Albert Alcorn Oral History
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Churchill County Oral History Project
an interview with
April 20, 1984
This interview was transcribed by Raeburn Sottile.
Exact date and location, along with interviewer unknown. This oral history was not originally done for the Churchill County Oral History program, but when the tapes were discovered in 2020 the decision was made to digitize and include it as it also contains information about the history of Churchill County in the mid-20th century.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewer and interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Churchill County Museum or any of its employees.
Q: -1984. An oral history of Albert Alcorn, Churchill County Photographer.
ALCORN: [inaudible] this is not May, this is April. [Laughter]
Q: Oh, April, sorry about that.
ALCORN: Alright, so [pause] I first became interested photography is a good question because I really don't know, but I gave it considerable thought before you got here and I have a page that I'll just read, adlib a little bit, and it does give me and you a pretty good idea as to when I got started in a little photography. I can remember several incidents that stimulated my interests. About 1950, I took a photograph of the neighborhood kids on a bicycle, and their mother thought it was such a good picture that she wanted some copies. I used a Kodak Vest Pocket. I think that the film was 127. There mother wanted some copies because she thought it was a good picture, hence I sold my first portrait. In 1952 or '53 I remember one of the kids working in high school working on the annual really excited when I saw him taking pictures. In 1953 I took a lot of pictures, of which several were included in the school annual. I used a… back then I think was… Both of these cameras I've mentioned belonged to my father. He took lots of pictures and I have all his negatives and prints. About everything he had. About 1964 I had to report to Salt Lake City for a pre-induction physical. While there I went to a pawn shop and purchased a Bolsey B-2 for $30. I took a lot of pictures with this camera when I lived in the eastern part of the state. When I moved away from that job I looked at the negatives and thought "What good are these?" and threw them away. I look back on that as a sad time.
ALCORN: About 1967, my uncle was showing me his camera, and I told him I was having trouble with scratches on my pictures. He told me to bring the camera, and maybe he could tell what was wrong. He died before he could tell me what the problem was. About 5 years later I asked my aunt if there was any way I could use his old camera. She said she would think about it. "Well," I thought, "So much for that." Two months later, my aunt said "come on over." There she had a Leika 3-C with extra lenses and many accessories. I could borrow it for as long as I wanted. What and occasion! This would be the third camera that I owned – I had previously purchased a polaroid. I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out the Leika. I took the first few pictures with the lens collapsed. I was really excited, because Frank DePetrio [?] told me that the Leika was a good camera. After spending a lot of time around Frank's shop, I told him I wanted a Hasselblad. About a month, he told me to come on down because he had a Hasselblad. I went to look at three lenses, two backs, two finders, one body and several photos. All in a little old case. $1400. [Pauses] I had my hand in the public trough, government employee so to speak, then and could afford it. Similar to the Leika, there was no instruction manual. I really didn't get the full swing until I got myself a darkroom. My first Hasselblad roll, I threw the film on the floor and developed the paper. [Chuckles] I can't remember exactly the date, it was about 1974 or '75 I took out a photography business license in Churchill County. In 1977 I opened a studio here in Fallon. At this time, I had not had any formal training in photography, not even a correspondence course. I didn't need it, I knew all there was to know! One of my first customers suggested that there be a little bit more contrast in my black and white pictures. I was outraged. I was a professional. Ever since that day, I have been trying to learn about photography.
ACORN: So from what I've said here, you can tell that I've been around Fallon for quite a bit of time. Actually, I was born here in 1937. Grammar school high school, all here. During the high school and college years, I spent a lot of time with my folks traveling to every state in the united states except the New England states, from Alaska to within fifty miles of Panama. All this time my father had the camera – I remember it was an old Kodak 35 Rangefinder – And he took lots and lots of pictures. Fortunately, I have most of those pictures.
ALCORN: [Pauses] University of Nevada, graduated 1959, degree in zoology. Returned there in the late '60s, came close to a master's degree in education. Worked for the state fish and game for about 7 years. Defense department for about 8 years. And about 8 years for myself as a professional photographer.
Q: Did you do any photography with school or any of that stuff?
ALCORN: With the school?
Q: Yeah. With any of-
ALCORN: Any of the schools?
Q: Well, really from service through school on. All that. Any photography at all.
ALCORN: The only photography that I… Like I mentioned, I did have some of my pictures – candid pictures – put in the 1954 Churchill County High School annual.
ALCORN: So those are my first published pictures. After that, you know, I'd pick up a camera. Kind of like you're interested in motorcycles, I had an interest in cameras. And it's been a lifelong interest. It wasn't something that I would completely discard. I would always pick up a camera, take a few pictures, and then, say, "these are the final" [?] Well, without any schooling I would have had a hard time because nobody wanted to teach me anything. And then when I got into photography seriously, I thought, "Okay," once I was first criticized, why, I decided I'd better learn something so I bought books and bought book and bought books and read magazines and read and read and attended any conference that I could afford to go to and so, really, I'm totally self-taught. And there are schools, photography schools, that can teach a person all that I have learned in a matter of three months. And if anyone ever goes into photography, my recommendation is go to one of those schools, save themselves one heck of a lot of time.
Q: What about your father? Did your parents encourage you to do photography? Take pictures?
