When I was a little girl, every shooting star, every coin tossed into every fountain, every candle blow of the birthday cake candles resulted in the same wish: to be the same as everyone else. I used to make lists of how different I was from everyone else. I had dark, curly, frizzy hair, in the land of the blonde and blue. I was way, way taller than everyone else, 5’10” by the time I was twelve. My parents were 43 and 47 when I was born, so everyone told me that I was adopted or that I was abandoned by my “real” parents and living with my grandparents, and I kind of believed them.
The lists grew. I couldn’t draw a straight line, or even color within the lines. I was left-handed, which meant that I had to use those little snub nosed left handed scissors, as if by virtue of the fact that you’re left-handed, you are going to lose control of your left hand and start flailing around and stabbing yourself if you have a real scissor.
I had the highest IQ in the State of California at the time, which I desperately tried to hide. But every single month, a group of adults invaded my classroom with pads and pens and “studied” me, which of course made me immensely popular with the other kids. I skipped a grade, so that I, with my one of a kind holiday birthday, the Fourth of July, was almost two years younger and now even more uncoordinated and immature than all of the other kids in my class, which was really great when I was ten years old in sixth grade and looked on in horror from my Barbie Friendship as take two of the Summer of Love raged on five feet from me. Tod Fisher, bless his sweet little redheaded soul, would walk up and hold a softball on my bat for me to hit it. Even then, actual contact with the ball was iffy at best.
I joined a group of kids who put on musicals to raise my self confidence. When I sang, people actually, physically turned around and asked me to stop. So I mouthed. For four years.
Although I got into Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, and more, my mom made me go to the crappy loser school down the street, because when I started applying to college, I was only 14. After graduation, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm to interview. Besides, my mom had a big dream for me: a job at the DMV. “It’s so safe”, she’d coo, her minty green eyes shining. “Once you get in, you’re in for the rest of your life, benefits, two whole weeks vacation,” she pleaded. So I did the only thing I could do: I became an actress. Big mistake for someone with no self-confidence. In one day of auditions, I was too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too pretty, AND not pretty enough.
When my mom came down with lung cancer, I went to stay with her while I decided what I wanted to do with my life. Well, things got really sad, and I bought a used Canon AE1 camera to keep my mind off it. There is a riverbed behind my parents home in Los Angeles, and when it rains, which isn’t very often, some bright guy gets the idea to take a boat down the riverbed and they usually drown, so about three days after I bought my little camera, the news crews were there filming a helicopter that was training with a dummy to rescue those guys, so I took my camera and ran down there.
I didn’t have a press pass, so they wouldn’t let me around the 8 foot chain link fence to get to where the action was, so I was trying to shoot through the fence, and this guy turned around and asked me what I was doing. “I’m taking pictures, duh” I said, and he’s like, “Well, you’re on the wrong side of the fence.” I said, “I know, I’m new at this, and they said that I couldn’t go over there.” He said, “Look, if you want the shot, if you really want this shot, just jump the fence.”
I’m still not sure why I decided to jump that fence. But something inside me welled up, and even though I was in high heels, a little short skirt, nylons, and was holding my purse, I did it. I jumped the fence. And he just thought it was so funny — there I was with my little manual pawn shop camera, and he had this super space age digital model. But I didn’t care. I shot for all I was worth. I bobbed and weaved, I laid down and shot up, I shot through a broken bottle top. I felt powerful, invincible.
After it was over, he asked me to “come to his ‘place’ and develop the film.” I wasn’t about to go to any guy’s “place” — I had, after all, just gotten OUT of that business s –but then he gave me his card, and it turned out that he was the head of a large Los Angeles area newspaper’s photo department, so I went back to the newspaper’s office with him, and lo and behold, my picture was better than his. “Whoa, that’s so cool!” he said. Where did you get an eye that let you see like that?” It was the first time that anyone had ever looked at my difference as a good thing. I was stunned. He published my shot and gave me a job.
Things just clicked after that. For the first time ever, everything I did was right. The Northridge earthquake came and our paper won a Pulitzer for coverage, and then everyone under the sun wanted to see my portfolio. I shot fashion, food, jewelry, editorials, magazine covers, everything. I got on an airplane to North Dakota for an assignment to shoot an RV show, switched seats with a guy, and wound up sitting next to the cutest, sweetest, funniest, most fascinating man who I married exactly a year later in a dream ceremony at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, followed by a dream honeymoon on a private island in Fiji.
I opened a studio in my new home state, and was booked a year out immediately. Why? Because I was different! I had my subjects wade in a waterfall, balance on train tracks, roll in mud. Nothing was too out there for me. Everything I touched turned to gold. I started winning awards. I got invited to a press trip in St. Kitts, in the Caribbean, got bored during the presentation and went out to feed the monkeys. An older gentleman came and sat down with me, and we started talking and laughing at how stupid the meeting was. It turned out that he was the Minister of Tourism, and that was his meeting! He invited me back to shoot a calendar, and again to shoot all of the tourism for the island. I insisted on bringing my own models from North Dakota. None of them had ever been on a plane before, much less seen the ocean. Watching their faces was awesome. People saw those shots, and we kept getting invited to different islands to shoot. My oldest daughter, Zoe, has been to 16 islands shooting with me, and my youngest, Tenley, nine.
I learned to digitally paint my photographs, and my work has taken a new turn. One of my paintings won grand prize in a contest and was sold at auction for $25,000 to a collector in Austria. When he flew me out to sign it in front of him, I asked him why he would pay so much for my painting, and he took my hand, looked me squarely in the eye, and replied, “Oh my dear, it’s going up. Way up.”
I’ve been busy photographing and painting people from around the world who fly to see me or fly me to their area of the world to work with them. I’ve built a reputation on having an individual sense of style, and people seem to really value my view of who they are behind the facade. Now if only people would quit asking me to stop when I sing…
Barbara Stitzer is the mother of two perfect, popular and brilliant daughters, Zoe and Tenley, and her fabulous, handsome, athletic right-handed husband, Buzz, who, despite her utter lack of respect for keeping anything neat and clean, treats her like the princess she always hoped she was. She has won more than 400 local, regional and national awards for her work and is available for photographic and painting commissions throughout the world.