That First Decade Started at the Age of Nine

In my article, Inspiration Comes From Challenge, I mention my first experience with a camera when I was nine years old, thanks to Popsicle and a one-dollar check from my dad. Yes, it’s true I had to eat a lot of popsicles, save the wrappers then convince my father to send them in for a Kodak 126 Instamatic camera.

Experience, Popsicle Inspiration Check

The check my father wrote for my first camera, $1 to Popsicle.

Little did my dad know that my new hobby would evolve to what I am today, much less how my introduction to photography would make every Thursday a ritual. Thursday was my dad’s payday from the DuPont chemical plant, which meant the weekly grocery run for a family of five kids. While my mother shopped at the local Kroger store, my father would take me to the parking lot Kodak kiosk so we could pick up and/or drop off film for development.

Back then it took a week to get the film processed and the photos printed. Remember the old “ketchup” television commercial, “anticipation?” Well now you had this 9-year old impatient boy, that waiting game was pure torture. This was my first experience with that Dopamine Loop Addiction that photography can create. I became a photography addict, there is no denial.

The family budget gained a new addition with my addiction and as my photography interest grew my dad told me to start making money to pay for it, so I did, Besides cutting grass, I found a weekend job at the locale 3-Minute Carwash where we vacuumed, hand-washed, and dried hundreds of cars each weekend. Sixty dollars later, I purchased my first 35mm camera from the local pawnshop, a used Petri rangefinder. I was only 13 years old then and after shooting a few rolls of film through that camera, like most young boys, I became curious and intrigued.

I had to understand that camera more, so much that I took a pair of pliers and a screwdriver and tore it all apart to see how it worked—never was I able to put it back together and make it work again. But the shutter mechanism was cool and the aperture blades of the lens were awesome too, and this curiosity taught me how they functioned mechanically, but that experience taught me to leave camera repairs to Havel Camera in San Antonio.

It was time to save more money for another camera and during that time, I met Mike Badough, he owned the local independent camera store. Mike would later loan me a camera to play with, an old Nikon F, plus an 85mm lens, I was in love! No not with Mike, he was married and I was just finding out that girls weren’t really that creepy.

A few years later, while a junior in high school, I saved enough money working part time at a local photo retail store, Fox Photo, and purchased my first “new” SLR (single lens reflex) 35mm film camera, the Canon AT-1, a manual camera, as I couldn’t afford the “revolutionary” Canon AE-1, auto-exposure camera. Though this manual camera reinforced what I had learned in school since my sophomore year as my journalism instructor, Barclay Burrow, made me use the manual Yashica Mat 120G, a two-and-a-quarter-square, twin-lens format camera with a Honeywell handle flash.

That’s right, barely 15 years old and I’d already been exposed to a 126 instamatic (35mm square format, or half the frame horizontally of a 35mm camera), then a 35mm rangefinder, then 120mm square film. Oh, I forgot, when I was 11 years old, my uncle had purchased me a Kodak piece of crap 110-pocket instamatic camera—but let’s just call that a setback not an advancement in my photography. Bottom line, four film formats, two instamatics, a rangefinder, an SLR, a twin lens reflex camera and shooting manually by the time I was 15!

Did I mention by the time I was 15 Badough had already taught me how to process Ilford Cibachrome prints at his home and before the year was up I was processing black and white (D-76 for film, Dektol for paper), slide film (E-6 process), and color negative film (C-41 process) by hand, thanks to Burrow and Badough?

Now that was my first experiences with cameras which led to my first experience photographing females, yes my first “models” were my high school female friends Robbie Hoffman, Diane Doughty and Shari Turk. In fact, Burrows gave me an assignment for our high school monthly newspaper he ran from our Journalism II class, a “fashion piece” for our school monthly newspaper on bathing suits and you could call that my first fashion editorial shoot. LOL.

High School Experience

During my senior year, Mike Badough had loaned me a medium format camera as seen in this high school yearbook photo.

High school was my training ground for photojournalism. Our school had a great budget for it’s journalism department so we put out a monthly newspaper, on top of about a 475-page, with color which was unusual back in those days, yearbook. Burrows even took us for a field trip to Dallas where we saw how our yearbook was made with Taylor Publishing, which taught me a lot on how publications are printed. So you could say by the time I was 16, I was exposed to not only line screens and halftones, but CMYK and color separations, this experience helped me a lot in the future.