ALCORN: My dad, being a biologist, was more interested in having me, er, guiding me in his footsteps, so to speak. So, therefore, my degree in zoology and resulting biological-type work. Nobody really encouraged me. The first instruction – if you want to call it that – that I can remember was from Laura Mills. She showed me how to take a pencil and retouch pictures in really [inaudible] spots. I remember vaguely doing that, that was about 1959. [Long pause] So I never had anybody say "here, you're a potential photographer. Let's take you [inaudible]" Nobody ever said that. Nobody gave me any encouragement, it was all a self-motivating type thing. I liked beauty. I liked the beauty in seeing things. I cannot paint, draw, being an artist is such… I haven't got the talent to do that. So in place of trying to create beauty, I try to capture beauty, whether it be a person, a plant, an old building, a rock, or a bird. Anything.
Q: What kind of photography interests… have you seen any development along the lines of photography in your work? For instance from art to portraits to whatever historic things?
ALCORN: I can see a lot of changes. I don't know if they're necessarily progress. I understand that Kodak registers a new patent about every third day, so there's lots of changes in photography.
Q: Yeah, but yours in particular. Your interests.
ALCORN: My interest is pretty much geared to what kind of equipment I can buy. If I've got a… When I first got my ultra wide angle lens I thought "wow, a new toy" so I'd use it a lot. When I first got my telephoto "Wow, I can get close without walking up there!" When I got my first zoom, "Wow, I can change! I don't have to walk back and forward, I can use the camera to do all the work!" And if I were to be given one lens and one camera and he says "Go take pictures" I would prefer a telephoto lens because I can get closer and act as a spy without people knowing. People or animals or creatures or anything. I showed you a picture of a chipmunk a little while ago. Real neat picture. I could have stayed there two weeks taking pictures of chipmunks, and I don't want to get up and scare the critter. I want to take his picture and let him be himself. And if there's one thing I do love about pictures, it's… there's… With people especially is let them be themselves while I take a picture.
Q: Would- [Tape cuts] This is a continuation of the oral history about Albert Alcorn on April 20, 1984. Okay, we're gonna talk about pictures that'll be in the show.
ALCORN: Okay, pictures that'll be in the show… Of course, not necessarily all of these pictures will be in the show. Just to have something to talk about, one of my favorite pictures here is.. I took with the Hasselblad and it's a photograph of Mamie Charley and at the time she was… in the vicinity of 75 years old. In the hills, picking pine nuts the way she used to, I'm sure, when she was a kid. And I got [sounds as though microphone was buffeted about for a bit] -Good expression and a good exposure, so as a result I think that the picture [noise] just an outstanding picture. Shows her face real good. And pine nuts, her hand is on the pine nuts and [pause] this is one of my more favorite pictures. Have any questions about that picture?
ALCORN: Another one that Sharon [Taylor, former director at the Churchill County Museum] wants in the museum is a picture of Fallon's Christmas tree, and this was an anniversary or a birthday party of this Christmas tree and I can't remember whether it was the 25th or 30th or 40th or just what, but I remember distinctly taking these pictures just before Christmas and I can't remember for sure what year it was, about 1978, I think [Ed- if it is the photo that we currently have that best matches his description, it was dated 12/22/1976, which would have been the 47th anniversary of the first lighting. Possibly there were a few years it wasn't done]. And it's interesting because on close examination there is a car with its motor on and idling. It's, as I remember, a very cold day, and there's lots of exhaust steam coming out from this car. Sharon was real pleased with it because of the star effect, and the star effect was one of these makeshift things where all I used was a piece of window screen to create the star effect from all the lights, but it does show the tree, the downtown area, and the sign that says season's greetings So here I am two extremes, one's in the fall with Mamie Charley picking pinenuts where it's winter weather, and then just before Christmas, and if I remember correctly I took that picture about 5am and it was cold. Really cold. There I was in the middle of the street with a tripod camera-
Q: What kind of camera?
ALCORN: I was using the Hasselblad on these. And it's kind of interesting because I would watch the traffic, and I want to get great depth of field, so therefore needed a several second exposure. And here I am out in the middle of the street and I was watching down the street to see if there were any cars coming, so with a 20 or 30 second exposure, why I didn't want the blur of the lights of cars going by, so I had to make sure that no cars were coming before I took the picture. And then when a car would come by I'd cover the lens or not take a picture and people would go by and look at me and I think one of the local policemen even went by. "What're you doing out here?" I said, "Oh, I'm doing my usual thing." He says, "You've gotta be crazy." And I said "Well, takes one to know one" or words of that effect. [laughter]. So those are a couple of my favorite pictures. Another one that I will submit for perusal for inclusion into the permanent display is one of the dolls at Salt Wells Villa – on their 10th anniversary people were giving tours through the house to show the rooms and everything and in one of the hallways is a doll similar to… what do you call those famous dolls each year, last year for Christmas? Similar to a cabbage patch doll, but very obviously this is not a cabbage patch doll, this is much more like a genuine [?], but it's probably about two feet tall behind glass so nobody can get to it in a hallway. And so it's a really nice closeup of this well-endowed lady displaying her long leg.
