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Middletown Life

Artist with a camera in the age of the selfie

Apr 07, 2015 03:55PM ● By Steven Hoffman

The journey to the absolute height of one's life-affirming passion is often paved with the most humble of beginnings, and in the case of the journey of photographer Eric Crossan, the journey that led him to photograph a President of the United States began with a discarded negative contact printer, left for the junk man.

When he was in junior high school, the 13-year-old happened to see a neighbor from the bedroom window of his Newark home. "He was getting ready to discard this old negative contact printer," Crossan said recently in his Townsend studio. "Instead of letting it sit in the trash, I asked him if it was OK for me to play around with it. My father helped me set it up in the bathroom, and gave me some old negatives to use. That was really all I needed. I was on my way from there."

There is no better way to take in the more than 40 years Crossan has devoted to his work than to listen to it all unravel, experience by experience, like sitting down with a catalog of photos of a family, for instance, and admiring the changing faces. Yes, the photographs on the studio walls serve as a gentle reminder of what has made Crossan one of the most prominent photographers in Delaware, with more than 800 magazine covers to his name and assignments that have taken him around the world. But it's the stories that tell everything. The White House. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The Queen of Sweden. The famous and the obscure.

But before all of that, there was the rescued negative contact printer, a project he discarded by the time he was 14, when he went to work for the Newark Weekly Post, where he made $3 for every published photo. As a high-school senior, at a time when his classmates were attending dances and parties, Crossan was working for the Delaware bureau of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I was 15, and had been working for the Newark Weekly Post for the past year," he said. "I had a police scanner, and at one o'clock in the morning, I saw that here was a fire at Porter Chevrolet in Newark, so I jumped on my bike and rode to the fire and took photographs."

Still a teenager, Crossan found himself on assignment for the Inquirer in Georgetown, at the site of a triple murder at a migrant labor camp. These were the heady days of photojournalism -- the late 1960s and early 1970s -- when Delaware was seen through the lenses of News Journal photographers Pat Crowe and Fred Comegys, beat veterans who molded their talents through pavement pounding and guile.

At 15, Crossan followed them, soaking up their knowledge of the craft of reporting with a camera; learning how to capture the story while remaining invisible at a scene. By looking over their shoulders, he learned how to turn film into words.

"They all taught me that in this business, you have to expect the unexpected, no matter where you are and where you're going, because very seldom do things go the way you think they're supposed to go," he said.

Crossan was on Fourth Street in Wilmington during the race riots of the mid-1970s. He covered the streaking escapades that ran down Main Street in Newark during the early 1970s, and came face-to-face with police and their nightsticks. In between, he has photographed everything else: Portraits, weddings, news stories, photos for travel brochures, and stock photography that has taken him to several countries. He worked as a freelance photographer for DuPont, photographing farmers and farms for the company's many agricultural interests. Three times, he has scaled to the top of the Delaware Memorial Bridge to shoot the view for several publications.

"Throughout my career, I've always been able to do a little bit of everything, and it's allowed me to go to more places and meet more people than I would have were I focusing on just one specific interest," Crossan said. "I just never know, from one moment to the next, where I am going to be and what I'll be doing."

For ten years, Crossan photographed the Common Wealth Awards at the Hotel duPont in Wilmington, given annually in honor of achievement in the dramatic arts, literature, science and invention, mass communication, public service, and government and sociology. Each year, celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, Larry King and Henry Kissinger would parade by Crossan as he worked. The hotel continued to serve as a good luck charm for stories; at a fundraiser there in 2006, Crossan found himself for a brief moment at the conclusion of a reception line that was dotted with dignitaries. He looked up from his camera. In front of him stood George H.W. Bush, the 42nd President of the United States, standing alone, about to join the contingent.

"It was just the President and me," Crossan said. "We talked for a moment or two, and I thought, 'Here are these cool American flags against the wall, and here's a former President of the United States.' So I said, 'Mr. President. There are these great flags here. I was wondering if you wouldn't mind posing beside them for a moment.'"

The President obliged.

During the 1989 visit to Delaware by the King and Queen of Sweden, Crossan was covering the reception at the Hotel duPont. He watched the King of Sweden get into an elevator with security agents. He took the next elevator, and, holding the door, noticed the woman who entered after him.

“It was the Queen and me, alone together in the elevator," Crossan said. "I noticed that she was coughing, probably from having to meet 200 people in a reception line. I said, 'I happen to have a few Life Savers. Would you like one?' She accepted one and thanked me. I thought, 'Wow. I just saved the queen.'”