Ironically, as time passed and I graduated from high school, several memorable events happened that impacted my photography. The first one was when Burrow called me back to the high school to photograph the cover of the 1982 yearbook and visit with his class. I took that as a personal acknowledgement in his belief in me because at the end of my senior year, two years earlier, I briefly felt he didn’t have faith in my photography abilities.

That senior year at school, I was in the VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America) program where you go to school half a day and work half a day. My day job was working at B.D. Holt, the local Caterpillar dealership as a diesel mechanic. I did well there and in school I was in the top 10 percent of my class for grades so Union Carbide awarded me a scholarship to TSTI, Texas State Technical Institute in Waco, Texas to enter their Machine Manufacturing Equipment Mechanic program. Upon graduation from high school, Union Carbide promised a high-paying job at the plant near Victoria—I turned the full scholarship down against Burrow’s advisement.

I remember him telling me that photographers don’t make much money, to take the scholarship and I could always do photography on the side. I told him I didn’t want to wind up like my father, a plant worker doing shift work, getting married, having children, then working all my life in a plant. Photography was my passion and even though he expressed I was making the wrong decision, it’s the path I took. Do I regret it? Sometimes I do as photography didn’t always pay the bills so I kept turning wrenches, got married, had two daughters, got divorced, joined the Army.

Though while at Caterpillar the sales manager, Roy H. Hitfeld, called me into his office and introduced me to his son “Bubba,” Roy H. Hitzfeld Jr. The younger Hitzfeld had started a magazine called STOP, which stood for South Texas Oil People and during that time the oil boom was on! So our town, Victoria, would host an annual event called the South Texas Oil and Gas Exposition and Bubba sent me to cover the event plus the famous firefighter Red Adair. Yes, the man John Wayne played in the movie Hell Fighters.

STOP also featured a pretty girl on the cover each month with oil field machinery and I was fortunate to shoot a few of those covers including Diane Doughty and Karen Noble plus a few others I can’t recall. Word got out I was a pretty decent photographer around town and besides photographing weddings, working on model portfolios, portraits, etc., I also landed the job to photograph the one-year anniversary of the Victoria’s newest hospital, Victoria Regional Medical Center.

I started that event by taking photos of Dallas Cowboy strong safety Charlie Waters, then the hospital public relations director had me board a hot air balloon with other news media cameramen—the balloon was there to start offering tethered balloon rides for the kids. How could I say no to that experience? The PR director came up with this great idea before the kids would get their low-level rides, let’s get Rolando and the news media up high for aerial photos and video of the thousands of people attending this outdoor event.

The couple that owned the balloon lit the propane burner, we climbed in, we rose, we rose, we rose and immediately got caught in a strong updraft jerk that caused three of the four 150-foot tether lines to yank out of the ground their six-foot metal anchor stakes. One stake struck a child in a wheelchair slightly injuring him across his forehead. The last rope tied to a 5-ton truck bumper held, but the truck began to come off the ground and men from the crowd ran to hold it down.

The tether rope reacted like a stretched rubber band and bungeed us back down so fast the force extinguished the flame. With the balloon out of control we dropped fast and crashed in about 35-foot tall trees before the basket hit hard land and drug across the ground. People tried to hold it down—I bailed. Legs wobbly and all, but I still had clean underwear!

Balloon rides were canceled for the remainder of the event. That experience taught me to get the shot, a photographer has to take risks and that obviously came into play for my active-duty days as a photographer for the U.S. Army. It gave me minimal fear when I took risks to get the shots in Desert Storm, the Rwanda Refugee crisis in Africa, the Haiti invasion, the Drug War in Central and South America, plus other places the military sent me. The Army gets credit too, it made my legs stronger.

Army Helocast, Best Ranger

I’m actually attached to a “monkey strap” in this Blackhawk helicopter to get this shot. If I fall out the door, they can reel me back in, a risk I took.

Ironically, the hospital event was a weekend event, so back to work I went on Monday at Badough’s one-hour minilab, The Photo Store. While processing film and printing customer photos there, I saw photos taken by our customers of the crashing balloon. Seeing those photos made me flashback to the thousands-plus crowd oooohing when we hit the trees plus the tree branches snapping as they broke from the weight of the balloon. Did my life flash before my eyes? I really don’t remember, but I did see a flash of light when we hit the ground.

