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Big Camera and a Whirler!

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Here’s the business end of the largest camera I ever used on a regular basis. It was a two-room Robertson copy camera. The camera back and digital controls were in a small lightproof room behind this one. The camera could take 48″ x 48″ sheets of film on its vacuum film plate.

The front end of the camera, seen here, had a 10-foot bellows that extended on the overhead beams and the vertical image/copy holder (not shown because I was standing right in front of it) could hold a paper or film sheet between glass, vacuumed flat, up to 15 feet wide by six feet high. The halogen lights shown illuminated the copy. This camera was at Martel Labs in St. Pete, Florida, where I ran the 26-person photo lab for a few years. The camera operator is shown changing lenses.

If you needed to shoot onto a piece of film larger than 48″ x 48″, you could reverse the lens to turn the camera into “blowback” mode, but I personally never used the thing that way.

This was a super-expensive piece of gear; we used it for copying engineering or cartographic imagery. Our sister company, Chicago Aerial Survey, had a larger camera, believe it or not. Made by the Brown Camera company, it was vertical and two or three stories high. At the time I worked for Martel, my understanding was that the vertical camera at CAS was the largest camera in the world.

Here’s another piece of gear most folks have never seen: a vertical emulsion whirler. Because of the weird photographic stuff we did at Martel, much of which was classified, we often had to make our own film. You can’t imagine the exotic chemistry we cooked up in this room. The film emulsions were so sensitive that we couldn’t use red lights, as in most darkrooms; we had to use dim green lights to work in.

Anyway, this vertical whirler wasn’t completely vertical, but it replaced a horizontal one we had been using earlier. The sheet film shown is probably 80″ x 64″ and hasn’t been vacuumed totally flat yet; that took about 15 minutes to do.

Once the plastic sheet was absolutely flat, the operator could flow the custom emulsion onto the rotating sheet and the slow rotation of the film bed would flatten the emulsion on the substrate. The tubular arm shown would blow a gentle flow of heated air onto the gummy emulsion, baking it onto the sheet and, after 45 minutes or so, you’d have a piece of film ready for whatever you needed it for. Usually it was used in a giant contact frame for duping large images from negs or positive film.

It Was 20 Years Ago Today!

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Actually, it was 25 years ago, but what the heck! Here are some photos of the family when we lived on North Manhattan Avenue in Tampa.

Colleen is shown here watching one of her then-favorite shows, Miami Vice. Not quite sure what a three-year-old got from watching that, but I expect she loved the music and the action of it. I love Neenie’s expression here; the photo itself isn’t all that great.

Next we have Aaron in his wading pool in the backyard. The colors are just so vivid in this Kodachrome photo. Gosh, I do miss Kodachrome film! Paul Simon had it right when he sang:

Kodachrome
You give us those nice bright colors
You give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah!
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away”

It wasn’t Mama that took our Kodachrome away, but the digital-camera revolution.

The camera used here was my Nikon Nikkormat FT3, which, in my experience, had the best internal light meter of any SLR I ever used. Nothing else ever came even close.

We wind up with a Christmas-time photo taken at Patty’s brother Billy’s house in Brandon, Florida in 1986. When I posted this photo on Facebook without specifying the location where it was taken, my sister-in-law Sheila immediately commented, “Hey; that was our couch!” Yes; Sheila; it certainly was.

Shown are Neenie, Aaron and Patty.

Ship Flagging

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My dad rented a big house in the summer of 1959 on Highway 82 in Sabine Pass, Texas, right on the Intracoastal Waterway where it met the Sabine River. This remote place must have been close to an airport my dad liked flying out of; there wasn’t another house for miles. As the photo shows, huge tankers and other ships would pass within 100 feet or so of our front yard, all day and night long. Sometimes they be lined up like cars on a highway.

Those boats were enormous; the one in this photo is typical; it’s the Texaco tanker Caltex Glasgow, and it was 524 feet long, according to a Net history of Texaco tankers.

Being stuck out in the middle of nowhere was boring for a seven-year-old kid. My only companion besides my brother was an ancient black man named Jim, who lived rent-free on the property in a ramshackle frame house. Jim wore a big white cowboy hat and made a living catching and penning alligator gars in the river and bayous and selling them to folks. Gars are ferocious fish, as much as seven feet long and well over 150 pounds each, as I learned watching Jim feed them horsemeat scraps every evening.

