Creature from the Blog Lagoon 14: Tripping over the Light Fantastic

Stumble Beginnings

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic that took cartridges of 126 film, given to me by my mother some Christmas back in… well, back in the last millennium. The roll that came with the camera was black and white. I probably shot the usual Christmas morning stuff but I didn’t burn through the whole roll. Sometime very soon after that a car fire at my mother’s apartment complex ended up destroying about a half-dozen vehicles. I wasn’t there for the fire but I got photos of the aftermath - oxidized metal, melted plastic, shattered glass and carbonized tires. My very first roll of film in my very first camera had my very first news photos; my photojournalism career was born that day.

The Big Time

My first-ever published news photo was spot news here in San Diego. A construction worker had fallen from some height, probably not more than one story. He landed on a piece of rebar sticking up and was impaled. (“Hello, OSHA?”) As they were wheeling him out of the construction site he and his rescue team passed me. When he saw me he indicated his relative good health and jolly outlook by flipping me off. I took that as a good sign and it turns out he survived with no major problems. That ran in The San Diego Union-Tribune and I think I was paid $35 and a fresh roll of film - no complaints! At that point I would have been happy paying the U/T $35.

Hands Up, Woof Woof!

One night a long time ago while working for a tiny, now long-gone newspaper, I went on a ride-along with a San Diego Police Department gang unit. One of our calls was for a “hot” traffic stop. Someone reported that an occupant of the car had pointed a firearm out of the window. (It turns out it was a cell phone antenna, back in the good old days of brick phones.) We arrived at the scene and I stayed back near our patrol car. The K9 handler there released his dog, Ronnie, to check out the car. Ronnie didn’t alert on anything; I’m guessing he was disappointed and really wanted to chomp down on something.

That something was me.

As Ronnie charged me his partner was yelling at me to stand still - that would keep things from getting worse, if that was even possible. Apparently Ronnie didn’t quite get the message, so as he got to me - and as I rotated away, frozen like a Popsicle - he bit my arm and got me in the groin with a back leg. I think he realized I wasn’t a criminal just as he was sinking his teeth into me so the bite wasn’t as hard as it could have been. Lucky for me I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up and he bit right were there were several layers of fabric. No puncture wounds, not even a dent. Ronnie immediately let go, but then it was his handler’s turn. He began chewing me out for being some interloper idiot with a camera (he got the idiot part right) in the way, but the officer I was riding with cleared things up. At that point Ronnie’s handler was smiling and apologetic, thankful he wasn’t going to have to do any paperwork.

A few years later I was covering a police K9 convention in Boca Raton, Florida (for AP I think), and I was given the opportunity to wear a bite sleeve. I was happy to do it. I was tempted to take a bite out of the dog until I pictured that classic “THIS is real news” headline: MAN BITES DOG.

Watts = Volts x Amps, and I’m Living Proof

My second newspaper job was at a small (now defunct) daily with a staff of three in the photo department. We shot a mix of black and white and color negative, and everything was processed by hand. (We created our own color separations in the darkroom, making black and white prints with appropriate color filtration; they were then half-toned by the pre-press folks. We had terrible color in the paper.)

One night I was in the darkroom, processing some color film. For those that haven’t hand-processed their own color negative film using the C-41 process (and especially for those that don’t know what film is - just kidding), you typically have a rectangular stainless steel box long enough to hold four film tanks. At the bottom of the box is a temperature-controlled heating element that keeps the chemicals warm, 100F I believe. You put your film reels in the first tank - developer - in darkness, and once the tank lid goes on you turn the lights on, start the timer and begin agitating the film per the instructions. Then when it’s time to go to the next tank - stop bath - you turn the lights off again, move the film reels to that second tank, put the lid on, turn the lights on and restart the timer. (Or was the stop bath step so short a timer wasn’t needed? I can’t remember.) Then it’s off to the third tank for bleach, then to the last tank for fixer. Once that’s done the film can be handled in light. During this whole thing your hands will probably get wet. No biggie.

Until it’s a biggie.

There I am, left hand on a film tank immersed in hot water with an electric heating element in the bottom. My right hand reaches over to start the time and… well, I found out that electricity traveling through one arm with a wet hand, across one’s chest, and down the other arm with a wet hand can actually make your chest heat up a little. There was a short circuit in either the timer (probably) or heating element. Honestly, I’m surprised I survived with no lasting problems other than an overwhelming urge to cook my head in a microwave oven now and then.

Building Goes Boom

When I was working for The Palm Beach Post, one of the other photographers was given the assignment to photograph a building demolition. Thinking back to Robert Capa’s motivational quote “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” the assigned photographer wanted to get a camera in close, well within the human exclusion zone. Since I’d worked a bit with long distance hard-wired (no, I wasn’t electrocuted) remotes before and because I’d never seen a demolition live, I volunteered to help on my day off.

We wired up a Nikon F-4 with some zip cord (speaker wire, basically) and were all set. The charges went off, the remote was button was pushed, the camera ran through a roll of film, the dust cleared and we were given the green light to retrieve the camera. It was caked in fine gray dust and we figured the camera was an expensive paperweight. However, once it was dusted off (I guess a lot of canned air) the camera was fine.

Building Goes Boom: The Sequel

Apparently West Palm Beach is big on blowing sh*t up. A new Palm Beach County courthouse had been built and it was time to demolish the now-vacant old courthouse. What better way to do that than by attaching a bunch of fireworks to it and setting it off at midnight on New Year’s Eve?

For a great view and to get the film back quickly, we chartered a helicopter. The normal deadline, 10 PM I think, was pushed back a couple of hours so we could get this on celluloid. My job was to go to the roof of our building and stand under the helicopter hovering about 20 feet above me while I caught the film dropped by the photographer.

Incidentally, that photographer also carried with him a Kodak DCS 100, a Nikon F3 with a digital back, some sort of electronic doohickey attached to the bottom and a tether leading to a shoulder-carried (for the masochistic) recording unit about the size of a small PC. The sensor was about one-fourth the full frame and so the viewfinder was masked-off with crosshatching to show the actual frame. The flames from the demolition were rendered in a nice shade of purple, probably from overpowering the digital system with too much light. That was the only time we used that camera the entire time I was at The Post.


Sometimes you have to take one for the team. Again at The Post, I was asked to be a model for a feature section main photo for a story about executive manners. I was the executive without manners, seated at a table with a napkin tucked into my collar and a cigar in my hand.

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