Life, interruptedJun 02, 2021 01:09PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Chesapeake City’s Nick Cusmano was 4 when he became fascinated by photos. Now, at 65, he hopes photography is a post-retirement path to joy (and cash).
A wartime picture of his father, a high school photo class and three decades of enjoying Cecil County’s unappreciated beauty imbue Nick Cusmano’s photography.
And after life interfered for almost three decades with his photography, he hopes his interest becomes financially rewarding in post-retirement. He already knows it is emotionally rewarding.
“As I age, I’ve learned that it’s less about money – although money is nice – it’s about making people smile,” said Cusmano, 65, a Chesapeake City resident.
Since 1999, he has been working in benefits, lately as agency development manager at Colonial Life.
He’s been encouraged by the feedback from people who have purchased his photos and the Cecil County Arts Council designating him as one of two featured photographers for a 2019 show.
“I went into overdrive” to prepare for it, he said, figuring that in nine months he shot 8,000 to 9,000 images on the show’s theme, “Naturally Speaking.” “Butterflies, birds, junkyards, an abandoned dairy farm, living things, decaying things, Nature retaking what was hers. A lot of fun.”
A very early love
Cusmano grew up in Summit, New Jersey. “My first memory of fascination with photos was at about 4,” he said. The memory involves photos of his father, sitting on his PT boat in Borneo.
He took his first photos at age 7, sharing them in show-and-tell at school. He was soon taking photos of family events, trying to be creative within the limits of 2½-inch-square black-and-white images from an Imperial Mark VII. “I was holding the camera at a 45-degree angle. They’re pretty goofy.” Through these images, “I trace my passion to before I could walk to the curb by myself.”
He was about 16 when he bought his first camera, a Kodak 110 Instamatic.
As a high school sophomore, he took his first photography course, and again he experienced fascination. By the control in his brother’s Voigtlander 35mm camera. By the extra control in the darkroom. And by the satisfaction of people who wanted his photos. “I was completely hooked.”
Or maybe he was insane or fanatical for never putting the camera down. That’s how he was dubbed by a classmate at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, and it’s there his intense interest in photography matured while he earned a bachelor’s degree in corporate finance and economics.
Other demands took over
“I paid for most of my senior year with my cameras and always had the dream of pursuing photography as a profession. I was making money with my cameras in several ways, including documenting poor construction performance by contractors for a law firm; taking portraits and promo shots for a local theater group; restoring old family photos; and having several shots published in local newspapers.”
But “life came.” A 1980 transfer took him from New Jersey to Virginia, and he boxed up his stuff.
He got married in 1984 and moved to Illinois, back to New Jersey and then in 1989 to Port Deposit as a halfway point between his and his wife’s parents. They took in four siblings in foster care in 1991 and finalized their adoption a few years later. “The darkroom boxes got buried deeper and deeper.”
As the children got older – the siblings were 7, 5, 4 and 2 when they entered his life – they started biking together a lot. He was enjoying the scenery in person and wanted to capture it on film, but he felt frustrated because he had lost his “intuitive skills” in photography.
Those rides led him to the old railroad trestles along the Conowingo Creek, “where the creative dreams moved beyond their constant nibbling and started gnawing at me again. I think shots of those trestles were the first images published since college.”
“I’d shoot every so often but not with anything near the commitment I’d had way back. It was more a matter of teasing myself with what could have been. As is so often the case these days, divorce reared its ugly head, and I found myself a single dad to a handicapped adult.”
Sideswiped, useless, fuzzy, coping
The 25 years in Port Deposit ended. The home that he had devoted so much effort to rehabilitate (the old Valley Hotel on Rock Run Road) had been ravaged by termites, and he “couldn’t sell it, couldn’t auction it, and just walked away.” He moved to Elkton before landing in Chesapeake City.
And then, on Sept. 20, 2016, during a bicycle ride on Biggs Highway near Rising Sun, he was sideswiped by a Chevy Suburban, making him “useless for four months, fuzzy between the ears for over two years” and still coping with issues today.
“My mother passed in the middle of all that, and I used a small inheritance to take another shot at pursuing photography as my way of life. I bought a scanner, a quality photo printer, a couple of pop-up canopies, tables and a bunch of frames, then started scanning, printing and framing, mostly older work.” But he didn’t sell any prints, “so once more, the dream took another beating.”
One more “but,” and this time a good one: recognition in contests and competitions and positive feedback from pics he posted on his alumni Facebook page. “I began regaining the confidence I had.”
He’s devoting at least 10 hours a week studying the field (often via “YouTube University”) and being out in the field, shooting images outside and practicing portraiture on figurines in his house.
He’s ready to capture all sorts of images, from babies to seniors (but not weddings – they’re too stressful), on-location personal portraits.
Pursuing the dream
Linda Katz, a friend for almost 20 years, and her husband, Paul, have purchased more than 10 of Cusmano’s photos for their business, the Chesapeake Wellness Center in Cecilton, and their home. “His photos are always taking you somewhere,” she said. “Even his closeup photos. It’s a leaf, but I see a horse’s head in it.”
Cusmano was a faithful participant in Cecil County Arts Council shows for more than a decade, said Annmarie Hamilton, its executive director, but his works at first did not generate prizes and sales. “That all changed about three years ago. Nick has won multiple prizes and awards in each of our annual photography exhibitions, and I expect that to continue as his talents grow as a skilled photographer.
His featured status at the arts council convinced him that he had a future in photography.
“That led me to start seriously looking into the next step so here I am, nearing retirement from the real world and finally pursuing the dream. If I can wind this life down bringing people smiles long after their loved ones are gone and lightening rooms with images that make no contribution other than reminding folks of the beauty all around us, I’ll have achieved that dream.”