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.


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