Interview with Sean Griffin
Conducted 4/8/2019 at Anderson Island, WA
IA: This is the 3rd interview we’ve done. The first interview we did was with Alexei Antonov [oil painter]. That was almost a year ago. And then we did an interview with Walt Johnson about 6 months ago.
SG: That was a great one.
IA: Thank you. So, we’re here with Sean Griffin, artist extraordinaire on Anderson Island, to talk about his life. We’re going to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself, growing up how did you get interested in the arts, when did you first realize those interests would lead to a career. That’s a lot to start with.
SG: It is. I grew up just south of San Francisco, mostly in San Jose and San Bruno. I was born into a railroad family and in a suburb. During the baby boom one of the consequences was that I was always going to a different school that was just opening but they hadn’t finished constructing yet. One of the last things always to be constructed was an arts room. In school I don’t remember a single art class ever.
One of the things I got exposed to for the first time in high school was theater. I had never seen a play or heard of plays until I was in high school. And they did “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, I think. And my brother had this bit part in it which was the reason I went. And I was just in awe. These people were getting up there and they knew what they’re supposed to say. “How did they do that?”
By my senior year I was so enthralled with it I decided to sign up for the senior play that year which was Edward Albee’s “The American Dream”. And the part I was interested in was the character called Daddy. I put my name on the clipboard, went to the auditorium. As they got closer and closer to calling my name, I began to feel queasy. I fled the auditorium; I never went through with it. So that was the start of my acting career.
IA: Pretty short-lived.
SG: What was interesting about that was the guy who got the part was a guy named Allen Galli. And he did a great job with it. And 30 years later, when I’m a parent, I took my kids up to Seattle Children’s Theater to see “Winnie the Pooh”, and the guy who plays Pooh has this accent that is so familiar and I’m trying to place it. It sounds like an East Coast accent. I’d lived on the East Coast for 10 years. And I’m thinking it’s not New Jersey, it’s not Brooklyn. What the hell is this. And at the end they bring the actors out. And the guy who was playing Pooh was Allen Galli. I’m going, “That’s South San Francisco Italian, that’s the accent.” And then I think, the Allen Galli I went to high school with was not fat and bald. So, I wasn’t positive it was him. I walked up and he goes, “Sean, is that you?” “Yeah.” He was literally in the seat in front of me in homeroom for four years. We went to lunch afterward and I said, “I thought you were going to law school at the University of San Francisco after we graduated. And he goes, “Well I was. But this funny thing that happened, there was this play our senior year, “The American Dream”, and I got this role in it and it was such a transformational experience for me I decided to go to Baylor and study acting instead and I’ve been working as a full-time actor ever since.
And so, I look at my kids and say, “Do you realize that if your dad hadn’t been such a coward in high school you guys wouldn’t exist.”
That actually speaks to one of the things about my life: serendipity. I was the family historian, and the more I got into family history the more I realized we were all the product of this almost infinite number of coincidences that all had to have happened for any of us to exist. As an example, I had relatives after the Civil War who got onto a ship in San Francisco to go to Seattle. And my great grandmother’s sister developed smallpox symptoms off the coast of southern Oregon. So, they put her ashore at what used to be Fort Umpqua, an abandoned army fort near Reedsport. It was mom, dad and the three daughters. And they said, “You’re on your own.”
If those symptoms had shown up a day earlier, they’d be somewhere else. If they’d shown up a day later it would have been someplace, if they hadn’t shown up at all they’d have made it to Seattle. But they wouldn’t have been in Reedsport which is where my great grandfather ended up after his lumber business in Portland went belly up in the crash of 1873. These little coincidences, if it’s a day earlier, a day later I don’t exist, my kids don’t exist. So, I appreciate all of the coincidences.
So, with my parents there was really no art in our home. My parents’ view of art was a painting of Elvis on black velour. Seriously it was. They had one of Elvis and one of a Mexican water carrier boy.
IA: Did they have one of a bunch of dogs having the Last Supper?
IA: It was too early for that.
SG: But they did have this one book, a Time-Life book of the Sistine Chapel. And I looked at that book over and over and over. Photographs of Michaelangelo’s work at the Sistine Chapel. So that I guess sparked a little bit. I did take one art class in college. It was a figure drawing class. At that was pretty amazing to me because it got me looking at the human body in a different way from my Catholic upbringing.
IA: Where did you go to school?
SG: At US International University in San Diego. It was just the one class, charcoal drawing. I actually did okay.
So, my art thing where it gets captured is well after college. I went off to take a bicycle trip from San Francisco to San Diego. Down the California coast, it was a 7- or 8-day trip. A friend of mine loaned me a 35 mm camera but he didn’t have time to show me how to use it and I had never used a camera before. I had no idea what I was doing. So, I got to Carmel, Carmel by the Sea, near Monterey on this bike trip. And I stopped at
Bike Trip in 1976
this place called the Weston Gallery. There were these photographs in there and it turned out it was operated by the widow of a famous photographer named Edward Weston. And I was just blown away.
To me what he did was . . . I looked at the world the way everybody did. Ordinary things are ordinary things. I look at a bell pepper and I see a bell pepper. I look at a cabbage leaf, I see a cabbage leaf. He looks at a cabbage leaf and he sees a landscape. (Sean shows some images by Weston to the interviewers).
And the picture that really got to me was the bell pepper. He also did a nautilus shell. (Shows more images to interviewers).
IA: Black and white?
SG: Yeah. Here’s the bell pepper. That’s the one that just took my breath away.
IA: That is amazing.
IA: You’re saying that seeing his work elevated your interest in . . .
SG: It was an epiphany. There’s this phrase that keeps coming into my head, “He took the ordinary and made it extraordinary.” And, really, my whole life since then, artistically, has been trying to emulate his work.
IA: I find it interesting, as I said earlier this is the third interview that we’ve done. And you and the other two artists all had a fairly early encounter or interest in an artist that really kind of changed your trajectory or influenced you. Alexei [Antonov, interviewed in March, 2018] was influenced by a Dutch master who painted tulips. He said, “Nobody can paint tulips like this guy.” In Walt Johnson’s case [interviewed in October, 2018] it was one of the guitarists for the Wailers with whom he became good friends and who he learned a lot from. It’s really interesting having somebody who really kind of elevates your thinking and game who you can emulate.
SG: I was just at his gallery a couple of years ago and it’s still going strong. The bell pepper picture, a print, goes for $10,000.
IA: Is the widow still around or is she gone now, too?
SG: I think she’s gone now, too. But, anyway, she showed me how to operate the 35mm camera. She just gave a little basics thing. So, I took pictures the rest of the trip. It was such an extraordinary trip. I’d never done anything like that. Bicycling is a wonderful way to travel. You see things, you hear things and smell things you’d never see in a car.
IA: This would have been in the early ‘70s maybe?
IA: Did you ever get back to her with any kind of summary of where you ended up?
SG: I didn’t because it didn’t really take off right away. But I did take photos the rest of that trip. And the trip was so extraordinary I thought I need to write about it. So, there was a fairly new magazine at the time called Bicycling. I submitted my article and photos to it and they decided to make a big cover story out of their Christmas issue with the pictures and everything. So, the first article I ever tried writing got published and the first photographs I ever took got published as well.
IA: Are you saying that was the impetus for your becoming a writer? Did you think, well this is fairly easy. I could enjoy this, make a living out of it.
SG: That was part of the impetus. The other impetus was in college. I was student body president and they changed editors of the school paper in the Spring quarter so they’d have a little bit of experience before the school year ended. They could work with the previous editor. Apparently, there was this one guy who wanted to be editor and everybody hated him so the whole staff quit. The dean of students comes to me and says, “Hey, I don’t know if you realize this but, as the student body president, you are in charge of the paper and fixing this. I basically sent the guy packing and called all the old staff and said, “Will you please come back, I don’t have any idea what to do here.” We spent the last 2 and 1/2months of my senior year putting out that paper. It was about as much fun as I’d ever had and I learned a lot. I got to not only write articles but to design pages, write headlines.
IA: Were you still doing . . . it wasn’t done digitally, all hand laid out.
