American Nomad
Larry Dale Gordon

A History — Or, how photography seduced me at a not so early age … and how that seduction has continued … and continued … … …

In my early years I had not thought about photography, painting or any other of the arts, although I had artistic leanings. What I was intrigued with was travel and the maps that echoed romantic names of far away places. Rather than read books, I read maps and dreamed of exotic destinations like Istanbul, Katmandu, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, Beijing, Kyoto, The Maldives and on and on. I remember making a list and planning to check off each of the wonderful places I’d been; travel already had an iron clad clamp on my being. What I discovered over the ensuing years, was that "The List" never seemed to get shorter! Firstly because I kept on adding to the exotic destinations through my own research in reading and studying the world and it’s maps. Secondly, because the world kept adding countries! When I began this odyssey, there were about 85 or 90 countries…. Now there are over 160. So, as you see, one cannot visit them all, but only spend a lifetime trying. To quote understatement, it has been a great ride.

My introduction to photography came with my two-year stint in the U.S. Army, which I joined immediately after High School; I was not college material and fortunately recognized it from the beginning. After weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, California, I graduated near the top of my infantry training class and Combat Leadership School and was sent to a Naval Air Station to be trained in clandestine and undercover work, i.e., to be a spy. Immediately upon my arrival at this naval facilities mess hall, I knew I had joined the wrong service! What great food, compared to the Army! In addition, I loved the training; very romantic, the idea of operating behind enemy lines, sending and receiving coded messages from my "girlfriend" in California, who was really an agent in Washington D.C., and generally being out on my own among thousands of other fighting men in a foreign land.

In the luck of the draw, out of a number of "spies" sent all over the world, I was sent to Germany at the tender age of eighteen to guard the Rhine River from the Russians. The Russians were not quite coming, but they might. It was the beginning of a new life; my dye had been cast those 18 months in Europe and it changed me forever. It was an education far and beyond any classroom I had ever seen or was likely to see. Not right for everyone, but so very right for me. It was in Europe that I discovered two things that moved me greatly. One was architecture and the other, photography. I was influenced by the historical architecture of Europe, by castles on the Rhine, the great old cities and villages of Scandinavia, Italy, England, and the chateaux of France. Every leave or pass from my outfit in Germany, I was on a train someplace and to record the buildings and my travels, I had to have a camera. My first was a Contax bought at my local PX and it was to be stolen after only a few months by a sometime German girlfriend…. Nothing can compare to a woman scorned! She just would not give it back or let me in the apartment again and the most unfortunate part of the entire situation was that all the film I had shot those months was with the camera! But, the bug had bitten…dare I say shutterbug? I felt that photography would somehow play a considerable part of my life. How little I knew!

Another important lesson I learned, was how badly I needed to further my education. After being in an Infantry Line Company, the necessary placement for a spy in this case, among other high school and less educated boys, I realized I had better go home and complete my studies in the standard classroom. Upon my return, I began pre-architectural courses at Los Angeles City College with hopes of going the to the School of Architecture at the prestigious University Of Southern California. What dreams are made of. All this was being paid for by what was called the G.I. Bill, the good old U.S. Government. I couldn’t have made it otherwise, even though I had two part time jobs as I went to school and many part time jobs over the years that followed.

The summer before enrollment at USC I needed a job and again fate played a hand. The job I took was with a photographer, who photographed graduating classes, fraternity and sorority parties, weddings and other special events. What he had in mind for me was different. He sent me all over Southern California in my little MGA, loaded down with an 8x10 camera, a tripod and twenty film holders to photograph Summer Camp Groups. The lessons on the 8x10 were brief but intense and I was not to expose more that 4 sheets of film on any one group! I sweated a bit on many of those set ups, but what moved my soul ‘On the Road’, during my limited California experience was my own translation of this into hopping on jets all over the world to those exotic destinations on my list of dreams.

