My father’s dream was not to become a PPA Master Photographer. Augusts Upitis’ fantasy was to be an actor and his life turned out to have as much drama as if it had been written for the theater.
Although his two brothers were photographers, he became a nurseryman and landowner growing produce and flowers to market in Riga, the capital city of Latvia.
One brother had provided extra photo tips saying photography was a neat little craft and told him “should you ever find yourself on distant shores and need a new vocation, it could be useful” and that always stuck in his mind. “Unimaginable,” thought my dad as he documented his growing farm and family while clearly enjoying photography as a hobby.
World War II sent the family fleeing to Germany, where I was born. Arriving with little more than they could carry, my dad scrambled to survive, trying to save money for an uncertain future. To avoid the humiliation of living in a refugee camp, he rented an apartment, an illegal act that he did for my mother. He also acquired a truck used in a delivery business to transport goods and eventually a used Mercedes to take the family to see the Alps as well as the North Sea.
Somewhere in his dealings he bought a Leica IIIc with three lenses. It was this camera that recorded family and friends in the refugee camp and also the nine day freighter trip from Germany to New York in June of 1950. He proudly viewed New York Harbor and on one roll of film shot the arrival in the port, the train ride to Hudson, NY and the greeting by the church and gracious Ben Ackley family that had sponsored our immigration.
In the tie he wore coming into the harbor he had concealed $400, all the savings from six years of dealings in Germany. Upon arrival at the host church, the minister lectured my dad on the cost of sponsorship and suggested that any money he had could be well used by the church. The minister also pointed out that money did not grow on trees here, although America was the land of opportunity. My dad ignored the first point and fully embraced the second.
In return for sponsorship to America he was required to work on a farm for one year, earning a small wage and with housing provided. But my dad had always been the employer, not the employee and he found manual labor both difficult and demeaning. When he heard that a photo studio in the nearby town of Pine Plains needed help, he jumped at the chance. My mother, Alvine, helped with hand coloring photos as the pumpkin shot shows. A few years later, a larger store and lab offered him a job where he would teach himself color photo finishing. He went on to open his own color studio from which he completed the PPA Master Photographer Certification.
Through it all the Leica recorded small town parades, family gatherings, trips to scenic spots in the Northeast and a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.
As an aspiring freelancer, my dad was dismayed to learn that the 35mm format was not considered professional so he set aside the Leica for medium and large format cameras. But it still fulfilled its role of recording family functions and somewhere I picked it up shooting snapshots of childhood friends and documenting high school football games. With this camera I won national Ansco and Kodak photo contests, which were instrumental in getting a scholarship to the Rochester Institute of Technology and establishing my own career in photography.
The camera sat unused for many years at the color studio and on one family visit my dad thought I should take it. Honored but unused, I discovered it had a sticky shutter. When the Leica tech explained it would cost more to fix than the camera was worth, I still knew it had to be repaired.
My dad had another camera from Germany, a Diax that worked erratically and I questioned why he bought it. He explained that he had wanted to get another Leica but regretfully couldn’t afford it. Once he chastised me for shooting extra frames on essential scenes. He said that wasn’t necessary with the Leica.
On a college summer trip to Europe I bought, on an unplanned impulse, an M2 with 35mm Summicron. On return my dad thought it an extravagance, but I saw him examining it carefully several times before approvingly saying, “what a camera.”
As a location photographer, every upcoming trip starts with decisions on which cameras or systems to pack. Those choices are far more involved than what clothes to take or where to stay. When my father lay dying, the decision to take the IIIc camera was instant. I still use it now in a diptych series of hand colored photos. The sample shown is special to me as it is a little beach in Hawaii where I last sat with him.
I’m slowly scanning and archiving my dad’s negatives, tightly rolled for up to sixty years — many have never been printed. The New York Harbor arrival shots gained extra poignancy when my son mentioned that he wanted to take me golfing on a new course overlooking the New York Harbor with skyline views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. There was no question that the camera to document this had to be the same one that recorded our family’s arrival 60 years ago.
Alvis earned a BS degree in Photo Science from the Rochester Institute of Technology followed by a MFA from Utah State University. He went on to teach at Minneapolis College of Art and Design before freelancing full-time. He has shot worldwide for Fortune 500 companies and major ad agencies. Magazine work has included Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Fortune, Forbes and Car & Driver. Getty Images represents his stock and assignment work. He photographed seven children’s books for Boyds Mills Press. Now based in Hawaii, he continues stock and commercial photography with recent emphasis on architectural work for high-end luxury home agents, developers and architects. He also conducts workshops and does private tutoring. You can see more of Alvis’ work on his website http://www.alvisupitis.com/.