Sandra Jetton ’70’s journey from opera to banking to street photography, and the education that prepared her for the unexpected.
About 'Coney Island Winter': 'On an extremely cold day, I decided I’d really like to go to Coney Island and see it when it’s all deserted and grey, nobody there, and get the feel of it being desolate. So my husband and I took the 45-minute subway ride out to Coney Island, and that’s where I got the shot.' (© Sandra Jetton 2017)
Sandra Jetton ’70 was my next-door neighbor in Elizabeth Hall and then my roommate and suitemate in Fox Hall when we joined the same sorority (Phi Mu), though most of our time was spent in the music department (her) and the theatre department (me). Just like in the movies, we shared dreams, fears, loves, tears, and shoes—a pair of mine went with her on the Rollins Singers’ 1969 USO tour of Europe—and didn’t come home.
And, just like in the movies, we’ve stayed in touch. As Sandra installed an exhibition of her photographs in the Alumni House in March, we talked about her life after Rollins—from opera and banking to the lure of street photography.
LK: When we graduated, you were off to New York to study voice, which you did—with Maria Callas. How did your career progress from there?
SJ: This is where I’m going to give my plug for Rollins. I don’t feel that Rollins prepares you only for the major that you graduated with. It teaches you to be open to different ideas and look at different ways to think about opportunities that are put in front of you.
Nothing is ever going to be a smooth road from A to B. My A to B was going to be: leave Rollins, sing at the Met. Once I got to New York with all these other people who thought they were on that same path too, I found out that I was a very solid B+ opera singer. I was lucky enough to win a couple of grants and to get a little minor attention, but if I were going to be an opera singer, I would have to move somewhere in Europe and sing in a small house and work my way slowly, maybe, back to the U.S. Something inside me said, “I don’t know if I have that in me, if I have enough of that drive or passion, to spend the next five or six years starving for my art in a garret somewhere.” I would have been willing to starve in a garret in New York, but that was different.
So I began to keep my mind open to other opportunities. Somebody asked, “Would you ever be interested in marketing?” And I thought, “I could do that,” because Rollins had taught me I could do that. I wound up at Citibank doing marketing for bank branches, which I won’t say was fulfilling a lifelong dream, but what I found out was that business interested me—maybe not the particular stuff I was doing, but business interested me. It turns out that I’m extremely competitive, and I was in very much a boy’s club. I was one of the first women who got a vice presidency in that part of Citibank.
About 'Painted Lady': 'If you’re shooting in New York, you might look at somebody’s red dress or the neon of a building, but to me that’s not what the story is. I like street people. I like the more intimate stories about what’s going on in an environment.' (© Sandra Jetton 2017)
I spent a total of 17 years in banking, and I got to the point where I was the fourth-highest woman at J.P. Morgan Chase (having moved from Citibank to Chase). And I got a thrill out of that—it was the competitive thing, I guess, but I also enjoyed doing it. We were very successful, and I liked playing with the boys, though it didn’t help my language skills.
I also got to the point where I thought, “Do I desire to be president of the bank? Do I really want to do more of this?” It was right after 9/11, and everyone was reassessing their views of life and their goals, and I thought I’m just going to pursue Act III, because I think we all have at least three of those.
What I always wanted to do was study photography, to put some effort into it and not just wander around with an Instamatic. I started taking classes at the International Center for Photography, and so I have come upon now another thing that I love doing. That’s how I followed this weird, circuitous route, but I seriously trace it all back to Rollins—saying you can keep an open mind about whatever is being put out there for you. Don’t just think the path is only from A to B.
LK: How did you get involved with Dress for Success?
SJ: Right after I left the bank, I wanted an opportunity to do something personal to help women. I’d spent all those years taking great pride in the fact that I was one of the few women who had risen to a certain level, and I thought everybody should be able to do this. I had been reading about Dress for Success, and I called Joi Gordon, the CEO, and I told her I’d like to be a volunteer. She said, “Just remember one piece of advice. You will want to give somebody the clothes off your back if we don’t have what they need. Don’t do it. You can’t take these people home with you; you can’t become personally involved in their lives.”
My first woman was six days out of jail. She’d been living in a car with one of her children she was trying to get back from Child Protective Services. We got her dressed, and she had everything except size 6-1/2 shoes, which I happen to wear. I thought, “Well, that’s just ridiculous”, so I took off my shoes and gave them to her. When she left, I went to the backroom and cried, and Joi came in and said, “You did it, didn’t you?”
From there I was hooked. You’d help the women pick out clothes, help them work on their resumes and their interview skills. I chaired the board for eight years. It is a magnificent organization, and we watched Dress for Success expand to be now in 27 countries.
About 'Trombone Man': 'I’m not drawn to pretty. I’m not drawn to landscapes or to flowers or, truth be known, to color. I think I see the world in black and white. To me, black and white strips the noise from an image.' (© Sandra Jetton 2017)
LK: In his book (Musts, Maybes, and Nevers), your husband (movie executive and producer David. V. Picker) recalls Dartmouth College teachers whose voices he still hears. Were there Rollins voices for you?
SJ: Ross Rosazza, who was my voice teacher, and Ward Woodbury, who was the choir director and a general music teacher, and Bill Gallo, who taught music history, which I thought I was going to hate because who wants to sit in a classroom and talk about Gregorian chants when you could be out singing something? I found all those people to be interesting and fascinating.
Outside music, Frank Windam, who taught Shakespeare, another thing that I thought would be, “Hmm—I hope this isn’t a 9 a.m. class,” but he was great. He sometimes acted out scenes and it totally drew people in.
LK: Do you still sing?
SJ: No, I don’t. I don’t get pleasure out of doing it because to me it’s like, “God, I used to be able to hit that note. Why can’t I hit that note? Why am I singing an octave below where I used to?” That just makes me crazy. I don’t have a sadness for it. I don’t regret that I can’t do it; we just passed that milestone.
LK: What advice would you give Rollins performance majors?
SJ: 1. Do not be afraid. Be fearless. You will take your skills and you will put them to work in one way or another. It may be part of the time waiting tables and part of the time going to auditions, but do not be afraid of trying new things. 2. Do not be afraid of failing. I’ve learned almost as much from the auditions where I did badly as I did from the good ones. 3. Find somebody who can mentor you. It doesn’t even have to be in your field. Find somebody whose opinion you respect, and bounce ideas off of them. 4. Don’t be afraid.
A selection of Jetton’s photographs is on exhibit in the Alumni House at Rollins College through June 30. More of her photography may be viewed at sandrajettonphotography.com.