More brothers than partners
Chris Bartlett and Tom Grimes share a studio--and a passion for photography
I t works something like this: After graduating from college, you move to New York City without a dime. Dreams of high-fashion photography will be enough to live on until, within weeks, you land an assistantship with a top fashion photographer, move on to publish your work in Vogue and Vanity Fair, and travel the globe before sailing off to even greater glories. Or something like that.
While this is the story dreams are made of, it isn't too far from the actual experiences of Christopher W. Bartlett '81 and Thomas A. Grimes '82. Their story is one of luck, talent, friendship, and, above all, hard work and perseverance. Each moved to New York after graduation with hopes of becoming a fashion photographer. They realized their goals, working with some of the most celebrated models and photographers in the business and publishing their work in such noted magazines as Glamour and Seventeen. Although they have since moved on to other venues of photography, they still share a studio in New York.
The two hardly evoke images of high fashion. They seem more like the boys next door--good-natured "regular guys" with bohemian underpinnings. What sparked their interest in fashion photography? Bartlett, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and majored in history at Kenyon, says he was drawn to fashion because he sees it as one of the most creative forms of photography. Grimes is more lighthearted about the matter. "It was the girls," laughs the native of Haddonfield, New Jersey, who majored in studio art at the College. They both admit they were drawn to fashion by the glamorous image.
The story begins in 1981, at the end of Bartlett's senior year at Kenyon, when he put together a statement of purpose in search of an apprenticeship in New York. He mailed the letter to fashion photographers whose names he'd culled from magazines. The only response came from Richard Avedon, one of the most influential photographers in the country. Avedon, who would receive an honorary degree from the College in 1993, told Bartlett he liked his letter, and he said he would be interested in talking with him if he were to come to New York. (Over the years, Avedon would go on to hire several Kenyon graduates. During a period in the early 1990s, all three of his assistants were alumni of the College.)
"Avedon's writing back to me was a light shining through the door," says Bartlett. "Emotionally speaking, that's what got me here."
Bartlett interviewed with Avedon shortly after arriving in New York, but the famed photographer didn't have an opening. Through a Kenyon classmate, however, Bartlett got word that Mike Reinhardt, one of the hottest names in the field at that time, was in search of an assistant. Within three weeks, Bartlett was working for him. "It was luck, pure and simple," says Bartlett.
Luck was also with him the day Reinhardt's office called him for an interview. Having gone out the night before for a few beers, Bartlett awoke to a telephone call asking him to come in that day. After hanging up, he realized he didn't have the money to pay for transportation to the interview .
"I was waiting on a check for $80 from my parents," laughs Bartlett. "My roommates had gone to work, and there was no money in the house."
In a fit of resourcefulness, or perhaps desperation, he asked a woman next door who was hanging her laundry if he could borrow $10. The woman gave him the loan, and he paid her back the next week. The event is now the subject of one of those oft-repeated tales of what it was like in the "early years."
After a year of working as Reinhardt's second assistant, Bartlett was promoted to first assistant. Grimes was hired as a second assistant, just after graduating from Kenyon.
Bartlett and Grimes lived in what they describe as a quintessential post-collegiate bachelor pad. With anywhere from three to seven people living in the one-bedroom apartment at a time, house rules dictated that the last person in at night slept on the couch--in the kitchen. "I have very fond memories of that time," says Bartlett. "It was our `Bright Lights, Big City' time in New York. We all came here and had a lot of fun, but we worked hard, too. And, in turn, many of us did very well."
While their living quarters may have been far from luxurious, their careers with Reinhardt took off in a cosmopolitan way. Grimes recalls that his first shoot was a cover for Glamour magazine. "We were shooting Paulina, an Estée Lauder model," he says. "That just blew me away. One day I'm at Kenyon, the next day I'm shooting a supermodel."
Bartlett also felt a little overwhelmed in the beginning. His first overseas trip was for a shoot in Belgium. "I'd never been to Europe before; I didn't even know where Belgium was," says Bartlett. "But they gave me a ticket, and I flew over there by myself with ten cases of equipment."
Getting there was the easy part for the kid from Kentucky. After getting off the plane, he had to find his way to a commuter train that would take him to the train that led to his final destination. Bartlett paints the tale of transporting the expensive equipment in a way that's comical, almost cartoonish. He hauled the equipment down an escalator two or three bags at time, running back up the same downward-moving set of stairs to retrieve the rest. After he'd gotten the equipment down the escalator, he discovered he was on the wrong platform. He then jumped off the platform, onto the tracks, and hoisted the equipment from one platform to the other. "I was so nervous and so stressed," he says. "I was living by my wits."
