The Wayback Machine -

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Worst Photographic Mistake I Ever Made

by Ctein

In 1975, I was making a photo trip around the country. My next-to-final stop before heading to Illinois to photograph a customer's family home was a science fiction convention in Louisville. There, I met up with an artist friend of mine, Freff, who had recently graduated from Ringling Brother Clown College (he unfortunately did not make the pick for the circus). The circus was in town, and he was seeing old classmates.

Freff brought a clown friend down to the con to hang out. Well, we had a delightful time together. Turns out I get along really great with clowns (ahem). Towards the end of the weekend Freff's friend asked me if I was local. I told him I was from San Francisco and traveling through on photo business and fun.

He said, "That's where we're going next week. Do you want to ride back to California with us? You could probably make some photographs."

And I replied...

"That would be fun, but I have to do a photo shoot up in Illinois next weekend; maybe I could do it some other time?"

And he said, "Sure," and that was the end of that.

Yes indeed, people. I was offered the chance to ride cross-country on the Ringling Brothers circus train.

In the clown car.

With the clowns!

And I turned it down.

Why? Because I had this over-developed sense of responsibility, and I was your typical, white, 20-something, filled-with-a-sense-of-self-entitlement male. I just knew that opportunities like this came up every day. If I didn't ride the circus train this week, surely I would some other time. Right?

Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid.

And it really was stupid because I could have told the folks in Illinois I'd be coming a week later. I could have cashed in my refundable airline ticket (ah, the good old days) bought a new round-trip ticket to Illinois and flown back after the train got to SF. It would cost me a few hundred bucks, a little inconvenience and several extra days of my time, and that's all.

But, I didn't even think of that alternative, I was that certain that I'd have another opportunity to do this. Like I said, really typically-stupid, 20-something male thinking. Or lack thereof. I remember this once in a while just to knock a little sense back into my head. I'm told that builds character and keeps me humble. So far, it's worked great!

It is that "road not taken" thing. It makes ya wonder. I'm not complaining about the road taken; It's gotten me to two solar eclipses, three space launches, close enough to red-hot, flowing lava to get myself a "sunburn", and if the gods continue to be kind, the South Pole. Not too shabby.

But, jeez, man...circus clowns!

The Moral, kiddies?

When someone offers you a chance to ride The Circus Train, TAKE IT!
It only comes through town once.

There's no photo for this column, because...well...that's the point.

Posted by: CTEIN


D. said...

Personally, I would like to get to hang around normal folks. I work with clowns everyday. I do not consider them as photo opportunities, though.

9:19 AM  
TBG said...

Wow - Freff!!! I remember his creativity articles in Keyboard magazine about 20 years ago.

9:30 AM  
Daniel said...

Great story. Great post!

9:42 AM  
Chris said...

Why is passage through one's twenties a requirement to rid oneself of the stupidity of youth? I can't tell you how many times I've done things like this.

Gads...sometimes I think I'm actually glad I'm on the downhill slide to my thirties! ;-)

Great article, Ctein.

9:44 AM  
Michael said...

This is wonderful!...and terrible.


10:20 AM  
chrispycrunch said...

Is this a subtle admission that you have a fear for clowns? :)

11:09 AM  
Ken Tanaka said...

"April 32, 2007, New York
Another photographic auction record was set last night at Motheby's auction house. Ctein's "Circus Clowns #12" sold to an anonymous bidder for $4.2 million. This breaks the previous record for the price of a photographic work, set in March when Andreas Gursky's "99 Cent" sold for $3.34 million. This also surpasses the sales of Ctein's previous "Circus Clowns" works which have reportedly sold variously for between $750,000 and $2.46 million.

It is not known how many works are in Ctein's "Circus Clowns" series. The #12 print is the highest in the series that has been publicly shown, although it is rumored that many more exist." Time to wake up.

That's quite a story, Ctein. But don't lament it. Thirty years ago I climbed on the "circus train" in a non-photographic and non-circus sense. It was a terrific ride. But now, having disembarked from the train several years ago, I cannot help wondering what life would have beeen like if I'd gone to Illinois.

Life's path is full of forks. Shrug and walk on.

11:26 AM  
Ernest Theisen said...

