Monday, November 30, 2009

What ever happened to the old-fashioned, fire-eating press photographer? 2

My dog Spec. He was my absolute favorite dog. Such a sweetie; gentle, affectionate and enjoyed being in the water. He was a water spaniel, so I guess it came naturally. I used the tub hanging up on the wall behind to give him a bath, which he loved. When he was only three months old someone stole him from in front of our house. I had put him on his tether and went inside to get a Coke, heard a bark and ran outside just in time to see an old Plymouth peeling out down the street. Spec was gone from his tether. I was a sad twelve-year-old :(

A 1956 Chevy rolled in an accident on Central Street in KCK one Saturday night in 1960. The driver had been drag racing on slick streets. He was unhurt. A crowd of onlookers from the teen town dance at the church on the corner quickly gathered to gawk.

Shirley Lorton, 1959 KC Auto Show Queen, and yet another Wyandotte HS classmate, perched on the hood of a new Studebaker and the image, IMHO, said a lot about how men fealt about women and cars and about how women react to it all. Notice the little girl in the left foreground who apparently wants to be a "princess" just like Shirley.

Wyandotte HS social hall 1960. Sally Lytle hides from the camera, Glenna Richardson has that deer in the headlight look, and erst wile photo assistant Joe Manley handles the second strobe. 

These three photos are all of  downtown Kansas City, Missouri at Christmas shopping time, 1965. Some called Jim's tamales "Catamales" but I thought they were pretty good.

The Broadway Bridge under construction in 1959

I don't know why I like this photo, but I do. The boy's  name is unrecorded. He was a neighbor's kid and had a moment of reflection, which I appropriately captured with my 120 Reflecta camera. Had a darn good lens for a $15 camera.

Ah, "The Kansas City Kansan". A small daily that somehow survived in the long, tall and powerful shadow of "The Kansas City Star" just across the river. Alas, like many newspapers today, it isn't one anymore. It is an online news screen.

I began my checkered news photography career at the Kansan, when it was a print version that is.

Went to Kansas City Kansas Junior College when it was on State Avenue. We called it the "World's longest college campus" because State Avenue was also US 50 highway, so in theory KCK JUCO's reach extended half way across America. 

Fortunately, the Kansan was only about four blocks from JUCO, so after classes I walked to my job as part time darkroom boy and occasional shooter. I was making $1.25 and hour when I started and $1.50 an hour when I quit to go to KU. Of course when I shot, I made $2.00 per published picture. I paid for my own film, processing and prints. Put it all together and I had enough to make the payments on my '57 Pontiac and to help out at home.

And as with most newspapers, the Kansan's most interesting days are in the past. Things in America's newsrooms are now sanitized, organized, and not nearly as colorful.

Even though it was a mere gnat on the rump of its big city cousin in Kansas City, Missouri, the Kansan was always a pretty good picture newspaper. It had a staff of two full-time photographers, a couple of writers who were decent shooters, and two part-time darkroom workers: One was an affable, if a bit dry, Wyandotte High School classmate, Bill George (who later became Dr. George). And me.

The Kansan was populated with real Damon Runyon types. Peggy was one of the most...unusual. She wrote the obits, and I suppose by sheer coincidence, she literally looked like death walking. Long, stringy, whitish, yellowish hair that was perpetually unwashed; she had pale, smooth, vampire-like skin; she had no wrinkles, even though she must have been in her 60's. But as she came near, her most overpowering feature was the strong, STRONG aroma of straight Jack Daniels on her breath. Maybe she was really in her 50's. I have heard that being in a more-or-less constant state of inebriation ages a person. Yes, you of the younger generation, many, many writers and especially photographers, drank both on and off the job. Peggy kept her bottle in the bottom drawer of her desk.

Then there was Barney. Soft-spoken, good solid editor, but on occasion had trouble making critical, big decisions.

One time a boy scout photo was accidentally exchanged in the back shop with one from a hospital. The caption under the boy scout photo implied they were operating on each other, or something like that. Whatever the exact wording, the consensus was that the caption and picture could be libelous per se and might result in a lawsuit. Or at the very least, some very angry scouts and their parents. The bulldog edition truck had already left the building and was headed to western Wyandotte County. 

What to do, what to do?

Barney and a couple of writers were walking around and around in little circles agonizing over a decision. Should they try to intercept the truck? Should they just wait and fix the caption for the next edition, which was about to pop in 15 minutes?

At that crucial moment, in walked the managing editor, old Frosty.

"What" he demanded in his usual boisterous manner, "in the HELL is going on!"

When he heard the problem, he immediately said, "Stop that dammed truck!" Which they did, and all was well. At least he could make decisions.

Then there was the tale of staff photographer Chris who was, shall we say, a bit ambitious. He wanted new cars, new cameras, new clothes and new women, in no particular order.

So, when Dirk, one of his photo chums,  wanted to use the Kansan studio to shoot pictures of luminous, pneumatic young females sans clothes, Chris' first reaction was "Don't be silly. If I let you do that I could lose my job!"