SG: It was wax and paper.
IA: Light tables.
SG: All of that stuff. My dad was a workaholic. He literally worked seven days a week. He came home and he crashed. I think it wasn’t until that moment that I realized a job could be something you actually enjoyed. Because he hated his job and he worked all of the time. And I thought this could be really fun to do. That got me interested in journalism. I had the wrong degree for it and this gets to one of things in my life. People were always telling me that I couldn’t do something. The academic dean In high school said you’ll never, you probably won’t be able to get into a college. You’ll have to go to a junior college. He said you’ll never qualify for a scholarship. Your grades aren’t that great. For some reason that just pissed me off.
Sean’s Photograph Recognized by the Smithsonian Institution
IA: Good for you.
SG: So, one advisor told me, “Your grades aren’t good enough for college; you’ll probably just get drafted. The army will make something out of you.” So, I determined I was going to college. I did everything I could to get a scholarship and actually got a nice financial aid package. And then I became a draft counselor to help me and others. I helped me and others avoid the draft. In fact, I go to Barb Knudson occasionally and say, “You know I’m really impressed with those Quilts of Valor. I was a draft dodger. Can’t you come up with a Quilt of Cowardice?”
IA: Should be a Quilt of Opposition or a Quilt of Conscience.
SG: That’s what I filed for, conscientious objector.
IA: How did you make the transition? You had the experience of journalism in college and after that, I assume, your trip down the coast where you wrote the article, if I have the chronology correct. How did you end up being in the journalism field?
SG: The experience in college got me interested in journalism. But I could not get a single interview at any newspaper because I had a political science degree. They wanted journalism degrees or English degrees.
IA: Isn’t that funny. That was in the early ‘70s?
SG: My first job out of college was working at a miniature golf course for $1.70/hr. And then I worked as a manager trainee for a Thrifty Drugstore. And after 4 years that’s when I decided I need to take my life in a different direction. I had saved up a little money and I was just going to get on a bicycle and spend some time contemplating.
I was supposed to go with my friend, the same friend who had lent me the 35mm camera on the trip down the California coast. We were going to go on a bicycle trip across the country. We were going to bicycle from San Diego to Reedsport and then across to Philadelphia and back. And we had planned on this for a year. We’d done a bunch of training rides to get in shape. And two days before we were to leave he says, “You know, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I was at Consuelo’s Mexican Restaurant the other night and I met this girl.” He wanted to see where that was going to go. So, I ended up leaving on my own. Just coming up the coast, I got up to Astoria and decided I wanted to head back. It was 3 or 4 months. But I decided I’m just going to make a renewed effort to become a journalist. I had figured, since I didn’t have the right degree, I’d have to go back to school to get a degree in journalism. I moved to Eugene/Springfield area and I was going to study journalism at the University of Oregon which had a pretty good journalism school.
IA: Go Ducks!
SG: What year were you there?
IA: ’76. What was interesting, the advisor there had urged me not to get a degree in journalism because he said there were so many people trying to get journalism degrees there just weren’t enough jobs for everybody.
SG: I was going to pursue it anyway but I got a job almost immediately at the Springfield News working as a proofreader. I saw this ad; they wanted a proofreader. They wanted somebody who was familiar with the notations that proofreaders make. And I remembered my Websters Dictionary had on the inside flap proofreader notation marks. I just studied those and went in and took the test and got the job. Then I started contributing feature articles for them along the way. So now I had clips that I could market myself with.
IA: When you say feature articles is that where you’re taking a photo that’s sort of telling a story and then you do an article in conjunction with the photo?
SG: No, it’s coming up with the story idea. Probably the first one I did there was about a hot spring outside of Eugene that I loved. It was in the woods and had been going to it for a while. And then a bunch of hippies kind of moved in and took over the area.
An Example of Sean’s Current Photographic Work
IA: Where was it at?
SG: Near Cougar Reservoir. Its official name was Ryder Hot Springs. They were kind of trashing the place and making it uncomfortable for other people to go the hot springs. And then I was out there one day and it turned out there were people from the welfare department soaking in the springs and they were out there to certify that these folks had a cooking appliance so they could continue to collect welfare benefits. And it just seemed like an odd role for government to . . . I wrote this article about the trashing of Ryder Hot Springs and interviewed people from the welfare department and stuff like that and they said, “Well it’s not the welfare department’s responsibility to certify they’re trespassing on property or not. It’s just to make sure they have cooking stove they can prepare food on so they can continue to qualify for food stamps.”
IA: That must have been quite an exposure.
SG: It was. We had photographs of the place. That actually became a pretty big story. The Forest Service moved in and cleaned the place up. And they civilized it. They improved the trails and put in boardwalks and sitting benches.
That’s an example of a feature story. Another one was, one of the things I had to proof read was the obituary pages. And a lot of the folks seemed to come from Oklahoma, Missouri, the Texas panhandle. It seemed like they’d come out in the mid ‘30s.
I decided to call up some of those people because I had a feeling this was Dust Bowl stuff. And it turned out I was right on target. Some of them had some really interesting memorabilia. Some was in storage trunks they’d brought out. I did a feature story about that. Then one of the folks mentioned that he was dying of cancer and I thought that would be interesting because Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ books had just come out and there was a lot of societal discussion about death and dying. So, I just thought you know a lot of these things just start with questions in your mind. “I wonder what it’s like to die, to go through that process?” I spent a lot of time with them and sort of documented what the process was like to die.
When I worked at my first daily paper in Ashland, OR, I got an offer after a couple of years to go be the news director at a TV station. That was an absolute disaster, lasted all of 8 months. And then people said, “You’ll never get back into journalism again after you’ve left the newspaper and you’ve gone into TV” because print people look down their noses at the TV people. But, I had no trouble getting back into print journalism and the job I got into was to be in Washington, D.C. as a correspondent for a major metropolitan daily. It was my dream job! My summation of my career is this: if you want me do something tell me I can’t do it. (Chuckles)
IA: What was the TV station you worked for?
SG: KOBI TV in Medford, OR. The reason I took it was it tripled my salary and I didn’t have move out of Ashland. And it was interesting, I learned a lot there. The four years I spent in retail actually turned out be great training ground for journalism because it was real world experience. You know you’re dealing with people every day you have to get familiar with accounting. You have to compute what percent of sales is represented by salary, compute gross profit of things. You deal with merchandising, all kinds of stuff. And my first full-time job in journalism was at a little weekly in Dallas, OR, and I got hired because I didn’t have a degree. That was the interesting thing; I didn’t have a degree in journalism.
IA: Was this before or after Springfield?
SG: It was right after Springfield. Springfield was like 3 times a week. But it was still primarily a proof reading job.
IA: So, you said Dallas, OR? When you went to Dallas it was full-time and you were writing?
SG: Well, being small I was both the county government and politics writer and the photo editor. I could do both photography and writing to my heart’s content, which I loved. And then from there went to the Ashland Daily Tidings which allowed me to do photography as well as writing. When I went to Washington, D.C., the union rules do not permit you to take pictures if you are a writer or write if you took pictures. So, I chose the reporting side. There were a lot more reporting jobs than there were photography jobs. But I vowed that someday I was going to get back to photography, because I really just loved that aspect.
IA: How long were you in D.C. doing the reporting?
SG: Ten years.
IA: That’s a long time. What did you cover in D.C. as far as your writing?
SG: The Arizona Republic was interested in anything that affected Arizona. We covered the congressional delegation, we covered issues relating to public lands, the Native Americans because they are about 27% of Arizona’s population and area, water projects, all kinds of things. There were some legendary Arizonans in office at the time. Mo (Morris) Udall who almost beat Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1976, Barry Goldwater who had the Republican nomination in ’64, John McCain who I started with his first year in Congress, his first term. He was a real interesting guy.
Sean Interviewing President Reagan in 1986
IA: At that time, you were strictly a journalist? Were you doing photography on the side or were your eggs entirely in the basket of journalism?