ALCORN: Then I have about 11 slides that, having gone through several hundred slides, I've picked these out as some that would be of interest. Fact is, the first one I'm looking at here dates back to 1975. This is definitely not the start of my photographic career, but it was one of them I had taken, and even though it's a very dull slide, I had shown it to a cousin of mine that had worked on power lines, putting the lines on the poles after the poles have been up. And he saw this power line, and his immediate reaction was "Oh! Translocation." I says "What's that?" He says "Well, see how those wires change places? That's translocation." Even though it appears to be a very dull slide, it had impact to him as an individual. He had worked in that very similar situation on a pole like these and had done that very same thing. So when it comes to photographing anything, I like to show somebody what they have done, and when it shows what they've done, whether or not they're proud of it or not, if it has impact to the point where they have a reaction, I consider it to be a good photograph.
ALCORN: One of the pictures – and I can't remember which one it was – that I had taken quite some time ago was – Can't even remember the subject matter, but I showed it to somebody that was in that profession and they immediately turned up their nose and says "Oh, yuck!" I says, "What's the matter?" and they says, "It looks too much like work!" And so I knew again, even though it was a very mundane photograph, that it really had impact because this showed exactly – and not only exactly, they had such a deep feeling for it that they were to offer a repulsive reaction. Well, to me that's a good photograph.
Q: [Laughs] Even a bad reaction.
ALCORN: Yeah! It doesn't have to be a positive, it can be a negative reaction, and this, to me, is where I come up with my unreal-realness [?] type photographer is that whether somebody likes what they're doing or not, if I can capture the feeling of it, that's, to me, a good photograph. The next slide I've got is a harvested field of safflower, and this was here in Lahontan Valley, and this stubble field just kinda looked neat to me and with this nice old cottonwood in the fall in the background. I'm sure that whoever harvested this safflower would look at it and have the same reaction of "Boy, I spent a lot of hours on that combine there." Whereas [inaudible] even though there's no combine there, they would have feeling for it. And that's what is just to me a routine picture of Eastgate, and this photograph was taken on one of the field trips that the Fallon photo club went on, and it was one of the few times that I had literally stopped and walked around the place to get a good vantage point, and it kind of looks to me like a majestic old building with the hill in the background, and in its day it was a powerful little stop. Everybody stopped there. I remember as a kid stopping there and going in and having an ice cream cone. And so people that have done that in the past, I'm sure, will look at it and say, "Oh, that's Eastgate," without a doubt they're recognize it. Next picture was one I took in 1977 of Lahontan reservoir, which you mistakenly took for another reservoir, because the shoreline doesn't look all that good. You mentioned that Lahontan is straight across the dam, this one… probably the water in this reservoir at the time this picture was taken, probably in November of '77, was at the lowest point it had been in several, many years, and they were trying to evaluate the condition of the dam if I remember correctly, so therefore they drew it down considerably.
Q: Was that photograph taken for a job?
ALCORN: No, it was taken for fun, like all these pictures of that-
Q: Areal photograph, though, right?
ALCORN: This is an areal photograph, and there's maybe… about 20% of the slide shows water, but as the dam would be right now, if you were to take the same picture, about 80% of the slide would show water. So it really shows that there's not much water in… Next picture is some old, dried mud. Everybody that has lived in Nevada and been out in the desert know what old, dried mud looks like. And that is such a typical picture there's nothing there, just a lot of car tracks, there's a lot of cracks. To me, I've spent a lot of time in those situations, in those places, and they're interesting, intriguing. And when I print this, why, it will challenge me to come up with an interesting composition to those mud cakes.
ALCORN: The next picture is of, uh, the hill at Hazen. Commonly, sometimes called "Hazen View," sometimes called "Hazen Hill." And on the West face of the hill there's a great big area, maybe covering several acres, and without too much imagination you can see a profile of a horse's head. And the result is some people call this horsehead view. And I thought, "well, I'll just look at it and see if I can't get a print of that, because it is typical of something that everybody who has traveled from Reno to Fallon has seen. The next picture is the Fallon sign over back in Lyon County, so we won't even consider that. This picture's a real neat one. Late in the day, Indian Lakes north of Fallon, one of the lakes, and a lone very sickly-looking cottonwood tree with its reflection in the water. To me it has a lot of meaning. I've spent quite a bit of time out at Indian Lakes, either swimming, boating, or fishing, and it's a very peaceful place. We can't do justice to Fallon without including a picture of a horse, or a cowboy or something. And how much more appropriate can it be than a rodeo picture at our local fairgrounds? It's a good action shot of a steer with… He already has a rope on his horn, the heeler at work attempting to get that- get the rope on him, or take him down by his head, some good potential. During this time in 1977 that I was doing a lot of flying and taking pictures, I flew over Fallon town proper and took a picture of Laura Mills Park. Laura Mills park is in its infancy when this picture was taken. There's no trees. Not too many improvements, but it is to me a good documentary picture, and kind of a interesting composition from the angle. It's definitely not a vertical picture. [inaudible] an interesting shot, let me get it.
