Beginning at the Beginning

I might as well start at the beginning. Way, way back at the dawn of time when all the cameras were manual focus and I was but a lad of 12 bouncing back and forth between obsessions. Hockey one week (sadly, I sucked), Ham radio's the next (never did quite get the hang of morse code), something else the next when suddenly, I became captivated by photography. Actually, I was pretty much thrust into it one afternoon when our neighbour, old Nels Kloppenberg, had had enough of my street hockey balls ending up in his sitting room via the window that never seemed to be open at the time although, it most definitely was afterwards!

Mr Kloppenberg stormed out of the house an imposing figure even though he was probably close to 80 at the time and I knew my hockey career was over. Not for the reasons I thought though. He stated in his matter of fact way that it was time I got a new hobby and to follow him. Quite certain that I'd never exit his house nevertheless, I obediently followed him in the door and down the stairs where he took me into his darkroom, loaded some Tri-X into an old Voigtländer of some description, gave me a five minute rundown on how to use the rangefinder and the sunny 16 rule and ordered me to return the next day with the film shot or he'd tell my parents about his window! Come to think of it, this blog posting right now is quite possibly the first time my parents will actually learn about his window!

Knowing that I had just dodged a bullet, I madly shot that film off in the 200 or so feet between his side door and our back door and had a rather tense day at school the next day waiting for 3:00 PM when I could run home, drop off my books and take the camera back to Mr. Kloppenberg's for whatever punishment awaited me. He was sitting at the kitchen table with the back door open when I arrived and promptly informed me that we were going to develop the film I had shot. Down to the darkroom we went again and I became fully immersed into the world of photography. The smell of fix, the calm gurgling of the water in the wash tray, the reliable tick/tock of a Gralab timer and, even better, seeing the pictures I made turn into, well, pictures. I left with the negatives drying and another roll of film in the camera and was back with Mr. Kloppenberg every day after school for a week or two.

He was a spectacular photographer and I'd love to know what happened to his archives. He worked on the development of Radar in World War II and as a gunnery photographer in the Air Force. After the war, he had been the photographer at the Agricultural Research Station in Lethbridge, basically the same type of day job that Fred Herzog did here in Vancouver. Fairly quickly, he grew tired of the 12 year old in his darkroom using up all his film and paper though and, while he was always there for advice after that first couple of weeks, he told me I was on my own and needed to buy my own stuff from then on. He gave me a set of 8x10 developing trays, a stainless steel film tank about 10 years of British Royal Society of Photography magazines (he was a Fellow in the RPS) and sent me on my way.

I was hooked and, really, have been ever since. I needed a camera. Stat! But, I was 12 and cameras were expensive and my parents looked at all the discarded hobbies they had already supported, the hockey gear, the ham radio, the microscope and many more I've likely forgotten and told me that if I really wanted a camera, I was on my own but, always adept at dangling carrots, if I saved up and bought a camera, they'd buy me a lens for Christmas. So, I set to work saving up all my paper money and haunting the local Robinson's Camera every day after I delivered my papers. It's amazing that they never did kick me out and, in retrospect, they probably should have. Nearly every day for 4 or 5 months, I was in there oggling the wares for a good hour or two and talking with the salesmen. It was a fortunate time for a kid to be hanging around there. Just a year or so before, the Lethbridge Herald had let go most of their photographers and they all ended up working at Robinson's for a time. It was here that award winning photojournalist Mike Drew took me under his wing and passed along more knowledge than most people would get out of a 4 year university program.

Sure enough, towards the end of summer, 1984, I had saved up the $199.00 I needed to buy a brand new Canon AE-1. There was much rejoicing in Robinson's Camera on the day I actually bought my camera, the manager even went next door to buy donuts to celebrate! I was on my way. A few months later at Christmas, my parents held up their end of the bargain and bought me a second hand Tamron 28mm lens. As a bonus, I even still got a regular christmas present too...a Sunpak flash and a tripod. Never let it be said that my parents weren't supportive of my hobbies!

From there, I followed the normal path of most young photographers, randomly pointing my camera at anything in sight. Most of my interesting photos from that time were more the result of screw ups than anything else but, I kept at it. Through a program at school, I was able to spend an afternoon a week with Mike Drew, by that time he had started his own newspaper for Waterton National Park, learning more and more. Soon, he got hired by the Calgary Sun, where he works to this day and the school hooked me up with Patrick De Jourdan where I was introduced to studio photography and, learned how to print properly from his Father, another of that same generation of craftsmen photographers like Mr. Kloppenberg.

While all this was going on, our other neighbour's son, Steve Berger, an accomplished fine art photographer and printmaker took me into his darkroom and let me burn through what must've been a frightening amount of paper. I've long since lost touch with Steve and, google's not helping me track him down now. With any luck, he'll stumble across this himself and we can reconnect. Last I heard, he had taken a teaching job in Grand Prairie but, that was over 25 years ago. Steve gave me my first enlarger, an ancient Sun Ray 4x5 that I set up in my brother and I's former fort in the back yard and spent a number of sub-zero nights trying to make prints with an extension cord running back to the house and a space heater that just barely managed to keep the frost off of my developer tray.

The paper route wasn't supporting my film costs, despite bulk loading my own and, the fort wasn't an adequate darkroom so, I somehow convinced Tom Wolsey, owner of "The Slide Shop", a small custom photo lab in Lethbridge at the time to hire me to man the counter after school and on Saturdays, at the tender age of 14. My parents had to write a permission letter to get around child labour laws! Tom was fantastic, he let me go in on Sunday's and do whatever I wanted in the darkroom. I must've used 10x the materials to what he had paid me in cash wages and he never complained one bit. Soon enough, he sold the lab to Mike Drew's brother Rob and, while Rob wasn't so keen to let me burn through all their paper and chemicals, he kept me on and even let me start processing film and printing for customers. Here I was, a 15 year old keeping an E-6 line in control, printing Cibachrome's and shooting internegs. Life was pretty sweet.

At this point, I decided it was high time to turn my hand to actually taking pictures for a living. I was a ballsy young brat and, surprisingly, lots of people took me up on it! By the time of my 16th birthday, I had a national magazine cover (Canadian Biker, August 1987), had shot a couple of weddings, was getting most of the advertising and editorial work from Lethbridge Magazine and shooting regularly for one of the modelling agencies in town along with family portraits and what have you. Quite remarkable, in retrospect. Oh, to know now what I knew then! ;-)

This seems an appropriate place bring this installment to a close. Here in the Stories section of my website, I'll be posting periodic longer form pieces about photography, galleries of projects I've put together and, whatever else seems at the time to have some lasting interest. I hope you enjoy the gallery of extremely archival images, all taken in 1987 and earlier. Check back regularly