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
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.