Speaking of light, another event that happened, thanks to Mr. Burrow again, was to learn to “see” the light. I wrote about it in my Lens Diaries article, The Death Of A Great Editor Made Me Feel The Light, so I won’t rehash it here, but learning to see light is important to all photographers as well as understanding light used to create photos.

So that leads me to my first experiences with light, or more specifically lighting gear. First, like most photographers, I started out with existing light, yes, ambient and natural lighting, this is the least expensive light out there and it works! Then I graduated to what I could afford, a Smith Victor K-33 Quartz Tungsten light kit, otherwise known as hot lights.

This caused my photography to change because if I shot daylight-balanced color film, I’d have to use an 80A deep blue filter—little did I know this would later help me understand color correction and Kelvin, or how we measure the color temperature of light. This experience really came to play when I began to understand how to properly use “manual” white balance on digital cameras to act as a filter for color addition or subtraction in my photos. I’m not a RAW shooter, I shoot by the Kelvin numbers with a goal to get it right in the camera during the shoot not in post-production.

Now they aren’t called hot lights for nothing, they are hot and can burn you. Tungsten hot lights are a harsh form of light for most film except panchromatic black and white film. My biggest memory besides a few burnt fingers with these lights is when I shot a private client nude and I went to move one of the lights, the ceiling fan took it out—I learned to watch where you move light stands with that experience—Badough was there helping me so I’m sure he cracked some joke since I was only 18 years old and we were shooting a nude of a local oilman’s wife.

Later I scraped enough money to purchase a Novatron 440 studio light kit, a power pack and three heads. This was my first major purchase moneywise other than my Canon AT-1. For comparison purposes, I think I paid slightly less than $300 for that manual camera body, while the Novatron 440 light kit cost about $1,000 back then—I’m just guessing but I’m sure I’m close. My experience with that kit taught me to always turn off the power pack when plugging in the cables as I blew the pack, which threw my arm back wildly while a blue flame arced from the pack to the cable connector and it made a loud bang like someone had fired a 12-guage double-barrel shotgun loaded with OO shells. BABOOM, that pack was gone!

Parade Magazine Cover Story

The inside of the PARADE magazine cover story, “Our Sentinels For Peace” had a distribution of 30 million printed copies, my largest tear sheet.

So then I purchased what I could afford, think it was less than $400, a Profoto Compact 300, my first “high-end” studio monolight strobe. This was my first experience with a monolight, and I liked it better than the Novatron. I kept that light for over a decade and eventually took it with me to the Sinai desert when I photographed my largest tear sheet, a PARADE magazine cover story co-illustrated with the late Pulitzer prizewinner Eddie Adams.

The magazine timed the publication release for the first Sunday before Christmas, Dec. 19th, 1999 with a printed circulation of 30 million copies! To this day, that is my largest assignment in terms of printed circulation. A special thanks to my editor at the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service, Rich Lamance, for sending me on that great experience.

While shooting that story in the heat of the Sinai desert the temperatures reached 140 Fahrenheit so when I used a Polaroid back on my Mamiya RB-67, 120mm rectangular format, or “6 by 7” as it’s known, I’d get off about two Polaroid test shots before the film would go bad. Lighting and exposure were critical especially since we were shooting with a medium format camera loaded with slide film. Slides don’t lie when it comes to correct exposure but I finally gave up and went with what I knew as we were wasting our time with the Polaroid tests and we had a time sensitive assignment as we roamed observation towers in the Sinai.

I had taken my multi-voltage Profoto monolight to use as a fill light, but the 110-volt modeling lamp didn’t like the 240-volts of electricity found in Egypt—POP, blew that bulb. My slide film held up though and PARADE magazine ran the story with Eddie’s photo on the cover and all the photos inside to illustrate the article were photos I had taken. That was a huge honor and a great experience. In the end, the Egyptian experience taught me to go with your gut as confidence is a must requirement in photography, oh, and to always check your voltage requirements for your lighting gear. LOL.

I’ve only given you a little of over a decade of my experience as a photographer and I’ve been shooting for over four decades so I could go on and on plus some war stories, but I’ll save those tales for a future memoir book—but I’ll only start working on that book if you comment below. Time for a popsicle, but please feel free to share one of your experiences. Go for it! With that I close as I always do and remind you not to forget the men and women who serve our nation patriotically to protect our freedoms, God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.

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