ALCORN: And the next picture was probably taken about that same time. On the slide it says November '76, and it very definitely shows the big earthquake faults in Dixie Valley. And I have another slide of Dixie Valley that I want to submit also and to me it shows the real- real Nevada. Light, fluffy clouds with a lot of contrast in the blue sky and three or four dust devils. And I haven't run across that slide yet, but one trip out there, stop and take a roll of film and get those dust devils. And to me, you're carting Nevada and Especially Churchill County, so I've been wanting to submit one of those slides for consideration, because they are so typical. I could make a comment about this color versus black and white controversy. You've made the comment to me that you see where I use more color than other photographers. And even though I'm showing you colored slides here now, I have a process where I make black and white prints from them pretty easy.
ALCORN: So that's no problem. But I would like to stress the importance of color versus black and white. In today's day and age, people see color, they want color in pictures. And so therefore my profession is, I'd say, 95% color. Who wants a black and white portrait? And there's very few people. My father is an old-fashioned person at 73 he's very young, but by the same token he still remembers the black and white, and he likes the black and white. He remembers the early colors, which faded badly. Colors today still fade, and they will continue to fade until they come up with a new chemical color process versus the present use of organic color process, and once they get a chemical, rather than an organic color, then colors will be more permanent, but for now colors still fade and my father remembers the early colors and how they faded and how horrible the pictures look once they become real off-color. Because I was just looking at some recently that were just… really bad. Colors shift. Not necessarily fade, but colors shift. They used to be nice, pretty pictures. Now they're all red, and virtually useless as far as any pleasing effect, but in today's photographic business, color is the media. The wedding pictures taken today are, I'd say, 99% color. Portraits are 99% color. This is a result of, I think, a lot of the women that want colorful things and are not relaxed or comfortable with a black and white photograph hanging in the house. They want color. Also, the photographic industry has promoted color. All labs that do fast service do it in color. One hour processing today is common only in color films. You hand a normal lab a black and white roll and it throws them into a tizzy and they say "Oh, it'll be a week before you get the films back." I personally feel like Ansel Adams in that black and whites are a way of expressing your feelings in a photograph. When a black and white photograph is created, in other words, the first time that a photographer takes a media reading, until the final wash of the print, he has created a photograph. And that photograph, whether he knows it or not, is all influenced by exactly what he does to that thing. Like, say, Ansel Adams is one of the greatest as far as showing his feelings in his photographs. He has mastered his style, and therefore he can put the mood into the picture that he wants. You'll notice I didn't say he was the master of photography. There is no master of photography. Everybody, even Ansel Adams will agree that he can go back and do a better print on a particular negative than he did years ago.
Q: Okay, so my question would be, then, if you were doing an artistic photograph, would you do color or black and white?
ALCORN: Today I would do black and white. I like black and white. I can control it. I know what I can do with it. I know how to handle it. I can add, subtract, contrast, texture, and all that sort of stuff. And so therefore I like black and white much better today, because I have this total control. They day that color processing yields permanents like black and white processes, I will be more comfortable with it, because I do like pictures to last. I don't like the fades, the fading of the colors and the color shifts. A person can add contrast to a color picture, or deemphasize a portion, dodge, burn, all those darkroom techniques can be done with color pictures as well as black and white. I certainly am not a master of color printing.
Q: Do you do any of your own?
ALCORN: I have done quite a bit. Fact is, this morning looking at one of the motorcycle pictures were some of my color went. And I don't like it right now because I'm a very impatient person sometimes. And when I wanna see a picture, I wanna see it pretty fast. I can have a black and white print made in an hour, once I take the meter reading until… an hour later I can have a black and white print done. Whereas in color, it would- it has taken me all day to make one color print from finished negatives. And it takes 2-3 hours just to do a bunch of negatives. Someday I might get into color more, but…
Q: Okay, well you're gonna be doing the printing of your own pictures that are in the show.
ALCORN: Uh-huh [End of tape 1 side A]
ALCORN: She was supposed to be here at, let's say two-o'clock, and I saw her out front of the store five minutes early. she was pacing back and forth and I thought maybe she was waiting for her boyfriend to show up, but she kept looking at her watch. At two-o'clock sharp, she came and opened the door and came in. And I thought "Oh, that's kind of interesting" and she sadly explained that she could not get one dollar together, all she had was 85 cents and her folks didn't give her any money. She's a school girl and will I take a picture for her for 85 cents. I said "Yes, I'll take your picture for 85 cents." So my first studio customer paid the whole sum of 85 cents. I don't even know what the girl's name was.
Q: [chuckles] One picture?
ALCORN: Yeah, one picture, one photo. And now I won't even pick up the camera for less than $10. During the course of operating a studio, I had a lot people go in and out, and a lot of people very happy with the pictures and a lot of people unhappy with pictures. People don't like the way they look, I guess. They won't admit they're ugly, or they won't admit that they've got a double chin or bags under their eyes, and as a result why they just… some people just will not accept how they look. Other people are just tickled to death. Maybe it's because they… like themselves, I feel as though when a person likes themselves they don't mind having their picture taken, and if it's close to what they look like they're excited for it to happen to them. But, the biggest frustration, I think, one time was when I had been partying on a Friday night and got home about 10 o'clock and crawled in bed so happy to get there, and the phone rang at 10:30, and somebody wanted some passport pictures taken, and this was the only time they had off and could I take them right now if they came to town. And, needless to say, I had a hard time finding the bed, let alone the floor to walk on, so I refused to. And another interesting one, a man brought a rock in and he says, "I need a photograph of this rock." I says, "Alright." He says, "This is a special rock." "Okay." "People from outer space left it here several thousands of years ago." "Okay." He says, "See, you can even look. See the writing on there?" "Oh yes, I do." I took the picture of the rock, he paid me, and I was happy and he was happy and I don't know where the rock is now, but it looked like a rock that came out of the desert to me!