CTEIN that is a great story and wonderful advice. I will be watching for my train. Ernie

11:33 AM  
António Correia said...

When we are very young, or just young, those things happen.
But, when we grow old, they do happen also:)

It's life, it's life.

I am Portuguese and I spoiled 2 years of my youth in Timor.

Do you think I shot many pictures there ?
No, I did not shoot many pictures. Just some.

I had hollidays in Bali.
Do you think I shot many pictures ? No, I did not shoot many pictures.

Just some.
Well, you are not alone.

May this be of any consolation to you.


1:32 PM  
Brambor said...

thanks for the story. I feel your pain.

1:42 PM  
Robert Roaldi said...

Missed opportunities?

Three different times in my life, someone pointed out (after the fact) that 3 different females had wanted me, something that I had completely missed at the time.

Clowns!?! Big deal...

2:35 PM  
m. said...

They'd have just beaten you up, taken your money and left you by the side of the road. You know how clowns are.

That's what I would prefer to think, anyway, were I in your shoes.

2:57 PM  
rob said...

Well, if you think it was a mistake, it's presumptuous of me to differ. And yet, I will. I think a young professional ought to keep his commitments, as you did, especially when there's no better reason to break your promise than to ride a train with a bunch of guys who would be out of costume, out of makeup, looking like every other collection of weary travelers.

But congratulations. If that's the worst photographic mistake you ever made, you must have led a blessed life.

3:11 PM  
eolake said...

Circus clowns?
Are they very funny when off duty?

3:50 PM  
Jeff Greer said...

Is this the same Freff that used to write a column for (if I remember correctly) Keyboard magazine? I loved those columns. They had nothing specific to do with keyboards and everything to do with creativity.

-- Jeff

5:04 PM  
stanco said...

Point taken... but, sorry, all due respect, no pun intended- I'd do just about anything to avoid being stuck with a bunch of clowns. The very thought makes me wince.

5:41 PM  
Eric Hancock said...

When you get invited to ride in the clown car, you ride in the clown car!

Great story.

9:34 PM  
Rick said...

Reminds me of my own similarly stupid trick many years ago. I was working in a store when a man in a pilot's uniform came in.
During the conversation, I asked who he flew for. He replied "Goodyear".
I, of course replied that I had always wanted to up in the blimp.
He replied that if I came to the airport the next day, he'd be glad to take me for a ride.
I said I had to work.
I've never forgiven myself for that, although I've tried hard to not repeat the mistake.

5:58 AM  
Joel Gottlieb said...

much wisdom in this anecdote. worth reflecting upon. Joel

10:08 AM  
paul said...

Adults do not live in the present; this is why it is so rewarding to spend time around small children, who have no interest in anything but the present. Adults are always either brooding about the past or planning/anticipating/worrying/dreading the future; a good basic measure of mental health is how much more time you spend in the future rather than the past.

It's not surprising that you blew the circus train thing. But a five-year old would have been THERE, man.

12:53 PM  
Richard Man said...

Carpe Diem!!!!

Life is uncertain, eat dessert first!

3:27 PM  
glasshalffull said...


The day ain't over, so to speak. Trains come through all the time, I like to think, if we're observant enough to pay attention. Each caravan is unique.

A short anecdote: As a reporter, I once did a story on a local ad agency exec who learned how to fly planes in his midlife crisis. He got good enough for small jets and co-piloted charters on weekends just for fun (and to log hours).

This was in 1979 or so. Some of those weekends were rented by Willie Nelson for gigs in Midwestern cities. One day Willie said he was going to buy a jet and wondered if the exec might want to join the Outlaw band...

p.s. The journalist gig got me on the Goodyear Blimp in Pompano Beach one time. It was cool.

6:35 PM  
Ctein said...

Dear Jeff,

Yup, the same Freff.

The idea that there might be two freffs in the world is nearly as terrifying as the idea there might be two cteins.

pax / whathisface

7:05 PM  
John said...

Well, if you can't ride it you may as well photograph it. ;-)

11:16 PM  
Player said...

Nice piece of writing Ctein! It's like a "prose-poem."

9:21 AM  
ZzkAng said...

Nice story...and great lesson for the young one like me...

10:29 AM