Neil Kesterson


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I’m an amateur photographer. I was a semi-professional one for a short time, but more on that later. I started out by taking pictures with a Kodak X-15 Instamatic 126 camera. I was born in 1961, so this would have been about 1970 or so. If you don’t know what one of these cameras is, you can easily grasp the concept. It’s basically a box with a lens. It also has a viewfinder, a shutter, a place for a flash cube, and a film advance lever. That’s it. Uncomplicated, unadorned, and easy to use to take snapshots. That is until you actually want to “make” a picture. There is no focus, shutter control, aperture control, or any other user-changeable switch. The only thing you can do is add a flash cube to light up the mug you’re about to blind.

My Dad had an old Polaroid 95a camera that took “instant” pictures. I was intrigued with this camera because it was big, had a bellows, and he knew how to get great shots. When he would get this camera out, I was a little jealous, as my camera was a tenth of the size of his (always the son’s jealousy, right?). He could also “focus,” something I realized early on that my camera couldn’t do. I’d also realized that I had no control, something I have to admit I want all the time now. When I expressed an interest in photography after quizzing him about some of his excellent photos, he tried to show me how to use it. It wasn’t long before we realized that the Polaroid film was becoming rare and rather expensive. His camera was the “Instamatic” of it’s time, and my kind was replacing the old Polaroids.

So, my Dad got out another old camera I didn’t even know he had – an Ansco 6×9 folder. It had focus! It also had a lot of other knobs and sliders that I had no idea what were for. Dad tried to show me, but wound up pre-setting everything and sending me out with it. This camera actually had a finder (no rangefinder), shutter speeds, and aperture settings. But it also had a bellows. This would prove to be a problem. After diligently taking 8 pictures (that’s all a 120 roll would hold of 6×9 negatives), I was very eager to get the film back from the lab. All the pictures had white streaks all over them! The bellows was leaking light.

I don’t know if it was the combination of the Polaroid film cost and the Ansco problems, but I was totally surprised a few months later at Christmas with a Minolta SRT-101 35mm SLR camera. Man, this wasn’t just a step up from the Instamatic, it was a giant leap with a Superman cape. Now I had complete and utter control. Thus began my first true love: photography.

I took pictures of everything: our pets, Dad, Mom (with hands in front of her face), friends, houses, the sky. I had this camera with me everywhere I went. I got this when I was a freshman in high school, so I was intrigued with actually finding an excuse to use my camera. A friend was on the yearbook staff, so he mentioned me to the librarian who ran it, Mr. Richmond. A week later, I found myself on the yearbook staff. Mr. Richmond was one of the most influential people in my life. He became my mentor for not only photography, but life. He had served in WWII, was well-read, had a passion for photography, and he seemed to understand a high school freshman. This man had the patience of Job, as you can imagine with a pimply-faced teenager. Lloyd, as he insisted on being called, continued to mentor me throughout high school. He taught me a lot of the basics of photography, as well as admitting to his own mistakes and showing me what he did to correct them. He was always teaching.

Well, one of the photographers on the yearbook staff worked as a stringer on the local daily paper, the Ironton Tribune (Ironton, Ohio). They always needed stringers, so I went and interviewed. I got the job, $5 for each photo inside the paper they used, $25 for a front pager. They also supplied the film. Whoo-hoo! I was in heaven! When I had an assignment, I usually only needed to take a half roll or so, especially if it were morose-looking Kiwanis Club award winners, or two guys shaking hands with a certificate in their other hands. The rest of the roll was mine! This was a time to experiment and play (until deadline of course).

I started my photojournalist job (yes, that’s what I was officially) before I could drive. So I had three modes of transportation: my Dad (only at first), my feet (rarely), and my bike. I swear to God, one of my most vivid memories is riding up to the county courthouse on my yellow Husky 10-speed to take pictures of some bureaucrats. I remember one of them following me out the front door afterward and giving me a disapproving stare as I mounted my bike. I was a pretty bad photographer, but I guess I was good enough to go the the evening assignments that the staff guys didn’t want to do. There were a few front pagers, but I was mostly lucky to be surrounded by people who worshiped photography.

One of my mentors at the Tribune taught me a lot of basic rules as well, especially in the darkroom. In hindsight, he was probably not a very good photographer, because he taught me to center everything. His photos were like that, so mine should be, too. But his darkroom skills were stellar, and he had many clever shortcuts to make deadline and still maintain photographic integrity. Occasionally I would go out with the reporters, and they were always willing to teach me things they knew about both cameras and journalism. One particularly fun assignment was when they saw me digging through the old cameras they had in storage. They had several old Graphlex sheet film cameras from the 40’s and 50’s. They took the time to show me how to use this, along with a huge handle-mounted flash with a monstrous battery slung over my shoulder and hanging by my waste. With this get-up, I weighed an extra 15 pounds. I went out with this reporter with only this gear (not my familiar Minolta) and was scared to death. Well, the reporter just smiled and checked everything over and said, “If you don’t get the shot, don’t worry. We can always come back.” He knew how to settle my nerves. After they developed the film (I didn’t know how to develop sheet film), I was astounded by the large negatives. I understood the speed and economical reason for using 35mm film, but was instantly taught the quality of larger film.

