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"Why Did You Do This Book?"
That's the question I've gotten most about my book, Life and Times Around Bellaire, Texas. People pick it up, flip through some pages, read a little, then ask the question. I've been in a quandary about what to say. A short answer doesn't really do it justice and the full answer takes too long.
Life and Times Around Bellaire, Texas is a book of historical photographs with anecdotes that covers the time period from 1909 to the present. Being a lifelong Bellaire resident, the subject alone might justify doing the book. An interest in photography certainly contributes, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Here's the rest of the story so you'll understand why I "did it."
I grew up on Maple Street across from Bellaire High School and attended Gordon Elementary and Condit Elementary. I had a lot of trouble learning things and didn't progress like other children my age. My parents transferred me to the Southwest Education Center (SWEC), a special school where there was no particular grade level. You just worked at your own level and did the best you could. I stayed in SWEC until I was 15 years old.
When I was 16 my parents transferred me to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) and their Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) research project. After a battery of tests, the social worker informed my parents that I had severe dyslexia. I can remember her saying I would probably never be able to hold a regular job requiring reading, writing, or arithmetic. She recommended that an application be made for Social Security Disability because, in her opinion, I would surely qualify.
This diagnosis made my parents double their efforts to do something about my disorder. My father wasn't about to have anyone in his family accepting any form of government assistance. They thought I should be able to make it on my own without any support from Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Disability, and I have. When the TIRR program terminated due to a lack of funding, my formal education ended. For the next couple of years, my mother did some home schooling and so did several of the neighbors on Maple Street.
One thing I did learn from the TIRR experience was to believe I could do whatever I wanted to do and to never give up on anything. My father encouraged me to be positive and "fake it." I just pretended I didn't have dyslexia, didn't tell anyone, and didn't use dyslexia as a crutch. Why make a big deal about something that I couldn't do anything about? Even close friends today have no idea that I have a severe case of dyslexia.
My life totally changed in 1971 when I was 17. That summer I went to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and stayed with my Uncle Arthur. Photography was his passion! He had a darkroom and all kinds of cameras, including large format (4x5) cameras. For the first time I got to develop the film and prints of the photos I had taken. There wasn't anything to read and write when making photographs, and that was just fine with me. I understood what was happening and didn't have any trouble processing film and making prints. It was wonderful!
In hindsight, that summer in Wisconsin and the exposure to large format photography was very important. All of the historical images I would use in my Bellaire book were large format. Understanding how to handle and print these negatives turned out to be crucial for the book's quality and success.
When I returned from Wisconsin, I got involved with the Houston Photo Explorer Scouts. Ken Cook and Joyce Ray helped me progress, and I continued to get better with photography. My father, John McCorkle, was also interested in photography and together we set up a nice darkroom in our garage. That darkroom is still there today.
At 18 I got my driver's license. There were special arrangements for people like me who couldn't read the written test. I had learned to drive a riding lawn mower and tractor, so driving a car was no big deal. The driver's license gave me real mobility, broadening my world.
From the age of 12 I made pocket money mowing neighbors' yards on Maple Street. I had a little trailer that hooked up to my bicycle and carried a lawn mower, rake, broom, and clippers. When it was time to mow a lawn, I rode my bicycle, pulling the trailer down the street. With my driver's license and an old VW bug and homemade trailer, I expanded the lawn mowing business. My father helped with weekly scheduling and accounting. Ultimately, yard clients were all over Bellaire, South Side Place, and Westbury.
Yard services turned out to be my regular paying job. I still mow lawns, clean out flower beds, trim hedges, lay sod, and anything else my customers want me to do. The yard service saved me from SSI Disability. I'm not disabled, I just can't read or write very well!
(In case you're wondering how I wrote these pages, my computer has Dragon speech recognition software. I talk into a microphone and my words automatically show up on the computer monitor. I can highlight a section of text and the program reads it back to me. This is also how I keep up with emails.)
