I met Bob Preston shortly after I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in June of 1948, fresh out of the University of Minnesota. I was 20, a former class clown more interested in jokes than practical matters. Bob was just three years older, but he had spent 21/2 years as an Army combat photographer in World War II.
Bob was serious and self-confident about his work, and even though we were competitors for the first two years, he became my close friend and mentor. More than anyone, he was the guy who taught me how to be a reporter and photographer.
Bob was born and raised in St. Petersburg. No one knew the town better than he. He took up photography at St. Petersburg High School, using his mother's camera to snap photos for the school paper and yearbook. After graduation in 1943, he joined the Army as a combat photographer.
In the Pacific theater he shot both newsreel and still pictures. He was there when we recaptured the Philippines from the Japanese, and he photographed Gen. Douglas MacArthur's storied wade ashore. Later, in Japan, he photographed the smoking ruins of Nagasaki. He was awarded a chest full of ribbons and a Bronze Star for heroism.
When the war ended, Bob returned home and became a photographer for the Evening Independent. Three years later, he moved to the Times, where over the next eight years he was a reporter-photographer, columnist, photo editor and magazine writer.
Had there been computers back then, Bob would have qualified as a major geek. As it was, he was a super "techie" because he owned a vast array of photo equipment and already was experimenting with 35-millimeter cameras, high-speed film and even Polaroid film packs to improve the efficiency of the standard Speed Graphic news cameras of the day.
Shooting film with a Speed Graphic was cumbersome. The 4-by-5-inch camera was heavy and the weight of its flash gun made it still heavier. Two pieces of cut film (mostly black and white) were stored in each of the camera's film holders. A photographer had to follow this drill: Focus, pull out a protective slide covering the film, shoot the image, replace the slide, reverse the holder and then repeat the process for a second exposure.
That limited the camera to two pictures in sequence. Each shot required a fresh flashbulb, so a major photo assignment meant a lot of fast grabbing for extra film holders and new bulbs. Woe betide the careless photographer who forgot to replace the slide after tripping the shutter. Photo composition was on the fly, so it was mostly point and shoot and hope for the best.
Every photographer had to lug a heavy bag filled with multiple film holders and scores of flashbulbs, slung over the opposite shoulder from the camera hand. Bob was slender, but that bulky camera bag never slowed him down.
Fearless in pursuit of a picture, he also mastered the use of a Speed Graphic as a defensive weapon. In February 1949 Bob used the camera to ward off a blow from the alleged owner of an illegal gambling casino during a police raid. He got the photo.
When I came to St. Petersburg I was assigned to the police beat. I had no automobile and roomed at the YMCA around the corner from the Times on Fifth Street S. Bob lived within walking distance, so I often went there to pick up photo tips. The only cameras I had ever used were simple box cameras or folding Kodaks.
Within a few weeks, Bob taught me the rudiments of news photography. I sort of became his mirror image, a reporter/photographer rather than the photographer/reporter he was. Most photographers shot their pictures and rushed off to the next assignment, but Bob was a photographer who always got all the facts of the story as well as the images. His unstated credo was: Get there first, get the facts and get it in the paper.
To make sure that happened, he got the Police Department's permission to outfit his car with a police radio, siren and red flashing light. Bob also served in the city police reserve. The pictures he shot for the paper were shared with the police - who didn't have their own photographers then - and the prints were often used as evidence in civil and criminal trials.
The breaking news in small-town St. Petersburg usually came from the police station. Television hadn't arrived and radio didn't do much daily local news, so newspapers were the primary medium. We print reporters stayed on top of the police blotter and police radio logs.
I usually worked nights and Bob, days. But we both hung around the station at all hours. We also took turns riding in police patrol cars, mostly during our off-duty hours. The patrol cars were usually driven by just one officer, so we became quasi policemen, providing eyes and ears. Just in case, we also got deputy sheriff commissions but didn't carry guns or make arrests.
When Bob joined the Times in 1949, we often rode together in his car, which was as well equipped as the half-dozen patrol cars on the street. During those rides, he was the photographer and I reverted to a notebook and pencil.
Used cars were hard to find back then, but in 1949 I finally bought one and rigged it to match Bob's. I returned to using a camera. Like Bob, I began to get my share of auto accident and crime scene pictures, but on occasion the city desk sent me to shoot such things as water spouts dancing along the shoreline or gators emerging from Lake Maggiore to threaten the pet ducks of neighboring children.
I never came close to Bob Preston's mastery of the camera. Nor did I ever win prizes or make the pages of Life and Look magazines with my pictures. But I reveled in the work ethic he had taught me.
Jerry Blizin, a Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, lives in Tarpon Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Times researchers Natalie Watson and Christopher Sturgeon contributed to this report, which includes information from "St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream: 1888-1950" by Raymond Arsenault and "Mangroves to Major Leagues: A Timeline of St. Petersburg, Florida (Prehistory to 2000 A.D.)" by Rick Baker.
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If you go
An exhibit of Bob Preston photos at the Studio@620, at 620 First Ave. S in St. Petersburg, begins with a reception from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and is open through July 24, Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. The exhibit also features three dozen photos by Preston's daughter, Patricia Preston Warren.
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Then off to the museum
The Preston photos will be on display at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. NE, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, with a reception with Patricia Preston Warren from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 20. The museum's hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $9, $7 for seniors, and $5 for students with ID and children under 17.