Flash forward to college, and I was on the newspaper staff. They had an amazing darkroom on campus because one of the professors was into color. I learned how to control contrast while printing, how to work with a very advanced enlarger, but more importantly how to take my time and get great prints. After all, we weren’t a daily newspaper with thousands of readers. I got to experiment with my camera techniques more also because of the nature of a college paper. While on winter break my freshman year, I contacted the Tribune for stringer work. Just a few days into my break, the chief photographer fell ill. I filled in for him full-time (great money for a college kid) for what was supposed to be a few weeks. Well, his illness got worse and he had to resign. They asked me to take over full-time. Man, what a crossroad I was at. I was in music school (which would eventually lead to my current profession as a recording engineer), for which I was committed for the long haul. Only 7 or 8 months prior, I was at another crossroad. I had no plans after high school. Like most teens, I procrastinated. But in the eleventh hour, I was offered a music scholarship to Pikeville College (Kentucky). It wasn’t full, so with what my parents had to scrape up along with loans, I was in college. I wound up loving the people there, and I was having my eyes opened up to jazz and classical music.

So, the time came to make the decision: a dream job in photography, or slave away in school and owe lots of money afterwards. The choice was obvious – take the long road. I haven’t ever regretted my decision to stay in school. It got me out of my progressively-wilting hometown and exposed me to so many new ideas. I felt like my photography took incredible leaps and bounds in college because I was free to experiment. True, I still shot for the college paper, but once i had committed to another profession (music), the veil was lifted.

I toiled in college (Pikeville, Ohio University, and University of Kentucky) for the next 6 years. This was interrupted with some time off to find out what slave labor was, but basically ended with a full time job as a recording engineer. One thing that I discovered in college was that I enjoyed pushing buttons. Before I would go out on stage to perform trombone in a concert, I would press “record” on the reel-to-reel. At intermission, I would turn the tape over and spool it up. When I got to UK, I helped set up their first recording gear in the newly constructed Singletary Center performance hall. I had no idea what I was doing at either place, but I was the only one who could load a tape machine. I also discovered that I could “hear.” I don’t mean my hearing was better than others, but I could pre-hear a sound and re-create it in production, or I could hear “around” the main sound and listen to the background sound only. I discovered early on in college that I was not a great musician, but I could listen. When I decided to go into the recording industry, I found something that I could earn a living at and basically do the same thing I did in college: work long hours, make next-to-nothing, and learn some incredible things. I also had some great mentors in this new endeavor. It never occurred to me until now, but what I had in photography (people going out of their way to teach and mentor me), I now had in the recording industry. I never got a lot of that in music. It is a highly competitive field with it’s share of snobs. Not everybody, but I still experience so much sharing among both the photography and recording communities. Maybe it’s because each usually requires a command of electronics and/or micro-machinery skills, as music usually only requires creative skills. Or because both are a relatively new creative form, as opposed to music, which has existed since man stood upright (remember the cave man scene from Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part I” when music is discovered?). I know some musicians will read this and say, “Hey, I play a saxophone (or a keyboard, or a guitar, etc.), and this is complicated!” Well, I’m a musician too, and there is a technical part to it. But in both photography and recording, you’re always given a new tool (or instrument) to work (play) with. In music, you usually have the same instrument, or variation of. It’s the creative part that is the same with all three.

Flash forward again to the late 1990’s, San Francisco. Me and my colleague/friend were in town for a conference. He had just acquired a brand new Canon Rebel (at the time it was groundbreaking in technology and price). I, with my trusty manual Minolta SRT-101, started to take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. Point, meter, click. But alas, no meter. At a nearby camera shop, the newly installed battery didn’t work. The clerk said the meter was dead, as it was now over twenty-five-years-old. The camera functions still worked, just not the meter. So I strained to remember what my Dad, Lloyd the librarian, and the Tribune photographer taught me. Strain. Think. Strain. Think. Ah, to hell with it, just shoot. I remember looking at the settings, looking at the sky (overcast, of course), and looking at the bay. Hmmm. I knew the basic speeds and apertures I usually set, but I vaguely knew the Sunny/f16 rule. I winged it and bracketed. Surprisingly, most of the shots turned out! But I admit I was jealous after seeing the pictures my friend got with his Rebel. He knew nothing about photography, but got amazing shots (he’s now an accomplished video producer that really knows how to frame a shot). Yes, some of it was his whiz-bang camera and its ability to automate everything. But as I’ve found out over the years, but didn’t completely understand then, most of it was the photographer. I just knew a new camera would make me a great photographer!