Once again, a seemingly fateful occurrence changed my life. During that summer I ran into an old high school and Army buddy who told me he was going to be a photographer! I was flabbergasted, as in my opinion this guy hadn’t shown an artistic bone in his body since I’d known him! In any event, he took me to the Art Center School in Los Angeles (it was then on 3rd Street in LA, before the move to Pasadena) to see what it was all about. It was an extraordinary atmosphere; small campus, a small enrollment, which meant small classes, plus there were creative students from all over the world. It was my kind of place. I jumped ship from architecture and put together a small portfolio with the help of my photographer boss and was accepted to Art Center. I also think they liked the idea that the government guaranteed the school would have their tuition every month! It was a big decision to leave architecture, but pursuing that path meant many years in one school, one city, one firm and how could I possibly see the world from all those years tied to a drafting table? Photography was the perfect vehicle and the dye was more firmly cast; my life was now set in stone. It was still porous, but stone nonetheless.

The beginning years were good at Art Center; I had the GI Bill and I worked in the evenings after school, plus I paid for my lodgings at a wealthy neighborhood banker’s house by giving them my Saturdays. I was a fairly busy guy, but it was a good time. In the evenings I took roll call at all the night classes; at the banker’s home, I washed cars, floors and worked on the considerable grounds, plus I took pictures of the family kids…four girls! They were great fun and it was a comfortable setting, except all I had was one hot plate for cooking, but again, Lady Luck stepped in, as she did many times over the years. I made friends with the nightly snack truck driver who had the school as one of his stops and, fortunately for me, his last stop. He always gave me all the leftover sandwiches and hot dishes, which was incredible. I thought I had found culinary heaven! I had enough to share with many of my equally strapped mates at school. Now, I doubt I would buy an apple from one of these trucks, but in those lean times, it was a blessing.

All was well, but I longed for travel and especially Europe. Lo and behold, during the early fourth semester I met a young guy named Mort Beebe. Why he was at the school, I do not remember as he was not enrolled, but in the ensuing friendship, we formulated a plan. Earlier on Mort had founded a company called Globecombers that had not panned out with former associates and he was anxious to consummate his own dreams of traveling the world. As it turned out, myself and three friends decided to go to Europe after the fourth semester and practice what had been preached at Art Center. Mort would represent us in the states, primarily San Francisco, plus he would at a later date provide us with a fantastic, practically new Land Rover to travel around the continent doing our work. It was a dream come true. Little did I know that I would not return…not only to school, but to the states for almost three years! One of my pals was to take his girlfriend and I was to take mine, a sweet, lovely girl in graphic design at Art Center. She lacked one credit to graduate and had to attend summer school that dream summer. She insisted that I not go, to postpone until the following summer, which was impossible. Her intransigence and the fact she met and married someone else while I was away, not even finishing school, probably sealed another aspect of my future. Marriage or deep commitment was not going to be a part of my life, at least for the near future. What the experience did do was to free me up to sell my return trip boat ticket for $180 and stay in Europe indefinitely. From that tiny morsel of cash, I tucked a twenty-dollar bill away in my wallet for emergencies and as I boarded the ship for home, it was still there!

The Globecombers broke up when two of the members came back to the states; only Ron Traeger and myself stayed on to make our way in photography, trundling around in the famous Landrover, which Mort kept insisting we sell for him. We could just never seem to get it sold! Mort then came up with a solid client in San Francisco that was to support Ron and I for most of the next year and send us to many of the larger European cities, including a trip to Cairo. The assignment was for Bank of America. They had a campaign called "Our Man on the Spot" and the photograph was of a businessman, with briefcase, in an identifiable European business center. Again, it was a dream, except, we had no operating capital. We scraped together enough money to buy each of us one suit, one white shirt, one tie and one pair of business shoes! We did have to actually meet the Bank of America people in each city. Our diet was very meager until that first city was completed and the check arrived. We kept begging Mort for an advance, but it never came and I remember shooting the first city, Paris maybe, with three rolls of film as it was all we could afford to buy and process! Plus, we had to think of shipping costs. It was very tight. Ron and I weighed ourselves one time at a free scale in the Paris Metro and looked at one another, stunned by our loss of weight. Sometimes our only meal of the day was at five in the morning at Les Halles, the once famous Paris market. They served a cheap and hearty Onion Soup and fresh baguettes for all the workers and prostitutes; it was a lifesaver at the time. We always went back, even when money was "rolling in". It was a part of our Paris history and gone forever once it was replaced by the Beaubourge, the inside-out industrial legacy of architect Lord Richard Rogers.

