My undergraduate degree in fine arts came in a ceremony on a Friday in June of 1969. The following Monday, another ceremony at a nearby induction center had me giving of the oath of enlistment, it being the height of the Vietnam War. I chose a four-year term in the Air Force instead of the draft that got me classified as a photographer, and after basic training I was posted to Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois.

On leave with Dorie between basic training and Scott AFB.

At the time, Scott was the headquarters of the Military Airlift Command (MAC), the service responsible for all the Air Force's transport aircraft. My assignments took me all over the world doing industrial photography, publicity, documentation, and photojournalism for MAC, a sampling of which appears on this page.

A C-5 flying over the Carolina coast.  It took five days to get this image.  Working out of Charleston Air Force Base, I would ride in C-141s on training flights as they practiced landings and takeoffs, waiting for a C-5 to get airborne. On the fifth day, one materialized behind us, and the crew of the C-141 opened the rear cargo doors to give me a platform.  Patched through to the pilot of the C-5, it was a trip getting the behemoth in the right position and flying at the right angle.

The experiences were varied—airlift missions going in and out of Vietnam, troop drops in Korea, the Hurricane Hunters in the Caribbean, and publicity work for MAC such as the photograph below.

MAC Commander General Jack Catton waiting with President Nixon for the arrival of French President George Pompidou at the Air Force wing in Lajes, Azores.  The meeting resulted in a new global accord regarding the valuation of gold which, until then, had been artificially pegged at $35 an ounce in the U.S.

At that time, the C-141 and C-130 were the reliable freight trains in the sky.

C-141s on the flight line at Scott AFB bringing wounded troops from Vietnam back to the U.S. for treatment and then transfer to hospitals near their homes. During my early months at Scott, these planes would land and take off constantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the facilities at the base were overwhelmed at times by the number of wounded being treated.

Less reliable was the fleet of the huge C-5's which had just been introduced, hobbled by glitches.  As their issues were being resolved, the Air Force wanted photographs showing the gargantuan plane's ability to carry tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and troops across oceans, basically everything necessary to equip and deploy an Army division anywhere in the world.

Among my many assignments, there is one that has never left me. It was the documentation of the airlift of certain military personnel from Vietnam who had volunteered for tours beyond the typical 12 months. For these troops, patriotism wasn't driving their extensions.  The military cracked down on the use of marijuana in Southeast Asia in 1969, and many had turned to readily available heroin and opium.

Climbing aboard one of the C-141 Medivacs on its way back to the States, I found most everyone content in an odd way. Sullen and withdrawn was the mood typical of draft era service personnel on long flights, but these well-scrubbed kids in their freshly issued uniforms congregated around me, settling into long heart-to-heart talks. They seemed just like the guys I'd grown up with in suburban Washington, DC, more friendly than most I'd met in the service. The conversations made the time go quickly, but the veneer fell away towards the end of the first leg as I started moving around the large transport plane. It became obvious their addiction was a stranglehold and all had been well medicated for the flight. Some on stretchers were in handcuffs. Most were deeply concerned, even paranoid, about their future.

One conversation I fell into was with two aircraft mechanics who had been snatched from their third tour in-country repairing choppers shot up in combat. They told me how they had worked through the night to get them ready for deployment the following morning. Once the troops were airborne, the two spent the rest of the day floating in the opium dens just off base. When evening came, they stumbled back to the flight line to start the process all over again. Think of the implications of that for a moment.

One of my last jobs was photographing POWs being evacuated from North Vietnamese prisons to Scott.  It was deeply moving taking photographs as they stepped off C-141’s and were reunited with their families, heartrending in the base hospital afterwards doing the documentation of those who had been severely tortured.

At the end of my enlistment, I was fortunate to get a job in nearby St. Louis with the city’s best commercial photographer, Neil Sauer.  He was a delight to be around and had a successful practice with virtually all the lead accounts in the area.  A former World War II Marine, he had grown up near Scott and was willing to bring a pilgrim into his circle.  For me, it was a dream come true.  