Another pivotal time in my life came when I was 21 and got involved with the Bellaire Texan newspaper. At first I helped out with distribution. When the publisher found out I knew about photography and had a darkroom, I became their staff photographer. Being a "newspaper photographer" led to a lot of exciting opportunities. I attended all of the Bellaire Chamber of Commerce meetings, new business ribbon cutting ceremonies, and local community events, where I took photos for the newspaper. With a "press pass," I also got in free to sporting events and took photos on behalf of the newspaper. My time with the Bellaire Texan ultimately led to a lot of other photography jobs.
That same year, 1975, I met Peter Whitney. Peter was a professional photographer who lived in Bellaire and worked out of his home. He had a full darkroom and did all of his own processing and printing. Clients included local banks, businesses, and even the Astrodome when it was under construction. I helped Peter when he took school photos. I also went with him on some of his commercial jobs. Most of the time, he used a 4x5 camera for commercial jobs. The large negatives made incredible prints.
Peter taught me a lot about photography. Lighting, exposure, composition, and darkroom techniques were just a few of the things I learned through his tutelage. Until he retired from photography and became a priest in 1980, I was his right-hand man. Anytime he needed help, I was there. We became great friends.
Another thing Peter gave me was a sense of history. After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he began his career as a professional photographer by taking photographs of Bellaire for the local newspaper. He often talked about how the city had changed during his lifetime. Peter told me that documenting change was the most interesting aspect of his photography work. He cataloged and filed his negatives, writing dates and notes on the negative sleeves. In a minute Peter could get to any photo he had ever taken.
In 1977 I opened my first photography studio on the south side of Bellaire Boulevard across from Weingarten's Grocery Store. My mother handled the front desk, booked appointments, and took care of the accounting. At first I did a lot of weddings, but the stress turned out to be too much for me. Everybody was just too crazy where weddings were involved.
Photography for local businesses was much better, and we concentrated in this area. Event photography for local banks was always interesting, and profitable. The more events I went to, the more people I met and the more jobs I got. One of the really great accounts we had was Southwest Ferrari. I wish they had paid me in cars rather than money!
Many of the security companies in Houston turned out to excellent clients. At that time security cameras monitored by security companies used 35 mm black & white film cameras making exposures at timed intervals. If there was a robbery, the security company brought us the film for immediate processing. We could turn the job around in an hour or so, and that made both the security companies and the police departments very happy. This type of work was a mainstay of the studio until video tape surveillance cameras became available.
Even though I had my own studio, I continued to assist Peter Whitney. He was my mentor. Then in 1980 a big change came for him and subsequently for me. In retrospect, I think we both profited from the change, but at the time I thought a big part of my world was coming to an end.
Throughout his life, Peter was very religious and active in the Catholic Church. As he grew older, Peter became increasingly interested in theology and philosophy, and less interested in being a photographer. When a priest suggested that he could become a priest, even at his age, Peter became very excited and attended the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. After being ordained in 1983, Peter served several parishes in the Houston area.
As he prepared to attend seminary in 1980, Peter expressed his concern to me about the photography files and what to do with them. He talked about this with me and my father several occasions. He didn't want to donate the files to a library where they would just sit in an archive. He wanted his photographs to live on and be used. Peter thought that, as time passed, the photos would become a window on the past. He certainly had foresight.
Ultimately, Peter gave me his negative files and the rights to their use. He thought that there was possibly a book from them, but the time wasn't right yet. We moved his file cabinets to my house just before he left for Wisconsin. I was flattered he put such faith in me.
For the next 30 years those file cabinets sat in our house on Maple Street. Occasionally dad and I would look through them and talk about making a book. But it was all talk and no "do."
That same year I got involved with Toastmasters. Until the Toastmasters' experience, I had been rather shy, probably because of the dyslexia and its impact on me socially. Toastmasters proved to be just what the doctor ordered, helping me to be more outgoing. This experience forced me to become a public speaker of sorts. The more presentations I gave, good or bad, the more confidence I built in myself. For the next eight years I never missed a meeting or giving a presentation. The height of my Toastmasters experience came in 1990 when I was elected president of the Southwest Singles Toastmasters.