After saving some dough for a month, I proceeded to Provident Camera in Cincinnati and bought a Pentax ZX-5. I wasn’t used to automatic-everything camera, but the charm of the it (besides the chrome retro-look, that actually looked like the Minolta that just got shelved) was that it had so many features, including spot metering, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual modes. This camera re-invigorated me after 10 years or so of just shooting snapshots of my daughter, with the occasional creative shot. I’ve deduced that it’s not really the camera, but the new dedication I had to photography. I have to also admit that it was a little bit of competition. Not with my friend, but with his camera. It was so automatic, that I was determined to take better pictures while THINKING. I would be the computer chip, I would make the decisions. I set out out to learn everything I either didn’t know, or forgot. I would be in control.

Boy, I look back now, and it seems like I didn’t know anything when I rode my bike up to that courthouse when I was fifteen. But really, I had already learned to walk into a situation like you know what you’re doing. I learned to take control and how to direct (you stand there…you tilt your head down…everybody smile!). I still use those skills today in recording and try to avoid the audio equivalent of people staring like deer in headlights. With my new Pentax, there were no pressures, no paying clients (I did weddings, reunions, and other odd photo jobs on the side when I was young), no expectations. I could experiment and play freely.

I kept this camera for quite some time, adding a flash and some extras as I could afford. But slowly the camera sickness began. I was at a yard sale looking for household stuff, when I happened on a nice looking camera. I couldn’t get it to work, but suspected a bad battery because the meter didn’t do anything. This could be another bad problem like the one that grounded my Minolta, but I took a chance because I had sort-of heard of the name of the camera. I pointed out that the camera didn’t work, and instead of the $50 asked, would they take $20. The young man tried to make it work as well, and was obliging to accept the $20. I drove to the nearest Rite-Aid, bought a new battery, and voila! The Olympus OM-2 sprang to life. I was about to embark into my first bona fide camera obsession. After researching the OM-2, I slowly began to realize that I got a $300 camera for $20. I felt a little guilty, but I didn’t really know what I got. I started to pick up accessories for it. Along the way, at a camera show, I impulsively picked up a Voigtlander Vitomatic IIa. It’s a 50’s-era camera with lots of settings, playing to my mechanical desires. I vividly remember walking away from the table with my camera in hand, when the salesman yelled over to another one, “Hey, I just sold that old Voigtlander!” I was sure he was mocking me and gloating about pulling one over on me. but I was relieved to hear the other salesman say, “That’s great. That’s a great camera, he’s lucky.”

Also, on a lark, I picked up a Yashica-A TLR (twin lens reflex) at an antique mall. This is a medium-format camera that takes square pictures on 120 film. The old Ansco 6×9 folder I inherited from my father came to mind when I saw this. So thus I would embark on a three-camera love for several years (the Pentax ZX-5, the Olympus OM-2 and the Yashica-A TLR), learning and re-learning the basics, reading every book I could get from the library (including one of my favorites on Cartier-Bresson who literally transformed my way of thinking), and going to every camera show I could.

I was also taking my camera everywhere I could (like when I was in high school). I started to snatch up old cheap cameras just to learn what they were. Some were in bad shape and needed work. I ruined a few cameras during this period, but I also had some triumphant victories. My Petri 7s rangefinder proved to be a great glovebox-beater camera for years, and my Frankensteined Minolta 7s rangefinder became an inspiration with its incredibly sharp pictures. I also purchased a new lens for my Pentax ZX-5, as I had busted the Tamron kit lens that came with it. I also learned to respool 120 film onto 126 rolls so I could shoot with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera. I was enjoying retrophotography with a passion.

I was also wanting more, and this lead to a semi-pro 35mm camera, the Pentax PZ-1p. Digital was starting to settle down as I remember not every camera being leapfrogged every six months. Picture sizes were about 6MP, and you had to spend $500-1,500 to get that in an DSLR (plus new lenses because of the DX sensor size). I got my PZ-1p with a zoom lens for $150, and I had almost everything the digitalites had: auto-focus, auto-bracketing, manual control, auto-everything. The only difference was the back of the camera – mine put the image on film instead. Amazingly, that’s still the only major difference between my PZ-1p and my digital Pentax K20D. In 2009, I finally started the march into the digital SLR world. I was familiar with digital, having used several digicams and DSLRs, but I wasn’t committed to investing in it until I saw the progress slow down a little. I couldn’t justify spending 5 times the price for an instant picture that was less quality than a 35mm negative. I still feel that way, but with careful research I decided this was the time. I can’t afford a full-frame digital camera (FX), but the print size of my Pentax K20D is adequate (11×14). Being the frugal guy I am, I also waited for the price to drop before the next big thing came onto the market. It turns out that it paid off, as the new model just added video and a few things that would be a convenience. But the new model stayed basically the same in all other aspects (and costs twice as much as I paid).

