A Labor of Love with My Dad

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.

The Leon Crooks Studio and Camera Shop was a fixture on my hometown's Main Street for 43 years. This exteior view was how the studio appeared after the city's urban renewal project in the 1970s.
The Leon Crooks Studio and Camera Shop was a fixture on my hometown’s Main Street for 43 years. This exteior view was how the studio appeared after the city’s urban renewal project in the 1970s.

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.

The studio reception side of my Dad's shop was where he displayed examples of his work. This photo shows the reception counter during the annual January baby contest and probably dates from the early 1960s.
The studio reception side of my Dad’s shop was where he displayed examples of his work. This photo shows the reception counter during the annual January baby contest and probably dates from the early 1960s.

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.

My Dad with one of  the Century cameras he used in his studio to create thousands of portraits during the 43 years of his career.
My Dad with one of the Century cameras he used in his studio to create thousands of portraits during the 43 years of his career.

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.

This portrait was one of my Dad's favorites and is an example of a 'light-oil' print. It is the one he has chosen from his portfolio to be given to the International Photography Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.
This portrait was one of my Dad’s favorites and is an example of a ‘light-oil’ print. It is the one he has chosen from his portfolio to be given to the International Photography Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.

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.

In March, my Dad, shown here, displayed his collection of studio sample and competition prints in one final showing.
In March, my Dad, shown here, displayed his collection of studio sample and competition prints in one final showing.

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.

 

 

A Model Mother

This is the first post I’ve written since my Mother died in November after several years struggle with dementia (see my blog post May, 15, 2012 “Do You Remember Mother’s Day?”  http://bit.ly/12o0OBx ).  While her passing wasn’t totally unexpected, the loss has been tremendous. She would have been 91 on Wednesday, February 6.

It’s been said that the current Queen Elizabeth of England is the most photographed woman in the world.  I think she’s second; my mother had to have been the most photographed.  During a 65-year marriage to my father, a portrait photographer who owned a studio for 40 years until he finally retired at age 70, my Mother patiently and graciously posed before his camera whenever my Dad asked.

This is one of my father’s favorite portraits of my mother, made in the early 1960s. It is a ‘brush oil’ which gives it the “painted” appearance.

All artists tend to have favorite models; my mother was undoubtedly my father’s.  She was a classic beauty of the 1940s, when in her twenties.  They met after my father returned from the Army in World War II. She was 23 and working as an executive assistant to the president of a savings and loan in my father’s hometown of Parsons, Ks.  My mother had moved to Parsons from Missouri after high school to attend the business college in town.  My father fell in love with her upon first sight.  ‘She was so beautiful,’ he says.  After dating two weeks, he told my mother if she didn’t marry him he would rejoin the Army.

Apparently, she was as much in love with him as he was with her because she agreed. When her boss wouldn’t give her the two months off to join my father and marry him in Phoenix, Az., where he had gone to race greyhound dogs for his brother-in-law and sister, she quit and went anyway.  Thus began a long and devoted marriage.

My parents were married in Phoenix, and, as is obvious in this photograph, were very much in love.
My parents were married in Phoenix, and, as is obvious in this photograph, were very much in love.

Their wedding photos are charming and demonstrated my father’s growing interest in photography.  Upon returning to Kansas, my father decided to study photography for a career.  He had picked up a camera while in Europe during the War and took pictures of the places and events he was seeing whenever he could, developing his film in creeks and his pup tent and storing his rolls of negatives that needed to still be washed in jars.  He made it home with the pictures that he taken, pictures that now offer testament to the perils of war  as seen through the eyes of a young farm boy turned soldier on the front.

I suppose he had seen enough ugliness to last a lifetime during the 2 ½ years that he was overseas as when he finally decided to make photography his career, he chose to make beautiful portraits of people.  My mother proved to be a perfect subject for many of them.

This portrait was made for one of my father’s early photography classes. He tried his hand at the ‘light oil’ technique to colorize it.

