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More Ramblings and A Little History - Part 2 of 3

Blog: #2 of 3 by Bob Wall

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July 19th, 2013 - 10:33 PM

Thinking back to how I first got into photography, it had to be in high school. We had a small black and white darkroom and a teacher, Diana Lopes, who showed me what can be done with a simple camera, a few chemicals and some film and paper. We even made a pinhole camera out of a box. It was the beginning of a whole new world for me. The class didn't last long due to a lack of interest. Not on my part though. I still have an image in my head of a photo that Ms. Lopes shot of me. We were on a field trip to Pescadero State Beach, between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, California (and still my favorite spot on the coast). It's a shot of me holding a rock with kelp anchors on it. Diana solarized the image while printing. I no longer have a copy of it, but I can still see it.

After high school, it was off to the army in 1972. The first camera I bought was a Kodak 110 Instamatic. Really small film, and not the best quality images, but it was small enough to take with me everywhere, and it gave me something to do. I managed to get a few good shots with it, but it was mostly just for snapshots.

Then I got sent to Germany, and found out that I had access to a black and white photo lab courtesy of the army's Special Services. The world of photography was opened up to me again. I bought a Yashica Electro 35, my first 35mm camera. It was a range finder camera, so fixed focus and no swapping lenses, but it was good enough to get me out shooting and back in the darkroom.

As my eye, and abilities in the darkroom evolved, I needed (wanted) something better. The solution was a Petri FT II with a few lenses; 35mm, 50mm, 135mm and 500mm. That big lens was heavy so I also bought my first tripod. But I didn't want to lug that tripod around all the time, so I found an old wooden rifle stock and fitted it with a couple of holders for the camera body and lens, a shutter release cable running down into the trigger housing, and a bipod that I borrowed from the company arms room. Got some weird looks when walking around the small German town I was stationed in. I even got stopped by the Polizei a couple of times until they got used to the sight. I guess the word got around Butzbach that there was a crazy American GI walking around with what looked like a rifle, but was just a camera with a long lens on a rifle stock. After that, I stopped using it around town and only used that set up out in the boonies doing nature shots. If I needed the long lens in town, I used the tripod. The Petri was a good camera, and I used it to learn a lot, but there was just something missing and I wanted more.

Enter my first Nikon (and the beginning of a lifelong brand love affair), an FTn Photonic . I bought a few lenses for it, a 35mm, 50mm (both Nikkor) and a Vivitar 85 - 205 zoom. This was my first zoom and opened up another new world of learning. I still have all of these lenses, but the FTn went it's own way as we'll see later.

I bought this camera about the same time I found out about a tour to Le Mans for The Race. So, I got my ticket for that too. This was a bus trip from Frankfurt to Paris for an overnight stay, then off to Le Mans the next day for the race. On the bus, I met a reporter for The Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper. Turns out he had a pit pass with his photo on it, but we looked enough alike that if security didn't pay very close attention to it, I could pass. So, after he was done shooting in the pits, he loaned me his pass. Security didn't look very close. Talk about awesome photo opportunities; Ferrari, Porsche, Renault, Jaguar, Corvette, (this is why I need a film scanner if I can find those negatives). The rest of the weekend was a blast; besides the race, there was a carnival happening on the other side of the track from where I was watching the race (right at the first turn after the main straight, so I got great shots of the cars as they slowed for the turn). Got pictures of the cars, then off to the carnival for some serious fun and shooting, then back to the track. It rained that night, and this is where I began to get a feeling for how rugged this camera was. I just wiped the lens and kept on shooting.

Since I don't want this to become a bio of my life, let's just say that the FTn went through hell (military exercises, mountain climbing, skiing, travel, being dropped and tossed around) and never failed me in the four years I had it, including being stolen and recovered when I was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It also got me started doing a lot of free lance photography, mostly portraits, but some well paying travel photography too. Being stationed in Germany, with easy access to most of what was then called Western Europe, had some definite advantages to a young, single GI who loved to travel and take pictures of where he went. I had four shots from a trip to Switzerland published in TWA's Ambassador Magazine, my first time published. But even better than the money, which was pretty good (it paid for my trip), was seeing "Photographs by Robert Wall" in the magazine. I was walking on air. I also won, or placed high in several photography contests over the years, and got published in a few smaller publications.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to re-enlist in the army (passing up an opportunity to take a European Out and go into business with a friend and his wife who had opened up a photo studio in Giessen). I wanted to be an Army Photographer and worked with the company Career Counselor to make this happen. I re-enlisted as a Process Photographer. Yippee right? Wrong. This involved working with cameras that were installed in base stations or carried around in truck trailers. I got the opportunity to use a 24 inch, up to a 40 by 40 inch overhead process camera (that I helped install in our print shop in Germany), and got stationed in map making units doing pre-press work. Not quite what I had in mind, but it wasn't all bad. Besides being stationed just outside of Heidelberg my second tour in Germany, I picked up a lot of darkroom techniques that I could apply to my off duty free lance work.