I followed Jim everywhere, as he was quite a storyteller, though some of his history was a tad off. He told me his daddy had been a slave freed by President Teddy Lincome, and that President Garfield had been shot by a maniac named Charley Guitar (close; it was Charles Guiteau).

Other than pestering Jim, there was little to do, but my mom didn’t like me getting close to that pen full of alligator gars.

My dad solved this problem by buying me, at a ship chandlery, a big cardboard box of about twenty three-foot by five-foot flags of various countries and a little flagpole. When a foreign ship went by our front yard, I’d put their flag on the pole and wave it with all my might. My mom wouldn’t let me walk across the highway to the Waterway, but usually someone on the ship would see me waving their country’s flag and I’d be rewarded with a mighty blast from the ship’s horn. Sometimes the fellows on the ship would yell and wave to me. It took about ten minutes for each ship to go by, and I’d see many ships a day.

It became a pretty nice summer, after all.

Boy Howdy!

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That’s an expression I’ve always used; seems to me I first heard it said as a kid in Texas.

Much later, in Naples, Florida, some of my friends and I culminated our series of bands with a lineup of John Klingler and Don Spicer on guitars, Mike Collins on drums, and yours truly on bass. We all contributed vocals and other folks came and went as time went on. We called the band Boy Howdy and we played rock, blues, Dylan, Cream, Allman Brothers and Mountain covers and whatever else we could handle.

We played the Naples Teen Center and some parties, but our regular gig was at Al Bolton’s Aquarium Bar on the Trail in East Naples, so named because he had a couple of large built-in freshwater aquariums with a giant Oscar fish in each.

The clientele was an uneasy combination of migrant workers, kids and bikers. Sometimes fights broke out and the bouncer, a gentle giant named Pabst, would settle things by falling on the miscreants like a felled oak tree. The bar was in an old Quonset hut but the acoustics were good. We played a couple of nights a week.

The Boy Howdy Band, or part of it, is shown in this photo recently sent to me by my still-best friend, John Klingler. He’s the one on the left in this photo, the drummer is Mike Collins, and I’m on the right on bass, with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth! John’s sister, Jean, found the photo somewhere.

 Taken on the evening of June 9, 1973 as we celebrated John’s 21st birthday; notice the Boy Howdy drumhead and period posters!!!

That’s why the Robert Crumb-created Boy Howdy figure is at the top of this blog. We saw that drawing as the mascot for Creem magazine and decided we’d use it, too.

John remembers some Aquarium bar madness:

Patrons of Al’s might recall an air hockey table very near the stage with a black light over it. The puck would glow, which was quite disconcerting in its own right. I shudder to think of the number of times that puck would fly off the table and hit me while we were playing. And I was on the opposite side of the stage. BTW, not present in the photo was the other guitar player in the group, Don Spicer.”

A Pascagoula Christmas!

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These are probably the first photos I ever took, using my Dad’s Kodak Signet 80 camera, which was Kodak’s highest-end camera at that time. It was a 35mm rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses. My dad picked it up in Mexico City when someone there stole his Nikon rangefinder from his hotel room. At that time, of course, SLR cameras were quite rare; Nikon didn’t offer one until a year or so later.

The Signet 80 was a great camera and totally silent, unlike the clunk-producing early SLRs and I used that camera well into the 1970s, even after I had Nikon SLRs and medium-format cameras of my own.

So these were taken in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1958. I was in the first grade. The Christmas Festival that year was a big deal for me, because my dad flew Santa onto the river with his float plane, and a little boat picked Santa up from my dad’s plane and brought him to the docks. Mr. John Quinn, my dad’s friend who owned the menhaden plant mentioned earlier, lifted me up onto a 55-gallon drum because I was little. Mr. Quinn is in the dark-blue-black-and-white checked shirt in the second photo, and his wife, Jane, is standing next to him in a red-and-black checked shirt. Here comes Santa on the small boat.

In this crowd scene, you can see the Puss ‘n Boots cat-food factory in the background. That’s where I learned to ride my bicycle; there was a big concrete area in front of the factory which was vacant on the weekends. I had gotten a seven-transistor radio from Western Auto (it was sapphire blue) and I taped it to the handle bars of my bike so I could listen to WTIX (Tiger Radio!!!) from New Orleans as I rode around. They played Elvis and Chuck Berry and especially Buddy Holly.

