So, I had a request one day to tell how I got started as a photographer and how I got to do what I love. Consider this part one. It all started in John Marshall High School in Miss Beverly Livesay’s Tenth Grade English Class
You know, book reports. “Go to the library, check out a book, read it, and then tell me what it said.” On paper. Typed. This is pretty much B.C. (Before Cable, though we actually had cable available back in the 1960’s, but there were no stations on it that we could not get with a super good roof antenna. No such thing as ESPN or Fox News-careful now, don’t bite your keyboard, just for illustration purposes- or The Food Network or even BBC America. And certainly Before Computers.) And so we went to the school library. Dutifully. My neighborhood best buddy, Steve Helgersen, picked out a book his first visit. I could not focus. Way too many interests, ideas, concepts, or whatever. I was not good at “applying myself.” And the deadline approached. I wanted to pass English class and stay with my life’s expectations, so I had to decide. What about Steve’s book? Yeah. I would just borrow his book. He had finished it already, so I could just do the same one. Very cool. I plunged into to a book about “Available Light Photography.”
I have a confession to make. I shot my first picture when I was a little boy. By myself. At the time, we lived in Little Falls, Minnesota. “The biggest little pig market in the world.” “Boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh.” “Morrison County Seat.” And we lived for a while on the West Side. Of Little Falls. You see, the Mississippi River divided the town in two parts. We lived about a block from the Mighty Mississippi, and could cross it by foot in the winter when it was frozen over (but we did not because we might fall through the ice and drown) or on the railroad trestle (but we did not because we might not make it in between trains and be cut in two) But it was inside my little house with the willow tree in the side yard where I shot my first photograph.
One day I was alone in the den. My two brothers and my mom must have been distracted. We had these grey sectional sofas in there and our television set. And on one side there were glass blocks making a window, letting in light, yet keeping privacy. The sectionals were definitely old school with massive ends made perfectly flat so that the person sitting could set their cup of coffee or mug of beer right there and not spill a drop.
While alone, I came upon our family camera. It was a black plastic Kodak camera with two grey plastic buttons and one grey knob for winding. (The link shows the model I used. Photo of the Hawkeye by Dick Lyon) The button on the right (as one holds it) would shoot the picture. The one on the left…well, I didn’t know what it did. There was a separate flash attachment that took bulbs. And they were the bright ones, and would burn if you touched them too soon after use. But the flash attachment was not on when I came across the device. It took 620 film, an invention of Kodak designed to sell film, which was just like 120 film but with different spools. Marketing genius! To change the film in a camera like this one, there was a need to move the empty spool to the take-up position and then unroll the backing paper to thread on to that spool. Once closed, the camera operator would wind it ahead, looking in the little red window on the back until the number 1 appeared. Then it was ready. Up to that time I had found out about the window and the numbers. The viewfinder was the kind where the user looked down at a tiny glass view, composed the shot, and then pressed down the button on the right side. Then the film needed to be wound ahead by one number.
I set the camera down on the arm of the sectional and pointed it toward the window. Then I moved the button on the left up, the only way it would go. And I pushed the other one down and held it for a little while. But soon I was overcome with fear of discovery and put the camera back to its place with every thing in place, even winding the film one frame forward. I had taken my first shot. What I did not know was that the button on the left, when raised, changed the shutter. It made it stay open while the shutter button was held down. I had made a time exposure. The combination of the longer time and the window light allowed the picture to “turn out.” I did not tell anyone. But much later when the film was developed and printed, one print was of a funny shot of our den with nobody in it. To this day, it has been my secret. Let’s just keep it between us, okay?
Back to English class. The book talked about how people could take pictures without using a flash bulb indoors. Or at night. Flash photography made everything and everybody look like they were in a crime scene photograph by Weegee. Hard, blinding light from right near the camera. Hard, dark shadows were cast. But the pictures would “turn out.” But this book said that we could skip the flash bulbs and even the noon day sun and still get pictures that would “turn out.” It was my introduction to a whole world of fast camera lenses, slow shutter speeds, and fast films. Oh, and of pushing. Pushing film.
A word of explanation is in order here. Films had sensitivity ratings. We used to call this the ASA, for American Standards Association. Later this was renamed the ISO rating, for International Standards Organization. Meant the same thing. Normal films were about 64 or 80 or even 125. But the need for speed in dim light required faster (meaning more sensitive) film. Tri-X Pan was rated at 400. Pretty fast, but not always enough. So some people would deliberately under expose it and then compensate in development of the negative by extending the time in the developer. This was “pushing” the film. The resulting image might be printable on photo paper without looking too weak and flat, but often would have a chalky appearance or blocked highlights and inky blacks. Detail was thrown away to get the photo under harsh conditions. And I loved it. It was something I could do.