"How about if I pay you?" Dirk asked.

Now we all know that when it comes to money, that's different.

"How much?" Chris retorted,  interested now that cash was in the deal.

"How about twenty bucks?"

That was a lot of money in 1959, so Chris, possessing the tendencies noted above, took Dirk up on his offer.

For several months things went along swimmingly. Dirk would pick up the front door and studio keys on Saturday, shoot his young lady that evening and return the keys to Chris on Sunday.

Simple, clean (after a manner of speaking). Both parties benefited from the transaction.

However, one day Dirk's new girlfriend de jour exhibited considerable jealousy over Dirk striking likenesses of unclothed young women. Finally, after considerable badgering, Dirk allowed her to accompany him on the next photo shoot at the Kansan, just to keep watch on things. He said he would even let her apply the overall body makeup. Agreed.

One of Dirk's techniques for getting the model in the mood to pose was to plow her with copious amounts of wine. This approach, while not always getting him the best photos, more often than not got him...well, you know.

On the particular Saturday in question, after several bottles of wine, one thing led to another and now Dirk was photographing two young females, sans clothes. A few photos, according to legend, featured all three. Use your imagination.

Saturday came and went, then Sunday morning, then Sunday evening and Chris had not yet received his keys to the Kansan front door and to the studio. 

When Chris arrived at Dirk's apartment, the front door was unlocked. Chris found him in a rather sorry state on the couch, his girlfriend lying on the floor wrapped like a worm in a cocoon in the bed sheets. Dirk was so far gone that Chris could not rouse him. So he went through Dirk's pockets, found the keys, and as he always did, went to the Kansan to make sure everything was, ahem, tidied up from the previous night's cavorting.

Dirk's favorite spot, after the photography, was the publisher's couch. That Saturday night, which was a bit more intense than usual, Chris realized to his horror that not only was the publisher's couch  involved, but the publisher's desk as well.

It was nearly 3:00 AM when Chris finally left the building. It had taken a case of paper towels and a variety of cleaning chemicals to restore order to the publisher's space.

All was spic and span.

But most unfortunately for Chris, he did not notice the B&W contact sheet that had slipped between the couch cushions. The pictures of course were from Saturday night's photo shoot.

When I came into work after school Monday, the managing editor said that the publisher wanted to see me. Now.

At that moment I had no knowledge of what had transpired the Saturday before. But the publisher knew I was one of only four people who had a key to the studio, aside from a janitor, a couple of editors and of course the publisher himself. 

He waved the contact sheet in front of my face,  just close enough for me to see that the images were of bare flesh, but not close enough to see any detail, then he put the sheet back in his top drawer.

"Do you know any of these people?" he demanded. 

I had never seen Dirk, just heard tell. Likewise I had never seen either of the young women.


"Did you loan anyone your keys?" his second question.


Chris, the other full-time staffer, and my school chum Bill George (who really never would have been a party to such depravity) all denied any knowledge of or association with the incident. As we know, one was lying.

But the publisher was on a mission, like a dog after a bone as it were. He called in the KCK PD crime lab and had the place fingerprinted and searched for evidence.

When three strange sets of prints showed up in the studio, along with a thank you note from Dirk to Chris, apparently written in a semi-conscious state, Chris knew the jig was up.

He, Dirk, and the two young women left rather hurriedly that afternoon for California, where some years later, they set up the nation's first juice bar.

Names have been changed to protect half the world.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

What ever happened to the old-fashioned, fire-eating press photographer? 1

"What ever happened to the old-fashioned, fire-eating press photographer?"
-Sign attached to the heavy wire mesh photo coop at the Kansas City Star, 1965.


Hard to tell if it was my inner voice or indigestion, but whatever it was it told me to "Inflict some more boredom and tedium upon the world with another blog. After all, the world is pretty chaotic and humans need an excuse to doze off and relax a bit."

So, heeding the mysterious call from within, I am herewith offering from my 50+ years in the photo business a collection of my experiences, recollections and observations, mostly but not entirely true. The phrase a "novel from life" springs to mind; never let the facts stand in the way of a good story I always say.

I know not how many entries there will be. They will varied and not all about me. I do know that the photojournalism life has been so much a part of me as to be indistinguishable and inseparable from the rest of whoever I am.

I will unhesitatingly tell you that it has been, in the main, a fun ride. At times spectacular, actually. While I achieved perhaps ten percent of what I had hoped, and made about an equivalent amount of money, the places I've seen, the people I've met and the things I've done are, in MasterCard terms, priceless.

This first installment is "The B2 bomber: A Christmas story."


Some UFO-ologists (self-described students of the Unidentified Flying Objects phenomenon) firmly believe that the advanced technology used in the stealth aircraft of the United States Air Force was cloned from the presumed flying saucer that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. It took some forty years to comprehend and put into practice what the military weapons brains learned from that other-worldly craft, and from the grey, big-headed, huge-eyed alien pilots' dead bodies, so the theory goes.