In this photo, you can see the Pascagoula High School Marching Band. Hard to believe these lovely young ladies would be in their 70s today.

The Pleasure Was All Mine

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When I was in high school, I was recruited from a two-week stint at Winn Dixie to Publix Supermarkets (Where Shopping is a Pleasure!) by Bob DeVille, who managed the Naples store and was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He came to our house and told my mom and dad I would be better off working for him. I ended up spending 14 years at Publix, though I often got frustrated and quit. Mr. DeVille would wait a month or so and then call me up to see if I’d calmed down and was ready to return. I usually did.

I got into the produce department because I had read that an agricultural job could keep you from being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. After I while, I was transferred to Tampa and eventually I got my own produce department in a tiny art-deco Publix on Nebraska Avenue. I loved that store and the staff and customers. Patty and I were just married, and I was happy to have a job during a tough recession.

I’d work hard to make creative displays, using hand-lettered signs and the contrasts in colors and shapes of the produce to create excitement and interest. Fresh produce wasn’t a big deal at that time, and most of the unusual stuff I tried to sell didn’t. I’d have recipe cards and samples available but folks didn’t want to know what a Kiwi fruit was or to give a carambola a try. I was lucky to sell half a case of romaine to every twenty cases of iceburg lettuce.

Working in a supermarket was a great way to learn what ads worked and what ads didn’t; what displays moved merchandise and what displays didn’t, and I was lucky enough to work for a store manager who let me try anything that I dreamed up. I’d draw little graphs of where people stopped in my little department, what they put in their shopping cart and what they didn’t.

On the side, I’d do freelance writing, photography and graphics, and when I made more money one year doing that than I did at Publix, I left for good. But I learned a lot and met Patty there, and consider myself most lucky for the experience.

Leo the Hedgehog

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The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

I’ve spent the last few months learning everything I could about Leo Fender, creator of Fender Musical Instruments, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, like the hedgehog, Leo had one guiding principle; his was: Make simple products for the working musician which can be quickly repaired.

Leo-Fender

Leo Fender tinkering. Photo by Jon Sievert.

Mr. Fender never bothered with a “mission statement,” which many firms try to have. Mission statements require precision of thought and clarity of vision, which is uncommon, so most mission statements confuse by including too much. Clarity requires exclusion.

How did Leo Fender develop his vision? Because he got his start as a radio repairman. Folks came to his little shop in Fullerton, California, every day with a broken thing and they needed it fixed in hours, not days, because they made their living with it. And Mr. Fender became known as someone who could fix things quickly. As he was fixing amps and PAs made by others, he noticed what was wrong with the designs of the products.

He got into making guitars– lap steels at first– so he could sell his amps. He decided guitars were too complicated and decided to simplify their construction to what was absolutely essential and could be quickly replaced without special skills or tools.

Guitars of that time– we’re talking late 1940s here– were not always made by painstaking individual craftsmen, but they did take skill and time to make. If something went out of whack, as always happens even to the best guitars, it took a lot of skill and time to correct.

Leo’s guitars were a military-grade assembly of easily replaceable components. Other guitar makers scoffed at his “canoe paddle” solid-body instruments, but they didn’t laugh for long. And the amps Leo made, from tried-and-true circuits using the best hardware he could find– war surplus was cheap and plentiful after WWII– were solid, dependable and sounded great. No one laughed at those; they were too busy trying unsuccessfully to copy them. Without Leo’s vision, other guitar and amp makers most often tripped over their own feet. It might look like a Fender product but it didn’t play or sound like one.

As long as Leo ran his company, his vision, like gravity, was always in effect. Leo wasn’t a socializer and he was thrifty to a fault. He was happiest tinkering with new ways to simplify and improve things and he’d only pal around with those who produced something with their hands.

Leo didn’t design his products for rock and roll, because that wasn’t being played in the clubs and honky-tonks of his day. He and his assistants would take their prototype guitars and amps to local clubs where country guitarists worked, and have them try them on stage. Leo listened to the comments and criticisms he got from these working musicians and incorporated their feedback into the next prototype.

When kids who grew up hearing country, gospel, blues, folk, rhythm and blues and other music got the early Fender products in their hands, it sparked a revolution in music. The hedgehog Leo, who never played guitar, wore hearing aids and hadn’t planned to help create rock and roll, was astonished. Happily astonished. And so were we.

