Old photographers of official Washington don't just fade away. Some meet every Saturday at the Hotel Harrington on 11th and E streets NW to tell old war stories, talk shop and trade trivia.
Their tradition goes back 30 years, when a few government photographers started meeting to muse about f-stops and film speeds, bombardier cameras and flash techniques, upcoming photo exhibits and equipment shows.
Near cereal-munching tourists today, the old camera lovers still push together three tables in the hotel's Kitcheteria about 8:30 a.m. every Saturday and begin noshing on bagels and kibitzing about cameras.
The official membership numbers about 40 and runs the gamut from White House and U.S. Army photographers from the 1940s and '50s and news photographers from World War II to longtime aerial photographers and corporate, feature, freelance and even amateur photographers. Most are retired. And no more than 10 usually turn out on any given Saturday.
They are a photographic brain trust with a variety of views. This group started networking before the term was invented, formed a support group before it was trendy. Some have become close friends, traveling together to camera shows and to Europe. And all have a million stories to tell.
Take longtime camera repairman Henry Jenkins, 73. He likes to recount how Mamie Eisenhower once asked photographers to turn off "those big lights" to save electricity. The group chuckles knowingly.
And he still remembers the days when the only way to take flash shots was with flash powder, when you could tell an old photographer by the fingers he was missing from a bad powder accident. And he loves to tell the story of the spittoon full of dud powder that blew up as Charles G. Dawes, vice president under Coolidge, threw away his cigar after a photo session.
The group started meeting at the Hotel Harrington when the Washington Star was just down the street on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then the group moved to the old Old Ebbitt Grill, then to the now-defunct Capital Camera shop, then back to the unassuming Harrington in 1982.
Members generally join because they know somebody who is there -- or they just start coming. "Drop-ins accepted," William Miller said. "But no stupid questions about photography. Okay?"
Regulars such as Miller, a Navy photographer who has also worked in aerospace and public relations, figure it's the ultimate in Washington camaraderie, a chance to reminisce for the pros who have filmed this capital city's passing show.
"At times, it seems, everybody's talking and nobody's listening. They're the friendliest and most opinionated individuals I've ever met -- all with valid viewpoints," Miller said.
Names on the official phone list include James Johnson, who teaches photography at the Department of Agriculture; retired Pentagon technician Mortimer Friedman; commercial photographer Ed Segal; retired filmmaker Ted Jones; and magazine photographer Tom Wolff.
The oldest is Peter Costas, 82, whose work was exhibited in a one-man show in Moscow last year. Not too shabby for a onetime taxicab driver-turned-camera salesman-turned-photographer.
"I love photography. It's my life," said Costas, his friendly face framed by thick black glasses. "You know, it makes me feel so good to be taking pictures that I forget to eat. And if I know I've got a great picture, I can't sleep at night waiting for the developing and the printing."
In the early '60s, Costas made his mark with his leading-edge fisheye images of the Capitol dome, Supreme Court, Arlington Cemetery Amphitheatre and Guggenheim Museum. President Kennedy loved Costas's wildly wide shot of the Oval Office. The Washington Star, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek all ran his work.
Over the years, he and breakfast club member Jenkins have collaborated on many one-of-a-kind cameras. Costas gets the idea and the lens; Jenkins crafts a new camera out of old pieces.
The two men's skills highlight the diversity of the group, which "just sort of got together," said Jenkins, who started with the Associated Press in 1935 as a motorcycle courier and stayed there 43 years.
Former White House lensman Paul Begley, 75, is a regular too, usually sporting a bola tie along with his long white hair. He takes the bus and subway from Maryland every Saturday just to get to the breakfasts; he even used to tape the sessions. Begley was a presidential photographer from 1949 to 1959, the Truman and Eisenhower years. But he has no favorite shots. "I was so busy I never made extras for myself. And I couldn't care less now."
Of course, almost everyone has a new camera to examine, and most of the regulars have turned collectors. In that realm, retired Army photographer Bill Arps must be king: He's got at least 24 Leicas along with many Leica imitators and a slew of Rolleiflexes, Canons, Kodaks, Agfas, Exactas and Nikons.
"My oldest is a 1885 Scottish view camera," he said. His favorite: an OSS matchbox spy camera. And one room in his house holds a shelf unit filled with every model of Instamatic ever made.
"It's not a group at all," huffs Eugene Haas, 61, a longtime Army photographer with his own share of adventures to tell about getting the first picture. An Army Signal Corps combat photographer, he and a friend were the first Americans to enter Tokyo at the end of World War II.
"We left the air base near Yokohama, where everyone else was staying before the big day of the official surrender, and we just drove to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo," he told the gang one Saturday. There he slapped his .45-caliber weapon at the hotel's front desk and demanded a room from the wide-eyed manager, he said. "The next day," Haas said, smiling, "the press came," and the story was theirs.
"We're a tough group to keep track of sometimes," said Sidney Brashears, one of the youngest members, who maintains the group's phone list. He works as a physicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
One member or another usually is planning a show, and last February it was Howard Kolodny, a lawyer and amateur photographer.
Titled "The Deli Porfolio," his 12 black-and-white prints exhibited in Bethesda celebrated the food and atmosphere at such eateries as the Parkway Deli in Silver Spring, Attman's in Baltimore and Wolf's in Manhattan, "places I've visited recently, enjoyed and, in some cases, had heartburn from," he joked in a forward to the show.
Well, there's no heartburn on Saturday mornings. These guys come and go as they please. Some come early, some stop in once a month or so. And after that last cup of coffee around 10 a.m., they all pass around a juice glass filled with quarters and dollar bills for their waitress's trouble.
"Some people play the horses or run around with women," said Costas. "We all love photography."