighting in the back of the classroom, the drum dryer to the left, the small room in the front for loading film to the right, and off to the side Warren’s office which was a converted closet and above his typewriter, that infamous sign. This was more home for me than my real home and Warren was more a father to me than my own.
It was in this small section of an average school, in a nondescript part of the San Fernando Valley that my mentor propelled me into a career working with the greatest photographers, a career that has literally taken me around the world.
And in keeping with what Warren taught, moving forward there will be fewer words, more pictures, striving for excellence and most importantly, I’ll be keeping it simple.