I was 12 years old when I ‘officially’ started working at my Dad’s portrait studio and camera shop in my hometown of Parsons, Kansas. I’d walk with my friends from the junior high on Main Street a couple of days a weeks after school to his shop, ten short blocks away (sometimes stopping at the Peter Pan ice cream store for a little refreshment first), to spend a couple of hours doing whatever my Dad needed me to do that day. On Saturdays, I’d ride with him in the family Chevrolet station wagon to the studio at 8:30 a.m. in order to help straighten up or sweep the front sidewalk before he unlocked the doors for customers at 9 a.m.
At first, my job consisted mainly of dusting the frames and cameras set out on the display shelf that stood in the middle of the store and separated the camera shop side from the reception area of the studio. I’d clean the glass of the rotating display case that contained smaller items available for purchase, such as camera release cords, filters of varying colors, timers, light meters and other camera accessories and essentials for the amateur photographer. I’d straighten the empty boxes for the camera merchandise set out on display and that were stored on the lower shelves of the counter along the wall. As I did, I came to know almost everything we had in stock and exactly where to find the box once the item had been sold.
I refilled the diagonal cubbie shelves that held boxes of the film available at the time: red Ansco roll film, bright mustard yellow boxes of Kodak 120, 126,127, 220, 620, black and white or color negative film or 35 mm Kodachrome or Ektachrome slide film, 8mm, Super 8, and 16 mm movie film; white and blue boxes of Polaroid packets; and later the green and white boxes of Fuji film. There were boxes and boxes of flash bulbs and, later, flash cubes, as well as countless numbers of projector bulbs to keep in order.
In the back area of the studio, my jobs were limited to start. I removed the wet prints washing in the big drum washer at the top of second floor stairs, wiped off the excess water with a big sponge and carefully laid each print to dry on the big screens stacked liked drawers. Once the prints had been spotted and trimmed, I’d rubber stamp my father’s studio name on the back side, gather up the wallet sized prints into one of his gray delivery envelopes and gently slip the larger prints into brown folders embossed in gold with his scripted signature.
As I grew older, my time and responsibilities at the studio increased. I moved into the studio reception area to set up appointments, take customer portrait orders, assist them in frame selections (one of my favorite assignments) and deliver the final prints. In the print room with the two full-time printers and my Dad, I learned to turn plain sheets of photographic paper into images of families, babies, high school seniors and weddings. I’d help tone prints in the gold, sepia or selenium trays to change black and white prints into a warm brown or colder blue color. At the big work table upstairs, I’d sit with the other finishing artists using the little art brushes and inks to remove the white dust spots off the stacks of prints.
Starting in high school, I was allowed in the camera room to assist my Dad. I stood behind the big Century camera, changing out the 5×7 film holders at the back of the camera, cocking the shutter and checking the focus. I’d shift the lights into place upon my Dad’s direction. At first we used big Photogenic reflector lights on heavy rolling stands until Dad installed an overhead track strobe lighting system. The system made it easier to move the lights but harder to tell exactly where and how much light would fall onto the subject. You had to be a master at studio lighting to know; my Dad was just that.
He created stunningly beautiful portraits of women–‘Sweet Sixteens’ wearing flouncey prom dresses; glowing brides in satin gowns trimmed in lace; small town business women in tailored suits or striking older matriarchs of prominent area families.
His portraits of men could be dramatic–the weathered face of a farmer; the big smile of a country auctioneer; the stern brow of a minister, doctor or attorney; or the colorful character study of a local dandy. He loved capturing the bright expressions, the toothless grin, the teary cheeks or pouty mouths of children. And he turned ordinary high school senior pictures into reflective and confident portraits of adolescents on the brink of adulthood.
Then there were the weddings. Hundreds of them. Weekends of them. At lots of different churches all over the southeast Kansas area. During the busy ‘wedding season’–June through August–my Dad would race to two and sometimes three weddings on a weekend. Eventually, I went along with him to help carry cameras, reload film, smooth wedding dresses and round up missing relatives for a group picture. Later, I was assigned a camera to cover some of the secondary shots needed while he handled the others. By the time I was planning my own wedding years later, I knew exactly how I wanted it, having seen and been to so many with my Dad.
The work was hard but fun for both me and my Dad. His was a profession devoted to making beautiful images of people. Of capturing them forever at an important juncture in their lives. He did this for 43 years before retiring from the studio when he was 70 but not necessarily, from photography. He continued to take pictures of our family gatherings, vacations and his grandchildren for years afterwards, even learning to use a digital camera in his 80s.
Learning alongside my Dad was a labor of love. It was a privilege to study with a master, to win his approval, to gain his trust, to receive both his criticisms and compliments, to see the world through a viewfinder as he did and to preserve for perpetuity the important, as well as the smaller, moments of a person’s life.
My own father’s life came to an end on April 12. I was again fortunate enough to be at his side. He was 94-years-young. He never ceased to learn or to love. He taught me, as well as my two brothers and so many others, much about the art of photography, but more importantly, he taught us how to live our lives. As one friend wrote to me: his was “such a wonderful example of how a simple life can be a great life.”
I love you, Dad, and thank you. There won’t be a day left in my life that I won’t miss you.