The time was 1953 and the place was Laredo Air Force Base, Texas. I had just walked onto the flight line when the Air Police pulled up and asked me to place my photography case on the ground and step back.
The problem was that a Staff Sergeant and myself (an A/3C) were making nearly as much or more money each month than the Base Commander. To compound the problem, we were making all of it by selling pictures to the the cadets that the same Commander was responsible for training to be jet fighter pilots
One of the cadets complained that we were charging excessive prices for the photos and that started the investigation.
A base commander, among other things, is responsible for good order and discipline through the administration of military justice, ranging from administrative actions to general courts-martial. He has a legal office and investigative services to help him in this task. His powers to discipline are vast, far exceeding those in civilian life. Just by administrative action he can demote you in rank, forfeit your pay, change your duty assignment (think perpetual kitchen police or hard manual labor), etc., not to mention invoking a court martial, a more serious legal proceeding.
Our Base Commander wanted to know what was going on. Were we breaking any regulations in what we were doing to make so much money. He tasked his legal office to investigate.
What we were doing was simple.
Each graduating class had a class book whose production was contracted to a San Antonio company. For every class, the company would send a photographer to the base to take formal portraits of each member of the class. They made their money by selling prints of the formal portrait to the graduating cadets in addition to a class book. The class book also contained general photographs of the planes, etc. and they took photographs of the cadets next to the T-33 jets they trained in. They had no problem having all the cadets show up for photo-day for formal portraits, but taking the flight-line photos was different. They some times had to send a photographer back multiple times and they made little profit from the flight-line photos compared to the formal portraits.
So they advertized for a local photographer to take the flight-line photos.
No one locally responded except us and we got the job. We took general photographs on the flight line and a picture of each cadet in the cockpit of a T-33 jet. We provided a copy to the company for the class book and had the right to sell any copies we could to the cadets. The same thing the company did for the formal portraits.
We did it very well. More about this later.
When you are the target of an investigation where the investigators have unlimited resources, the investigation may be fair, but if you are the target, you definitely feel they are out to get you — and they probably are. From their viewpoint, you are guilty until proven innocent.
We knew we were not breaking any regulations so we weren’t too worried.
But they didn’t know that and assumed that if we were making so much money something had to be wrong. They were going to find it and recommend the appropriate punishment.
Military installations are very careful that their personnel do not take jobs from the local economy. They require certain requirements be met including approval from your squadron commander, with all of this formally documented before you can accept a local job. We did all this. This was the first thing the investigators checked and then they called us in separately for further interviews on the matter.
The next thing was that we were charging excessive prices. We brought to the interviews documents of the prices charged for equivalent work by the local Laredo photo-processors, the base exchange, and the San Antonio Company. We showed that our prices were equal or less than the least of all these.
Next was to verify that we were not doing the work on government time. We were very careful on this one. If we were on the flight line during the day, it was always lunch time. We kept our NCO or officer informed when we left, estimated the time we would get back, where we were going, and what we would be doing. They questioned us about this in our separate interviews and they checked that this was all true with our officers and NCOs.
The final check was that we were not using government property. Hence the Air Police showing up and asking me to step away from my camera case while they took serial numbers of all the equipment, checked for government tags, etc. No problem, since all the equipment was mine and I had copies of the original receipts for when I made the purchases. It was hard for the investigators to believe that an A/3C had better photo equipment than the U.S. Government. The Air Police made three separate random checks to make sure I was not using as much as a piece of government lens tissue in taking the pictures.
This ended the investigation. We continued our work and even expanded it to another Air Base with no more interference.
Earlier I said we did what we did very well — very well indeed.
Before we got the job, the flight line pictures were taken standing next to the T-33 jet and the photos were made available only on single weight glossy paper.
We changed all that.