I still haven’t forgotten my beloved Voigtlander Vitomatic IIa. I am still amazed at what this camera can do. To this day, it remains my favorite camera. Its controls are limited, but the pictures it takes, especially black-and-white, are amazing. I’ve built a system around it, adding Voigtlander accessories as I find them. As I’ve since discovered, mechanical German cameras are among the best in the world. I now collect Voitlanders and Zeiss-Ikons. I have a handful of other lesser-known German cameras. but eventually I find myself leaning toward Leicas. But the obstacle, as usual, is money. I also am sweeping up Japanese classic cameras, such as Pentaxes, Canons, and more recently, Nikons. I support my habit by frequenting yard sales, estate sales, and flea markets. I wind up selling half the stuff I buy, but I usually come out ahead.

So what does a great camera do for pictures? Nothing if the photographer can’t use it. As they say, it’s the photographer, not the camera. But I would add that some cameras “inspire” one to create. Sometimes it’s the confidence of a great lens, or the weight of a camera that steadies a shot, or the fast shutter speed that allows you to freeze motion. Sometimes I can toil all day or week long with one camera and run out of ideas, and then pick up another one and completely change my style and get a whole new outlook on my subjects. Have you ever picked up a great camera and lens and just felt that you owe it to all the great photographers that have used that camera to not let them down? It’s like you get really serious about shooting with it up to your eye. Then you begin to think, “Why don’t I act like this every time I shoot? All my pictures would be great.” Because there are times when it’s okay to throw all caution to the wind and have some fun. Case in point, the Holga. The Holga is an all-plastic camera from China that dares to be awful. It’s so awful that it’s great. It flashes its middle finger at photography and says, “f**k you! I’ll do whatever I want to. If I want to be fuzzy, then so be it. If I want to let light in to make light streaks, bring it on. I want to surprise my owner and give them something completely unexpected!” With my Holga, I never know what I’ll get. With my Olympus Stylus Epic, a micro-size 35mm waterproof camera with an outstanding lens, I’m never afraid to go to the beach, walk in a big city, bang it around in my pocket, or pull it out in the rain. It frees me up to just “take a picture.” So, not being a slave to dials and buttons can be very liberating.

I also believe that film/digital sensors affect your creativity. When I shoot black-and-white, and I mean the real stuff like Tri-X, I start to see the world in black-and-white. I even find myself passing up great color photo opportunities because they won’t look good in black-and-white. Now of course, I’m going to be packing a digital SLR in the spring and fall, but you never know what you’ll get if you don’t try black-and-white. Also, my Pentax K20D digital SLR has ISO speeds from 100-3200 (though only really usable from 100-800). This allows me to instantly switch the sensitivity and not worry about having to grab a tripod and loose the shot. I’ve also actually set it to the highest ISO, 3200, and deliberately created grainy shots. I sometimes do this while “pushing” black-and-white film to crazy speeds to increase contrast and add lots of grain.

I guess the moral of this story is to not be a slave to making every picture tack sharp, to not always working every shot to perfection, to just let go and see what happens. In music, classical musicians are locked into notes on a page. They can make those notes come alive and give them personality, but they must play the tones on the page. In jazz, a solo musician is, to a degree, locked to chord structure. But that musician is allowed, or rather encouraged to cut loose and play whatever suits the moment. The soloist still has to let the band know when they’re coming back from Mars, but that journey is oh so sweet. I believe a photographer, who is only taking pictures for themselves, should “cut loose” and go to Mars occasionally.

This leads me back full circle to my big decision to go into music, and ultimately recording, and not photography as a profession. In the recording world, I’m only allowed off my leash every so often. But in photography, I only shoot for myself. Since committing to photography as an art, I’ve never taken money for shooting. A few pizzas and beers, yes. I do hope to one day sell my prints, though. I don’t think this would be breaking my rule, because the purchaser would not be directing me how or what to shoot, they would be purchasing a copy of my artistic vision. I don’t consider myself a great photographer, barely even a good one. But I start to see more and more what I could do differently with that last photo, and I’m sometimes surprised by a picture I took. I guess I’m on a forever-quest for that perfect photo, but know deep down that I’ll never get there. They say medical doctors “practice” medicine (reassuring, isn’t it?), why can’t they say we “practice” photography? My daughter is an artist, and my one big dream is to have a dual gallery showing with her. I don’t care if anyone likes or dislikes my stuff, it would just be gratifying to share the stage with someone that I respect, and hope that some of my artistic thoughts have influenced her in some way.

Thanks for reading this (if you made it this far, was I right about being long winded?), I’d like to hear your journey and thoughts on photography as well.