SG: Not until I became a parent, then I was doing photography as a parent. I was one of the first photographers allowed into the delivery room at Columbia Hospital for Women. It was with film and with special filters to compensate for fluorescent lighting. So, I was able to photograph my daughter’s birth and my wife’s labor and those pictures came out very nice.
IA: I wanted to backtrack a little here. You were talking about interviewing people who were members of committees back then and it reminded me of where journalism is at now. You want to make any comment about that? Do you see much difference?
SG: It’s huge, just huge.
IA: What’s your thinking about it if you don’t mind sharing?
SG: People could be adversaries during the day and friends at night. Barry Goldwater, a conservative, could have chosen anyone he wanted to be the keynote speaker at his retirement party. He chose his good friend, the very liberal Ted Kennedy. Goldwater and Mo Udall were best friends. They had political disagreements. It was a civil institution. These people were not your enemies. Today it seems like in politics each side thinks the other side is inherently evil, that they are malintentioned or they are stupid. And I don’t know how you fix that.
And journalism has certainly changed. And I think this is a generational thing. When I was in journalism my editors had grown up before . . . they weren’t baby boomers. They were from the previous generation. They had survived the Depression; they had survived the war. And they kind of believed that government, the institutions of society were all part of a solution. So, you have the Great Depression, you have government playing a role, you have churches playing a role, you have neighbors depending on each other, you have the community coming together, those kinds of things. Journalistically they believed a healthy sense of skepticism will get you close to the truth. And that means when somebody tells you something you don’t accept it at face value, but you don’t dismiss it automatically either. The famous saying is, ”If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” So, in that sense, if your mother says she loves you, well you go talk to your dad. “Mom loves me?” “Yes, she loves you.” You go check with your siblings and your brother says, “Well, I don’t know. I think she loves me more.” Somehow you balance these contradictions out and the thought was, this takes you somewhere close to the truth.
When the baby boomers came of age the societal institutions weren’t part of the solution so much anymore. They were the cause of the problems. We grew up with the threat of nuclear war over our head. Government had caused this problem. Government wasn’t part of the solution; there really wasn’t a solution on that one. In fact, the only solution government was proposing was to build more bombs, to be more of a threat.
Civil rights came and you see government, you see society siccing dogs on people wanting the right to vote and training fire hoses on them so they’re part of the problem. The Vietnam war comes along and it seems like government is causing another problem and then Watergate kind of seals the deal. Government is not only causing the problem, they are corrupt and not to be trusted. So, baby boomers come of age and they are a cynical breed. And it used to be that when you submitted a story your editor was your toughest critic. He’d say, “What do you mean by this? How do you know this?” You’d say, “Isn’t it logical that . . .” “No, you go get me some facts. You need to demonstrate this.” If you watch All the President’s Men you will start crying because of how the standards have lapsed. For every fact they used to put in a story they had to have 2 and sometimes 3 independent corroborating witnesses. The standard now is, if there’s a rumor you can print it.
So, there’s not much out there that I recognize as journalism anymore. The conflicts of interest that journalism tolerates now are pretty amazing. The editor of the NY Times used to tell his reporters . . . I forget who it was a year or two ago, it turned out someone [a reporter] was sleeping with somebody on the Intelligence Committee and that was their source of information. And they still have their job. That would have been intolerable before. The editor of the NY Times used to say, “Look, I don’t care if you’re sleeping with an elephant but if you are you can’t cover the circus.” I get depressed when I think about the current state of journalism.
IA: Did some of what you just said in answer to Beula’s question about comparing journalism from the ‘60s or whatever to today have an impact on your career path? Did that cause you to get out of straight-up journalism? Did you sum it up that way?
SG: In ’97 I had an offer from the Boeing Co. to come work for them. And I think it was mainly because I had been very critical of Boeing’s practice of public relations. Their leaders at the time had this philosophy called “Working Together” and it defined all relationships as transactional relationships with a customer and a supplier on each end.
The way I understood it, since that affected all relationships, if I’m a reporter and I come to Boeing and I say, “I’d like to do a story about this.” Then I’m the customer and they have to work with me to the best of their ability to see if they can meet that requirement. And there were some people at Boeing who were very good at it. And then there were others who saw the traditional role of public relations as being a barrier.
I was able to demonstrate this once. They had an all-communicators meeting and they invited 3 people from the press and give them a critique of how they did their job. The Boeing 777 had just rolled out and they had had this big event with 70,000 people there to see their new baby. It was managed by Dick Clark Productions and it was in the world’s largest building. It was incredible. They had this big mezzanine in one corner of the factory with about 600 reporters from all around the world who had come for this event. At this one point, after they had lifted the curtain and unveiled it my photographer came to me and said, ‘Sean, I’ve got a problem.” I said, “What?” “They’re not going to let us anywhere on the floor near the plane or the people. I didn’t think I was going to need a telephoto lens to take a picture of the world’s largest twin jet.” And I said, “What do you mean?” “They said it’s not for the press, it’s for the employees.” They didn’t want to ruin it for the employees by having the press there. That’s real respectful, right.
Sean in Front of the Boeing 787
And so, this battle is breaking out. This is supposed to be a celebration. They’re looking for lots of positive press. There’s this battle going on on the mezzanine with PR people surrounded by a bunch of reporters who are yelling at them, telling them how stupid they are, that sort of thing, that it’s unacceptable, when the chairman of the Boeing Co. and the guy who led the 777 come up on the mezzanine and they’re happy and you know this is a big day for them and they see we’re all going freaky. They say, “What’s going on?” And I went to one of them and I said, “This working together stuff is bullshit. It’s just bullshit.” He said, “No, it’s not, what are you talking about?” “And this working together thing of the customer and the supplier, if we went to an event like this and we had a need to talk to your employees and take pictures of your airplane we’d be the customer and wouldn’t it be your job to make that possible?” And he said, “Yeah, you got that right.” “You know they won’t let us anywhere near your airplane or your people?” And the leaders of the company were shocked.
IA: They didn’t even know?
SG: And they said, “Who made that decision?” All of a sudden, the PR people were looking at their feet. And he goes, ‘We’ve got a story to tell and these are the story tellers.” And they unhooked the chain and said, “Go tell our story.” And the PR people went nuts because they didn’t have any control.
IA: They didn’t have control of the situation.
SG: Well, a lot of reporters and photographers left before the battle was won. As I looked at the coverage their stuff wasn’t on page one and sometimes it wasn’t even on the business page. And in some cases, it was like three or four paragraphs, hidden. But for the newspapers who stayed until the battle was won it was on the front page with a dramatic story and a great big positive headline. And so, I was able to show, we used slide projectors, what happened. My photographer and the headline writer were just perfect. They had this big picture of the 777 and there was this African American mother and father who had both worked on the plane and their kid was about four under the belly of the plane which was silvery like a mirror. And the little kid is up there touching it.
IA: Oh, great photo.
SG: You can see their smiling faces reflected in the belly of the plane. And I had kind of written the lead about how this was like the delivery room and all the relatives were coming to see the infant. The headline that the copy editor had written was, “Congratulations, It’s a 777!” I said, “This is what happens when you bring “Working Together” into media relations. This other stuff, these buried stories, this is what happens when you keep practicing it the way you’ve been practicing.
So, anyway, I got this offer to come do that. I was a little bit leery of it [going to work for Boeing]. Most journalists think that PR people are paid to lie. And so, I started calling PR people I had known over the years. What was interesting, there was a distinction. Those I’d known in politics said, “Well, yeah, there’s times when you can’t really tell the truth.” And the folks I called on the business side were just adamant. “Well, absolutely not. The fastest path to the woodshed is to get a fact wrong in a public statement. And the fastest path to the unemployment line is to do something like that deliberately.”
So, I looked at my profession and, by that time, I had a new editor who was a baby boomer and he was no longer my fiercest critic; he was my cheerleader. If you wrote something negative it was, “Yeah, that’s the way to get ‘em.” And as I thought about it I realized it’s a generational change. The cynicism is going to be there and cynicism isn’t going to lead you to the truth any more than gullibility will. That era, and it lasted about five decades, where objective journalism was the standard was kind of drawing to a close. And now we’re actually closer to the way it was back in the ‘10s and ‘20s. Back then newspapers were by and large party organs. Even the paper I had worked for, The Arizona Republic, used to be The Arizona Republican. It was an organ of the Arizona Republican Party. And The Arkansas Democrat was the Democratic Party organ.
