Lee Pitts: My Photographic Memory
At the age of twenty-one I left a cowboy job paying $600 a month to become a field editor for a big livestock newspaper that paid a whopping $850. They gave me a camera and a car and told me to hit the road covering a three state area devoid of cattle. I was supposed to sell advertising, work ring, write sale reports and take photos. I could handle the constant traveling, hated selling ads but could write pretty good. I eventually learned how to work ring but the camera remained a foreign object to me. I didn’t know an f-stop from a truck stop. Still don’t. I’ve always hated taking photos, or having photos taken of me.
You could say that I have a photographic memory… and the memories are all bad. My least favorite part of the job was going to stock shows, watching the judging and taking photos of the winners hoping to sell ads afterwards featuring the photos I took. Invariably I ended up having to borrow decent photos from fellow road agents because my pictures never turned out. I eventually quit because I couldn’t see spending my life waiting for some bull to get his back straight, his ears forward and his back legs positioned so you could see his gearbox, so to speak.
When I started in the business in 1973 the favorite flavor was long and tall, so when I’d go to a breeder’s place to take photos I’d lay on the ground looking up at the bull to make him appear taller. It was an extremely dangerous job because I could lay in a red ant hole or fresh cow pie and if a bull got snuffy after I’d chased him around for 45 minutes waiting for him to set his feet right, I was in an especially vulnerable position laying there on the ground. I finally decided that if I was going to get run over by bulls for a living I might as well become a rancher, or a rodeo clown and become semi-famous for something.
I still have nightmares of my worst photographic memory. Now, you must understand that the dream of all good cow photographers is to take a fabulous shot of a really popular bull. You may have noticed that the great photographers put their names in their photos directly under, how should I say this, right under the bull’s sheath. (I never put my name on any photos because with my luck the bull would appear to be peeing all over my good name.) Because I lived in the same proximity I frequently had the honor to take photos of perhaps the greatest Hereford bull in America at the time. If I ever did get a good shot my name would be in every livestock newspaper in the land. The bull was affectionately called “Lerch” by his owner, I suppose because he looked like he was put together by a committee. Lerch may have been ugly but he produced fabulous offspring including Denver Grand Champions.
Lerch used to enjoy toying with me for hours on end. It takes two and sometimes three people to get a good bovine photo. Besides the photographer there’s the hazer who walks behind the bull trying to get him to set his legs right, and the third specialist shakes a can of rocks so the bull will put both ears forward. (There’s nothing as ugly as a bull or horse with one ear back.) On the rare occasions when Lerch would get his feet set properly he’d put an ear back, or vice versa. I was excited once after a photo session with Lerch thinking I got THE PHOTO, so I rushed home and waited for the photos to come back from the drugstore. The photo was a crime against photography. The feet were just right, the ears were forward but there was a big power pole shooting right up the middle of him from the ground up that made him look like a bull popsicle, or Lerchsicle, as the case may be.
Lerch never did get tired of the game or attempt to run me over. In fact, we became the best of friends. Perhaps it was fitting then that to the best of my knowledge no one ever took a decent photo of Lerch… or of myself for that matter.
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I can’t stand being told what to do. Been that way all my life. I can’t work for other people and that worked out just fine because no one has ever wanted too desperately to…