In this photo from 1950, Leo Fender is on the right. The player holding the Fender Broadcaster guitar is Dub Williams and the fellow behind him is singer/songwriter/bandleader Eddie Miller; together they wrote the classic “Release Me.” The woman hasn’t been identified.

Fender After Leo:

Leo sold Fender Musical Instruments to CBS, the TV folks, for a staggering amount of money in January of 1965, because he thought he was dying. He wasn’t, and CBS, full of foxes and savvy operators, ran Fender into the ground. Even teens like me realized the CBS-made Fender guitars and amps were less than what they had been, and a market grew for “pre-CBS” Fender products.

Some brilliant Japanese craftsmen made a huge impact in the mid-1970s building guitars like Leo made them. They’d buy old Leo-made Fenders, blueprint them down to the tiniest detail, and replicate them precisely. I own one of their Stratocasters (a Tokai copy of the 1958 Strat Buddy Holly played), and I took it apart and put it back together until I “got it,” and then built my own version of a early-1950s “Leo” Telecaster. It’s my favorite guitar. It’s like a tank that sings.

In 1985, CBS realized it couldn’t complete with the Japanese guitars or the early Fenders, threw in the towel and sold the company at a loss to some guitar guys, who took Fender back to its roots.

Leo, when his non-compete with CBS ran out in 1975, founded Music Man and later G&L Musical Instruments. Both companies made guitars and amps that Leo thought were improvements to his earlier designs. Both companies, like the back-to-Leo Fender, are going strong today.

Leo died in 1991. G&L has kept his unpretentious office/lab exactly as it was the last day he worked, a couple of days before he died. His coffee cup (a white styrofoam cup with “Leo” written on it with a Sharpie marker) is still on his work bench.

Leo-Fender-Lab_bench-1A

Leo’s office as he left it. Photo by John Connell.

Leo the hedgehog changed the world and did it his way.

Tom Edison’s Wild Ride

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Sure, Edison is the light bulb and phonograph guy, but he also evidently appreciated nice cars. He used to go camping with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, after all, and they’d sometimes let President Warren Harding come along.

Shown here is a photo I took in 1973 of a car at Edison’s Fort Myers, Florida, home and lab. It’s a 1930s Brewster-bodied Ford Town Car. I just love the sweeping lines of that radiator shell. If I remember correctly, Edison’s son, Charles, later drove this car when he was governor of New Jersey and Secretary of the Navy. There were several of Edison’s cars there, including electric ones he had developed, but this one was my favorite.

One thing that struck me when I visited this wonderful site is that several light bulbs that Edison built by hand have been burning there continuously since about 1910 or so. Granted, they are big, low-wattage bulbs but a light bulb that can burn for over 100 years is an amazing thing to see. Also, his first phonograph is there. Since Edison was stone deaf, he had to bite the wooden case of the thing to see if his invention worked or not. You can see his teethmarks in the woodwork.

Café Du Monde, 1965

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We continue our review of old color photos with one of the New Orleans of 1965.

When I was a kid we lived in Louisiana for a few years, and going to the Café Du Monde at the Farmer’s Market in New Orleans was always a big treat. The puffy and powdered beignets with the strong coffee in teeny cups was something I looked forward to. The location, then as now, was by the levee and the old Jax Beer factory.

In this photo are my mom, me with the glasses and my younger brother, Jeff. The nifty beige car behind my mom is a 1961 Plymouth Savoy.

All Hung Up!

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My son, Aaron, and I are both members of the Hyattsville Community Arts Alliance, and are proud to announce that six of our works are now on display (and sale!) at local restaurants; four at Franklin’s and two at the Calvert House.

Aaron does his digital paintings from scratch on the PC and I recreate and revise ancient comic book covers on the Mac. These images are then printed on canvas and placed on wooden stretchers by my daughter, Colleen.

So it’s a family project and we are having a lot of fun doing it!

The giant copper vats shown in the photo collage are where they brew their own beers and ales at Franklin’s. If you remember the actress Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark, she’s sometimes seen at the Calvert House, which has been her favorite restaurant from childhood.

The company I started with my brother, Jeff, is called Page Bros Prints and you can see our website at www.PageBrosPrints.com. We have some historic prints for sale at the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland. That was where John Wilkes Booth stopped for some previously stashed stuff after he shot Abraham Lincoln.

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