As a young apprentice learning the art of portraiture, he studied the Old Masters of art—Rembrandt being his favorite—along with mastering the technical skills a photographer must know.  Whenever he needed practice perfecting a lighting set up, posing techniques or trying out a new idea or new equipment, he asked my mother to serve as his subject.  Consequently, her life was well documented through his portraits.

You can see the changes of fashion in clothing and hair and make up through the years as my mother changed along with them.  She was always interested in keeping up with the latest styles, although the ‘mod-ish’ looks of the 60s era wasn’t to her liking.  Hers was a much more ‘classic’, almost Grace Kelly look, with soft, feminine haircuts and clothing that always flattered her.You can also see in these many portraits the love that existed between my parents as the years continued to pass.  Certainly, there were times when my mother wasn’t thrilled with sitting still before the camera when there were accounts to balance, a dinner to cook, or because she was just tired from a day’s work.  But more often than not, she granted my father’s request.

She became a pro at posing, knowing just how to place her feet, hold her hand, or tip her head. And, of course, she always had the most lovely sweet smile.

My father made this portrait in his studio and it's one of my personal favorites. As you can see, he became a master of dramatic lighting and knowing just how to have my mother pose for him.
My father made this portrait in his studio and it’s one of my personal favorites. As you can see, he became a master of dramatic lighting and how to pose my mother. The print itself is a ‘gold-tone” print, a rich toning techniique no longer in use.

All those portraits are now cherished family treasures; beautiful, visual memories of my mother who died this past November after years of struggling with dementia.  I see her everyday in the framed portraits I’ve placed around my home, the wallet-sized prints I carry with me and on the digitized images that I uploaded to my computer.

I know my father, now 93, misses her terribly as their lives were intertwined for 65 years in an enduring love story of a photographer and his favorite model.

A Father’s Day Thank You

Most Father’s Days I place a phone call or card in the mail to my Dad to wish him a Happy Father’s Day but this year, I’m fortunate enough to get to spend it with him in person.   He has given me so much over the years and I, in return, have given him countless shirts, bow ties, robes and slippers for Father’s Day.  Somehow all the store-bought gifts don’t seem to add up to very much in comparison.  This year, however, I’m giving him my time.

This casual portrait of my Dad was made during one of my visits with him last year.

I feel it’s the most I can do for a guy who’s done so much for me throughout my life.  It’s hard to even begin to tick off all the things that he has done for me–things like helping me learn to tie my shoe, to ride a bike,  to throw a ball, to grow a flower and how to take a good picture with my little camera.  My Dad has been not only my Dad but my best mentor in photography passing along his love and vast knowledge for the art.   I worked alongside him in his portrait studio and camera shop from the time I was 12 through most of my college years until I moved away.

Working in the camera study with him, I learned the principles of good portrait photography–composition, lighting, proper posing techniques and how to bring out a person’s best features.  I also learned how to do everything that came after the image was on film–to develop, print, spot and retouch–but it was in the camera room where his love for the art came into sharpest focus.

This portrait of my father was made by my brother, Brad, also a photographer, before my Dad retired at age 70. He’s standing beside the 8×10 back camera that we used in his studio to make thousands of beautiful portraits.

Each person who stepped before his camera presented a new challenge, an opportunity to try a new idea or a different approach as to how to best capture that individual on film.  And I learned that each and every one deserved the best you could give because what you were creating for them wasn’t simply a picture, it was a portrait that would become part of their family–an heirloom if you will–for a very long time . It was a priceless education, one  that continues today as I still ask for his opinion and critique of my professional work as I strive to improve and grow as a photographer.

At 92, he remains my most valuable and toughest critic.  I am lucky to still have him with me to phone whenever I need to ask a question, to consult when I need help with a problem and to console me when I think I could have done something better.  Yes, he’s my Dad and I have so much to thank him for.  Happy Father’s Day, Dad.