Last week, I met my friend Walter Novak for a beer and a chat. Walter is a Czech-American that found fame in the US as a photographer and rightly so – he has a unique ability to find the photo. The topic of the conversation drifted to his life story and what he told me I think is very apt given the times that we live in.
He left the former Czechoslovakia two-years after the velvet revolution. When he arrived in the USA, he could barely speak a word of English and he had to gain a green card of course. For a couple of years, he had two jobs mopping floors and he got up and demonstrated the movement that he perfected so well as he mopped for maximum efficiency. These were poor paying jobs you understand! He worked on his English reading newspapers and books as best he could, making slow but steady progress. His home was a damp basement. As he told me, it was full of cockroaches and he could watch peoples feet through the high windows into the street. His sleep was always interrupted by the noise of cracking pavement as cars drove across the road (it was in very poor repair). Yet, he was living his dream in the dark dank basement mopping floors – he was free!
He told me how he was so broke he often didn’t eat or survived on a single foodstuff for long periods. He became so thin and weak, as he was essentially starving, that one day he collapsed and the medics had to come out. Examining him, they inquired as to what he was eating and examined his fridge. Needless to say, it was empty. The medic left with advice to eat and left a few dollars secretly to ensure that Walter would at least get a meal.
Eventually, with the green card in hand and a bit of good luck that sometimes goes with hard times, he was invited to visit a European style pub/restaurant with a couple of ‘friends’. He told me he loved this place. It reminded him of home and the beer was good – European style. He liked the atmosphere. That night, he was introduced to the owner by one of these friends who told the owner how much Walter liked it and how he would love to work there. To Walter’s amazement, the owner looked him up and down and told him he needed a busboy – when could he start? Walter chuckled a bit at this point. “I didn’t know what a busboy was,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye, “but I said I could start immediately.” The owner told him to show up the next morning.
This job paid better. He could get food there too. He washed dishes, unloaded foodstuff from trucks and anything else he was asked to do. His only issue was that sometimes customers would ask him for things and not yet understanding them, he would get it wrong. However, his English was improving. He made some friends. For two years, he had been essentially alone.
Throughout this time, he still pursued his love of photography with an old, cheap, Soviet-era camera. He would, of course, show some of his work to people and friends. In one example, he told me how the local American Football team’s ground (Browns) was being demolished and he disguised himself as a workman in order to gain illegal access to the site to take photos. He even took one of the old wooden seats from the facility and sold his photos complete with a small piece of the seat attached! Ingenuity and art. It started to pay and his unique style of composition started to get noticed in and around town.
One day, the phone rang and was answered. They shouted his name…… “It’s for you!” Puzzled, he went to the phone. There was a very famous person on the phone who owned a top quality magazine asking him to do an assignment. Walter laughed and put down the phone…. a practical joke by one of his buddies he thought. The next day, the phone rang again…. “It’s for you….”. He answered. Same guy. At this point, he realized it was no joke. He took the assignment!
The rest is history.
He ended up working for outfits like The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Boston Globe, Cleveland Magazine, Ohio Magazine, Revolver, Sunday Mirror, The Telegraph, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Mollie Makes the UK, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Prague Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Discovery ID TV – to name a few. He has won numerous awards for his work and he has photographed just about anyone famous…. including David Bowie, Tina Turner, Robert Redford, The Rolling Stones, Halle Berry and the list goes on….
He is now back in Brno and still taking photos….. He is actually featured in the Sono Center in Brno – though here, not many know his name….
He is looking for assignments too….. while he works on publishing his book of Rock Stars… Check out the promo video for the book below. Contact us for more information on purchasing it when out.
Inquire about Walter’s photography