Through the looking glass
Photographer captures evolving landscape of Coweta and beyond
by Clay Neely
According to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the only thing that is constant is change. In our lives, as in business, things are continuously changing and evolving, and we must learn to adapt to the changes, as they may dictate our future.
Photographer Bob Shapiro has been a resident of Newnan for more than 40 years. As a photographer, he has captured many of the extraordinary changes of the city in which he lives, through his camera’s lens.
These changes did not happen overnight.
“When I first started in 1973, I knew every single one of my customers as friends first,” said Shapiro. “Now, it’s the other way around. My customers become my friends and we develop long-standing relationships.”
Originally a native of St. Petersburg, Florida, Shapiro joined the Air Force in 1966 as a photo interpreter. Stationed at a B-52 base in Guam, he scored bomb missions in Southeast Asia.
“I would interpret U2 spy plane shots and I was there in the earliest days of satellite photography. Our offices shared a building with the photography lab,” said Shapiro. “I was fascinated with watching these guys process and print film. I’d often be in the lab for hours.”
“Finally, I bought my own Pentax Spotmatic and two lenses. The first photograph I ever took, I was able to process and print myself,” he recalled.
For the next 18 months, Shapiro had the entire lab at his disposal, and it was there that he began to learn his craft through trial and error.
“I’d always been a frustrated artist,” said Shapiro. “I had friends in school that painted and sketched, but now, all of the sudden, I can see something in my mind and get it onto a flat piece of paper. I knew I wanted be a photographer.”
Upon telling his father of his revelation, though, Shapiro was met with total silence.
“I don’t think that’s quite what he had in mind for me in terms of a career,” said Shapiro. “But he gave me $500 dollars and I moved to Atlanta. I accepted a job in a warehouse that sold photographic equipment for a few months, then began working at a studio in Riverdale. I liked what I was doing. Then, I was presented with the opportunity to work for The Newnan Times-Herald,” said Shapiro.
“I might have stretched the truth and told them I could do stuff that I actually couldn’t,” he laughed. “I honestly didn’t have enough training to be a photographer for a paper, but I guess I did alright since I wound up working there for the next seven years.”
Shapiro in 1976 at Drake Stadium
However, in 1980, Shapiro and his wife, Georgia, made the decision to open a photography studio together.
“Sometimes you just have to take leaps that you’re not totally prepared for but the timing is right,” said Shapiro.
On May 1, 1980, Shapiro worked throughout the night putting out the local newspaper, then met at his lawyer’s office at noon to sign the papers for the studio purchase.
“The first studio was where Harmon & Garove is now located,” said Shapiro. “It was a great spot, the front door facing the courthouse. In the summer, we would open the front doors and smell the popcorn popping at Kessler’s.”
He remained there until 1984, when Shapiro purchased a vacant lot that would ultimately become his new studio.
“I never thought that photography could pay for a building, but Georgia was convinced that it could,” said Shapiro. “I guess she was right.”
Through his many years as a professional photographer, Shapiro has witnessed a multitude of changes: styles, preferences, locations, gear. However, the advent of digital photography would prove to be the biggest shift for Shapiro.
“It changed everything,” said Shapiro. “Every time I clicked a film camera, it would cost $1.25 after all expenses, so I had to choose shots carefully. For something like a wedding, I’d shoot around 200 photographs. Now, I’ll shoot 1,500 images. The images aren’t any better with digital,” said Shapiro. “That’s probably the biggest change — just fire off the shots.”
“And if I wasn’t shooting, I was in the darkroom,” said Shapiro. “If you shot color and wanted it in black and white, it was very difficult. There were so many different films you used for both inside and outside. Cameras had no light meters. You relied on instinct. You had to understand the mechanics and chemistry of photography to be a photographer — digital photography changed all that.”
“In the past, when you worked with film, you didn’t experiment much. You looked at everything with a trained eye,” said Shapiro.
Digital photography allows for the time and expense to try new things, as Shapiro often does in his studio. Shapiro appears relatively unfazed by the digital revolution and the prospect of future changes.
“I’m terrible at predicting the future. What I do know is that the pendulum swings back and forth,” said Shapiro. “Styles change, tastes shift. You used to see all these photographs that were made on railroad tracks — now they’re all taken out in open fields.”
Shapiro feels that studio photography will ultimately become popular again, citing the same pendulum effect where people inevitably want something that looks different. Often, what is “old” becomes “new” again.
“Film will never come back, though,” said Shapiro. “Which is a shame since one of the most difficult things to do is create a quality black-and-white print. That’s where you see the largest gap between film and digital. I could show you 10 ways to do it on Photoshop but it still lacks a certain nuance. It’s just like comparing a vinyl record to an MP3 file. The latter is more convenient but you sacrifice quality because of the conversion process.”
Shapiro has managed to sustain the great recession where professional photography was no exception to the hardships.
“When the economy tanked, I spoke to a colleague and he said, ‘You know, it’s a blessing, the fact that we own our buildings.’ If we had been renting, I don’t know what would have happened,” said Shapiro.
“Dealing with a bad economy and a thousand other photographers out there who are doing it cheaper than me? It’s nice that we’re seeing the economy on the rebound but I’m definitely happy I’m on this end of my career.”
However, he indicates no sign of slowing down and shudders at very mention of the “R” word.
“People constantly ask me when I’m going to retire,” he said. “I really don’t see a reason to. I don’t play golf. I’m much more flexible these days so we can travel whenever we choose.”
“What’s the point in retiring when you love what you do?”