The B of A account sustained us for months; almost a year in Europe until other jobs came along as well. We went to Rome for the Olympics where Ron found his nirvana and went on to become one of the most sought after photographers in Europe, living in Paris and London, marrying a lovely British girl called Tessa, who was also a photographer. He worked for French and British Vogue and was one of the first photographers to work with Twiggy in the early years. He was headed for greatness I think, and then another kind of fate stepped into his life. He died of cancer at 31 years of age.

I moved back to London and met an extraordinary English actress named Marie. We went back to Rome when, being an actress, she was booked on the film, Cleopatra, doubling for Elizabeth Taylor. We lived in Rome for a year and watched the unbelievable drama of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton unfold on the set of the film that broke 20th Century Fox. That year in Rome was an extraordinary experience in many ways and bound me to Europe with even heavier ties. When the film finally ended, and Marie’s contract was over, I reluctantly returned to America with her for a promised seven year contract at 20th Century Fox. It never happened, and I, being rather morose at being away from Rome, was not a very good companion to Marie and we finally parted ways. Once again, a version of this thing called fate worked its way into my life. At this juncture, I was flat broke, letting Marie have the apartment, furniture and everything else. I had absolutely nothing and worked for the first time as an assistant in Los Angeles. It was, of course, another valuable experience, but I longed to travel and this photographer was primarily a studio guy. I didn’t like the proverbial writing on the wall I saw in those days. The future looked bleak and I was not making pictures, which was very depressing. A phone call came out of the blue, from a good friend ofmine named Barry O’Rourke. Would I like to shoot a fashion piece with him, for Playboy? Yes, or course I said; it took less that two seconds to respond as I remember. Barry had taken a staff job at the magazine in Chicago and on the shoot, I met Vince Tajiri, then Picture Editor of the magazine. Things went well and the magazine was growing at an awesome rate in those days.

Three months later, Vince and Barry were back out in LA. Over drinks Vince asked me if I would like to come on board as a staffer? This time I took longer to think about it; I didn’t especially want to be tied down to a staff position. It sounded too corporate for me. The one question I asked was about travel. Would there be any as part of the job? The right answer floated across the table and was music to the ears of an inveterate wanderer. "Yes, of course…. We plan to be very international in our content.", Vince said. By that Christmas, I was freezing in Chicago!

The three years with the magazine was a learning tree of some magnitude. The Modus Operandi was to drop you in the deep end and let you swim! I did everything for the magazine in those early days; fashion, still life, travel, product and illustration and of course, the girls. It was like being a kid in a candy store! After all, I was young, single and available…
And the new kid on the block! Barry was in a much less vulnerable state, while I was definitely in an altered state! He didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as I did and we had great times together at a period when the magazine was exploding. Readership was increasing by hundreds of thousands a month and there was a "Passed On" readership of 11. It was unheard of in the editorial world. "Hef" used to be in the offices every day, this being before working from the mansions, round beds, pajamas and Pepsi’s took over his life, among other things. I put a great deal of film through all manner of cameras with all manner of subject matter and yes, travel was frequent, which made me very happy. The first assignment came one day when Vince walked into my office and casually asked if I’d like to go on a little trip to France to shoot "The Girls of the Riviera"? Well this decision did not take much time or effort and the travel continued. I owe a great deal to Barry as I know he was instrumental in my being hired at the magazine and we have been close friends for longer than either one of us cares to admit. He is a Prince among, not just a Prince, a King! Thanks for everything Barry.

One of the first things I was warned about upon arrival at the magazine was not to cast my eyes at a certain three women in the organization who were Hef’s private domain. One was the present girlfriend, one the future girlfriend and one, a mystery girl named Delilah, a recent Playmate. I, of course, immediately became in involved with Delilah and she accompanied me to France to help with the shoot. It was a dream trip and enhanced my obsession with travel and especially Europe…it was there that food began to be an equally important part of my life. I began to rate a trip, by the way I was able to eat and France was at the top of the list. One simply is not able to eat like that anyplace else in the world, but that’s another story altogether! Oh yes, when we returned and were in bed one Sunday morning, Delilah called her friend Mary, Hef’s new girlfriend at the mansion. When he asked, "who’s that?", "Delilah.", says Mary. "Who is she with?", says Hef. "Larry", says Mary. "Larry who?", says Hef. "Larry Gordon", says Mary "Tell him he’s fired!", says Hef. Well, it didn’t happen, of course, as he was only kidding. But it was not funny for me at the moment although Delilah was on the floor with laughter!