Now, as you may have noticed, I always want something better, but how do I get better than that FTn without dishing out the immense cost of a Hasselblad? Well, Nikon came out with a camera called the F2 AS when I was stationed in Germany the second time. I found somebody to buy the FTn (I kept my lenses) and rushed down to the PX Audio/Video store and bought one. I still have this camera 30+ years later, though it doesn't get used very often anymore. The F2 kept me going as before, and I still had no fear of it ever letting me down. There was still something missing though. Shooting 35mm was great, but I wanted to shoot a larger format film. I blame this on my work as a Process Photographer, using large (up to 60 inch) sheet film. One day I was flipping through one of the photography magazines I subscribed to and saw a new camera was coming from Mamiya, the 645 (6 x 4.5cm, about four times larger than 35 mm film). This is considered a medium format size and I thought it was the next logical step in my photographic evolution. So, I bought one, along with a couple of lenses. I love that camera, and recently put it back into service after sitting on shelves or in my camera bag for more than 25 years.

I finally decided to get some formal training in photography too, so while stationed just outside of Heidelberg, I took some photography classes through the University of Maryland. I have some great stories about the class, the teacher and some of the people in the classes with me, but I won't bore you with those (at least, not now). I'll just say that, while I learned a few new tricks and ways of looking at photo opportunities in the classes, the teacher, Jeff, told me that he also learned a few things from me.

So, this takes me through nearly nine years in the army (not done yet though), and along with my free lance work, I was also usually the unofficial official company photographer. This made for some unique photo experiences (aside from my regular duties) that most people will never get. I also shot mostly black and white, but would shoot color occasionally. Why? Because I usually didn't have access to a color lab, but always had a black and white lab handy. Also, B&W is cheaper, and not nearly as big a hassle, or expense, as color. Besides, I felt that black and white just looked better. It tends to make a person think more about what they are looking at. Looking at a color photograph, you see what was there. Looking at B&W, you have to think about what was there and what the photographer saw.

So, after four years in Germany, it's time for me to head stateside again. I figured Fort Belvoir again as there were only three map making battalions in the army, and I didn't think I was going to get Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Dammit. Orders came down for Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Why Fort Campbell? There was no need for my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) there. But in their infinite military wisdom, somebody decided I was going there. So, as I sat around the replacement station while Personnel tried to decide what to do with me, I reconnected with a friend from Germany who was now an instructor at the Air Assault School. Somehow, Kevin managed to get me an interview with the Division Command Sergeant Major for the 101st Airborne Division. As we talked, he told me there was no need for my MOS at Fort Campbell (I already knew that), but he was looking for people with other, special, skills. You know, like writers, photographers, etc. DING!!! I told him I had a few years experience in photography, and that is how I ended up as the NCOIC (NCO In Charge) at the post photo lab at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I had arrived!

Not only was I now an Army Photographer (I MADE IT!), I was the ranking military photographer there. We also had several civilians working in the lab, but they were bossed by another civilian. As the boss, I had to assign the army photographers to the different jobs on a daily basis, but I also got to assign myself some prime jobs along with the drudge and not-so-fun jobs too (can you say autopsies?), but ya can't have it all. It was a long time before I told my wife (we met while stationed in Germany but got married in Clarksville, Tennessee) all the stuff I used to do on some of the good jobs, like hanging out of, or standing on the skids, or dangling from a rope underneath helicopters taking pictures.

So, here I am, first day in my new job and what kind of camera did they assign me? A Canon. Now don't get me wrong, Canons are okay, but they aren't Nikon, so I decided that unless somebody held a weapon to my head, I was going to use my personal Nikon rather than lower my standards. A couple of days later, I was scrounging around in an old storage locker to see what was in there and found an old Nikon FTn. I had come home. That became my official camera. Something else I found in that locker was a camera I had always wanted to try; an old Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 inch press camera (think about old movies from the forties and fifties and the cameras the photographers used). I loved it, but it was heavy as hell, not to mention having to carry several 4x5 film packs, and not something I wanted to haul around on jobs where I might have to move fast and shoot faster. But it was a beautiful old piece of photographic history and I would love to find another one. Maybe I'll check out E-Bay.

The one drawback to my job at Fort Campbell, besides a Tennessee summer, was that it was my last assignment in the army. I got out after being there for only five months.

I'll skip the next 20 years, because photographically, there wasn't much happening unless somebody is interested in pictures of my kids growing up, or the few shots I got while traveling on business, although I do have a lot of good shots of British Cars at various shows and drives. I shot some good stuff in the first two or three years as a civilian, and my first couple of jobs were in a print shop and an aerial photography mapping company, but most of my work wasn't very interesting to anybody but me (except for a model portfolio I put together for a friend's daughter). I needed a real skill, and fell into Quality Assurance. It has been a living.

I did pick up a couple more cameras along the way, a Nikon FM and an EM, hoping to get my wife into photography, but it seemed like my photographic life was over. I also have an old Argus c-Forty-Four 35mm rangefinder and a Tower 35mm stereo camera that a friend gave me when he was cleaning house and packing up to move back to Illinois, but I haven't used these. They take up places of honor on a shelf along with the F2 and EM. I think I gave the FM to my daughter who sold it on e-bay while in college and needed some money.

More Ramblings and A Little History - Part 2 of 3

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