Denis Finnin, a Weehawken resident since 1987, bikes to and from work every day when weather permits – even though he works all the way across the river at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
This type of commitment is what propelled Finnin from his initial job at one of the very first one-hour photo labs in Washington D.C. to his position as director of photography at one of the most well-respected and well-known museums and research institutions in the world.
Finnin, his wife Marjorie, his high school senior son Hank, and their “energetic” rescue cat Mallomar live in a roomy house they fixed up themselves. Over the years, Finnin did his share of freelance jobs and submitted 125 resumes to various studios in the city before ultimately landing his current job.
“Fortunately, Marjorie was very supportive,” Finnin said. “She said to me, ‘I don’t want to be with you when you’re 65 and cranky and constantly wishing you had followed your dream.’ ”
Long and winding road
Finnin grew up just outside of Washington D.C. and attended the University of Maryland. He focused on printmaking and lithography, “but during my junior year, I began to realize I’d probably starve,” he said. So he began taking photography courses. The discipline quickly grew on him.
Upon graduation, he got a job as a printer at a family-run one-hour photo shop and eventually became manager.
“I don’t want to be with you when you’re 65 and cranky and constantly wishing you had followed your dream.” –Marjorie Finnin
This became a turning point for Finnin, who decided to make the big move to New York City. “It was really tough,” he said. “All I had was a meager portfolio and a handful of quarters so I could call up studios for interviews.”
Eventually, “somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody” tipped Finnin off to Colin Cooke, a now-famous food photographer. The day Finnin went in for an interview, Cooke had fired his assistant, and Finnin started working the same day. As he was waiting for Marjorie to join him from Maryland, he slept on a futon in Cooke’s studio in the Village.
“It was a really, really hoppin’ place for somebody new to the city like I was,” he said. “Colin was a great teacher, and the fact that we photographed food meant there was always something to eat.”
Finnin began a number of freelance “apprenticeships” with various different types of photographers. Two years after he and Marjorie moved to Weehawken, he happened upon an ad in the New York Times that read, “Large cultural institution needs photography manager.”
Just a week after he mailed in his portfolio, he had his interview. The next day, he was offered the job.
A day in the life
So what does the director of photography do at one of the most famous museums on earth?
“The museum is an amazing place to work,” Finnin said. He photographs and oversees the photographing of just about everything, from promotional photos of the famous T-Rex skeleton, to the rotating exhibitions advertised on giant banners that hang from the Central Park West entrance, to the celebrities who attend fundraisers, to the plush toys sold for Valentine’s Day on the website.
His photos of the Rose Center planetarium, with its glowing blue nighttime lights, grace the cover of books and promotional material internationally, and his work has made the pages of almost every major newspaper in the world.
“Looking back on it now, I realize how fortuitous the whole thing was,” Finnin said. “There are so few jobs like mine in the world.”
Taking it home
Finnin began photographing Hank at Weehawken school events “in order to stay close without hovering,” he said. He photographs most school athletic events, their award-winning marching band, and many town events. He hopes one day to put on a show of his photographs at the library.
“Weehawken has all the benefits of a small town community in an urban setting,” he said. “I’m very glad to have found a way to give back to the community.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com