Bob King, a name you’ve seen under News Tribune photos for parts of the past five decades, will walk out of the newspaper’s downtown office today for the last time as a full-time photojournalist as he transitions into retirement.
But you haven’t seen the last of Bob King.
King, who started at the News Tribune in September 1979, plans on continuing his Astro Bob astronomy blog, both online at duluthnewstribune.com and in the newspaper’s Sunday Pursuits section.
He’s also already started writing his third book on astronomy that’s due to the publisher at the end of February. And he’s loaded up on new camera equipment to be ready for freelance photography jobs.
“I wouldn't want to live anywhere else,” King said of Duluth. “I love this place.”
King, 65, grew up in suburban Chicago and attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana where he majored in - you’d never guess - German.
“I was a German major with a teaching degree and I was on track to graduate and most likely become a German teacher in some high school in Illinois,” King said.
But something happened along the way, with Duluth and the Northland now the better for it, that led King into photography. He’s been the newspaper's chief photographer since 1990. He came up through the ranks when black-and-white film photography was all there was, and each photo had to go through a laborious process in the dark room, and then made ready for the printing press in yet another process.
By the 1990s, newspapers finally moved to color photographs and, by the late 1990s, to digital photography, and King never looked back, adapting to and adopting each wave of new technology.
Between assignments, on yet another busy day for King last week, the News Tribune sat down with Astro Bob to talk about his 39 years at the paper and what’s ahead. He shared stories about snowstorms and refinery fires and concerts, including the first concert ever by Bob Dylan in Dylan’s hometown.
News Tribune: When did you take your first photo? What’s the first photo you took that you have a recollection of?
King: My first photos were of my backyard, my brother, then just scenes in my neighborhood. Then I started taking pictures of the night sky. … I got my first camera when I was in eighth grade. It was a plastic one from Walgreens that took 127 film. There were two reasons I wanted a camera. One was I thought, wow, I have to get some pictures of my friends. But after that first one I also (purchased) a better camera that could take time (exposures) so I could take pictures of the night sky. I was already keen on night skies at that time. And I started hanging out with photo people back then, photographers, in eighth grade.
News Tribune: You majored in German in college, not photojournalism. When did you realize you wanted to make photography your profession?
King: A friend of mine at the time, Janet Walsh, who was a journalist, we used to hang out, and one day she said, ‘Hey, you’re a good photographer. You should apply at a newspaper.’ Even though I wasn't doing journalism-style photography, it was more art photography at that point, I applied at the (Champaign-Urbana) Courier, but they didn’t hire me. Then I made a call to the (Champaign-Urbana) News Gazette and ended up talking to the engraver (at the time, engraving was part of the process of displaying a photograph onto the printing press) and she was about to leave the paper so that was my first job at the newspaper, not photography but engraving. I learned the art of photojournalism from seeing what the photographers at the newspaper did there. I learned how to appreciate the great images they captured. I learned how to capture a moment in an image. So I started taking feature photos and turning them in to the paper, and they eventually ran a couple, then a couple more and then they hired me as a part-time photographer and finally they hired me as a full-time photographer. I was there three years (before moving to Duluth).
News Tribune: A lot of people can take great photos. But doing it under the deadline limitations of a daily newspaper is a different thing entirely. What was the hardest part about taking photos for a newspaper?
King: Obviously, you have to handle the deadlines. The hardest part, the creative challenge, is to come up with a wonderful, fresh image in 20 minutes, let’s say, or 10 minutes, or maybe an hour-and-a-half. But there’s no dallying. You have to just be there and become 100 percent alert. That's what I do. I turn on everything when I get to an assignment so I’m fully aware and alert for any possibility. I keep moving - here, there, low, high, whatever - because it’s easy for an amateur to get stuck in one position and think you have the best shot. But I never know until I’ve explored every option, every angle. That’s the challenge. If you can do that, if you can walk away thinking I got a good picture, then get it in on deadline, that whole process is stressful, but exhilarating when you get it done. Then to see it run in the paper, so quickly, the satisfaction of that, is something that only belongs to the photojournalist. The pleasure of doing your best in a very short time with whatever resources you have … whatever the lighting is or no matter how horrible the weather is … in the end, your photo should tell a story. A person should be able to look at your photos and understand what’s happening, to see it as a story.
News Tribune: Do you have one photo or one subject of a photo that stands out as a favorite?
