Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone can be an excellent photographer. In 2019 before our trip to Alaska, I purchased a full-frame Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. I also bought a fantastic high-resolution lens costing more than the camera. In the six months of our trip, I took it out exactly one time. All through Alaska, the cameras of choice were our new iPhones. The pictures we published first on our blog and then in our Amazon book were breathtaking. Just like in real estate, location, location, location. Although I occasionally take photographs as a hobby, I now view them as a digital record vice the fine art that I wanted to achieve way back when. Back in the day, I purchased numerous 35mm cameras, but my pride and joy was my Hasselblad. A Hasselblad just like Ansel Adams and the astronauts of Apollo.
The Hasselblad itself is both a work of art and a workhorse of a camera. The negatives it produces yield beautiful images. I still love using this camera even though the occasions to take it out are few and far between. I also enjoyed processing and printing. Sadly, that ship has sailed. In today’s world, most digital images are overly enhanced and photoshopped to the point of exaggeration. Now every photograph looks either artificially beautiful or fake and surreal. My criticism aside, the world of photography has gotten a lot better over the years. Now taking good pictures is more about where you are and your subject as opposed to the technical details. I have no idea what shutter speeds or f-stops are built into modern smartphones. All I know is that anyone can take incredible pictures just by being in the right place.
When I taught photography in the late 70s’ at the combined Army/Air Force School, we started the students out with a “Speed Graphic” 4×5. This classic has been around since the 1930s. Jimmy Olsen taught me to use it. The large format produces great negatives and is about as manual as you can get. None of those automatic things like focusing or exposure control we all depend upon nowadays.
The Graflex or Speed Graphic was a slow camera. The shutter speed needed to be manually set as did the aperture. The 4×5 sheet film was in a removable film holder and you only got one shot before you needed to reload and start the process all over again. If you were indoors, you carried a flashgun with exploding flashbulbs. Often the flash wouldn’t go off or worse, the bulb would explode leaving nearby subjects covered in powder and fine shards of glass.
As I look back through my photo archive looking for ancient pictures to populate these posts, I run through literally thousands of blurry, or underexposed shots. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I was and am a competent and almost good photographer. Our friend Sandi and many of the students I’ve taught are great photographers. Their gift is not only to find great subjects but to do so with just the right light. For great photographers, the subject is the light. Just the right light. Most rise early for the twilight before dawn, rest in the midday when the light is shadowless and meaningless, then go out again for the red vanishing shades of sunset. This is the most difficult part of photography to teach and one I’ve only gotten right a few times. According to me hero, Ansel Adams, making twelve good photographs a year was significant. I’d settle for just a handful in a lifetime.
In Arkansas, I was once called to photograph the Air Force’s Base’s Emergency Support for a freight train derailment in Southern Missouri. I grabbed a Nikon, a few lenses, and out of habit, an old Speed Graphic. I rode eighty miles in the back of one of the base’s firetrucks. On the radio, we learned luckily that there were no injuries just a fifty-car derailment. The train was going too fast to navigate the curve. The cars came off the track and into a farmer’s field of corn. When we arrived, I tried to capture the extent of the wreckage. One of my photographs was of an overturned train car full of brand-new Cadillacs. The cars, still on the train car, had rolled over and were now sideways alone in the cornfield. The picture was picked up by Time Magazine. Instead of giving me credit in the byline of the photograph, the caption simply said, U.S.A.F. Photo. Such is the life of a military photographer.
I really loved being a photographer. It was the best job in the Air Force. I got paid to take pictures. I walked around base, the local community and sometimes I got to ride in the jump seat of a bomber or tanker. I seriously thought of continuing this as a career. I dreamt of being a professional photographer. Sadly, I didn’t consider myself a professional. I was just an Airman taking pictures. Looking back, I guess I was a professional photographer. Even at Airman First Class pay, I was making more than most so-called professionals. Never truly gifted, I quickly found that a reliably good photo beat a sometimes-great photo. I tried to be reliable and also learned to work hard.
I photographed crime scenes, surgeries, newsworthy events, and even Miss Arkansas when she visited the base! Boy was I nervous. I was often invited to dine and have “High Tea” with the Officer’s Wives, and I must have photographed a thousand “retirement ceremonies.” The Base Public Affairs Office thought I worked for them but so did the Wing’s Intel shop. Being a photographer meant you got a window into most if not all the functions and specialties required to run complex organizations. Once, my official officer portrait of a young Captain was used to help a plastic surgeon reconstruct a young pilots face. Not some horrific accident, just a weekend bar fight. Beer bottles were used. Just for fun and to teach the guy a lesson, the surgeon didn’t use much if any anesthesia. So while the poor fellow cried, I cried in pain as well, zooming in close with a macro lens to documented all the details.
I saw Commanders up close as they struggled with difficult leadership challenges, and new recruits just wanting to find their way to the chow hall. I got my first security clearance so I could process B-52 route plans and targets. I processed gun camera film and once and only once did I photograph a slightly damaged nuclear weapon. While the details remain “Classified,” I can tell you the words painted on the side of the bomb that said “DO NOT BUMP” were a bit of an eye-opener. My job took me up in a host of aircraft. I photographed the Thunderbirds from the VIP stands and a group of Army Paratroopers jumping from the open Cargo door of a C-130.
In 1978, I went on to teach photography and photojournalism at the combined Army/Air Force Still Photography school in Denver Colorado. I taught everything from processing and printing to portraiture and photojournalism. This was a great job, I had access to the best equipment money could buy. All I had to do was “sign for it” and it was mine. I ended up teaching for less than a year of “in-class” instruction. Two Master Sergeants noticed me and took me out of the classroom. These Sergeants were responsible for rewriting the Air Force Photography proficiency exams as well as the new correspondence coursework. In the matter of an afternoon, I went from technical instructor to course writer. What a great lesson that was. If you think you know a subject, try and teach it. If you think you can teach something, try and write it down. Very quickly you learn how little you know and how much more you need to learn.
One bad part of the school was the slower pace of promotions in the Air Force compared to the Army. I was an E-4 or “Buck” Sergeant when I was an instructor. It was not uncommon for my Army students to show up as an E-3 Private First Class and graduate with the rank of E-5 Sergeant.
Sadly, few of my official photographs remain. I never tried to build a portfolio and it just never occurred to me to save any of my work. After all, both my photographs and I were just USAF property.
So let me answer the two most frequent questions I get. Q.1. Nikon or Canon? A. I have no clue. Q.2. Which National Park is your favorite? A. The next.
The following photographs have nothing to do with this story other than I made them over the years. For many of these, the light was the subject.
Photographing Arlington National Cemetery with my Hasselblad