Q: [Laughs] When did you do the coroner's photography?
ALCORN: That was maybe three years after I opened the studio. So right about 1979. Larry Thompson was the test in this case, who had total coroner's responsibility, and his deputy was leaving to go to another town and he asked me if I would be a deputy coroner for a bit. He said "Be sure to take lots of pictures." I says, "Okay." And he says, "give us a bill for the pictures." "Okay." I took lots of pictures, and I did in no way really overcharge. If anything, I undercharged by about ten times. For the pictures, I think each case I charged about $10 for pictures, and maybe I used up about $15-20 of film and processing before it was over with. And, needless to say, the final line was the county was unhappy with me because I charged too much for the pictures. But everybody's unhappy with the cost of anything nowadays, so it didn't surprise me, but it was interesting. I took pictures of suicide, people who had died of old age, rail accidents. I'm surprised, in that one year, I remember two people that were under cars and jacks fell out from under the cars. Needless to say, when I was called, well, why, they were dead. Went out to pronounce them dead and Doctor [Inaudible] recorded the thing. But in a small town like this, you wouldn't think that there'd be two people in a year that would be killed by a car falling on them, but! And I was surprised also, there was suicides. I must have gone on a half-dozen suicides. That means there was one every 60 days. And that's a lot for a town like this in a period of 12 months.
Q: Mmm-hmm. What do you think that did for your own just… for you, as far as a person goes, and your photography? Do you think it had any impact on you?
ALCORN: It really didn't have much effect on me because when I had come home from one of these coroner cases, maybe I'd be… it'd be 5:00 and dinner time, and I'd get a coroner's call. I'd go out and everybody else was just sitting down to dinner, or at least the family was. So I'd go out, be gone an hour or so, and come back and everybody was still eating. And they'd look at me kinda funny and say "are you hungry?" I said, "Yeah, where's supper? Where's supper?" And they'd look at me funny and say, "Well, what happened?" So while I was eating, I would explain all the gory details, and they would appear to be a little green under the gills, but having been exposed to the things that I have in my life, which have been numerous, those things don't shake me up. Just another thing to do and another picture to take. Which, I get enthused about life as it is. My work has always been a way to sit down and relax a little bit. Might as well hurry up and relax so we can get up and get goin' again. And, it's really a cognizant hurry up and relax so we can get up and go. And I do it because I'm enthused about life. I'm enthused about what I'm doing, regardless of what it is. And one time I had 100 pictures to make. All the same thing. And when I was in the darkroom, I found that just the mechanical thing of making 100 pictures was so routine I didn't even throw out the labs, so I would immediately start to look and see how I could mass-produce and I was – I found out that I could do not two at a time, but four at a time. Well, if I can do four at a time, could I do eight at a time? I got up to 12 at a time, but I started ruining some papers so I dropped back to maybe it was 9 or 10 at a time. And, needless to say, I had 100 pictures made in just a couple hours. But I don't like to include the routine, I like the variety.
Q: How do you separate your professional photography from your recreational photography?
ALCORN: I've given that some thought and I decided "Okay, professional and recreational photography are two different worlds." If somebody says, "I want a picture of" In this business the way it has been the last couple years, it's either a picture of people or a picture of an old photograph. And I still in my own recreational photography I enjoy taking pictures of people still, but that's when I change from doing it for hire to going out and doing it on my own, and that’s where I become an omni realist at photography. Where as, if I'm getting paid for it, I try to please the customer and I've taken the perfect picture. People don't quite understand what I do, by taking the perfect picture. Because there technically there is no perfect picture. There can always be a little change made someplace. But I have taken the perfect picture. Fact is, I took a perfect picture last night at 5:15. The person paid me for the picture. It was perfect. Not exactly what I wanted, but it was perfect because I got paid for it. And that's how I feel about any photograph that I sell. If it's good enough to sell, it's a perfect picture. And technically speaking, photographically speaking, there is no perfect picture. I don't care how hard you work at it. There is no perfect picture. When I tell people I've taken the perfect picture, they always look like "you're crazy" too, because they too know there is no perfect…
Q: So what's the difference, then, when you're going out to- if you were to go out and take some photographs just for you? Where would you go? What would you do? What would you want to take a picture of?
ALCORN: That's kind of interesting because probably one of the biggest differences between professional and for fun is that when I take pictures professionally I know exactly what kind of camera I'm going to use. When I go for fun, I don't know what camera I'm going to use. So I take 4 or 5 camera systems, not just cameras but camera systems. I will sometimes drive east, looking for something to take a picture of. Sometimes I'll drive south looking for something to take a picture of. The wife and I quite often, sometimes after a period week, Monday through Saturday, Sunday comes along "let's go take some pictures." "Okay." I gather up all I can, fill the car with cameras. "Where are we gonna go?" "I don't know, where do you want to go?" "Well, let's go take some pictures." "Where's that?" "Well, let's see… If we go to Stillwater we can get some bird pictures. If we go to Lovelock we can get some Lovelock Cave pictures. If we go south we might get to Walker Lake and take some pictures there." "Well, let's just drive until we see something we want to take a picture of." And it's… we might be gone an hour, or we might be gone the rest of the day. So it's a… to me, it's not only a time to enjoy my recreation, but it's also a time to share with my wife, because it's one of the few times that we have together alone without any responsibilities at all.