In 1982 the country & western radio station, KIKK, became one of my regular photography clients. Now that was a really fun job! It was party time all of the time. Looker Modeling Agency was also a client and I got to see all of the beautiful models. Perhaps my most infamous client was Enron. I photographed their events and parties on a regular basis.
The rent went sky high on the Bellaire Boulevard studio in 1986, and I moved to a larger location on Elm Street. It wasn't a highly visible location, but the space was a lot bigger and I could afford the rent. In spite of the photography jobs we got, the studio's overhead (rent, utilities, photo equipment and supplies) ate up any profits. For all practical purposes I was doing the photography for free just to have the studio. Yard services always made up the financial slack. I got pretty good getting both schedules to work together most of the time. When we got really busy in the studio, I would just pray for rain so that I got a break from doing yards!
I finally realized in 1997 that the studio was a really expensive play house. Photography was changing, too. Digital cameras were taking over the work of a wet darkroom. Computers and Photoshop became the darkroom, so I got a digital camera and a computer, then closed down the studio.
Sadly, my father passed away in September 2008. Sitting in the church at his funeral, I thought about his influence on my life, and what I could do in his memory. I also thought about Peter Whitney and what he had done for me. I decided at that moment it was time for the long-anticipated Bellaire photo book.
It has taken me four years to get Life and Times Around Bellaire, Texas right. First there was selecting photographs, organizing them into a time sequence, and identifying specific locations. I used an online service to publish a few copies but soon realized that photographs alone were not enough to make a good book. There needed to be some explanation to the photographs, and that involved research.
I thought I knew a lot about the city of Bellaire, but the research quickly showed my ignorance. Thankfully a number of my yard service clients were elderly and more than happy to share stories about their childhood and growing up in Bellaire. One lady told me about riding her bicycle on Spruce Street and almost being hit by a landing crop duster.
The story of Bellaire is both amazing and complicated. Some of it is fairly innocuous, and some of it quite humorous, such as the local house of ill repute being just down the street from the police station. Local politics also took on a nasty face when city council members tried to ramrod certain construction projects, despite voter objections.
As research progressed, the book project became increasingly complicated and seemed to turn into a vicious circle. Every time I added some fact or anecdote about Bellaire, it needed to be illustrated with photographs, so I had to find more photographs. On other occasions I would find a really interesting photograph that needed explanation with facts or an anecdote, and that meant more research. It all went round and round.
Whenever it looked like I would never finish the book, I thought about my father and Peter Whitney, which gave me the impetus to keep going. After all, my real reason for doing the book was to honor their memory and for what they gave me.
Life and Times Around Bellaire, Texas has cost a small fortune plus a large can of elbow grease. I had no idea how expensive it would be to publish a book. Neither did I imagine how much time and work it would take. Now that the book is finished, my goal is to sell enough copies to cover the out-of-pocket cost.
An unexpected pleasure from doing the book has been the people I've met who told me their personal stories about growing up and living in Bellaire. Some of these people I met during the research phase; others I've met as they heard about the book and contacted me to get a copy. I always personally deliver a book to anyone living in Bellaire so I will have the opportunity to talk with them.
All in all, Life and Times Around Bellaire, Texas became great fun after the research and organization were completed, and I finally had some books for sale. I never know when someone will tap me on the shoulder in the grocery store and say, "Aren't you the fellow who wrote that Bellaire book?" Or I get an email asking where someone can get a copy. Right away I know there is a new story coming my way, and it tickles me to death! I only wish that my father and Peter Whitney could also enjoy the fun.
Finally, the short answer to the question "Why did you do the book?" is "For my father and Peter Whitney." But without this narrative you wouldn't fully understand.
Added October 2017
A Note about this Book
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