IA: If you were going to look at journalism today, you’d compare it to the 1910s, ‘20s vs. what, the ‘60s, ‘70s, even the ‘80s? A transition in the 1980s probably.
SG: Yes. Journalism really has this special place in society and in the Constitution. What other career is protected I guess besides preachers in the Constitution? It is sort of an unelected fourth branch of government and designed to act as a kind of check and balance. So, my conviction was if you could do solid journalism you could really nail a story about some problem that’s going on. And that creates political pressure to do something about it. And the policies that are going to result from that are probably going to be pretty solid policies. But if the journalism is crappy it’s still going to build up political pressure and you’re going to end up with crappy policies, creating more problems down the line which creates more opportunities for journalism. (Chuckles)
Eagle Island as Seen Through Sean’s Lens
The News Tribune decided they were going to do this big project about why Tacoma was the most violent city in the Northwest. To get there you had to define what violence was. There had a very broad view of what it was. If people called the police and complained the neighbors were fighting in the apartment next door and they could hear it through the walls then that counted as an episode of violence and all violence was sort of treated equal. And then they did violence by census district, census tracts.
So, they compared government databases about census and what the population was like in each census tract. And when they came out with the series, they said, after reviewing all of the data we have to conclude that poverty is the cause of the violence. And we say that even though we found some poor census tracts that had low crime rates and we found some affluent census tracts that had high crime rates. And I thought, “Well then how can you conclude that?”
So, I went to the database guy and I said, “Weren’t there any correlations stronger than poverty?” And he said, “The strongest correlation is between the percent of single parent households in each census tract and the violent crime rate.” And I said, “So why didn’t they report that?” He said, “The team felt that that would be blaming single mothers if we reported that.” And I’m thinking that could be a real problem and if you report the real problem then maybe society could focus on things like support for single mothers, for example. But, they didn’t want to blame single mothers so they did this thing that it was because of poverty which meant there was nothing the community, society, or the government could really do. So, you had this huge project that consumed a lot of resources and it ended up really achieving nothing. We’re in an era where we are falsifying our conclusions to protect a viewpoint, an ideological viewpoint.
IA: When was that? What time period was that?
SG: That was ’96 I think.
IA: You’re going to tell a story, but you’re going to use some facts to tell the story instead of all the facts and an analysis of the facts.
SG: They were afraid of the consequences of the reporting, which is not what journalism is about. We’ve substituted name-calling for argument and discussion.
IA: So, I take it in the telling of that story, the TNT’s feature that they did, that was another kick in the rear end to get you out of journalism, the straight journalism field.
SG: It was part of falling out of love with journalism. I still love the concept of journalism, what journalism is supposed to be. I’m still in love with the code of ethics of The Society of Professional Journalists which the NY Times and others decided to abandon in 2016. They said it didn’t apply any more. And it would have saved them so much grief if they had just kept the ethical standards in place.
IA: You mean they consciously stated that?
SG: Yes. And it was in response to Donald Trump’s candidacy. They thought he was such an unusual candidate and such a dangerous candidate that the standards of journalism no longer apply. That’s why most of the media got the Russia collusion story wrong.
IA: Do you think the change in journalism has contributed to the political arena right now?
SG: Oh yeah, it’s huge.
IA: Eventually we want to get to where you’re at today but I’m just curious when you went to work for the Boeing Company and you were in public relations I take it, do you think that that experience helped or caused you to change your outlook on the art you do, both the writing as well as photography? Did it have an impact on your skill set and your view of things? Or was it just a job?
SG: It’s a combination. The thing that impressed me most when I first went, contrary to my fear that I would be compromising my integrity, I found the ethics in corporate communications were higher than they’d been in journalism.
IA: That’s interesting, very interesting. You went there in the ‘90s?
SG: ’97. Much higher [referring to ethics in corporate communications]. At the same time, I’m a deadline person. I loved a story breaking 20 minutes before deadline and I could focus and just get that thing out. In a bureaucracy the approval process for getting something published is . . . that anything ever gets published through corporate communication is amazing to me because everybody who is affected or might have influence has to look at it and approve it.
It was just. . . that part was not fun, not fun at all. But it was really good at shaping a global understanding and not just international stuff, but how businesses work. And how, when there’s a big scandal in a company the guy on top is usually the last person to find out because bad news doesn’t flow uphill very well. When somebody gets promoted people stop communicating with them, they’re more guarded in their communications and all that. There may be stuff happening down here because people want to look good and they want to protect their jobs and they don’t want this guy to find out. And if he finds out, well he doesn’t want this guy to find out so the guy at the top goes, “What the hell just happened?”
Kayaking in Higgins Cove at Anderson Island
IA: That would be frustrating. I don’t know if I could function under that . . .
SG: The 737 Max thing, I’m sure nobody at the top level had any idea anything like this was even possible.
IA: Do you think when you moved to Boeing in the late ‘90s you represented a desertion from journalism because of the kinds of things you described, in how it’s changed? Do you think you were part of a trend of people?
SG: No, I don’t think so. Mainly people have left journalism because . . . I’m most familiar with the print folks . . . because of the downsizing in journalism. Starting with Craig’s List it knocked out half of the revenue that newspapers get. When I was at The News Tribune there were 130 people just in the newsroom and I doubt if there’s 45 now.
IA: That sort of gets us into the question of technology, you know how you think it’s affected the whole field.
SG: Revenues from the web presence haven’t been anything like the print media was. So . . . you’re getting me really depressed (chuckles).
IA: Don’t you think the print reader and the social media reader are two different animals? I’m not so sure it’s a positive thing.
SG: People tend to read the stuff that they’ll agree with and they don’t read the stuff they don’t agree with. I have liberal friends who will condemn Fox News and conservative friends who will condemn CNN and MSNBC. And I know none of them are really familiar with the other product. You know they’re mainly repeating what they’ve heard the people in their cohort say about a thing. I read everything. I read conservative writers, I read liberal writers. I watch CNN and Fox News and NBC and they all have their solid folks and they all have their opinion folks and they have their outrageous folks. I don’t see a whole lot of difference.
IA: You try to reach out broadly? That reminds me of . . . I can’t remember what company it was, they started monitoring Facebook posts and they would take things you wouldn’t normally look at off your Facebook page. To me that speaks to what you’re talking about.
IA: It’s Facebook itself that’s doing that with their algorithms.
IA: They’ve narrowed it down (what people can see when they look at their own Facebook page) so they’re narrowing down peoples’ view of the world.
SG: If you take it to a previous generation of technology this would be like the phone company limiting who can call you and who you can call.
IA: Yeah, true.
SG: What’s really interesting to me, since the Mueller investigation came in, there’s only a handful of journalists, and all of them are from conservative publications, except for one, Glen Greenwald, he’s liberal, who actually were applying the previous standard of skepticism with this stuff going along. They actually ended up getting the story right. Only a handful, and the others who belong to this new generation of cynical journalism almost universally got it completely wrong.
IA: Scary thought.
SG: I don’t think it’s fixable. I think the web is transforming information the same way into a greater degree than the Guttenberg press did a long time ago. Nothing is the same after the invention of the Internet.
IA: I think it’s dangerous. To me it’s dangerous.
SG: It’s how Al Qaeda stayed in touch. It’s how they coordinated things.
IA: This thing, I’m moving down through these questions, what is or what was your mission regarding your body of work? How would sum up your body of work?
SG: On the photography side?
IA: On either side. Earlier I asked about highlights of your professional career, if you were reflecting back on your career what would you see as important things for people to know about.
SG: On the writing side not having a journalism degree helped. The guy who gave me my first full-time reporting job, who hired me because I didn’t have a journalism degree, he said, “You know, journalism was a blue collar profession and then they started expecting these degrees and they’ve turned it into a white collar profession so you’re getting all these affluent white kids coming into it where you used to get . . .”