Q: Okay, looking at some photographers, for instance like Walton Kay [?] who sells photographs of see these historic places, and really down that sort of thing [?]. I had looked at the things you'd sold as portraits and things- business activities, or Navy activities, something like that, have there been those photographs that you've sold?
ALCORN: I have. Not as many as I would like to. There is a picture agency in New York that has 100 of my pictures. They might surprise me tomorrow and send me a check for a picture I sold. They've had them for 3 or 4 years and they haven't sold any. My hundred pictures there are a drop in the bucket because their files have three million pictures. They're a picture agency for anybody who wants to join up with them and sign a contract. When any photographer says he thinks he has a bunch of good pictures, send 'em to a picture agency and you find out that- [clock chimes, tape cuts out] Anytime anybody thinks they're good, why send pictures to a picture agency, and they want to look at at least 100 pictures at a time, preferably several hundred at a time. And if they accept any for potential sales, well you know that those pictures were good. I've sent them I don't know how many thousands of slides, and they've kept a hundred. Well, this kind of tells me that they want a different style of picture than I'm taking, or there is just an awful lot of people out there that are better photographers than I. When somebody needs a picture and is willing to pay several hundred dollars for a picture, I'm sure that they want the best quality picture that money can buy. And let's take any book of Sears, [inaudible], Ford Motor Company. If one of those companies is going to put a picture in their catalog or advertising brochure, they certainly don't want an amateurish-type picture. They want the finest quality and the camera to be big enough and so on and so forth and there's so many people in this United States and world that are taking pictures using bigger stuff than I'm using that a little guy like me in a small town like this cannot compete with those big-timers. Those big-timers are using a minimum of 4x5 camera. You're on ten hundred and 35 mm long, so right there they've got a 20 fold advantage on you. Another thing that really irritates me is that everyone once in a while I hear of somebody that inherited a big fortune and he always wanted to take pictures. So here he takes his big fortune, buys a few little cameras, buys a camper of some sort and says "I'm gonna be a wildlife photographer!" And he goes out and spends six months in the field and when he comes back, why, he's got 10,000 rolls of film exposed, pays for having it developed, and so that's kind of unfair to me because here he is, he may not even know what kind of a camera to look at, but he's got the money to buy these ultra-long lenses, ultra-big cameras, go through jillions of rolls of film, have somebody else process it, and when he's finished he still has all of his money because his folks were…. what he inherited was so great. I have a hard time, I got a bill today for the film I bought - $320 for a little box of film. Well, you turn me loose I could go through all that film in a week, but how would I pay for it? I'd have a hard time paying for that. And so I have to stretch that film out and make it last several months. Well, so you see where I get unhappy is that these guys that… and it's kind of like the banker said when I first started the business. "You made a luxury business, when people have money they will spend it on photography. When times get tight, you're gonna have a hard time of it." And this is very true. If a philanthropist came along and gave me a million dollars, why sure I'd burn up all the interest on film and processing. I probably wouldn't change the camera systems because if I went to bigger, better cameras, why I would just complicate [inaudible] because I know the cameras I have. I would have plain materials, but I know those cameras. I know what I can do with them. And if I bought another newer, bigger camera I'd have to learn all over again, so… I tell my students when – or people that come in "What kind of camera should I use?" I'll say, "Get to a camera system that you're comfortable with and really stick to it."
ALCORN: "-All through your photographic career. If you feel as though you're limited, why go ahead and branch out, but for the most part it's better to stick to one system. You can see your mistakes as you go and make corrections incredibly but if you go from slides to prints to black and white to color to transparencies and bounce around that way, a mistake on this one is the reverse of a mistake on the other one. If you're trying to adjust this way, you're going to over-adjust the wrong way and make twice as bad an exposure. So it's a lot better for people that want to get a camera system going, it's a lot better for them to stick with one system. Even for you or me, it's better to have one camera, one system. Sure, you can have accessories, different lenses different shutters for [inaudible], but stick with that one system. A person is gonna be a lot happier with the pictures they take.
Q: So what makes you want to have 200 cameras, then?
ALCORN: [Laughs] good question! The packrat in me, I guess. I inherited-
Q: Have you used every one of them?