During the last year and a half, I became less and less enamored with how things were going at the magazine. Playboy had become so big, buying The Palmolive Building on Michigan Avenue, that overnight it became a very large corporation and with that corporate structure it lost the original romance of editorial that I always loved. I lasted another few months and one Friday afternoon, in a falling out over many things, I was fired and quit at the same time. After all was said and done, Vince was a real gentleman and asked me to stay, saying, "We could work things out". But I felt it was time to go, thinking I would at least stay the summer and finish a great project I had initiated called, "The Playboy Yacht Party". Well, it was against policy (corporate stuff here!) to keep on an employee once termination was decided. So I had two weeks notice and $380.00 in the bank, and I was to lose the yacht party, or so I thought. But again Vince was so kind and gave me the yacht party story as a freelance photographer. Playboy paid $600/page even in those days and the story ran 24 pages. It was my stake in the future and I was back on the street!

I was at loose ends, not sure what to do…go to New York? Or stay in Chicago, even though I disliked the winters intensely, or go back to the West Coast? Or Europe? Or? The decision was made for me. Two reps in town had recently dropped their New York photographer and had heard I was available. We met and made a deal and I stayed in the windy city for another three years, diving headfirst into the heavy seas of advertising. Clay Timon and Gene Perraud knew the business and we all did very well in those ensuing years as I learned the advertising business, billing a good deal of money each year. Travel was still a large part of my life and I had developed into a ‘people and product on location’ photographer, able to stage big productions and bring home the shot. This included all manner of clients from agricultural to cars to beer and cigarettes. Clay brought in probably the best account of my career. We started shooting for Phillip Morris on Marlboro and it lasted four years. By the time it ended, I had moved to Los Angeles and lived in a wonderful Spanish house, that I called, "The House that Marlboro Built". It was a great account, both financially and for the people I worked with at Leo Burnett, Phillip Morris and most importantly, the cowboys.

There were of course, many other accounts that paved the way and I stretched myself by opening a studio in New York and gaining a rep named Henrietta Brackman, who had just broken off her business relationship with Pete Turner. Henrietta led me back into editorial, with assignments for Esquire, and the original Holiday magazine, headed then by Frank Zachary, a giant in the magazine business. I also met Pamela Fiori, who worked with Frank in those days and went on to head up Travel & Leisure and now is the Editor In Chief at Town & Country.

I was spread too thin and soon realized that more money was going out than was coming in, (a big problem with photographers sometimes), mostly due to a lot of editorial work, which paid little. And I was getting antsy and worrying that New York should have come sooner in my life. One afternoon after the second robbery in my New York loft studio and a deteriorating business relationship with Henrietta, I made the decision to sell out to my assistant and keep only the Chicago studio. Cut operating expenses so to speak, but I was not exactly happy in Chicago either and after several months, I put together a trip I had always wanted to do and once again I was ‘On the Road’! I invested what funds I had in two 16mm film cameras and all the accessories for same, plus a new Land Rover to be collected at the factory in England. I took with me a male model friend of mine who loved film and wanted to get out of modeling…and had the time for folly! We converted the Rover for desert travel; extra gas tanks, sand ladders, roof racks, water tanks, bunk beds and concealed storage area for the cameras. We drove from England across the continent to Spain, spent time in Marbella and I almost bought a castle near the Alhambra! A sort of side adventure, you might say. I had been on assignment in Kenya and one morning over coffee and reading my favorite paper, the International Herald Tribune, I found an ad that read something like this; "For Sale - Fifteenth Century Moorish Castle in Spain"! What ensued in the next few months was an incredible adventure and another story, but due to the fact I had every cent of my money invested in my desert film, and the Land Rover, I could not pull it together and the deal went unconsummated. It was frustrating because the entire castle, on a walled five-acre estate was only $90,000. At that time, it seemed a fortune, but today when I think back, it was the bargain of a lifetime. And, of course, the commitment of a lifetime!

The next several months were spent in Morocco, in the Atlas Mountains and along the desert borders of Algeria, trying to jump off to cross the Sahara. We were stopped twice at the Algerian border at gunpoint and almost lost everything. In turning back, we concentrated on making our film in the southern reaches of Morocco, the doorstep to the Sahara. After being on some of the most remote roads possible, where we saw no other human beings for days, we came across a "mini" caravan. It turned out to be a family with several camels, donkeys and a number of goats on their way to a new camp, migrating for their animals and water. We ended up staying with them for several weeks to make a good part of our film and it was an extraordinary experience. The film was called "Beyond the Atlas".