IA: That’s an interesting observation.
SG: . . .urban kids. Even in Watergate, Carl Bernstein was one of those blue collar kids. He was a copy boy. And Bob Woodward was the opposite; he was one of those college kids with a journalism degree. Remind me what your question was.
IA: It was your mission regarding your body of work.
SG: Oh yeah, the mission. I think since I didn’t have a journalism degree but I had some real-world experience before getting into journalism. It just made me different as a reporter. And it made me see things different and from different perspectives. An example, most of the reporters, even the business reporters I worked with, thought profits were an evil thing, a bad thing, rather than the thing that allows R&D to occur and jobs to be created.
IA: That’s reminding me, when you were referring to that photographer, some people saw a piece of lettuce and he saw a landscape. Is that how you characterize your writing?
SG: Exactly. I noticed different things. Twice I was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and one was kind of a straight political story about corruption in a freeway building program in Arizona involving lots of dollars. In short it was about how a raise in the sales tax was supposed to build a 271-mile freeway system and after 6 years all of the money was gone and they’d built 13 miles.
Nature Photography by Sean
AI: That is a story that could be told a lot these days.
SG: It involved big players, it involved the Hunt brothers, it involved prostitutes, all kinds of things.
IA: How were you approached about the Pulitzer Prize? Was it a surprise to you?
SG: The paper nominated me. And the other one was with The News Tribune. And it was . . . I wrote about aerospace, I wrote about Boeing and airlines and Airbus. But there was this Boeing worker who . . . I had spoken at this career day and the school nurse came up to me and said, “I’ve got a story for you. It’s about this family, see this kid here, he’s in a wheel chair.” And she kept saying it would make a great story. And I kept saying, “Thank you very much but I don’t do that kind of reporting but I’ll pass it on to the health reporter.” About 20 minutes later she comes back and says, “It’s all set up. Bob’s on his way home and he’s going to meet you at the house.” So, I decided out of courtesy I would just go say hi to him. He got home and it turned out he had these two boys and they both had this rare neuro-degenerative disease called Niemann Pick Type C.
Bob got home. Eric was wearing diapers; he was curled up. He was 17 years old and in bed. He had been kind of throwing up through his feeding tube in his stomach. And it was stuff everywhere. So, I was with Bob as he got Eric cleaned up. He had modified his bathroom so he could wheel a shower gurney in there. He got him clean and got him fresh pajamas and got Enfamil in the feeding bag. And I started hearing his story.
So, these were two normal little boys and then at the age of about 9 or 10 they start having little petit mal seizures and then grand mal seizures and then they’re fighting for their life. For years they didn’t have a diagnosis. If you don’t have a diagnosis insurance doesn’t cover a whole lot of stuff. It was just this living hell for these folks.
Finally, their neurologist went to this conference and heard about this disease and it sounded familiar. There were some chief indicator symptoms. H came back and it turned out that Eric did have Niemann Pick Type C, and there was a test you could do to see if David, who was perfectly normal at that point, had it, too. They had David tested and he had it, too. He was going to follow the same path as his brother. It was clearly near the end for Eric.
So, I went to my boss and I said, “So, I’ve got a story for you.” He was the business editor. I said, “So the good news is there’s a Boeing angle to it. The guy does work for Boeing, but that’s about it. The bad news is it’s on someone else’s beat and I’ve talked to them and they’re not interested in doing it because they’ve got enough on their plate. But when you get into journalism sometimes you get a story that just has your name on it and it’s a story you just have to tell. So, I’d like to be able to tell this story. But the bad news is it will probably require a full-time commitment. I’m not going to be able to produce Boeing stories on as competitive a basis as you would expect.” To his credit he said, “If you’ve got to tell that story, you’ve got to tell that story.” He went in and plead the case to the managing editor and got permission for me to do it. And I became a pariah in the newsroom because I was beat jumping. This was a no-no.
SG: And people for months wouldn’t talk to me.
IA: Even though the person who’s beat covered it didn’t want to do the story?
SG: Yes. And I had asked that a female photographer be assigned, freed up to do it with me, because we spent 5 or 6 hours with this family every day for 5 months. And I said because men and women hear are two different things often. When they have conversations they talk about different things. I need a woman’s ear on this also. And it interested me not only because I was a parent but because society didn’t know how to deal with end of life things. When do you pull the plug? Where is the line between extending someone’s life and prolonging their dying? Eric was rushed to Children’s Hospital probably once a month because what would happen is his lungs would collapse and they’d fill with fluid and they’d be suctioned out and it was a pretty gruesome process.
IA: How long did he live?
SG: Five months from when I met the family.
IA: And what about his brother?
SG: His brother, let’s see. Eric died on November 15th of ’95 and David died in January of ’98.
IA: Boy, it would be hard enough watching children die, but having a child that watches a sibling die and know that’s what their future is. That must have been unreal. So that coverage got nominated for the Pulitzer.
SG: The full series got nominated for the Pulitzer. My editor actually said (and my editor had actually won Pulitzers himself) he said, “I don’t want you to get your hopes up. This is Pulitzer worthy but it’s not current with the times right now.” You’re dealing with a nuclear family; the husband and wife are still together and they’ve been married this whole time. You’re kind of not hitting all of the hot buttons in society right now. It would help if it was a single mother, it would help if it was a minority family, it would help with all these other kinds of things.” And he said these are not the topics the judges are looking for right now. So, he says, “It’s a great story. You should be proud of it. But it is what it is.”
Even before he said that I felt like this was the story I was meant for and my fear was that I’d never be able to write anything better than that in my career. And that’s part of what contributed to my decision to be open to Boeing’s offer. So anyway, that was . . . the paper generated more letters to the editor and phone calls than just about anything except some fundraising campaigns and all that. It was published in December and the following July I was with the family for the 4th of July and the dad started having these really bad headaches. And 3 weeks later he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
IA: Oh my god.
SG: One of the stories in my series had been, what is this couple going to do after the boys are gone? They were going to sell their house, travel the world, maybe live in Europe for a while. So now the story has changed and now it’s just going be mom. So, he dies on Halloween and his deathbed is in the living room of their house and the doorbell rings and keeps ringing and there are kids dressed up like skeletons and stuff to get candy. It was just, it was such an odd night. And then they asked me to do his eulogy because he and I had violated some journalistic concepts and become close.
Something You Don’t See in Nature Every Day
IA: Pretty tough not to.
SG: And then when I was at Boeing, I’d been there about a month when the paper called and said, no it was about 5 months, we’re doing end-of-year where are they now kind of stuff and some of our readers wanted to know what happened to this family. They said, “We can’t imagine sending another reporter out there. Do you think Boeing would let you do an update on it?” That was just before David died. I was really happy that Boeing said yes. It was kind of interesting because David had been in the wheel chair and he’d been like this for a long time and pretty much unresponsive. They were at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving and this one kid who’d been a friend of his before he got sick and they used to have this favorite video game they played then, by chance they put the video game on and it played this certain music and David who had not been able to push his wheelchair, this motorized wheelchair at all, all of a sudden started pushing the knob and it started moving, and with some help made is way over to where they were playing the game and they handed him the controller. He was terrible at it. His guy kept crashing into walls but it was sort of this last little flash of intellect in him. It just kicked something alive in him. That was Thanksgiving. His mom decided to give him that game for Christmas, but by then he wasn’t capable of anything anymore and he died a few weeks later.
SG: So, then they had me do the whole funeral on that one. Then there was a UW football coach who showed up at his funeral. I didn’t recognize him but somebody else did. Before the funeral I went up to talk to him and I said, “Do you know the family?” He said, “No, but I’ve got a son who has the adult version of this disease.”
IA: It’s probably a pretty small fraternity. And that was all happening after you had made the move to Boeing.
SG: Yes, that period. I still get emotional thinking about that [the relationship with and the story about the family].
IA: We can tell. Did you stay at Boeing through to the end of your career?
IA: So that went until when?
IA: Is that when you moved to the island?
IA: What made you want to live on Anderson Island?