ALCORN: I have not used every one of them. I've used over half of them. I set out at one time with the idea that I would use every working camera. And I started on this and I bought film for all the cameras. And I did, like I say, I got to use maybe half of them. After a while it's like using ballpoint pens and having a collection of ballpoint pens. Have you written with every one? No, they're more for beauty than to be functional, and so that's the way some of the cameras are. I've got one camera that has serial number one on the production series. I don't even care whether I take a picture of it. It's a beautiful work of art. Every time you use something, you abuse it. It happens, you get a little fingerprint on it. You turn the knob and the gears crank and grind down a little bit more. So why not keep – as far as I'm concerned, I wanna keep that camera in as good of condition as it is. I have a real hard time. The best 35mm camera I have is worth a thousand dollars, and it's an antique. Should I use it because it does take excellent pictures, or should I leave it on the shelf and let it collect dust but not get worn? What should I do? And so, I have a hard time with things like that, to figure out what I should use. Some of these cameras, one day I will- [End of tape 1]
ALCORN: Town that, "oh, I provide this way." [?] After shooting a roll of slides, you can use them for a lecture series. And if there's something in there that really is worth a photographic, or a historic photographic note, then a negative can be made. And Polaroid's negatives are just as good as Kodak's negatives, or just as good as any other negatives in black and white. So therefore, I enjoy shooting color slides. The only big problem with color slides is it takes me two weeks to get them back from Kodak. And in my business I always like to use the best quality regardless of whether it's color or black and white. And without using the most expensive just to say I use the most expensive one I use the best quality. And to me Kodak has, with their slide processing, the best quality of slide processing. Especially with the Kodachromes, rather than the Ektachromes. Anybody can do an Ektachrome slide- I've developed my own Ektachrome slides. And that's… okay, so you develop Ektacrhome slides, that's fine. But when you dump in the final solution with the formaldehyde in it you know that formaldehyde's in there to cure that organic material, you know it kinda loses its permanence in my own mind, leave alone with the picture. So once a roll of slides has been taken, I have to wait these two weeks to get them back, but that's the only way I'm going to be able to have slides for a presentation. And then when I find those perfect pictures in my mind, why, then I can go ahead and make that… negatives from them and end up with dual purpose material.
Q: Okay, another question then is if you took one of these color slides and made a black and white print out of it, do you think that that would be – Even going from color to black and white – that it would be what you would consider a quality photograph, or do you think that you're sacrificing something by going from color to black and white?
ALCORN: Well, it depends on technique. A good example is that I've sent in 35mm slides to a custom lab, whereas they make an inner negative and then make a print, and their quality is unsurpassed with anything I can do or any local drugstore can do. And when they get finished with that print, It's just beautiful.
ALCORN: It's just as good as if you had used a 4x5 camera.
Q: Then you would not be satisfied with the type of thing that you could get with a Vivitar Polaroid?
ALCORN: No, I don't think I'd be totally satisfied because the machine has certain flaws in it – Definitely my technique might have a flaw or two in it. I don't do it every day, so therefore I'm not 100% efficient at it, whereas if I send it off they are. And so, getting back to the original question, black and white versus color, if I have my druthers, I will use a Hasselblad or slightly larger format camera to take all of my pictures. I like the edge, having a larger film over a 35mm. I definitely like the larger negatives and if I had nothing but time and few photographs to take I'd use 4x5, but 4x5 is so big and bulky that I just don't have time to pack it up on that hillside just to take a couple snapshots. And so the 2-1/4 format is a good happy medium, which brings to mind an article I was reading the other day about exposure with the new professional films in color, and they said the optimum exposure is the least amount of light to get the best exposure, and after using my Minox camera yesterday, I thought to myself- When I photograph something, what will that picture end up being? If I know, I will use the smallest format to get the best picture. So, as in the case yesterday when I was using the Minox, all I wanted was a snapshot, and I would be happy with that. But if I were given a job to go to the same place and document it, 35mm wouldn't be good enough. I would go at least 2-1/4.
Q: Which brings up another question in my mind, is are you going to be… Do you feel you will be represented by the photographs taken with, for instance, just 35mm, or do you feel it's necessary that you have photographs that were taken with different cameras, for instance one that was taken with a 4x5, one that was taken with a 2-1/4, and then a 35mm or whatever?
ALCORN: Again, it depends on technique. I have a 16x20 black and white print which, I'm sure it will be one- I know it will be considered for the display and it was taken with a Nikon with a 105mm lens, and I spent about 4 hours getting that print ready. And it turned out to be just as good as any other picture that could happen. [Tape cuts]
Q: Okay, so you don't care about the format of the camera as much as you do the results?
ALCORN: Final print quality, yeah. Again, going back to my photographic style, Omni Realist. Using the ability to use any camera, to me, is an important aspect of any photographer.
ALCORN: If I remember correctly, somebody wrote this up a long time ago, but I had to learn for myself, if a guy can use a disc camera and get the picture he needs, why lug out a 4x5, a 2-1/4, an 8x10 camera if a disc camera will work? So it depends on what the job will do, and when I am taking pictures for fun I never know when I'll get a good picture for sure.
ALCORN: Tomorrow I'm gonna go out and take the camera. I don't know what I'm gonna end up doing with the pictures that I take. They might go in a file, like some of the contact prints you've seen and nobody'll ever see them, on the other hand somebody that I photograph might die tomorrow, which has happened to me – not tomorrow, but a few weeks later. And then I'll have a picture of a group of people and they'll say "That is my husband, he died, I want an 8x10 of him." And in the case that happened a couple years ago, I took a group portrait and one guy died and the widow came to me a year later and said "Can I have an 8x10 of him out of this group of ten people?" Using the larger format or the medium format, larger than 35mm, using the medium format I was able to make an 8x10 print of his face, head and shoulders type, which ended up to be a fine enough quality to be able to charge a reasonable price, and she was happy with the picture.
