Herbert Keppler passed away last week. Sad news for all of the photography world and sadder still for those of us who knew him and worked with him. Burt (never Herb) was the editor and publisher of Modern Photography Magazine and went to Popular Photography when Modern folded.
I worked for Modern Photography as a freelance contributor, starting with a few photo submissions around 1958 and progressing to a regular contributor up until 1963, when I was drafted into the army. By then I was doing feature articles and had a regular column on 35mm photography. In 1965, after being discharged from the army, I continued working for Modern Photography.
Although I worked with several editors at Modern, Burt was the man in charge, the mediator and the one with the final say. It was Burt's vision that shaped the magazine into an influential voice in the world of photography. As a person, I don't think that I ever saw Burt unhappy, angry, or with a bad word about someone else. With me, he had infinite patience and a willingness to let me try new and interesting projects.Photokina 1966
There was a time when Photokina was the most important show in introducing new ideas and equipment in the world of photography. It was held every two years at the exhibition center in Cologne, Germany. In those pre-Internet days, the photography magazines were the main source of information about all the new stuff from Photokina. In 1966, Burt asked me if I'd like to be part of Modern Photography's team of correspondents at that year's Photokina. I jumped at the opportunity, securing a passport with only a few days to spare.
Every day, we would take the ferry across the Rhine from Cologne to the Photokina site. We wandered through the exhibits looking for new and interesting developments. We took pictures, made notes, and ended up foot weary at the end of the day. After dinner, we would meet in one of the hotel rooms, go over our pictures, just returned from a local processor, discuss which products to write about, and then sit in front of some rented typewriters and pound out the copy that would accompany the chosen pictures. This package was airmailed back to New York so that it could be incorporated into the magazine's special Photokina issue.
During off hours, we hung out with other members of the trade. I believe it was Simon Nathan who talked us into going to a Chinese restaurant in Cologne and Bob Schwalberg who took us all to a more traditional hofbrau.
After Photokina finished, a bunch of us went off for a week in London. Burt, who knew the town, got me some maps, gave me some good advice about what was worth seeing, and arranged for a room in the same hotel where he was staying. I think that the highlight of the trip was the night that Burt, who was a member, took us all to the Players Club as his guests.The Fernando Poo machine
During the 1960's, Burt wanted to make the testing of cameras more objective, using technology that was then available. I still have my portable Swiss microscope that we used to examine negatives that we shot of Air Force lens resolution targets.
One day, Burt came to me with an interesting problem. When testing portable strobes, one of the numbers they had to generate was how many flashes the strobe would give from a fresh set of batteries. At the time, this was a mind-numbing exercise, where someone would sit with a stopwatch and a counter and fire the flash at a regular interval, counting the flashes until the battery died. With some flashes, this would take well over an hour, during which, you couldn't do much else but stare at the stopwatch and wait for the ordeal to be over.
Burt said I could have an unlimited budget to solve this problem and I ended up spending about twenty dollars at a surplus electronics store on west 46th street. The resulting gadget was a crude, hand-wired assemblage, built on a wooden board. There was an electrical timer where you could set how often the flash would be fired, and a photocell to check if it actually did. The result ended up on an electrical counter. Crude, but it worked just great. Attach a strobe unit to the machine, set the time between flashes, and go out to lunch. When you came back, the result was waiting for you.
This was Modern's first piece of high-tech test equipment and Burt was quite happy with the result. He asked me what the machine would be called. Thinking back to a world atlas that I'd been studying, I said that it would be named the Fernando Poo machine, after an island of the coast of Africa. And that's the title it had when it appeared in an article in Modern Photography.The first automatic strobe
About this time, Honeywell introduced the Auto Strobonar, the first automatic electronic flash. While such units are common now, forty years ago this was a real eye-opener and everyone wanted to get their hands on one.
Honeywell sent a pre-production sample to Modern Photography for evaluation. We tested it and, by golly, it really worked, but how it did it's magic was a mystery and Honeywell wasn't talking.
Burt and I discussed this and we came to the same conclusion. Someone would have to open it up and take a look inside, which might yield a clue to its secrets. Since I had done this sort of thing before, I was given the task.
On opening the Auto Strobonar, what I found was a second, smaller flash tube. After the main flash tube had produced enough light for the proper exposure, the second ("quench") tube was fired and, since it had a lower resistance, it drew away the rest of the remaining charge stored in the strobe's capacitor. I took a few pictures of this interior setup and put the flash back together.
This ran as a big exclusive for Modern Photography, scooping the rest of the photo magazines. Honeywell wasn't too thrilled that we had done this, but Burt sure was. It was just another example of his willingness to take risks to learn new things and of his willingness to trust in the abilities of others such as myself.
It's hard to think of another person who has had such a singular influence on the photographic industry. For over fifty years, Herbert Keppler's vision, skill, and honesty shaped the industry and the magazines that reported it.