SG: I was shell shocked and heartbroken after the breakup of my marriage. And I had to move. So, I went on Craig’s List and I was looking for a place and I was using search terms like “Waterfront View”, “Nature”, things that you associate with healing. And I just saw an ad for a rental on Anderson Island. I didn’t think I wanted to live on an island. I’d been out here once before as a guest of Lucy Stephenson. But then I saw this place and it was spectacular and it was cheap and it was right on the water. And I just thought, “I’ve just got to find a way to make this work.” My criteria for finding a place was that I wanted to be conducive to healing, I wanted it to be conducive to photography and I wanted it to be a place my kids would like to visit. It met all three of those.
This place is wonderful. And I started putting photos up on the Community (Facebook) Page when I came. And other people did. I don’t know if this is true or not but Pete Cammon told me I started this thing of people taking photos of the island and posting them.
IA: I remember yours first. Obviously, there are others. Do you find that the community of photographers here, is there a symbiotic relationship there? Do you work off of each other?
SG: I think we love each other’s work. We all do different things. I’m just astonished by John Larsen’s work.
IA: I think a lot of people are.
SG: And even the stuff he doesn’t show to people I’ve seen some of that. And Belen [Schneider] is a wonderful photographer. Lane Sample is really good. And there are others, several others.
IA: It seems really interesting that there is such a large number on a per capita basis of really talented photographers, obviously other artists as well, in a community like this. But maybe it’s the community itself or the environment. Maybe the talent was there when they came here. Because of the island? I’m not sure what the dynamic is but it’s pretty amazing the number of high-quality photographers who are here.
Most photographers seem to have a particular niche like John (Larsen) is definitely outdoor, wildlife, foliage, nature I guess in a broader sense. Belen, of course, is birds almost exclusively. You seem to bounce around a lot. You do a lot of different things. Studio as well as outdoors, all kinds of subjects.
SG: My whole life, even in journalism, I’ve been interested in just about everything. Why don’t I show you guys some of my stuff. Does that work? (We break to look at some of Sean’s work on his computer in the office.)
IA: We’ve talked a lot about journalism in terms of what can grab people. In your opinion what defines a good photograph? What are you trying to do with your photography? What do you want to provoke in people?
SG: We talked about the Westons a little bit before and how seeing that bell pepper, seeing that lettuce leaf not as an ordinary object but as extraordinary objects and extraordinary shapes and landscapes. That developed in me what I call the curse of the photographer’s eye. Once you get that, and I think all artists acquire that at some stage, you just don’t look at the world the same way anymore. And the world actually becomes much more impressive than it would be otherwise. The downside of it is if you’re hiking with friends you’re always going to be the slowest person in the group. You’re stopping and you’re observing things and you’re seeing the way the sunlight falls on a fern and you need to capture that.
Viewing Nature Up Close and Personal
My rule of thumb is, if something is enough to catch my eye then it might make a decent photograph. If I can capture in the camera what I see in my brain and all that. I think photography is 98% perception. It’s what you see and I don’t see it as being about technology at all. My photograph that was recognized by the Smithsonian was taken with a simple point and shoot camera with a studio that cost me 10 cents to put together, a couple of sheets of printer paper and a cardboard box. You know there’s a saying that the best camera in the world is the one you happen to have with you when you need a camera. And there’s a lot of truth to that. Increasingly I’ve been using my phone to capture pictures, even in the studio. You may remember the photo of Santa I did that we made the fundraiser Christmas card. . .
IA: The real Santa.
SG: The real Santa lives on Anderson island and that was taken with my phone. That wasn’t even in the studio. But the phone has a feature that allowed it to look like it was in a studio. In that sense technology is playing a little bit of a role. A lot of my award-winning landscape shots have been shot with my phone. And I’m coming, even in the studio, to prefer it to my big expensive camera. What’s cool about that is it means anybody can be a really good photographer these days. There are probably five things to learn about photography. One is seeing, one is composition and one is the awareness that you’re capturing light. You have to have a sensitivity to light, which means you have to have a sensitivity to shadow. The main thing I do for editing is crop. You crop for certain effects. You actually want to manipulate the viewer’s eye so they’re going to exactly the part of the photograph you want them to see. It’s an extraordinary vocation, avocation, passion to have. You never stop learning, you never stop observing. And it creates abundant opportunities for giving. It’s so easy to give a gift of photography for a fundraiser on the island or to create an album of remembrance photos for a family whose babies aren’t going to come home from the hospital.
IA: You do that don’t you? You offer that service?
IA: You’re making it pretty tough on yourself.
SG: It’s not. . . it’s actually not that hard to do. For most of these folks most of the time, unless the baby is badly disfigured you wouldn’t know these aren’t the shots of a live baby in the hospital.
Esther (Sean’s Wife): You have to work yourself up to go.
SG: Well, that part is actually true. I often call Esther on the way and say, “Esther, remind me why I do this.” Once I’m there I’m fine. It’s the drive to it that is hard because you just know how much these people are hurting.
IA: These are people whose baby has already died?
SG: They’re about to be born still-born or they’re not expected to live more than a few minutes. The oldest was a kid who had been born three months earlier. He’d been through many operations and now had an infection from which he wasn’t going to recover. So, this family had bonded with that kid pretty powerfully. A lot of these are normal delivery room pictures where Grandma and Grandpa have come to see the beautiful new baby. The aunts and uncles are there and sometimes the parents are alone or just a single parent.
IA: I couldn’t do that. Emotionally I couldn’t do that. I commend you for doing it. I think it’s an amazing service but I don’t think I could go through that.
SG: That’s where the camera becomes an emotional barrier because you are focused on the lighting, you’re focused on the composition.
IA: You’re focused on the technical part of it.
SG: You’re focused on the technical part of shooting this and creating memorable photos.
Esther: Some of the people can’t make a decision whether or not they want the pictures.
IA: After they’re done?
Esther: A couple of times he’s said he’d go ahead and take them because you might think about it and change your mind. And one time a couple of months later one of the mothers called and asked if he still had the pictures. She wanted them then. She got past the healing with it and had nothing to show that they’d had that baby.
Singing at Karaoke Night, One of Sean’s Passions
SG: That happened at Madigan [Army Hospital], that might have been my last shoot. No, it wasn’t my last shoot. But by the time a got through the rigamorole of getting a pass to go onto a military base and all that the family had left. They’d changed their minds about having remembrance photos done. So, I was talking to the nurse and I said, “You know, this violates our rules and regs and probably violates yours because we need the parents’ permission to take these pictures. But why don’t I just go ahead and I will take pictures. And I’ll hold onto them for 90 days. If I don’t hear anything I’ll go ahead and delete them. But, I’ll leave you my card and if they call asking about it . . . and probably on about day 88 I get contacted. “Do you still have those pictures?”
Like one of my bosses at Boeing said once, “Never let the bureaucracy keep you from doing the right thing.” The boss who said it, Scott Carson, has a home on Lake Josephine.
IA: Obviously not a bureaucrat.
IA: I keep bringing it back to these questions; we’ve been all over the map. As far as writing or photography, what do you see as the difference between amateur and professional? You get a lot of people who say I’m a professional photographer. Like you say you are amazed at what is online and what is on Facebook and how good the photography is. What do you think? Is there any kind of definition?
(Sean lays a $5 bill on the table to laughter)
IA: You get paid, you’re a professional.
SG: You know, that’s how . . . people told me I wasn’t going to make it in journalism because I didn’t have the right degree so you have to find another way to prove yourself. So, I wrote that article for Bicycling magazine and suddenly I had a paycheck. I had been published. I had clips I could show to people. That opened the doors to lots of other stuff. The same with photography. The moment someone gives you a dollar for one of your photographs you are a professional and you are entitled to present yourself as a professional photographer. Unless it’s your mom and dad.
IA: They’re subsidizing your habit.
IA: Let’s see where we’re at here. Oh, karaoke. That should revitalize you. Knowing that you champion Karaoke did you ever consider becoming an actor or a singer? Now, you talked about the acting earlier. What is it about karaoke and singing, did you ever do anything with singing?
