Around 1960 while rummaging around in my Grandma's attic, I discovered my Dad's old Graflex Anniversary 4x5 camera. When I showed an interest in it, Dad gave it to me.
I must have been the first ten-year old on the block with a 4x5 camera. I developed film in my mothers' bathroom - much to her chagrin - and contact-printed the negs. Those first negs were horrible. The Compur shutter on the Graphic was dying a slow death due to years of use and neglect before I discovered it.
When the shutter finally died, my Dad said it wasn't worth fixing. He said he would spend the money on it if I vowed to take care of it. I made him a solemn promise, and we took it to the local Dallas repair shop. I got it back with the standard 90-day warranty and it lasted exactly 91 days. When we took it back they said, "Tough luck, and that it would be another $30 to fix the beast". Needless to say, Dad said, "Forget it, son."
Discouraged, I took the piece of "junk" home and like all curious kids, took it apart. To my amazement, I fixed it. The repair shop had forgotten to screw the shutter speed-governor down tight and it had slipped. I used it for a few more years, and then discovered that if I was going to be spending time in the dark, that it was a lot more fun with girls rather than with chemicals and cameras.
I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Japanese History in 1974. To my amazement, I discovered there were not many job openings for Japanese History majors in Austin - then or now. So then I tried my first love - photography. Austin, in those days, was not the high-tech Silicon Hills it has become. It was a very laid-back college town of 125,000 people - 50,000 of whom were students. I discovered that competing with two very successful local photographers (graduates of Brooks and RIT) and a 1000 wannabes was a sure way to starvation.
One day while looking for the "good life" in the help-wanted pages, I spied an ad for an apprentice Camera Repair Technician. I applied and was accepted. Within three months, it was obvious to my employer that I had much more talent and integrity than he did. So like all small-minded, threatened incompetents, he fired me. I went to another local repair shop called Photomechanix (I have always liked the name) and applied for and was hired as a technician. This is where I really got my first couple of breaks. The owner, Steve Gamboa, was a US Army-trained tech. He was eager to train me so that he could pursue his other interest...I believe her name was Maria.
My first break came one morning while running the shop alone, when I had the great fortune to meet Garry Winogrand. We became fast friends at first meeting, because I was able to repair his Leica M4 and M2R's. Garry gave me handfuls of his well worn Leica's to repair. He also referred me to hundreds of his students with their broken Leica's for me to fix over the years. I loved Garry, he was funny and brash in his New York persona. Once when asked if a party Garry had attended was any good he replied, "oh, about 36 rolls ". Another time when asked by a smart aleck sorority girl, why he took pictures, he responded "to see what things look like, photographed!" She was not amused, but everyone else was. If you are not familiar with Garry's work, he has several books and was I believe the first photographer to ever be exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) . A couple of months before he died Garry gave me a number of his favorite photos that he had printed and signed. These photos were special for many reasons but most importantly because Garry himself picked them out as his personal favorites of his lifetime of work. This gift is one of the most meaningful and precious I have ever received.
My second big break came walking in the door one day while I was working at Photomechanix. The cigar chewing Master Repair Technician was Austin legend, Mr. Bob Bacon of Studtman Photo Service. When I met Bob, he already had been repairing cameras for over twenty years. A watchmaker by training, if a camera could be fixed - no matter how badly it was broken or what parts it needed - after Bob got his huge hands a hold of it, well then it was just a matter of time before you could pick it up, good as new.
Since Steve was closing Photomechanix, and I needed a steady paycheck, I "opened" Precision Camera Repair in 1976. I basically wholesaled my services to local camera stores, started advertising a little, kept my clients from Photomechanix and brought the work home, working out of a spare bedroom of my house during the day. I was "self-employed" and with a "home -based business" I achieved what many people say they want (I was also basically starving to death). I remember that I made $300 in one month while my wife Rosemary was working for the Texas Welfare Dept. The fact was that if Rosemary didn't work at the Welfare Dept. we would have been on welfare!
I think Bob took pity on me, seeing I had such little experience and a pregnant wife. Bob said I could moonlight with him at night down at Studtman's to pick up some extra money (and most importantly - training at the feet of the master.) What amazed me most about Bob was that in 30 years of working at Studtman's he missed one day of work. How he did it, I will never know. He was tough as nails. I remember that he could work all day from 8-5 and then go home, eat and take a nap, and return and work from 8pm till 2am.
