Klein: Taking the wide view of life

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001

Whether he's finding rare cameras under toilets or building an authentic steamboat, Ron Klein never stops seeking new experiences.

"Every day I wake up and go off on some goofy little project and have a ball doing it," Klein said. "I honestly can say that I've been retired for 53 years. One of these days I'll get a job and work till I die or something."

At the moment, that day seems far away. Jack-of-all-trades Klein is juggling a number of projects, many of which center on a subject dear to his heart panoramic photography.

"It's photography that is my real life and love," Klein said. "Panoramic photography using the antique CIRKUT camera."

To take a photograph, panoramic cameras rotate on a turntable while gears move the film across a slit open to the lens. The resulting picture is one wide, uninterrupted shot.

The CIRKUT panoramic camera, which was patented in 1902 and manufactured by several different companies, uses several different sizes of film. Today, all are fairly rare.

"They made an 8-inch camera, a 10-inch camera which is the one I use by choice and then they made a 16-inch camera, which was quite rare," Klein said. "Ninety-three were made, (and) there's two of them in my shop right now."

Klein's expertise is well-known within the photographic community, said Bruce Kato, chief curator of the Alaska State Museum.

"Many of the photographers (who) are using these cameras in most cases will come to Ron to ask him to repair them or actually make them work a little better," Kato said. "He has actually upgraded many of these old cameras to be operated with batteries."

Perhaps the rarest size of CIRKUT camera is the 22-inch, Klein said. A photo owned by a museum in Nevada proved it existed, but until luck led Klein to a warehouse in Skagway, he'd never seen one.

"There was a toilet sitting on top of it," Klein said of his find. "I don't know how it's possible that someone dealing with things so rare could stumble onto the rarest of rare in someplace so near to where I live."

The camera isn't usable, but Klein wasn't deterred. He's almost finished building a 24-inch panoramic camera that when completed will be the largest in the world.

"It will take the largest negative," Klein said. "This will get me in the Guinness Book of World Records should I wish to commit."

Closer to home, Klein's photos can be seen at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center and in the Juneau Assembly chambers. He's photographed Juneau residents on the Fourth of July and at events such as the Alaska Folk Festival and the Native Celebration gatherings.

Other projects include working with longtime Juneau resident and photography buff Bea Shepard to develop about 800 historical photographs of fishing, mining and railroad building by W. H. Case and H. H. Draper.

"I think he's a photographic genius," Shepard said of Klein. "He does extremely good stuff."

They met after Klein heard that a member of Shepard's family owned a panoramic camera. A friendship grew, and Shepard later helped Klein develop the glacier mural for the Assembly chambers.

"First time I've ever in my life made 20 gallons of developer at one time," Shepard said with a laugh. "It was an interesting project. When we turned on the enlarger to make the exposure we had to sit down and hold our breath until the picture developed. If we walked around the room it would blur the picture."

Outside the photographic realm, Klein and his wife, Judy, have two adult children. Klein loves collecting and renovating Model A Fords, and aims to take a trip around the world in one of his rebuilt vehicles in 2003.

"I've made two trips to Russia and two trips to China," Klein said. "It's very doable to make this trip in 80 days. You've got to do a lot of driving, but that is the goal."

Juneau residents already have seen evidence of Klein's mechanical acumen. Using a 1980 grant, he built a steamboat modeled after the movie vessel "The African Queen" and spent years sailing it around Douglas Island.

"It burns driftwood (and) it has a 1918 steam whistle," Klein said. "We (were) always out on the Fourth of July tooting whistles and raising hell."

It's always interesting to see what comes next, said Kato, curator at the Alaska State Museum, who has worked with Klein on several projects.

"There are so many ingenious concepts that he has that it would take several lifetimes for anyone to try to complete all of them," Kato added.

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