Ann Arbor photographer owes career to time in the darkroom
At the northeast corner of South University and Forest streets, on the far east end of the South University end of the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, the Adam Jacobs Photography booth doesn’t lack for interest.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
Shots of The Big House hang in the most prominent display positions; always an easy ploy for traffic in the campus area.
For a curious onlooker admiring a panoramic shot of the Wolverines’ end zone, Jacobs pulls the curtain back from his work, describing how he had to splice together more than 100 photos for that particular piece of work. His English accent makes the process seem almost poetic.
A generation ago, such a project would have put Jacobs in a darkroom for countless hours. That's far from the case in the digital age. Though technology has made such work much less tedious, had it not been Jacobs’ own experience in a darkroom, he likely would never have ventured into the world of photography, and almost certainly wouldn’t be in Ann Arbor.
When Jacobs was 19, he studied for a year in Australia, and on his return home started to experience debilitating headaches.
“I developed chronic daily migraine, which is basically exactly what it sounds like, and that’s having a migraine, 24/7,” said Jacobs. “I laid in the dark in London for 18 months, unable to do anything. Not even turn a television on.”
Jacobs’ days were split between isolation at his home and treatment in the hospital. He had to be blindfolded with his ears plugged for trips between the two.
“I was completely debilitated,” Jacobs said. “Chinking cutlery, if I tried to have dinner with my family, sounded like a steam train.”
After two years of next to no progress, Jacobs sought treatment at the Head-Pain Treatment Unit of the Michigan Headache & Neurological Institute at Chelsea Community Hospital.
“I was there for a month on an IV drip and continued to be treated. After about six months they got me to a level where I could function at about 40 or 50 percent,” Jacobs said.
At “40 or 50 percent”, Jacobs began to live somewhat of a normal life. He was able to complete his business/economics degree from the University of Nottingham via correspondence, with the help of the University of Michigan libraries. While on campus, he would take “loads of photos” as a form of therapy.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
“I used to desperately try and find things to do, half an hour things that were just kind of easy,” Jacobs said. “One of the things I would do is the stadium used to be open on Sunday and you’d just walk around Michigan Stadium.
“I would just take my camera wherever I went just to distract myself from my head hurting, so I used to take pictures of the stadium.”
One of the pictures he took was of the stands just before sunset. The angle of the sun illuminated the empty bleachers with a spectacular golden hue, which, after a little touching up, made for a beautiful panoramic shot. That picture, which is on prominent display at his art fair booth, sparked Jacobs’ photography career.
“I took it in to be printed and a lady said ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you a professional photographer’ and actually I thought she was nuts,” recalls Jacobs. “She said ‘I really like this stuff, have you got any more, and do you mind if I show it to somebody at the university?’” Jacobs said. “I said sure, you know, I had nothing to lose.”
The people at Michigan were so impressed with the work that Jacobs soon found himself making a pitch to design a schedule poster. The athletic department bit, and he’s been freelancing for them ever since.
Four years after that fateful rendezvous at the print shop, and what started as a hobby for the 24-year-old Englishman, is blossoming into a promising career.
In addition to sporting events at both the professional and collegiate level, Jacobs does artistic shots of anything from an old dilapidated barn to cityscapes. Jacobs recently returned from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, where he shot 15 games, including all four U.S. matches. A shot he took of Landon Donovan scoring the game-winning goal against Algeria — one of the greatest, if not the greatest, moments in U.S. soccer history — ran on the front page of ESPN.com after the U.S. victory.
While in South Africa, Jacobs also worked for 1Goal, the official FIFA charity of the World Cup. That opportunity led to him meeting Desmond Tutu, Frederik Willem de Klerk and Bill Clinton at the home of Nelson Mandela.
Not bad for a guy with no formal photography training whatsoever.
“At first I kind of felt inferior because I was out there and almost felt like I didn’t have the right because there were people here that have been doing it for 20 years,” said Jacobs. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Jacobs still sees doctors about his condition once a week and attends physical therapy regularly. Though glad to see patrons rustling through his photo bins at the Art Fairs, he admits the sound of the plastic scraping against the box and cardboard clanging against wood — which he has to point out for me to even notice — can cause him excruciating pain. But the pain is nowhere near what it used to be, and it’s getting better.
Jacobs estimates that he’s 80 percent cured of the condition that brought him to Ann Arbor in the first place. When he first came to Michigan, his goal was to get well enough to work a 9-to-5 job, then return home.
Now, he’s not so sure.
“This is a blessing for me. I’m able to do something that I love doing, it earns me an income, and it has allowed me to meet great people, experience fantastic things,” Jacobs said.
“I’ve enjoyed relative success. Enough that it’s kind of given me the thought that this is something I could do as a career,” he added. “It’s kind of amazing to see what can manifest out of the most adverse and crappy situations.”