I did the night shift with Bob for 5 years.(Didn't faze him...nearly killed me) I learned so much from Bob that it is hard to put it all in writing. What I learned was the secret of technique - that technique is more philosophy than method. Sure he taught me how to hand sew curtains for Leica IIIF's and to align Kalart rangefinders, but more importantly, he taught me there is dignity in working with your hands. If you put your heart and head into your work then you may not be wealthy, but you are rich with integrity and honesty. He taught me to be stubborn and to finish a job no matter how hard it is even if you are losing your shirt on it. If you promise a job, you deliver a job. He also taught me the value of good will. It is giving away the little jobs for free that get you a lot more in return. He always said that if you give away a little job those people would do more advertising than you can ever afford to buy. Word of mouth is and always has been the best advertising.
In this day of shoddy workmanship and rip off artists the wisdom of what he taught me thirty years ago is more important and true today than ever before. Sadly, Bob passed away April 25, 1999 four days short of his 85th birthday. I will miss greatly my teacher and best friend in this Old World. Mr. Robert L. Bacon Sr. May he rest in peace and keep the fishing holes of heaven cleaned out of all those huge bass.
When our first child Melissa came along in March of 1976 my spare bedroom was no longer spare. I approached Studtman's for a full time position as Bob was nearing retirement age, but Doug Mierl had already made arrangements to import a Romanian refugee to fill in, thus unknowingly denying me the position I felt I had earned. I then applied at Capitol Camera and was accepted. I worked as a repair tech, in the back office for three years until 1979 when I moved out and established the first free standing Precision Camera Repair at 3004 Guadalupe #5.
Precision Camera Repair & Rental and Austin Photographic Gallery , was at first just a 750 square foot Repair Shop, fine used cameras store (primarily Leica, Nikon, Canon, Rollei and Hasselblad) and a small gallery space devoted to photos and photographic art books. I am proud to have shown fine photos from the collections of Mr. Russell Lee, the famous WPA photographer, Jim Bones, Garry Winogrand, Edward S. Curtis and many very talented local photographers.
As time went by the business grew rapidly and I hired several technicians to keep up with what was quickly overtaking all of my time and space. No longer having any wall space, I closed the Gallery and added pegboard. Yes I sold out, but it was easy to do in retrospect. Photographic print sales in those days was a really unrewarding business, as sales never covered expenses - much less made a profit. With lens caps and batteries, the profits were plebeian but positive. I saw "the light" and added Canon and Nikon as our first new camera lines and Agfa and Oriental Fine art papers.
We expanded into the adjoining spaces #3 and #4 and then gutted the original space to add Austin's first Noritsu RA4 One-Hour Photo Lab in 1987. We greatly increased business as a result of the increased traffic and soon had our first $1,000,000 year, surely breaking the record for retail dollars per square foot. This craziness had to end, and in 1991 we moved into a completely new, custom finished 4000 sq. foot space less than a mile northwest from our old location.
After 9 more years and even more phenomenal growth, our new location got a little cramped and we leased for an additional 4300 square foot Corporate Office / Repair Service Center / Warehouse Complex which was completed in June 1999. An additional 2500 square feet of Retail Sales floor was added (taking over a Ladies Dress shop next door) along with a complete remodeling of the entire store, which was finished in late November 1999.
And now our business has exploded with the arrival of digital photography. In addition to all the newest Digital Cameras, we now sell computers and huge printers, more than making up for the 90% drop off in film cameras. In 2005 we remodeled the former darkroom area of our store to make room for a great new Digital Photo Lounge. Here one can have a cup of coffee, edit, and instantly print your favorite pictures from your media card or CD. It's amazing how the business has changed in 30 short years.... from Petri's to Pixels.
Success has been good to me and my family, but at the cost of precious little free time. While I love my business and have made many lifelong friends, I am looking forward to slowing down one day soon, playing some golf, traveling and even pulling out that old Graphic ( yes, I still have it and it still works) and actually get back to what I really love and enjoy the most...Photography!
Thanks to all my loyal customers, friends and employees over the years..without all of you I could never have had such a wonderful time doing what I love...