ST. PETERSBURG — John Rogers, 13 and industrious, bused tables in cafeterias.
He was born into a family of 12 children and little privilege. He worked hard to scrimp pennies, his sights set on one thing — a camera.
The old Brownie box taunted him from the window of a Waynesboro, Ga., camera shop.
Since boyhood, his mind had operated in photographs. He was transfixed by pictures on television. He wanted to scrounge, capture, tell stories of his own.
At 15, he bought the camera in the window. He moved to Florida soon after.
Photography became his engine, pushing and changing him, until the day it stopped.
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John Rogers, who went on to become an accomplished photographer and Baptist minister in St. Petersburg, died July 16 after battling heart problems. He was 67.
His photos, a mix of casual snapshots and prize-winning art, are split among his daughters and family. They'll gather them for his funeral.
As a young man, he studied photography at what is now Pinellas Technical Education Center. He paid the bills as a short order cook, a dishwasher, a truck driver.
At night, he'd drive around St. Petersburg, looking for things to photograph. In 1960, he spied a little blond boy standing in the midst of a fruit stand on 20th Street.
As the Rev. Rogers snapped, the boy peered back with searching skepticism.
"It was a very important picture," said his wife, Mamie Rogers. "It defined his life."
The photo took top honors in a St. Petersburg Evening Independent contest, and got him noticed. The Rev. Rogers started freelancing for the paper's Negro pages.
He shot debutante balls, fashion shows and weddings. He took his family to nature parks and beaches, but they never got all the way through — their dad stopped every few feet to take photos.
To save money, he developed film in his kitchen. His wife made dinner early, and his kids watched television in the dark.
He yearned for more grit and reality. Through the Civil Rights movement, questions plagued his mind.
"I kept wondering, after the Great Society programs, the new thrust in voter registration and the election of black officials, were blacks really in better shape?" he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1977. "I kept reading in newspapers and magazines that blacks had it made in 1976. That we were doing fine. I knew that couldn't be true from what I was seeing."
With his family's blessing, he left to find out. For months, he bounced from state to state. Alabama. Mississippi. Georgia. Louisiana. Tennessee. North Carolina. South Carolina.
He slept in his car. He traveled to the backwoods and hills, introducing himself to strangers.
He met a man who grew vegetables for an entire town. He met proud folks who refused to let him photograph their shacks — so many journalists had come through before, promising them change and not delivering.
"He saw the highest level of black life and black culture, and he also saw the lowest," said Mrs. Rogers, 66. "He saw houses that he could stand in the yard and see through to the back."
He began to realize that the successful people he met were college-educated.
His daughters were coming of college age.
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Back in St. Petersburg, the Rev. Rogers found a well-paying job with the railroad.
He put down the camera to put his daughters through school.
In 1990, he decided to become a Baptist minister. He studied every Saturday until he became qualified to preach at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He last preached this year on Easter.
He retired from the railroad in 2006. He was 65 and had worked long enough.
He read books on religion and history, enjoyed his grandchildren, traveled with his wife. He photographed only the occasional wedding or family function.
Eventually, he sold $4,000 worth of camera equipment to a neighborhood girl with an interest in photography. He charged her just $50 for almost everything.
One camera, he quietly kept for himself.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.