How Once We Were – 1950s

How Once We Were…in the 1950s

I stepped out onto the porch that overlooked our long driveway, and was intrigued by the footprints left by the paperboy. Normally I find my composition from what’s there, not adding any touches. But these footprints needed a reason for being there. Even though the paper was always put on the porch, I needed to drop it into the snow. Perfect!

How Once We Looked, The world I experienced, as the 1940s slid into the 1950s and beyond

I Became enamored of photography as a teenager. I was living in a Rust Belt town in Ohio were I didn’t belong, in the 1950s. Heroes had been wartime military men, and now that designation was given to athletes. Women went back to “women’s work,” and served as supporters and decoration and cheerleaders.

Social stereotypes returned after World War II ended in 1945, even after Rosie the Riveter’s legions had demonstrated women’s strength and intelligence. Shy young males resumed putting young females “onto pedestals” and tended to lack the insights and social skills to relate to them as human beings.

What do you do when you don’t belong? Entering my teen years, I hid behind a camera. My swords and shields in high school began with the Speed Graphics assigned in photography class. It was unusual to have a high school photography course in that era, and I blossomed in that narrow sphere. I became a local treasure, winning in contests but with a whole lot to learn and a vital need to grow myself up.

I read all that I could about what professional photographers were doing, as I developed technical skills and a sense of composition and timing. I gravitated from press cameras to those then regarded as “miniature,” and explored the new techniques of available light photography. 

And I created photographs. Lots of them. In my repressed town, In a repressed era, I was fascinated with capturing feelings on film. At last I had an outlet for expression and release. Practice created an ability to react reflexively.

I finally left a family business to become a professional photographer, building a roster of publications and with an abundance of persistence. Told today that my files are a kind of treasure trove, I’m going back into the archives to see what I saw long ago.

A Boys Life?

boy on top of cannon

I call this Reverie, a boy lost in play at Artillery Park in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I was out strolling with camera, came upon him out with his grandfather, and moved in until this composition appeared just as his expression put him in another world.

The past and the present are closer than we often realize, so I’m going back into the archives to see what I saw long ago First up is this sampling of my documentary photography, a nostalgic collection of How Once We Looked. I’ve selected images that seem memorable, from the perspective of a life spent pursuing my passion.

A Picture Life?

What Gives A Picture Life? Beyond Empty Photographs.

Too many empty photographs are passing for art these days. I want images with life and meaning, action and humor. I want them to capture life, to be alive:

George Eastman created a world of photographers in 1888 with cameras that lived up to the slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest.” Perhaps today’s cameras are too easy to use. Point and shoot techniques can lead to empty, lifeless photos. I want to take the concept of picture-taking one or two steps further, from merely taking pictures to making photographs: composition, lighting, finding that decisive moment. I rebel against decision makers who influence collectors into thinking that barren photographs are fine art.

I learned more about the process, more about the marketing, more about the human condition. I gravitated to photojournalism, happy with candid photography…

…and grateful to people willing to share their lives for my magazine assignments:

Photojournalism sharpened skills that applied as I tried out other phases of photography, following the twists and turns of a rapidly changing profession.  Reacting to my own decisive moments, I sought emotional content whenever it might appear, meaningful composition as a frame, and the feel and shape of the situation.

I remember wishing that I had had a mentor back then, someone experienced, with an overview to help guide me.  Instead I created a composite, picking up bits and pieces from so many people I met.

Now I have become one of those who nurture.  I have stories to tell, I have realized, after participating in panel discussions, lectures, gallery talks, any events where people gather around.  I’ve come to recognize that, wow! I’ve learned something. And I learn even more as I explain to, and consult with, others.

I hope that collectors and curators might want to join in, to share insights with anyone wanting to improve their photography.

Capturing a Moment in Time

In an era of flashbulbs and press cameras, I was exploring what available light had to offer. It presented the world as we saw it, without the harsh effect of a single flash. Both techniques froze a moment that goes by in a blur.

Photographing peak action stopped the movement at its height.  It allowed slow shutter speeds in an era of slow films. And it preserved a feeling forever.

At the Circus (1957)

Townsfolk were eager for entertainment once all was in place.I was a witness, a budding photojournalist knowing none of my subjects, eager to hone my skills.I was using a Leica IIIF, with distance and exposure preset, so that my reflexes could take over. No time to think, only to spontaneously react. This was the practice I needed. Have you ever sought out events where you could photograph this way?

Now I had an advanced twin-lens reflex, when I was fifteen years old and entranced with what I could do in photography. I was at our annual Halloween parade, and film was slow in those days. My Rollei’s lens was f3.5 and there was no way I could stop the action as the rider on an old-fashioned bicycle whizzed by. I did the only thing I could think of and panned with the action.

It was my first attempt at panning, and it added a new technique to my repertoire. It reinforced the learning process of practice and interpretation. And it early on taught me to get in there and react, not to overthink making an image “perfect.”

Flash! Action and Steel

Worker after WWII

After World War II ended in 1945, factories were smoking with consumer production once again. “Smoking” was slang for action, but literal when steel was formed, a molten pig iron mixture poured into molds at the American Steel Foundries, in Alliance, Ohio. My passion for photography was smoking too, when I entered Alliance High School in 1955. Leland H. “Whit” Whitacre not only taught photography, he created a kind of fiefdom where we were encouraged to explore our craft and our world. I had found my kindred souls. Whit assigned us Speed Graphic press cameras, and flashbulbs were needed for low light situations. Maverick me started experimenting with available light. So when Bill on the ladder fired his flash, and I was using a long exposure, the magic appeared.