Losing Your Best Friend

May 15th would have been my best friend Jim DiVitale's 60th birthday. Unfortunately, instead of celebrating another trip around the sun, there was a celebration of his life held in Santa Barbara, CA for his west coast friends. A similar celebration was held in Atlanta in February after Jim's passing last December following a long illness.

© Jim DiVitale

© Jim DiVitale

I first met Jim in 1981 while teaching photography in the evening program at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Jim had just started his career working as a commercial/catalogue photographer and I had accepted a position running the ophthalmic photography department at Emory University. Jim taught commercial/advertising photography using large format studio cameras and complicated electronic flash and lighting arrangements, I taught basic photography and black and white darkroom. This difference in our approach to photography would continue over our entire careers.

Jim's passion for photography came through in both his teaching style and the images he created. He had a million ideas bouncing around his head and shared these freely with clients, colleagues and students. The harder the challenge, the more excited he got about the assignment. If he could develop the idea in his head, he could make it happen on film.

Yes, film. For many reading this, film is the new "alternative" process and using Photoshop layers to create an image is second nature. At the start of his career, Jim made these composite "layered" images in-camera. Using an 8X10 inch sheet film camera, he would do in-camera masking techniques coupled with precise lighting to create a final film image that might be composed of 10-12 separate exposures.   

The idea of combining different images to illustrate a totally new idea wasn't limited to his commercial work. Much of Jim's personal photography was very similar. He would find and make images of anything he found interesting and with this "database" in his head, years later see something else to photograph and know which other image he was going to combine it with. Jim was doing Photoshop before the program was invented.

© Jim DiVitale

© Jim DiVitale

Given his creative solutions to photographic problems, it was only natural that when digital photography systems were introduced to commercial photographers, Jim would be their first customer. Jim stopped using film, built the first totally digital photography studio in Atlanta and never looked back. In 2005, when most of us finally made the total transition from film to digital, Jim had already been completely digital longer than he had ever used film.  

When Photoshop was introduced, it started to allow many of those image ideas in Jim's head to finally be expressed. Jim attended the first Photoshop World as a student and expressed suggestions on how to improve it. The second year Jim was there teaching and continued every year after until his health forced him to limit his travel. With each new version of Photoshop came additional software tools Jim would incorporate into his commercial and personal images. I was the photographer who only wanted to learn how to use Photoshop to replicate what I did with film. Jim attacked each new software version with a passion, finding multiple ways to create unique images and at times, finding ways to use the software never intended by Adobe.

When writing about your friend's life, this would be the part where you list their professional accomplishments. For many people this could be reasonably accomplished in a couple of paragraphs. For Jim, it would take a separate book. If there was a level of professional accreditation and achievement, Jim attained it. Speaking and teaching at major photography meetings/organizations around the world, Jim did it. Winning awards for his photography, thousands. All this and more was very important to Jim. To me, looking back at his life as a friend, I feel his greatest accomplishment, besides that long list, was how he lived his life and the thousands of photographers he touched through his need to share information and teach.

Photography has traditionally been a profession where the best practitioners don't share their secrets for fear of someone else making a photograph better than them. This is especially true in commercial photography where photographers are competing for clients. Jim was just the opposite. Starting at the time we met at the Art Institute until his passing, Jim was always teaching and sharing information. Jim was also unusual in that he not only taught but also worked full-time as a photographer. This might sound strange but Jim was one of the few top digital imaging instructors in the world who also put into practice the techniques he used everyday in the studio.   

© Catherine McClelland

© Catherine McClelland

Jim and I spoke on the phone almost every day and I still catch myself reaching for the phone. His mix of humor, story telling and knowledge made any interaction with him memorable. Jim was a devoted and loving husband to his wife Helene Glassman, an equally accomplished professional photographer and instructor. Together they spent their time working, traveling and teaching at various photography meetings and adding to the life of their friends.

In April, Helene was invited to Photoshop World in Orlando to formally accept Jim's induction into the Photoshop Hall of Fame, an award presented to Jim last fall at his home. During the Photoshop World presentation, a beautiful tribute by his friend Steve Dinberg was shown highlighting Jim's life and photography. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9JYxemWEbM&sns=fb

Jim did everything quickly. Whether it was building a photograph in the studio, working in Photoshop or speaking, he was in a hurry. He was always working, sometimes it seemed twenty-four hours a day. There was always a deadline to meet and he seemed to thrive on it. Time was tight. Given the shortness of his life and what he accomplished in that brief span, maybe the final lesson Jim has to teach us is just this: take advantage of every moment, friend and opportunity. Share what you can, be the friend you want a friend to be and leave the world a better place just like he did.

To really get to get a sense of Jim and his work: http://www.divitalephotography.com