After several months in Africa, we ended our journey and I returned home with the film and more in debt than ever. Knowing my heart was not in Chicago, I sold the Chicago Studio and headed West to edit and sell the film. Hopefully I would make back my investment and then some. It was not to be. National Geographic kept the film and me in suspense for several months but in the end they couldn’t go with the film, because they already had two desert films in house being considered. One was "Men of the Kalahari", the other "Sand Sailing the Sahara". Luck was not with me for once and I shelved the film and still have it to this day. I have never regretted anything I have ever done and the African adventure was worth every effort and the still pictures I did on the venture were some of the best work I have done. It was an extraordinary experience!

Now, however, I was in a fairly desperate situation, sitting out in L.A. without a clue as to what was going to happen. But remember I had been traveling now for several years, all over the world. I had kept a fairly concise file of my work, all organized and captioned for the occasional stock sale. I had many pictures with early agencies and I worked with celebrities for Sygma and Sipa Press. Difficult, but some money was coming in. At that point, along came fate again, in the name of Larry Fried, an editorial photographer I had known for many years, with lots of Newsweek covers to his credit. He and a business associate were starting a new kind of stock agency and, was I interested in being a part of the first group of photographers to contribute? Well, I wasn’t too interested because of the experiences of those first associations with stock, but I flew to New York to meet the gang and I was in excellent company. In that first group were photographers like Pete Turner and Jay Maisel, among other notables. That was good enough for me! I proceeded to send several thousand transparencies to the new agency and began my long tenure with The Image Bank. It has now been over twenty years and I have made several million dollars with existing and production photographs. It was not only a propitious meeting in the financial sense, but I also met Nob Hovde, a prominent New York rep who was to handle an assignment division for TIB. That didn’t work out, but in the end Nob represented me for over ten very lucrative years and we remain good friends to this day. He was and is a great character and was a noble figure on his bicycle through the streets of Manhattan and in the hallowed hallways of the great agencies of New York City advertising.

Nothing lasts, it is said and all good things come to an end. Lots of philosophical quotes here and they apply to life in general, sometimes in specifics. I was now a long term, dyed in the wool bachelor, living in a wonderful Spanish home in the hills above Hollywood. It was a good life and even though I was out in the "Provinces", Nob brought in lots of major advertising work, much of which was cars……"Sheet Metal", as they call it. At the time, even though much of the car work out of Detroit was done on large format cameras, there were a few art directors who loved 35mm action, from camera car mounts. Those guys found me and the bulk of my car work was in that vein. Although in the end I did work on 8x10 cameras at dawn and dusk in the desert of Palm Springs for thirty days at a time.

About this time I met an English woman, in L.A. from London for a visit, staying with Kirk and Ann Douglas. It was a meeting more profound than any I had had before. This wonderful woman saved me from my own worst enemy…my self-imposed bachelorhood! The year of courtship was a whirlwind; we traveled everywhere, including China, Europe, Hawaii, Tahiti and the Himilayan Kingdom of Bhutan. I’m not sure what I was doing about work, but I knew I didn’t want to let this woman out of my sight! Bhutan, by the way, is what actually brought us together. I had just returned from a 35-day trek there and she had been invited to Bhutan by the king’s uncle, who she knew in London. We met to look at my "etchings" of the trip. We were never apart from that moment on and were married a year to the day after we met. To quote a song, "I’ve Had The Time Of My Life", and I owe it all to this very special woman, who is definitely my better half!

During the past ten or twelve years, we have moved from L.A. to Big Sur and spent a great deal of time on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific and now live in Montecito, California. I now have exited from the world of advertising for the most part, but still do editorial and continue my productions for TIB, now a part of Getty Pictures. I am working on two books at present and editing pictures from those early years in Europe, all the B&W that has never been printed. Another great ride!

Whatever comes in the future, it can only be better, based on what good fortune and that mysterious thing called fate, have dealt me up to now.

More history and continuing anecdotes about adventures and productions along the way to be posted on this site on a regular basis.

Thanks for logging on!
Larry Dale Gordon

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