In photography, timing is everything, and sometimes timing has nothing to do with aperture. In the early 1990s, Crossan shot a cover photograph for a Delaware State Chamber of Commerce magazine. It was taken of Louis Capano and Sons, a Wilmington-based construction company. Included in the photograph were brothers Louis, Joseph, Gerald, as well as Tom, a prominent Wilmington attorney who was helping his brothers temporarily with the family business.

In the chilling wake of the disappearance of Anne Marie Fahey in the early 1990s, a story that shook Delaware to the core, Tom Capano, a former companion of Fahey's, was accused of murdering Fahey in cold blood, which ultimately led to his arrest and subsequent conviction.

In the days following the report of Fahey's disappearance, Crossan saw a photo of Capano on the television, and was reminded of the photo he had taken for the cover of the magazine. He contacted "Action News" in Philadelphia, and told them that he had one of the only photos taken of all of the Capano brothers. He was told by producers that there would be a news van waiting for him at a particular location later that evening. He arrived at the van at a little before 11 p.m., and knocked on its door. The door opened. He presented the photograph, which was immediately scanned and given back to him. By the time Jim Gardner began the nightly newscast at 11 p.m., the photo appeared on the television screen.

From 1989 to 1991, Clayton Yeutter served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President George H.W. Bush. On assignment from Successful Farming, Crossan was to photograph a day in the life of Yeutter in his new role. It was a job that would take him into the White House. It was an assignment he had not properly dressed himself for; Crossan was in typical photojournalist clothing – jeans and a vest – and jumped in the limousine in Washington, D.C., soon after arriving on a train from Wilmington, loaded with camera equipment. He had no idea where the limousine was headed, until he saw the giant gates of the White House open.

"I felt really underdressed, but I was able to get a great photograph of the Secretary and his wife on a gorgeous staircase, moments before an official White House dinner," he said.

Whether he is in the company of a former president, a celebrity, or covering a special event, Crossan remains wholly obligated to capturing the images that flash before him, and little else.

"To me, it is not really about the event," he said. "It is about the fact that I love making photographs. Let's say, for instance, that I was on assignment to photograph Bruce Springsteen. If my wife Karla were with me, she would be in awe and at a loss for words, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't really matter to me who he is. It's about doing what I'm there to do, to make photographs."

Photography used to be about “making” photographs -- the physical preparation, choosing the proper equipment, the best lighting, and then digging into the post-production work in a darkroom or in front of a computer screen, working painstakingly to remove imperfections.

Today, photography is about "taking" images.

"I read a quote recently that said that what photography boils down to today is, 'It's good enough,'” Crossan said. "There is very little regard for what photographs should look like anymore. If you can take it yourself, then fine, but if it looks horrible, then why would these photos be used? It's because they can.

"These photos don't just appear like this out of the camera," he added. "So many people who think they are photographers are not photographers. In this day, professional photographers are now competing with these people, and it's pretty sad. I don't know that people know the preparation a professional photographer puts into his or her work."

In some ways, Crossan often sees himself as a craftsman from a long-gone period, akin to a blacksmith plying his trade in the dusty din of a workspace, creating the perfect tin cutlery in a time when a cheap knock-off is available at the local department store. The growing reliance on point-and-click cameras, particularly those that come with cell phones, give those with an hour's worth of experience snapping selfies the right to call themselves photographers.

"It's about lighting and yes, it's about timing, but in my experience, it's the interaction between the photographer and the person," Crossan said. "Most people don't feel comfortable in front of the camera, so putting them at ease is the number-one thing, then it's up to you to get everything else right.

"So many people today aren't archiving their loved ones' photographs properly," he added. "In this digital age, people's histories are stored don their iPhones. Every day, cell phones are lost or stolen. An entire generation of photographic memories are on the verge of being wiped out, completely lost. Almost none of them have scrapbooks with prints."

For the last 40 years, Crossan has had what he believes is the greatest job in the world -- the gift to tell the stories of people and places and events. They're there on the coffee table in his Townsend studio, the rich catalog of his experience behind the lens. He no longer devotes his energies to climbing to the very top of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, but his passion for the craft of his profession has not wavered.

Lately, he's been taking a lot of family and individual portraits, as well as aerial shots of homes and farms taken from a helicopter.

"I've had the greatest moments," Crossan said, waving a deferential hand over the stack of photographs he has just shared. "I've been to so many places and met so many people, but what gives me the most gratification about this job is that I'm able to make photographs for families or couples or an individual ... and that they appreciate it.

"That's what an artist always looks for, to have others appreciate the work, and it has always given me the greatest joy."

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