I was born and raised in southern Illinois during the 1950s and 60s. My father was a barber. I worked as a chicken catcher, a carney and a grease monkey until I got out of high school. The Russians put a dog in space and scared everybody. We had to get ahead of the Russians so the government made it cheap for smart kids to go to college. The National Defense Education Act. Even a barber's kid could go if he was good at math. I went to the University of Illinois in 1966. I heard Harry Callahan say once that he had grown up in a religious family and when he went to college he was talked out of religion and eventually photography took the place of religion in his life. Something like that happened to me.
I got my degree in Math but after college worked as a brakeman on the Chicago District of the Illlinois Central RR. I stumbled onto photography when an Iranian kid who lived in my rooming house asked me to go to a camera shop with him as he purchased a camera. I liked looking at things through the little viewfinder so I bought one for myself. The railroad laid me off one day and I started down a road that led to life at the university. John Szarkowski once looked at my resume and said "I see you used to work for the railroad. Why did you quit?” When I explained he shook his head. “Teaching is pretty rough," he said. "If I were you I'd go back to the railroad.” I've thought of that many times.
When I was a kid I used to ride around in my father's pickup truck. He was a bird hunter and a fisherman and we might be on our way to run his nets in the river or driving around looking for quail or pheasant. Usually I didn't know where we were headed. While we drove around my father chewed tobacco. If a quail ran across the road Dad would pull over, hold his hand against his chest as if to hold back a necktie and spit tobacco juice at the spot where the bird disappeared into the fencerow. The cab of that truck had been so dusty for so long that the dust clung to the dash, the visors, the floor--everywhere--like hide. Pop bottles banged together under the seat. As we drove along gravel roads past fields of clover and alfalfa, corn and wheat, past orchards and pastures and hardwood groves my father's eyes moved constantly over the landscape. He had a thirst for the look of it. I remember wondering what it was that he was always looking at. Eventually I learned to see what he saw, to love what he loved.