King: It’s hard because new things keep happening that I love. But certainly the big (Halloween Blizzard) snow storm of 1991. I felt really good about capturing the next day’s scene when everybody was digging out, digging their cars out on Eighth Street, maybe Ninth Street. I enjoyed that. I love storms. I secretly enjoy them because I like the extreme circumstances, the possibility of great images. I also like that you can relate to people during storms. We’re all sharing the experience at the same time.
I also really liked the Husky refinery fire (in Superior in April) flying in a plane - twice - to get the best image. We thought we had it once in the morning. Then I looked out the window and saw (the plume of smoke from the second, larger explosion) and I thought, holy cow, I have to go back up in the plane.
I also loved covering the first Bob Dylan concert in Duluth, at the DECC, when they said no photographs were allowed, no cameras. Chuck (former News Tribune photographer Chuck Curtis) and I teamed up to make sure we got the image of Dylan at his first Duluth concert. We broke the cameras down and put them in our pockets and wore heavy coats and went in there. I got some initial pictures and gave Chuck my roll of film and he took them back to the newspaper. So I knew we had something. And then I continued to move into the crowd with my telephoto lens … moving closer to the stage, trying to get a better shot. At some point security spotted me and ushered me out of there. They gave me the choice of staying at the concert and watching it, without my equipment, or I could leave with my equipment. I said, ‘I’ll leave’ because I knew I had (the photograph) we needed. I don’t think we even got into any trouble for it. People knew it was an historic event.
Another story, back in 1988, was the Heckers, a back-to-nature Christian family that lived up in the woods. We went up to their place to spend a day there, but a massive snowstorm happened and we were snowed in. We (King and a reporter) lived with the family for four days … and as a result of that we got so many good pictures I won an award for the story. Eventually a guy named Nathan Hecker had a team of horses and he used the team of horses and busted down the snow drifts so we could get out. It was one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done.
News Tribune: The News Tribune was your second job in photojournalism? Why did you stay in Duluth for nearly all your professional career?
King: When I was in Illinois, I naturally wanted to go to a second paper. It was a springboard to another job. And Illinois, where I lived, is a very hot, humid, sweaty place. I knew I had this love of the north woods. Then I started reading Sigurd Olson books in the late 1970s. He really inspired in me an interest in Minnesota, in the Boundary Waters. At some point I decided it was time to move on and I naturally looked north, and I saw there was good work being done by the photographers at the Duluth paper at that time.
I didn’t get the first job, but I flew up and met the staff. Then several months later, when another job opening appeared, they hired me. So I came north in September of ’79. That first year, it was difficult. It was cold. And it was lonely. And after a year I wanted to go to Tucson, Ariz., and applied for a job there. I didn't get the job. But then I started making connections (in Duluth) and I got to know more people and got settled in. And I slowly fell in love with this place. I just really got connected to Duluth. And, my gosh, now I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. I love this place. I really love the people … and I like that there are dark skies nearby.
News Tribune: How did you get interested in astronomy? Do astronomy and photography naturally go together?
King: I wish I could remember some particular moment or incident, but I don't. I do remember that, in the early 1960s, there was a total eclipse, I think 1963, that sparked my interest. I had a great interest in clouds, identifying and looking at different clouds. And the space program was heating up back then, and I was fascinated by that. I wanted to be an astronaut. So several threads came together.
I was 11 when I got my first scope. I got a better one when I was 12, a little Japanese refractor. Then I used my newspaper route money … and I purchased a nice telescope when I was 12, almost 13. The whole thing cost like $150. I bought the mount first and set it in the basement and I just looked at it until I had enough money to buy the tube, the guts, the main part. I still have that scope, a 6-inch reflecting telescope.
News Tribune: What are your plans for retirement?
King: I’d been thinking about retirement for about a year. But writing a third book sort of sealed it. The publishers bit on one of my ideas and gave me a deadline of Feb. 28. My other two books I wrote while I was working at the paper. I used a lot of vacation time, but most of the time I was writing the book and working at the paper (at the same time) and it was really stressful. It was too much for me. I’m also looking forward to a nice family gathering later this month with (Bob’s wife) Linda and my two daughters and my brother and his wife. That will be wonderful. To just have that time available together. But I’ll still be writing and freelancing and doing the blog.”Retirement party at Hoops tonight