I did not have a lot of money to spend. The local drug store, Weber and Judd, had a camera department that also sold greeting cards. But I lived in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the World Famous Mayo Clinic. And Mayo had doctors. And doctors loved toys. So they bought cameras sometimes. And traded in their old ones. Good for me. I went to the drug store and picked out my first camera. It had adjustable shutter speeds and f/stops. Those are those funny numbers that you have to understand if you are going to set your own settings on a camera. They plainly don’t make any sense. Sort of like English. You just have to learn that f/2 gives the film twice as much light as f/2.8 does. And f/16 is four times dimmer than f/8. Not always was this the only standard. There was a competing system at one time that one sees on really old lenses from the late 19th century called US stops. Like USA. The only thing I remember is that f/16 and US stop 16 are the same and that you can count the marks from there to figure out how they connect. But back to fast lenses. My new 828 Pony had an f/4.5 lens. It was called 828 because Kodak had another marketing scheme. They took a short piece of 35mm film, cut it off, put backing paper behind it, did not put sprocket holes in the film and made the image area just a bit bigger to 40mm by 28mm. That meant that they could monopolize the film sales and sell more rolls because there were so few exposures on a roll. If I remember, it took only eight shots. And then there was the film choice. One in black and white. Verichrome Pan. Good film for outdoors, but slower. 125 ASA. I still was thrilled. I could shoot pictures indoors at school.
I graduated to a 35mm camera after a bit. My Kodak Retina IIIc took Tri-X and I was thrilled. It had a very smooth Compur shutter. The only thing lacking was a means of knowing the distance. I could set the focus by scale, but the camera lacked a rangefinder. I shot with this one a fair amount and even today can guess distances fairly well. But my next camera solved that problem and more. It was the genuine single lens reflex Exakta, from 1936. I could see right through the lens to focus. Then I would stop the lens down and shoot the picture. And the lenses could come off and be interchanged. I got a 4omm wide angle, a 50mm normal, and a telephoto of 135mm. I paid $75. I told my mother, “This is the last camera I will ever need.” It would do everything. But there were a few things I still wanted to do that were really hard on the Exakta. For one thing, I had to look down into the viewfinder as it did not have a pentaprism. Not unlike the very first Kodak on the sectional. My words to my mother proved that I was a very bad prophet. Just to be clear, I have not improved in that department.
Then I made a big jump to the Nikon. I had gone through a couple of old, used Leica rangefinders and had landed a job with my dream company, Weber and Judd. I drove after school deliveries out to their customers. Prescriptions, mostly. I started each shift with “Pill Hill” as these were the most influential doctors’ homes. But working there meant that I could buy my cameras at “cost.” Somehow I schemed a way into a Nikon F. I got a few lenses as well, finally acquiring a 35mm f/2, a 55mm f/1.2, and a great short telephoto, 105mm f/2.5. I bought Tri-X in 100 foot rolls and loaded my own cassettes. And I had access to the darkroom at my high school because I took journalism class. I was “set for life” in my teenage way of thinking.
Two events stand out. Late in October of 1968 we got some news. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon was coming to Rochester. He was holding a rally at the airport. And our high school band was invited to play. I was in the band. And so, in uniform, with a roll or two of extra Tri-X tucked into my pockets and two Nikons strung around my neck, I went to the rally. As soon as things got moving when Nixon arrived, I handed my clarinet off and shoved my way into the crowd, Nikons at the ready. I shot several pictures and was even close enough to Nixon to shake hands, but chose to keep shooting instead. The two pictures below are the ones I could locate to scan years later of about 8 or 10 usable shots. I offered them to Life magazine, earning my first rejection letter, instead of offering them to my school newspaper’s “extra edition.” I might have gained some local recognition if I had chosen otherwise, but life works that way sometimes. I have often thought about what I missed. But then…
The other event was my first paying photo gig that was for Dayton’s, the department store. They had some kind of a party one winter night for the teenagers and others in town right in their store. I showed up with Nikon in hand and took pictures. The manager asked me to come by with my pictures. He said he would pay me. I made a bunch of little prints. I think I got $25.00. My first money from photography. And I still love it.
Life Magazine missed out on some pretty cool pics, Richard. Your story is fascinating. What a memory, my friend! You seem to remember every single photo gadget you’ve ever used by name and last name! That’s pretty impressive! That’s what happens when you invest yourself heart and soul in something. I’m looking forward to the following installments. Gracias for posting!
Rick, you are a great photographer and equally great at writing. This little essay makes me want to get out my 35mm camera again–however, with at least 8 rolls of film that have not been developed I know that is probably not a good choice. 🙂 The digitals do have a definite advantage.
Thanks for sharing.!
What a great story about how one book shaped and molded your life! It made my “Day”
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Mon francais n’est pas tres bon, je suis de l’Allemagne.
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