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I was 13 years old when I got my first camera. Being a photographer, however, was not something that had ever crossed my mind.At the time, I was just trying to make a few extra bucks mowing lawns. It was 1973. I was a kid growing up in Matawan, New Jersey, a suburb an hour outside of New York City. We were a middle-class family—my mother worked in public relations and my father was a door-to-door salesman selling aluminum siding. It was my dad’s experience that helped me in my lawn-mowing business. He taught me: “Make them like you. If they open the door you have a chance. Connect with their eyes, then introduce yourself and be sincere. Always let them think you’re there to help make their lives better.” And that’s just what I did.

Soon I had a steady list of five customers a week. Still, I was always looking for more. One day I knocked on the door of a neighbor with a seriously unkempt lawn: “Hi, my name is Mark. I live down the street. I noticed your lawn is a bit long, can I help you by cutting it?” The man told me that he cut his own lawn. I quickly responded, with a smirk, “It doesn’t look like it. Is your mower not working?” He gave me a smirk back and told me if I mowed his yard for the whole season, he’d give me a camera. Then he went back inside and came out holding a Bell & Howell Canon FP. It looked to me like it was worth a million bucks. I said, “Sure,” and after a few cuts, he gave me the camera.

Now that I had it, I wanted to learn as much as I could about how to use it. My 8th grade year was ending. There was a photography class with a darkroom at my school and I asked the teacher if he could give me a crash course in  developing and printing film. Everything looked so cool to me in that darkroom—entering through the magical, cylinder-like door, it felt like I was being transported into another dimension amid red lights, trays filled with chemicals and glow-in-the-dark timers. I watched in disbelief as a piece of blank paper transformed into an image before my eyes. The whole process was magical.

Once the school year ended I was bummed that I wouldn’t have a place to develop and print photos anymore. Then on my 14th birthday—June 15, 1973—my dad took me to Fishkin Bros. in Perth Amboy, the coolest photo store in the area. It was half hobby shop and half camera store—I used to go there to buy model cars and rocket ships. This time I was looking at studio strobe lights and cameras displayed in the glass cabinets. It felt like Fort Knox to me. My dad bought me an enlarger, and with the money I saved from cutting lawns I bought the trays, chemicals and paper. At home I used the bathroom as a darkroom. I had a new hobby!

Mark Weiss Photographs

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