Neil Sauer

Neil, however, had his own agenda. Your art should be a joy, not just a way to put food on the table he said to me the first time we met. You need to go back to D.C. where you grew up and graduate from law school like your father and grandfather.  Then you can pursue photography without having to worry about commercializing it.

At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant or why he would even say such a thing.  Maybe he wasn’t impressed with my work, but I couldn’t imagine a life outside of photography.  And who doesn't wrestle with economic necessity?

Things became more clear as the weeks went by.  His clients included the local department stores who needed Sunday supplements for the newspapers.  Setting up shop in the furniture sections, Neil would drop into a lounger and chat with everyone passing by while I staged the photograph.  Each time I finished, he would heave his lanky frame out of the chair to turn the image into something magical.  As I stared at the view camera in awe, he would wave at me to get the film exposed, flop back into the lounger, and ask himself how much longer he could keep doing this stuff.  Yes, his demonstrations of the proper way to foam beer and light it brilliantly for the stunning billboards he made for Anheuser-Busch astounded everyone, but in retrospect he must have been going through a mid-life crisis.

Four months into my apprenticeship, I was putting together a catalogue for a janitorial supply company, struggling with a bottle of toilet bowl cleaner.  The photographs were black and white, and it was difficult separating the similar values of the bottle’s text from the liquid inside.

I was also trying to figure out how I was going to support my family and our newborn daughter.  Plus there were the long hours spent in the darkroom listening to the radio while I worked, hearing the siren call of Washington politics as the drama of Watergate played out that summer.

Giving up on lens filters and starting to shade the text with a pencil, I looked up at him and blurted out, “This is a stupid way to go through life.”  Neil the Wise lowered his head to one side, smiled gently and looked at me without saying anything. I got my things and left.

Law school was the rage then, and the GI Bill more than covered tuition.  That led to a career in law, public policy and business that went on much longer than intended.

From time to time during those 40 years, I tried to reignite my passion for photography, but the perfectionist in me caused constant frustration with the chemicals and the muddy prints they produced.  Sally Mann describes this tedious process in Chapter 11 of her book, Hold Still, where she includes samples of her notes. “THIRD f…… printing: If I ever have to print this goddamn picture again, heaven forbid, watch contrast/darkness in lower half and ….”    

Heading towards 70, I finally started tearing myself away from my career to pick up where I had left off at age 25, now being able to use the incredible technology that comes with contemporary imagery and applying it, in part, to what I had done so many years ago.  Only this time without reeking of fix.

That technology and this site are a joy.  We live in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with our powerboat out back.  A custom built deadrise, she’s an excellent platform for photography in the magnificent Chesapeake estuary.  If the next decade and beyond works out as I hope and all parts can be maintained in both me and the boat, you will see a growing number of photographs from rambles around the Bay, various East Coast waterways and wherever else my muse takes me.

My hope is that you enjoy this site as much as I’m enjoying building it—and thinking of Neil who passed nearly two decades ago and the guidance he gave me.

You may be wondering about the reference to Bay Photographic Works. Everything I’ve been able to accomplish in life was the result of becoming part of a team of amazing people willing to work with me and share their talent, experience and perspectives. The same is true for my photography.

Through Upwork, I found someone who lives in northwestern Greece who has become a good friend, Dimitrios Matsoulis. An engineer by training, he is an amazing teacher of Lightroom, Photoshop and everything photographic.  Through the magic of Skype, he helped me sort out the colossal mess I’d made of my files in my stumbling start with Lightroom and then brought me into the new world of digital imagery.

My deep appreciation for Dominique Thompson of Grind Branding who patiently works with me to create this beautiful site, tweaking it constantly to reflect my latest whim. His enthusiasm and commitment to producing a quality product means any idea I have will eventually be actualized.

Finally, the legendary George Holzer who has made prints of several of my images including the Shiloh Valley series. I had to wait 46 years to find George, but it was well worth it. He has collaborated with a number of the world’s greatest artists and museums, and I’m humbled that he would bring that same level of interest in my work that he has brought to theirs.

I wake up grateful every morning that individuals like these have crossed my path.

Peace

Photograph by Sandy Cannon Brown