SG: I didn’t finish my story about acting. I told you about my friend, Allen Galli, how that had changed his life. That gave me . . . I’d always felt bad about chickening out. You don’t have a lot of regrets in life but that was one of them. So, there is a group in Tacoma called Puget Sound Revels and they were just getting started. One of the people who was auditioning needed a ride to the audition and asked if I would give him a ride. Along the way he told me, “The audition is simple. You just sing a children’s song, a folk song, whatever.” And I probably told him that story of my high school teacher. So, he was just encouraging me to audition for it.
I decided to do it, and the person who was auditioning me who was the music director said, “Do this and do this.” And she said, “You’re a tenor.” I said, “I am?” She said, “They are few and far between.” That’s how I got in and got a part in the show. I understand how Allen had changed from pursuing a degree in law to pursuing a degree in drama because it was so exciting to up there and engage with an audience at that level, and to collaborate with these people in creating something that is so much bigger than yourself and then having this ecstasy of the performance and then having it die all of a sudden, you know, the morning after the last performance. You’re singing the tenor part to a beautiful choral piece alone in your shower and it sounds so lonely and you realize it’s never going to sound like it did ever again. It’s over, it’s done with, it’s dead.
A couple of days after that my friend who got me to take him to the audition said, “So, how deep is the depression?” I said, “Is this normal?” And he said, “Yeah, there’s post-partem depression in theater, too. That’s what makes it so addicting.”
I did have a problem with stage fright, a big problem. I’d often throw up before a show and then once the show started, I’d be fine. One director took me on stage before a show once and she said, “Sean, what do you see out there?” And I said, “I see a lot of empty seats.” She goes, “What’s going to happen in a few minutes?” “Those doors are going to open and people are going to fill those seats.” “Your worst critics, right?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “No they’re not. That’s your cheering section. Those are your fans. They are in awe that you are up there at all because they can’t imagine in a million years ever doing anything like that.” And that spoke to me because that’s exactly how I felt the first time I saw a play. And she goes, “And guess what happens when you make your first mistake.” “Well, then they turn on you.” “No, because you’re going to go right ahead. And they’re going to be, even if they notice which they probably won’t, they’re going to be even in more awe because you’re going to just keep going as if nothing happened. Just don’t screw up too much.” She literally cured me of stage fright by switching my thinking, from thinking of the audience as critics to thinking of them as my cheering section and fans. So, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not too afraid of a microphone anymore.
IA: Yeah, we’ve noticed you haven’t met one you didn’t like.
SG: I did fourteen productions with Puget Sound Revels. I did it mostly because working with the music director was like getting free voice lessons. And my voice improved a lot during that. When I came to the island I’d been here about a year and a half before I discovered there was karaoke night. It wasn’t being promoted. I went to it and there were maybe 6 or 7 people and I decided this is going to go away if it keeps going like this. So, I took it upon myself to promote it. But what I found is that my voice has improved more by doing karaoke than it did working with a music director. The process is really interesting. Nowadays, since my television has a YouTube channel I can go and find karaoke versions of any song I want to sing and that I can practice it. It’s like anything, when you’re trying to sing along with the song the first time you just sound horrible. And probably the first 7 or 8 times trying to do a karaoke song you just go “Ugh.” That is awful. But your brain unconsciously does these little tweaks. It starts fixing those things and correcting it. And after you’ve practiced a song maybe 15 times, it doesn’t have to be all it once, it can be over a couple of months, you start getting remarkably close to how the original artist did it.
IA: I sort of doubt that on my part. I’d have to practice a lot more.
SG: And Esther, when we got married, said never in a million years would I get her in front of an audience singing. On our honeymoon they had karaoke every night on the cruise ship. And there this couple from Texas and the guy moonlighted as a comedian and his specialty was doing impersonations of celebrities and he applied that to karaoke. So, when he did a Merle Haggard song, if you weren’t looking at him, you’d swear Merle Haggard was singing. And when he did a James Taylor song you’d swear James Taylor was singing. So, he really had an ear for voice and all that. I guess my philosophy is that singing is one of the great joys in life and life is best lived outside your comfort zone. Karaoke combines that just about better than anything I know.
Esther: Some people have an inner desire to be a rock star some day and this is the opportunity to get out there and do their thing.
SG: At Jazzbones up on 6th Avenue on Mondays they have a thing called rock karaoke where it’s karaoke but with a live rock band instead.
IA: That would be fun to organize a group to go to that from the island.
SG: What I wish for the island is a couple of things. First, that a choral group gets going. You know, I mentioned this movie Young at Heart (a documentary movie about a group of elderly people who sing rock songs as a choral group).
SG: I’m hoping it will actually be the seed for spurring that. It’s also my hope for the island that we actually get a musical going. And something simple like The Fantasticks would be perfect.
IA: I’m sure there are other people out here who would like to do that. I think there’s a number of people who would like to do that. When we first moved out here we talked about a theater group. And there were quite a few people who were interested at that point. That was 20 years ago and the group has changed but . . .
SG: For The Fantasticks you just need a harp and a piano. And I know 2 harpists on the island, including my next-door neighbor.
IA: So, let’s see where we’re at. Advice for future writers and photographers. What would you advise?
SG: Okay, for writing, I don’t think it’s changed. When I was going to school, they were doing a terrible job teaching people how to write. They taught them how to put together sentences and paragraphs and how to write reports. But they didn’t teach them how to write, how people would want to write. And I first discovered this my freshman year in college when I got my first love. Within a few weeks of starting school, I’d fallen in love for the first time and at Christmas we went to our respective homes for the holidays.
She wrote me a letter describing her day and how she had gone on this little hike to a place called Pine Valley and I had never read anything like that before. And I could almost smell the scent of the pines and feel the warmth of the sunshine. It was very sensuous writing in terms of appealing to all of the senses. You could hear the crunch of the needles under her footsteps, all kinds of things.
She was my Edward Weston of writing so in a lot of ways my writing started to emulate just what I got from this letter from an old girlfriend. The best book I have found on that, and it’s not so much the book as it is the exercises in the book, is called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. And I discovered this in a writers’ group that I used to meet in Tacoma, used to meet at the library. And somebody had discovered it and brought in the exercise. And it was a simple exercise. I’m not sure it would work for younger generations because it involves the use of a pen. But they brought an egg timer in and we’d go around the room and somebody had to suggest a topic and it could be just an abstract topic like the color red. The timer was turned over and the rule was that your pen could not stop moving. So, in the beginning you’d start, “Red, red, red, red . . .I can’t think of anything to write about . . .” And what you’re doing is you’re turning your brain loose. You’re just writing and suddenly you start following these threads, “Red, red, red . . .the red Corvair, the red Corvette, travelling down the road. . .”
And what was interesting, the very first time we tried that, we had some writers who were frankly just terrible writers in that group. But when we read the results, they were uniformly astonishing. What became clear to me in that is the brain will normally organize itself into a story. It’s probably an evolutionary thing. They say prostitution is the oldest profession. I think story telling is the oldest profession. I think it’s so hard wired into us. And that’s what happened when people started writing about the color red or about a cucumber. Somehow this thing takes off and the brain will do its own thing. And that becomes a very natural kind of writing, a nice writing that flows. And then from that you can edit something.
IA: Was that exercise in this woman’s book?
SG: Yes. And you don’t even need the book, you just set a timer for 10 minutes, 15 minutes is probably too long. The other thing is, keep it simple. If you go back and look at, particularly the novels, that most impressed you and stuck with you or even the non-fiction books that most stuck with you, if you look and examine them, you’ll find the writing style is usually extraordinarily simple. It is short sentences, short words, one or two syllables, maybe three at the most. One thought per sentence.
IA: Ernest Hemingway?
IA: William Faulkner.
SG: Catch 22 is that way. One of my favorite novels is a book called Ellen Foster, about a foster kid, by Kaye Gibbons. It’s just beautifully written, it’s almost poetry the way it’s written. So that would be part of the advice. And the research kind of upholds that, the research on reading comprehension shows that at the 14th word in a sentence comprehension starts to fall off and the person typically will have to go back and reread the sentence. At the 25th word all comprehension falls off and you have to go back and reread it at least twice. People tend not to do that these days. So, keeping it simple is important. And the third thing is to just have a blast with writing. We humans are compulsive communicators. Just like with karaoke, just like with photography they are among the joys in life. If you can enjoy the joy of writing. I’m going to give you an example of having fun with writing. So, I’ll be right back . . . (Sean heads off to his office).
