Petersburg: A lifetime of photography

Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2002

Luther Joseph is not the kind of man who retires. The series of nine still photographs on the wall of his apartment at Mountain View Manor are ample testimony to that.

From across the room, a viewer sees simply a brown shape, a group of sinuous lines on a black background - seals. A couple of steps closer and the knobby dry texture of these shapes reveals that they are yams. Even examined this way, the sense that the subjects are just about to move stays with the viewer - these are animals only momentarily in repose.

"Those were all shot with just the light coming through the window there," Joseph says, gesturing out toward the undecided, half-cloudy sky. "I see something that might be interesting and I'll go for it."

The series, entitled "Sea Taters," took first place in the Southeast Alaska State Fair last year, the latest in a career that has garnered more 50 awards.

A recent trip to Southeast Alaska by the Inland Press Association, traveling on the Yorktown Clipper, provided Joseph, a Petersburg resident since 1996 and the father of local Liz Bacom, with a reminder of other awards won half a continent and four decades ago. Joseph, a photographer for the Chicago Daily News, was the first-place winner of the Inland Press Association's sweepstakes trophy two years in a row - the first repeat winner in the competition's history. The visitors presented Joseph with copies of these awards.

A Chicago native, Joseph became interested in photography as a young adult. "When I was just a kid I had a camera. I fooled around a little bit, but it didn't hit me until after the war that I had an interest in photography. That interest grew and grew as I got a little older," he says.

Joseph left the Army in 1946. "I was just a young kid, doing one thing and then another. Finally I came home and I got a job driving a truck, and I drove a truck for about three years."

Joseph saw an ad in a neighborhood newspaper for a photographer and after showing samples of his work was hired at the less-than-princely sum of 52 dollars a week.

"The best experience I had was working for a neighborhood newspaper. That's so important in my professional life, because I learned an awful lot," says Joseph. "We had eight or ten different neighborhoods that we covered around the Chicago area, actually in the Western suburbs, and that was good experience."

In 1954 a position became available at the Chicago Daily News, which had a circulation of more than 300,000. For the first six months, said Joseph, " I worked there as an inside man, printing pictures, mixing chemicals, mostly filing negatives. Then I went out on the street."

Joseph was the only photographer on duty for the paper from four until midnight. "I did everything," he says. "Spot news, society, sports, politics, ribbon cuttings, you name it. Murders, riots - it ran the whole gamut."

"I didn't do this overnight," he says. "I did it and I learned it because I wanted it. I was hungry for it. You've got to shoot with everything, everything you've got in your heart, because that's what it takes," he says.

His most challenging assignments, Joseph says, were riots. "At Kent State I shot kids getting shot there. It was hell, it was confusion. The National Guard, they weren't prepared to cover that type of situation. They were carrying live ammo with them, and bayonets, and we're here," he says, outlining the geography with his long, expressive hands, "there's great big commons ground here and then the library's up here where the kids got shot."

"The rioters were coming forward on two different sides, and they wouldn't disperse, so the National Guard kept going after them, and all of a sudden they got to the hill, and I don't know what prompted them to shoot, I still don't right to this day, but they shot the kids, three or four kids up there."

"One girl, I'll never forget her name, was Alison Krause from New York," he says slowly. "And she was going to the library with her books and she was just walking and got caught in the fire."

"In retrospect," he adds, "I look back and see why these kids were demonstrating and resenting the American policy at the time and you can see we shouldn't have been in the war in the first place. No way."

Though Joseph says he's always preferred photo work, he left the Chicago Daily News to become a network cameraman, eventually working for the Chicago bureau of CBS network news. The switch in professions, Joseph says was the result of "the politicking at the paper. I couldn't take it." He taught himself how to operate the camera and then visited movie theaters to learn about shooting film. "I learned why they made certain shots and everything, all these transition shots, and used the same technique in shooting newsreel," he says.

Joseph's comfortable apartment is also a functioning studio; a black dropcloth hangs from the ceiling and his bathroom doubles as a darkroom, where he does his own processing. The photographs leaning in a stack against the leg of a desk are fascinatingly varied. One series covers a night in the life of a group of undercover Chicago cops as they plan their mission, carry out the plan and make arrests. "I got all the action and you can tell it," he says.

Another series, his first using a then-newfangled 35-millimeter camera, shows a very young Billy Graham delivering a sermon. The muscles in his face and the movement of his hands are outlined starkly in black and white. It's clear how the voice must have resonated in the cavernous room, and the emotional toll of the speech is evident as the series progresses.

Shuffling through a row of photos, Joseph displays a picture of Robert Frost he shot after a recital. It was the last photo taken of him before his death. His is an exquisite face, kind and sad, old. "It was a long time ago, honey. A long time ago. He was a sweetheart," Joseph says of the poet.

There are also shots of objects and places from around the island, which Joseph plans to sell. There's a shot of a rusted out truck which motorists pass every day on Mitkof Highway. The truck is slowly and irrevocably being swallowed by plants and the ground itself. Says Joseph, "Every time I go by I take my camera because the light's different all the time, you know?"

Joseph walks toward the door. "I haven't retired," he says, turning around in the doorway of his darkroom and bathroom, "I don't retire, because I love doing this. Don't retire, don't retire - believe me."

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