Commercial Freelance Photography in the 1960s
It may be hard for anyone living in the rich commercialism of today to understand the climate of the late sixties and early seventies. You could make a good amount of cash in freelance photography. Poster art was big and companies were looking for new poster art material as well as music companies looking for record album cover material. And you had to have a basic knowledge of photography to use a film camera.
Music concerts were relatively cheap and security at music concerts was pretty basic. So basic that once I even used my counterfeiting skills to produce a fake New York Times press badge, complete with the New York Times seal trademark. I used that badge to get me into a couple of Rolling Stones concerts, a James Brown concert, and several other venues. Even if the concert was affordable, the press pass allowed me backstage access. Then one day I ran into a real New York Times reporter who had just retired and was living in Detroit. The press badge was retired.
Veterans from the war in Vietnam were returning at a record rate and government money was flowing like maple syrup over buttermilk pancakes. Not only in the area of education under the GI bill, but also in grants and small business loans. A White Vietnam vet could get one amount to start a small business, but that amount would quadruple if he partnered with a Black Vietnam veteran. That’s one reason I was in such demand. I was a veteran, I was Black, I spoke good English and was fairly well educated as well as being congenial. I had already established myself as being a decent photographer when I was hired by the J. L. Hudson company as their first Black photographer in heir hundred year history. But besides that, I was a pretty good artist also who picked up a few jobs doing pastel portraits at the state fair. I would get proposals that only wanted use of my name, but I saw that as being unethical and maybe illegal. That’s when I met Jimmy Samuels.
Jimmy got the idea to open up a little storefront art gallery on Woodward Avenue, and my friend Bill Riser and I jumped right in and we started the “Gallery of Imo”. This was called an opportunity for Blacks in the neighborhood to see real Black artists at work and to purchase good artwork and paintings done by Black artists. The gallery was made possible with a single government grant. Jimmy was a sweet talker and a con artist who should have been an used car salesman. Barack Obama reminded me of old Jimmy. Jimmy even brought his girlfriend into the gallery as our book keeper, but she spent more time partying with Jimmy than keeping our books. I sold several paintings while at the gallery and I sometimes wonder where they are now.
In my personal life, I was going to college under the G. I. Bill and receiving a extra stipend for housing since I had a dependent (my daughter Angela), but I lived at home with my mom and didn’t need to pay rent. That, with the paycheck from Hudson’s was more than adequate to provide for a pretty decent lifestyle, even the purchase of a bright red 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Monza and a Hasselblad camera.
F. Lee Bailey, the famous lawyer and attorney had created his program of “New Detroit”, part of which was to take the fine arts into the inner city neighborhoods through a program he financed called “Metro Arts”. The idea being to gather promising young Black artists, musicians, and dancers, train them and have them give performances at the very popular Cobo Hall Arena.
Built in 1960, Cobo became a must-stop venue for the biggest and wildest rock-and-roll bands of the ’60s and ’70s; not to mention the temporary home for the Detroit Pistons. Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen all played shows at the arena. Thin Lizzy and Queen performed in 1977 for $7.50 a seat. Cobo Arena was the setting for one of The Doors’ best complete concert performance recording on May 8, 1970. KISS played Cobo numerous times in the 1970s, including a sold-out three-night stand in 1976.
As part of his New Detroit program, Jimmy Samuels, Bill Riser and I were successful in obtaining a grant from Mr. Bailey to purchase a defunct and abandoned motel off of Woodward for the purpose of setting up an artist commune. Bailey cut the check for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and the money was deposited into a three party bank account. That would require all three signatures to withdraw any funds from that account.
But that’s when things began to go sour. The director of the Metro Arts program who was hired because she lived in the inner city, moved into the prestigious apartments of Lafayette Towers and bought a brand new Cadillac. The music director she had hired with six figure salary who was supposed to be so great, turned out to not have a degree in music or any degree at all. Metro Arts was in trouble. Then, our friend Jimmy Samuels figured out he could transfer money from our account without needing the other signatures. The check to pay for the motel bounced and Jimmy was nowhere to be found. The gallery, even though successful, was abandoned soon after.
It was under those circumstances that I met Bill Hanson, another veteran and photographer, who with several other veterans had set up a small studio over an abandoned auto repair shop they called “Cinema 76″. The seventy six was in reference to the American revolution. Bill and his cohorts were more into cinematography and thought I could be useful in taking their still shots, plus being Black, I could get them more federal grant money.
Cinema 76 was successful in getting a grant, not from the U. S. Government, but from the Canadian Arts Council. The Canadian Arts Council was even more liberal in their grants than our government. Our first big professional movie would be exploring the deforestation of the Canadian forests. To narrate the movie, it was decided to use an old actor by the name of “Iron Eyes Cody”. Now Cody wasn’t a real Native American, he was really Italian, but he had played so many Indian parts in the movies that he thought he was. Cody was perfect in comparing the Native stewardship of the environment with that of the White man with scenes of the lumber industry destruction and deforestation ecological ruin. The closing scenes in the movie were of Cody walking out of the forest and standing by a river with trash and debris floating by. There would be a close up as a tear rolled down his cheek.
The movie was a success and actually aired on Canadian television. Around this time, an American group had formed that called themselves “Keep America Beautiful”. They saw our film and offered to purchase it. I wasn’t privy to whatever deal resulted and I won’t attempt to even speculate. The got the film and Cinema 76 ceased to exist. When the Keep America Beautiful folks aired their public service commercial a few months later, our film had been cut and altered to a thirty second infomercial called the “Crying Indian”.
I never saw the other fellows after that, but Chuck and I remained friends for quite a while. Dinners at Chuck’s house were always interesting. He lived in an all White neighborhood, so my visits to his house usually brought out the bevy of curious neighbors, probably afraid that I was moving in. Chuck had the honor of being the only person I know whose cat was deemed a neighborhood terror. He was all black and evidently possessed by some demonic spirit. Chuck would warn, “don’t pet the cat” on every visit. The cat would jump up on the dinner table while we were dining and Chuck would say “don’t pet the cat”. His cat had a nasty habit of lurking in the bushes and attacking whoever happened to be passing by. One swipe of his paw on anyone’s bare leg and he would scurry away before any attempt to catch him. Neighborhood kids were hi favorite targets. Chuck’s cat was s notorious that he had been cited because of it and the local newspaper had even written an article.
Chuck ultimately received a grant to document the lives of a wolf pack that required him and his wife to actually live with an isolated pack of wolves on a Michigan Island. I don’t think Chuck and his ever became as famous as the Jim and Jamie Dutcher, he wasn’t financed by National Geographic, but he was definitely a pioneer.
Fredric Durrette served one tour in Vietnam, retired as E8 in the navy submarine service after 23 years. Major hobbies are collecting old stuff from the 20s and restoring old racing bicycles. Worked as a commercial photographer at JL Hudsons in Detroit and continue photography as a hobby. Love Sade, sixties soul, seventies rock, and all jazz. Attended Woodstock in 69!