Remembering Ed Leos

I try to imagine how many of the late Ed Leos’ students remember when they lift a camera’s viewfinder to their eye to snap a photo what he taught them so many decades ago. Ed belonged to the be-ready-at-all-times school of photojournalism and one of the second things he taught his students in his beginning journalism class was to carry their camera hanging by the strap from their left shoulder so if something worth photographing happened, the student could quickly swing his camera to his eye and take a photograph.

Of course, the first thing he taught his students was: Always have your camera with you.

Ed was my colleague in the School of Journalism at Penn State, and when his retirement was fast approaching in the spring of 1978, he allowed me to audit his beginning photojournalism class. It was more than a course in photojournalism.

Ed died in November at the age of 92. Born during World War I, he was a teenager during the Depression and served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre and stateside in World War II.

I still have the mimeographed handouts Ed gave us. They are the first thing I see when I open my initial three-ring binder of black and white negatives, a binder that grew to six in number before I stopped processing my own film and used a commercial developer. Two of the handout titles: “Control Of Temperature In Film Processing” and “On Submitting Assignments.” It wasn’t enough to turn in an assignment by deadline. “No deadline is met,” one handout says, “unless every print and contact sheet is fully identified.” Full identification meant name, address, location of photographs or name of subject, date, negative number.

Students would rush into class from the darkroom with wet prints just so they could make deadline. Then they would sit at tables while Ed stood at the front of the room and talked about photography. He didn’t talk about how to cover a three-alarm fire or a three-car accident. He talked about art.

One of his favorite examples was the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. He would show us her paintings and comparable photographs. He wanted us to see that we could take a photo that might resemble an O’Keeffe painting. But even while he was pushing us to aim high, he was still providing practical lessons, some that went beyond photography.

For example, while many photographers would make 8x10-inch test prints to see where adjustments were necessary, Ed made us cut the paper into narrow strips and we got several strips out of one piece of paper. Think of the paper we saved. (In those days, paper and film were given to students and the cameras were loaners.) We rolled our own film rather than buying film from a camera store. We recycled as much as we could.

I recall a story one of Ed’s contemporaries used to tell about him. In those days, the university was not allowed to roll over any money it had received from the state and so late in the year we would get a memo from the dean telling us that he had leftover money and if anyone needed supplies, put in a request. Well, a photojournalism course is more apt than, say, a history course to need supplies—new cameras, a paper cutter, trays, what have you.

But what my other colleague pointed out was that no sooner did the dean’s memo reach our mailboxes than Ed’s list was on the way to the dean’s office. Ed was ready. He carried his camera on his left shoulder and his supply list in his coat pocket.

Another thing I learned from Ed was how to see. Most people will take photographs one way and not consider changing the position of their camera from horizontal to vertical. He urged us to turn the camera and get a different view.

That wasn’t all. I recall bumping into him one day on the main walkway at Penn State. He was holding his camera in one hand with his arm extended to the sidewalk and more or less pointing the camera at passers-by. He was taking candid photographs just for fun. Since this was the pre-digital era, he couldn’t quickly check to see what he was getting but had to return to his home and develop the film. To my knowledge, he never exhibited any prints from that experiment. He just wanted to experiment, to get a different view.

Some of us on the faculty got together with Ed a couple of times after he retired. One time he exhibited in the student union building at Penn State and I have photos of the event. There’s Ed wearing his bolo. Later, we had lunch and I remember Ed telling us that he no longer took photographs. His eyesight was fading. It has to be the worst thing that can happen to a photographer.

He had seen a lot in his day and accepted the dying of the light. He was frugal, practical, aesthetical and philosophical. He made for a great photojournalism instructor and colleague. I still practice what he preached.


  1. Berner is right --- can't take a photo without remembering a tip from Ed Leos. He certainly was one of a kind, and kind-hearted as well. One of the many lessons he taught as an underlying message in his critiques and recommendations was to bear in mind compassion for the subject of the photo. It was about degrees of light, composition and all those photography details, but in the end, his photos of people showed an uncanny conveyance of human nature. It wasn't quantifiable, just pure quality.

  2. Ed Leos was all that, and more -- he had an acute understanding of the camera's role in capturing both History (noteworthy events, recorded for posterity) and history (contemporary life, elusive and ephemeral). My final project for photojourn was a look at the Cathaum Theater, which was in its last days. Leos took an avid interest; thanks to his help -- and no thanks to my negligible photographic talents -- my photos are in the Pattee archives. More than 30 years later, that still pleases me.

  3. I took Ed's class as an adult in the 70s and Bud and I became friends with Ed and Rae. They stayed with us in England and I met with him weekly after he retired. The guy was a philosopher, an artist, a realist and a master in the study of light. I saw him angry with a student once, telling her to go out and get her own wisdom and stop borrowing his. Good advice to go along with great teaching. Ed taught me to see, to keep reshooting the same scene until the light was right, that not everything is better enlarged, and the poetry of cropping. A memorable man and teacher. I treasure the time spent with him and the photos he gave me.

  4. Happy to find this blog about my Dad. Even when he was so tragically confused from the symptoms of dementia, Dad was consistently loving and always the teacher. Mom and Dad have left many photos to Pattee and to the Pa. Archives in Harrisburg, but hundreds are with myself and my brother, Adam. He was the sweetest father I person could ever have.

    1. Johanna,
      Thru persistence I have finally found a way to contact you.
      I spent this morning reading over 'Other Summers' as I have
      finally settled in a place where I can display three photos from that exhibit which, I guess, we bought from your Dad. I also have about 6 other of his photos on our wall. And, soon, I hope,
      I will get to the video I took of him back in '82, I guess.
      Anyway, would you send me your email as I lost it from our last connection right after your Dad passed. I'm sorry about that

      I would enjoy hearing from you and where you are.
      Thank much.
      Len Siebert

  5. When i was a journalism student in the 70s, Ed Leos was my most inspiring teacher. I was an average kid from a small town. He was the first person to tell me I was worth something. He complimented my work and encouraged me. When summer came and before he departed for Europe, he gave me darkroom privileges, instructed me that he wanted me in there while he was gone. Never before had anyone thought I warranted special attention. During four years in that big pool of humanity they call PSU, he was the only person who demonstrated that I was unique and valuable. Although I cannot say I knew him well, I did know him, and I have carried the confidence he instilled in me throughout my life. I will never forget him. Thank you, Ed.