Bartlett and Grimes literally traveled the world in the early years of their careers. The excitement of the locales they were working in was often upstaged by the work. "I remember a shoot we did in the Grand Canyon," says Grimes. "If you had time to look around, you could say to yourself, `This is the greatest job in the world, and I get paid for this.' But most of the time you're too consumed with the work to make those observations."
The work involved having everything set up for the shoot before the sun started to rise. That required a wake up call at 4:00 a.m. The shoot would last until the sun set. Bartlett and Grimes would then take the equipment down and prepare for the next day's work, sometimes not finishing until after 11:00 p.m. "It's like looking back on war," says Grimes. "It seems glamorous now, but at the time, when you're there with all of this responsibility, there's not a lot of time to think about how great it is."
As assistants, Bartlett and Grimes tried to ensure that Reinhardt didn't have to think about anything but taking pictures. The film, lighting, exposure, and camera settings were in their hands.
After several years under Reinhardt's tutelage, Bartlett set out on his own. Then, after traveling around the country and freelancing for seven months in New York, he went to Paris to build his portfolio. Periodically, he'd come back to New York to work. He describes it as a time of hand-to-mouth existence.
Grimes spent more than three years with Reinhardt. After leaving, he traveled to Spain and then Alaska, where he did documentary photography among the Eskimos.
Today, the bulk of Bartlett's work consists of product photography, primarily for catalogs and magazines, while Grimes's work focuses on advertising, portraits, and shoots for fashion catalogs. Both grew weary of their more fast-paced, cosmopolitan early careers.
"There's a `scene' to fashion," says Bartlett. "It's an important aspect of the business. It can be incestuous. To become widely recognized, you have to be in the loop. I got really tired of that." After starting a family, he tired of New York City as well. Bartlett now lives in Wilton, Connecticut, with his wife, Susan Lamb Bartlett '81, and their two children.
Grimes also grew weary of fashion. "You have to play the politics, be a part of the nightclub scene, the dinner scene--that side of the business becomes tiresome. It's a lot of fun, but I didn't want to be sixty and still doing it. With the work I do now, I can go home at the end of the day; I don't have to shmooze constantly."
While the appeal of the world of fashion may have worn off, neither Bartlett nor Grimes lost his love for photography. While each distinguishes between his art and what puts food on the table, they try to keep it balanced. Grimes says he'd love to do only portraits and leave the catalog work behind him, but he admits that his catalog work pays a lot of bills. "I like to say that I'm true to my art," he says. "I have to be true to what I really want to do, but I also have to think about what's practical. There's a fine balance there."
Bartlett says he can spend an entire day making a sweater look like it was thrown on a table. He creates what he calls miniature sculptures out of clothing, relying heavily upon fishing line to keep the clothes in place.
"The techniques are just tools, and they are tools that change," he says. "Anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence can learn about them. But you can't learn a vision. You have to foster it over the years. I like to take pictures of things that begin with me but have broader implications." In the future, Bartlett hopes to cut back on the commercial work and have more time for his own work.
The portfolios of Bartlett and Grimes reveal impressive work and a list of well-known clients, but that doesn't prevent them from feeling the bottom may fall out. "I always have the fear I'll never work again," says Grimes. "In reality, I know my portfolio is strong enough for me to get work, but because I've spent so many years struggling to get here, I think I'll always worry that I'll never be hired again."
For the past three years, one of Grimes's biggest clients was Oxford Health Plan, a health-insurance company. He worked on their advertising campaigns and found himself with steady employment. But when the company stock dropped sixty-seven points in one day, management put a freeze on marketing, and Grimes found himself in search of new clients.
"After the stock dropped, I felt major stress," says Grimes. "My wife and I had just had a baby, and our landlord wanted to double the rent on the studio. I was looking over my calendar, and there were no shoots scheduled. It was scary." It wasn't long until he cultivated a new client list, though, and he was soon shooting for Victoria's Secret and The Limited, Inc.
Perseverance is a word that's sprinkled liberally throughout both photographers' vocabularies. "The perseverance is the hardest part," say Bartlett. "I have a folder full of rejections. You have to get used to it. I wouldn't say this is a dream come true. I've earned this, and I still have a long way to go. Anything can happen. This business is very fickle."
The industry may be unstable, but the relationship between Bartlett and Grimes remains strong. While the two weren't close as students at Kenyon, their friendship has grown since then. In fact, Bartlett was the best man in Grimes's wedding. The studio they share creates a unique working environment, allowing them to buy equipment together and occasionally share work.
"I think we have a relationship that's hard to find in this industry," says Grimes. "Photographers usually like to have their own studio. This has been really great for us. We're pretty much like brothers."
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