In any event, and however the technology was derived, on December 22, 2001 I found myself driving to Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri. The purpose: To photograph the B2 Stealth Bombers based there.

Reading the skinny sheet from the New York Times picture desk while I drove (a no-no; I am aware) I picked up the essentials: The plane cost nearly $1 billion to develop, and each of the then 21 aircraft cost more than $700,000,000. Each. The wingspan is 172 feet, a flying wing configuration. Translation: Very pricey airplane, and you don't even get a fuselage, rudder or stabilizer for your money. The generic name of the B2 is "Spirit" and each plane also carries the name of one of the 50 states. The unique shape, construction of the aircraft and the special radar-deflecting coating applied by robots (the stuff has to be put on to exacting tolerances beyond the scope of mortals) help to make it virtually invisible to enemy detection systems.

The obligatory Media Information officer (PR guy) met me and gave me a tour of the base offices (you've seen one Air Force headquarters, you've seen 'em all), painted in the ubiquitous Air Force puke green.

There was, so far, not much of a photo op.

What seemed to me to be at great length, it was time to visit the hangers where the B2 bombers lived.

Now this was more like it!!!

It could very easily have been a frame grab from one of the Star Wars sagas. Because the B2's surface is a light-absorbing grey-black, in order for the ground crew to make proper visual inspections, many lights surrounded the bombers, giving the otherwise plain Jane/Joe hanger a very hi-tech. sci-fi look.

After about an hour of inside hanger and outside tarmac photography, I asked if I could shoot a take-off.

Yep, I sure could; In fact "now is the perfect time" I was told. The B2 bombers ran early morning and early evening test flights. It was 4:00 PM and on this late December day, it would be dark soon.

Traveling along the road that led to the end of the runway, I noticed some house trailers parked a few hundred yards back. I inquired of my PR escort as to why people lived so close to the airfield. He said that the owner of the land had worked out a leasing agreement with the Air Force, and since the land owner was also a US Senator, the military sort of looked the other way. Whatever...

The road stopped on a small rise. Dead ahead lay the 12,000' black runway with a series of yellow dots down the center.

While awaiting the first departure, a boy of about ten joined us.

"Hi. My name's Tom. I just like to watch them take off. They take off every night about this time," he explained to me, obviously pleased at informing the uninitiated.

Silence for another few minutes. I could kind of tell that Tom wanted to talk some more, so I asked him which trailer he lived in.

"The third one down the hill," pointing that away.

"The one with the Christmas lights around the window?" I asked.

"Yeah, that's my house."

"We have a Christmas tree too. It has some big red ornaments. We got no tinsel, 'cause my dad says it costs too much. But my mom loves tinsel. She is real sick and I sure wish I could get her some tinsel."

Then, off in the distance we saw the faint outline of the black, super-beast flying machine hurtling down the runway directly at us. It seemed to stay on the ground an awfully long time, and for an instant I considered ducking, as if that would have done any good.

At what I thought was the last minute, but was probably routine, the B2 lifted off and that now- classic, black, jagged wing silhouette appeared in front of us and a split second later, overhead. Another few seconds and it was out of sight.

Operating in stealth mode, the thing cannot even be heard until it is directly above. But on takeoff, the noise is, I would estimate, five times louder than the last heavy metal concert I shot. The deep-pitched roar was quite literally deafening. My ears ring yet today.

"Wow!" Tom shouted. "Wasn't that great!!!?"

The PR guy and I shook our heads in agreement.

I noticed that the PR guy had been on the radio with the tower just before the plane became airborne. I assumed he was telling them who we were and why we were there.

Almost dark now, and just one more B2 to depart.

Once again, a massive bomber lined up on the runway, its take-off lights shining brighter in the dusk. Once again it came within a few hundred feet of our spot before liftoff.

But this time, immediately after it passed overhead, something began dropping out of the sky. It was long strings of shiny metal. "What is THAT?" I asked Mr. PR guy.

"It's chaff, what some bombers use to help confuse enemy radar and air-to-air missiles," he replied.

I did not see any ATA missiles and had to assume that enemy radar was not an immediate problem.

I then realized that Tom was busy scurrying around collecting the delicate, long strands of shiny metal.

It looked, for all the world, like tinsel.

Hmmmm...quite a coincidence I thought.

No one spoke. Tom rushed back down the hill to his trailer, "tinsel" streaming along behind him.

It was now nearly dark, and getting colder.

I packed up my photo gear and climbed into the PR guy's van. Still, neither of us spoke. As we pulled up to the base offices, he finally turned to me and said, "What the heck, the United States are still the good guys."

I thanked him for his help, bade him a merry Christmas. On the drive back to Kansas City it occurred to me that the story of the day was not the B2 bomber, with its awesome firepower equivalent to 75 ordinary aircraft. It was not even the dedication of the pilots, ground crew and staff.

The real story was the act of kindness of a PR guy, the pilots and the air traffic controllers in the tower, who helped make Christmas brighter for a little boy and his ailing mom. And the upshot was that I had not even photographed it...

I hope the photos are self-explanatory.