A New Life with Esther
I don’t know if it still happens, but for many years a professor of English at San Jose State University had an annual worldwide writing competition to come up with the worst conceivable opening line to an imaginary novel in the style of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It’s called the Bulwer-Lytton fiction writing contest. He was the one who came up with the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” that’s followed by about 70 words, the sentence almost seems interminable. But it was a very kind of flowery kind of writing done in the early Victorian period. A couple of years ago I was proud to receive a dishonorable mention for my entries. And one of them was included in a book where he compiled some of the best submissions.
IA: One of your dishonorable mentions was included in here?
(Sean opens the book to his opening line)
SG: “The first time a boy stuck his tongue in her mouth Jenny surrendered completely to the invigorating intermingling of their spit, not the polidential spit of old age nor the salivary secretions of middle age with its tart hints of gingivitis, even among those who floss daily, but the invigorating drool of youth, spittle that dazzled the uninitiated with its exquisite hints of promise, innocence and bygone braces.”
IA: Did you get a critique on that?
SG: I got included in the book so . . . Writing bad is surprisingly hard. It probably took me a week to come up with that.
SG: For the concept of having fun with writing I’d recommend reading the first volume, actually anyone of the volumes, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams has more fun writing than any writer I’ve ever come across. There’s this scene where these spaceships, big yellow spaceships, show up all around the planet and the earth’s about to be destroyed and he goes, “At that moment there were these great big yellow somethings that hovered motionlessly in the skies above the earth in very much the same way that a brick doesn’t.”
IA: I think it would be a fun to do a night of prose instead of poetry. You know, people picking out their favorite prose and sharing it. What about photographers? What would you advise people who are into photography who want to make it a career?
SG: Who want to make it a career?
IA: Or improve their craft.
SG: It’s harder to make it a career without specialization because everybody’s got a camera now and everybody is capable of wonderful photography now. But if you wanted to go into advertising photography there are abundant opportunities there. Fashion photography. Stuff that really requires expensive equipment and those kinds of things. You pretty much have to live where the big photography centers are, Los Angeles, New York, those kinds of places, where there is probably more demand than there actually are photographers to fill it.
But for photography in general you just really need to learn about those few things I mentioned. You need to understand that what you are doing is capturing light. And all light is not equal. This is not an equal opportunity photon universe.
Right now, it is a little after noon, the sun is directly overhead. If I tried a portrait outdoors you would look like a zombie because your eyebrow ridge would cast a shadow over your eyes and darken them. We call them the golden hours, an hour around sunrise and an hour around sunset are really beautiful for photography because the light is coming from a low angle so the shadows that will appear are sideways shadows. It’s like your nose a little bit and all that. It will help give dimension to your contours. It’s also more red-light waves and orange light waves in there which are dramatic.
If you look in National Geographic you will see almost every photograph in there is shot at either dawn or dusk, very few in the middle of the day. Becoming sensitive to light and how you can use light . . . I like shooting here in the winter time because the sun is so low it creates dramatic shadows all the time. And learning about composition, there are certain parts of a photograph . . . not all parts of a landscape design or portrait design are equal. There is like a tic-tac-toe grid in that image and where those lines cross are the most interesting parts of the photograph so you want to put your subject so that their face will line up with those points.
IA: Is that the same rule as thirds?
SG: It’s similar to thirds. But it’s not the same rule. The rule of thirds, of course, you have your subject be one third and the rest of it, often negative space, be two thirds. Or vice versa, two thirds the subject and one third the negative space. It’s why white cropping is so important, mentally cropping. I will often take a picture that shows more than I actually want the finished picture to be and then I can crop it a bit.
IA: Get it where you want it? Is metering the same thing you’re talking about as far as light?
SG: Yes, because light has . . . it’s called temperature. It doesn’t relate to heat. It relates to a mix of wave lengths and light. My studio lights are about 5,000 degrees Kelvin which just means when I’m using my regular camera I’ve got to balance, tell my camera that I’m shooting that. You may have seen gray scales, those kinds of neutral gray scales. You use that to white balance your camera, so that your camera is reading light at the same temperature that your studio lights are.
Phones are amazing. They kind of do that automatically. I’d love to know the algorithms that do that. Again, have fun with your photography. Photos that can make me laugh that can make me inspired . . . and be patient. Sometimes things happen.
I’ve got a wonderful picture of a daisy, an ox nose daisy. It was a little past its prime so its petals were starting to wilt a little bit. And there were these two lady bugs that were crawling around the face. The ox nose daisy kind of has a protuberance that looks like a round nose and it also has a little red line around. Let me see if I can find this. (Looking on his IPhone for the picture). Here it is. Then those lady bugs crawled right into position making a smiley face. Let me brighten this up.
IA: Oh, my gosh.
SG: But it was about 20-25 minutes of waiting for those lady bugs to get to the right place. I donated a framed copy of that to a foundation to raise money for breast cancer research. The auctioneer put it in the live auction. And he talked about this, “Isn’t this about how we all feel? Our bodies are not at their peak anymore. We’re feeling weak. Some days we don’t feel like getting anything done. But the attitude that we have to bring to life going on.” So, this thing went up to $800. And they asked if I’d do another if the other person paid $800, too.
IA: That’s great. We’re pretty much down to the end. What would you like your audience to know about you and your art that we haven’t touched on?
SG: My attitude in general. I had to do research for this speech once when I worked at Boeing. And I came across this study of 800 people in the UK. Four hundred of these people were picked because they generally believed that their lives had been unlucky and the other 400 were picked because they generally believed that their lives had been very lucky, good things were always happening to them. And they studied these folks for 10 years. And after 10 years they published their findings. And what they found was that the folks lived by different rules and they thought those rules might shape the outcome.
And one example was going to a party. The people who generally thought of themselves as unlucky would go to a party and they’d look for somebody they knew and then they’d hang out with those people they knew for the rest of the party. The people who felt their lives were lucky would go to the party and they’d look for somebody new and say “Hi” and then they’d start going around and making new acquaintances around them. So, the way that would affect them in their lives is by expanding those circles. If people heard about a job opportunity that might be in their field they were more likely to hear about it than the people who felt they were unlucky. And where it really hit home. The rule was that lucky people tend to see their bad luck as good luck. So, two people are in an identical car crash. The unlucky person goes, “Oh my god. Why does this always happen to me? I’ve been in a car crash. My car is totaled, I’ve got a broken leg. I’m going to have these medical bills. Why does this happen to me?” And the lucky person goes through the same experience and goes, “Wow, I could have been killed or I could have killed somebody. I got away with this with a broken leg. And now I get to get a new car.” It’s a way of perceiving the world.
So I guess the thing I’d say about me is just how lucky I have been in my life, all this serendipity that has happened. I have a wife who leaves me after nine months and I end up with Esther Stark. That’s great. I had people who told me I’d never get to college, I’d never get a scholarship. It all happened. I go through a plane crash and survive the plane crash. Last year that experience was probably the closest I’ve been to death. Now I’m back to who I was, more aware of my mortality. When you’ve had nine brushes with death and you’re alive, you’re always somewhat aware of your mortality. I don’t know if I should mention this, but it did make me aware I’m on the back end of life. I’ll be 70 this year. And I always feel the job of the husband is to make is wife’s life easier. So, I’m thinking if I go before she does then there’s all this work that has to be done. How do we put together the memorial service? Got to find pictures and all this stuff. So, I actually created a file on my computer called “Funeral” where I’m going through and looking through pictures from different stages of my life and putting them there. All this stuff is taken care of. Some people think that’s morbid. I just think this is another service I can provide to her. Sometime before I die I have to let her know about it.
IA: She might have just heard you.
Esther: I’m still here.
SG: I didn’t know she was still there.