Q: So format really doesn't matter, it's the end result.
ALCORN: It's the end result, yeah. Why use a bulldozer to move a spoonful of salt, likewise why take a tablespoon to move a mountain?
Q: Well, and of course one of the things we're looking at is we're doing a permanent display. And color is not a permanent medium. So that's…
ALCORN: Again, who's permanent [clock bongs, tape cuts] When we talk about permanent, a permanent display, this display that the museum is preparing, it is labeled "permanent"
ALCORN: The only thing permanent are death and taxes. As far as I'm concerned-
Q: Well, taxes aren't necessarily permanent.
ALCORN: Well, they keep changing it, but they're always there [laughter]. But to me, I think that this being labeled a "Permanent display" and then resulting in mostly black and white photographs, I think it has its merit today, but I still think that the display should show the trends in photography, and I think when O'Sullivan took his pictures here they should be 8x10 contact prints and not enlargements. I think that is what was made in those days because that was what-
Q: No, most of his are 11x14 glass plates.
ALCORN: Are they 11x14? Okay, well, fine. 11x14 glass plates. But they should not be enlarged, they should not be reduced. The trend since then has been to go to 35mm and make 11x14 prints, even 16x20 prints from 35mm and get just as good a quality for most intents and purposes as O'Sullivan did way back then. So there's been a lot of changes, and there will continue to be a lot of changes. And a photographer to do any documenting doesn't really need to keep up with these changes, but he certainly needs to be aware of them. If he is for hire he needs to be not only acutely aware of the changes, but up to date with them because – Well, for instance, I've got several cameras that use 122 film. 122 film was discontinued, I think, in 1964 or something like that. Kodacolor 2 film is no longer available. Okay, so the film sizes have changed. Color, size, Ektacolor film is- Ektacolor x, I think it's Ektacolor X, is not longer made. The most common Kodacolor 2 films were- the most common a year or two ago – are now being phased out. Today we think of slides as either being Ektafilm or Kodachrome. I'm sure that within just a few years there'll be a new -chrome come out, which will overpower the Ektafilm and Kodachromes, and therefore will be so much better than our old films, just like glass plates of O'Sullivan's time, that's impractical now to use glass plates. So eventually our 35mm might be impractical. Fact is there's talk of Sony corporation having a camera that will use a microchip instead of film, and instead of taking 24, 36 pictures why it'll take 500 pictures. And this is not a dream. It's progressed beyond being a dream, it's in the prototype stage last I heard, and that was a year or two ago so don't be surprised if you see a… filmless camera come out on the market in the next few years. So anybody that wants to take pictures, to take pictures with any size, any format, - I still enjoy and still have some 122 film. I still enjoy taking pictures with that camera, stopping to down to F-128. You know, fabulous depth of field. The film is so old that you have to develop for twice as long as what's recommended because it's lost its zip. And maybe even put a little anti-fog agent in the developer, but it's still fun to do! And this is one of the points that I wanted to make, that I've been thinking about since we last talked about photography. Most people do photography because it's fun. Currently I'm teaching it at Western Nevada Community College, teaching photography. And the first day I ask everybody, all the students, 11 students, why they were there. Did they want to take pictures for art, take pictures for profit, or take pictures for fun? And they all agreed that they wanted to take pictures for fun now, but maybe later they'd try something else. So 100% of my students at that time were taking pictures for fun. One of the biggest problems with professional photographers is it's a job, and if a professional photographer is shooting pictures because it is a job, because it is a profession, because it is a means of making a living, to me isn't a true photographer. There is a difference between a true photographer and a professional photographer, where a true photographer does it for the fun. If he takes more than 100 pictures a month, he might be considered a professional. If he takes more than 100 pictures a week, he might still be considered only an amateur, but he's taken pictures [loud sneeze], and there are very few professional photographers like myself that take pictures for fun. You mentioned Mary Foster and how she has some fabulous pictures, and I really do believe that she took pictures too long. She was at the profession for some – I think she told me 54 years one time. When she got out of the business, she sold all of her cameras. True, she had a fire burn up most of her stuff, but there was a period of I think 8 or 10 years where she didn't even want to look at a camera, leave alone take a picture. And she literally got burned out on photography.
ALCORN: And anybody that gets burnt out on photography or any other profession is really sad because they lose their fun part of it and then it becomes a job, a way of making a living, and it's work. And as long as you can keep your profession or a hobby a play or a fun activity, then you can still go at that pursuit and do a good job, but it doesn't become laborious. And so this is one of the things I have even against some of my own fellow workers, that they're in it for the money and they think they can make big bucks, which they can't, and some of them have even semi-quit the profession to go work some place to make a living, because they can't make a living at it and I think one of the reasons they can't make a living is because it's work.
Q: So you then would summarize your photographic profession as being more of a…
ALCORN: Enjoyable pursuit.
Q: Avocation, and you're gonna keep enjoying it and when it gets too serious forget it [laughing]
ALCORN: When it gets too serious, and I've seen too many pictures or I've seen too much film or I've seen too many cameras I take a couple days off and go get on the end of an idiot stick like a shovel or a hoe and get completely lost in that. And then I can come back to photography with just a short brief rest of a couple days and be just as enthused about it as I was when I left it two or three days previously. [End of interview]