At about the time we got the job, one of the major news magazines had photographed one of the first Korean War Aces standing in the cockpit of his plane with one foot on the canopy rail and with his helmet on the canopy and gazing into the wild-blue-yonder. We copied the pose exactly, so every cadet saw himself as a fighter-pilot ace. To do so, we borrowed a high step ladder so that we could get even with and close to the cadet in the cockpit.
I took the photograph with a twin-lens Automatic Rolleiflex camera with a super-sharp lens and used a flash-bulb to fill in the shadows in the harsh noon-time light of a flight-line in Texas. You could see every thread in the the cadets flight suit and count the hairs in his eyebrows. I concentrated on getting a sharp focus through the magnifier while my partner watched the cadet in case he blinked, twitched, or did anything else to ruin the shot. If he did, we took another shot.
At the first shooting session, a cadet started to climb the ladder to take a picture and my partner started to chase him away. I pulled my partner aside and told him we wanted to encourage them to take their own photos. They were using narrow-range orthochromatic film, not using flash fill, and getting their film developed in the PX, which used a paper contrast higher than they should. The result was the the pictures they took in the harsh Texas noon-time sun looked terrible. If they compared their photos to ours, we should, and did, get more sales.
From that point on, we encouraged the cadets to use our step ladder and take their own pictures. This worked out well when we were investigated and we could say we encouraged the cadets to take their own pictures — without telling the investigators our ulterior motives.
The 5×7 prints were made on double weight warm textured paper with a fine pebble surface that held detail as well as glossy paper and was printed with a condenser enlarger that preserved all detail. The paper had the sensuous feel of soft skin if you caressed it and was developed in a warm-tone developer. It was a black-and-white photograph but seemed much more. We didn’t make proofs. The only photograph a cadet saw when he placed his order was the finished product.
We also took the pictures the first week the cadets transitioned from the propeller T-28 to the jet T-33. They were very excited about flying a jet for the first time. We also showed them the pictures in their barracks the evening of the next pay day, when they had the cash money in their pocket that had to last them the full month. We had a notebook of 8×10 glossy prints, with pictures of general flight-line scenes, like the one above, that we took orders for at $1.50 a copy. This did not add greatly to the bottom line, but every bit helped.
Combine the above with the fact that my Staff Sergeant partner was a super salesman, we did separate the cadets from more cash than was prudent on their part. They had to skimp to get through the month we sold them their photographs.
Do I feel bad about this? No. Good photographs about key events in your life are valuable way beyond their cost. I still look at some well-done photographs of my great grandfather in about 1875 and my wife’s father when he first came to the country in 1910. These photos are priceless as family keepsakes. The pictures I took in Laredo are nearly nearly 60 years old now. The several hundreds of cadets we took pictures of would be in their mid 80’s now and many may no longer be with us, but I’m sure their children and grandchildren consider the pictures as priceless family keepsakes. I feel good about creating quality keepsakes for them.
So what else should you know?
We hired the photo-technician to make our prints who worked for the local drugstore making their prints, but who had his own lab at home. He was an excellent technician. We paid him $1.00 for each double weight print and furnished the paper and chemicals. We paid him $0.25 for each 8×10 stock photo and provided the papers and chemicals. He made several times what his day job paid.
The San Antonio company provided all the flash bulbs (the highest material cost) and film, chemicals, and paper for all the photos we delivered to them.
Our taking the photos at Laredo AFB was so attractive to the San Antonio company that they asked us to take on a nearby air base, we did, each getting a three-day pass to do the work. They then offered us all the bases they had in the South West U.S.A. This was not an option for me, but my Staff Sergeant partner had a son with polio and applied for a hard-ship discharge which was granted. He did take the company up on the offer and did very well.
For my part, I was shipped to Korea. If I were paranoid, I might think that this was some Machiavellian method of punishment, but not so. My goal was to see as much of the world as I could while in the Air Force and I applied for a transfer the first week I arrived at each air base. My stated preference in my transfer request was Germany, but it seemed they needed me more in Korea.
Another story told over coffee and biscotti during our morning talks.