[Masthead] Mostly Cloudy ~ 63°F  
High: 64°F ~ Low: 44°F
Sunday, May 1, 2016

Photographer finds inspiration since 1930s

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bill Westbrook sorts through several recently framed photos Monday, June 27.
(Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)
Cameras have been his hobby for more than seven decades. Once inside Bill Westbrook's home, one of the first things I notice is the collection of box cameras that line a shelf.

Then, a compelling image of a bald eagle, with talons stretched across an icy pond, catches my attention. Its feathers are distinguishable -- the ice: candy blue. Westbrook went through calculable measures to get that shot.

"I've crawled all over that place," he laughs.

The true test of nature photography is guided by one force ... patience. Early in the year, Westbrook circled Grand Pass Conservation Area in hopes of finding the once-endangered eagle.

"We almost lost them," he said, studying the photo.

Westbrook entered the image in a photography contest at the 2010 Missouri State Fair. For him, though, the challenge of capturing the shot was more significant.

He says, "I sometimes think 'Why do I do this to myself?'"

Westbrook recounts nearly losing hope in finding an eagle that day. He had driven through every passable winter road, hiked through bottomlands and crawled through snow. Before turning back onto paved highway, he noticed a couple of brown buzzards. Westbrook's curiosity got the better of him.

"As I got closer I realized they weren't buzzards ... All hell breaks loose 30 yards away and about a dozen (eagles) flew up from the ditch."

The photographer wasn't always interested in nature photography alone. Though now he seems to enjoy it more than any other subject. He began taking pictures as a child, even mowing lawns to pay for film development.

His first camera was a cardboard projector he found at Santa Claus Land in Kansas City. It was the 1930s. An operator would crank the loop of film, which played motion pictures such as "Popeye" and "The Three Stooges."

Even as a child, Westbrook says, his father recognized his interest in the craft. The two took pictures together when he was eight years old. Later, his father agreed to re-gutter professional photographer Culiver Green's house in exchange for photography lessons.

"He brought over equipment and chemicals" for Westbrook's new dark room. "I was off and running after that," he says.

Westbrook previously walked boxes of film to Red Cross Pharmacy for processing. The new dark room would save him money while developing his skills along with the film. This would later lead him to become a crime scene photographer for The Marshall Democrat-News.

After printing a black and white image onto construction paper, Bill Westbrook uses oil pencils to add bursts of color and to create a new effect.
(Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)
It was roughly 1949 when he was called to cover a murder-suicide for the paper.

"It was a double murder. I walked into the crime scene" and found a woman in a front-room bed, a man with a pipe in his mouth in a pool of blood, and a man in the alley, Westbrook says. "I had blood on my shoes when I got home. My mother about had a fit."

The photographer hadn't realized how close he was to the scene -- that realization made him better understand how involved he was in the craft. Westbrook would go on to shoot other crime scenes and autopsies.

Afterward, he developed his own reels.

He loved the smell of the darkroom, Westbrook says.

"I loved to sit and listen to the tatty-tat-tat-tatty-tat" of machinery in the newsroom.

He leans back in his chair and taps his finger against an imaginary keyboard. Westbrook's personal photography room is marked by a whitewashed wooden sign that reads "Bill's Hide-Away." A Red Skelton poster decorates the door. Family pictures fill the wall space.

The eighty-something photographer says he was apprehensive when digital photography became available. Now, he believes it was the best thing to happen to the craft. Digital is all he's shot for the past four years.

Because of technological advances, Westbrook has captured approximately 8,000 images in the past three years. At one point he traded crime scenes for weddings, working up to three in a given weekend.

The pursuit of a career in visual arts, though, didn't appeal to Westbrook. He was a full-time teacher in Slater and also worked at Butterfield Youth Services.

"I kept photography as a hobby," he says. "I like entering contests."

Several images have won blue ribbons from Mid-Missouri Photo Club, of which he's a member. He also enters various other contests, such as one for Quiver River State Park previously held by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

When he and his wife, Leanna, aren't traveling, he spends much of his time taking pictures of birds that visit their garden. Westbrook's photo club provides monthly themes and various contests.

One of his more recent shots is called "Old Church." It features an empty sanctuary with simple architectural lines. A piano sits near the wall with a bullet hole through its rim.

It's a striking photo -- one with a different style than the portraits of cardinals and bluebirds. It's also one that Westbrook seems to enjoy just as much, even though he wasn't crawling through the fields watching a gang of bald eagles pull down a goose. His next goal is to shoot water.

"I'm not pleased with what I've got yet ... I'm going to have to live to be 150."

Contact Sarah Reed at