Mike Rimmer was a long-time newspaper photographer in Kamloops, BC. He is now retired and lives in Macedonia.
Where/when did you first become interested in photography?
Well as a youngster I remember playing with an old Kodak Box Brownie camera my mother had, doing the usual silly things such as perspective tricks. The old someone appearing to hold a tiny person in their hand sort of thing.
Later in high school I remember taking my Dad’s old Keystone 16mm camera to film our football team. I was going to St. Paul’s in Winnipeg and the St. Paul’s Crusaders were a powerhouse in high school football at the time.
Although 16 mm film was very expensive, my Dad had thousands of feet of 16 mm film which he had “rescued” in Churchill, Manitoba. The Americans in the fifties were doing their Black Brant rocket tests in Churchill and when film was close to its expiration date they just dumped it. For years, we had that film stored in a big freezer and all of it was perfectly fine.
But at the time, I did not really have an interest in photography as a story telling profession. I had always been an avid reader of anything I could get my hands on, from cereal boxes, novels, the Readers Digest, newspapers and of course back then the big three magazines: Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post.
Looking back I now realize my exposure to those magazines introduced me to the power of the still image as a story telling medium.
Graduating high school I went to the University of Manitoba taking a science heavy first year, with the ultimate aim of becoming I marine biologist. I was really into skin and scuba diving at the time and found the underwater world a fascinating place.
I, however, decided to drop out of my first year to “take a year off” and looking for something to do was hired onto the Winnipeg Tribune as a copyboy. (I suppose the politically correct term these days would be copy runner if such a position even still exists!). While working at the Tribune I found the newspaper business a fascinating experience.
The great advantage of starting in the business as a copy boy (glorified go-fer, actually) was the exposure to all the departments of the paper, editorial, sports, photo department, composing room and the advertising department.
The one main thing I learned from that experience was that a newspaper man had a licence to learn about all manner of things and that appealed to me.
After nine months at the Tribune, a buddy and I decided we wanted to do the “Easy Rider” thing, so we packed up our motorcycles and headed west. Our plan was to stop in Kamloops where my folks had moved to on Dad’s retirement from the Army. We were going to stay a week or two with my folks and then to head down to San Francisco. “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and Pappas was a big song those days!
As it happened, my buddy’s motorcycle (he was never very good at maintenance) ended up with a collapsed rear wheel near Pigeon Mountain in Alberta, so we hid his bike in the woods. He got on the back of mine and we boogied on to Kamloops. This in early August of a very warm year.
Now, faced with having to get his bike repaired and realizing we needed funds we volunteered for a stint at forest fire fighting. It was a bit of a shock finding out that when we thought we had earned enough money and wanting to quit, we were told that we were stuck for the duration of the fire season!
Well by the time the season was over and we were out of the mountains, winter was coming on and that put an end to our motorcycle trip for that year. My buddy took the bus to Vancouver, and I saw an advertisement for a cub reporter in the Kamloops Daily Sentinel.
George Smith, the managing editor at the time, hired me and I began as a police, fire, court and education reporter. The paper’s photographer at the time was a fellow named Richard Gough.
On assignments where Richard would come along with me, I’d see things that I thought would illustrate the story nicely and would suggest he shoot them, but Richard, who was shooting a Mamiya Flex 21/4, shooting 120 mm 12-exposure rolls at the time, or sometimes even an old 4×5 Speed Graphic would nearly always do a “set-up” shot at the end, making only a couple of exposures.
How/where did you first learn how to operate a camera/develop/print?
I decided I would buy my own camera and start making photographs for my assignments, so I bought a range finder 35 mm camera of long forgotten origin, but it did have a 35 mm non-interchangeable f2.8 lens. I would buy my own film, usually Kodak Tri-X and began carrying it everywhere.
Even after I bought my first SLR, a Pentax Spotmatic, I Iearned to leave the old camera in the glove compartment of the car, because if I didn’t have a camera available I’d end up seeing a major motor vehicle accident or fire! So for the sake of public safety I made sure I had the camera all the times.
In the beginning, I’d have to beg Richard to process my film. Strangely, although the paper did not shoot 35 mm at the time, they did have a couple of battered old 35 mm stainless steel reels in the darkroom. I guess, after a while Richard decided to end this arrangement. One day, when I’d asked him to process a roll for me, he showed me the reels, the tank and basically said, put the film on that reel, then into that tank and stir it every once in a while and when the timer dings put it into the fixer (which was kept in an old car battery case for dip and dunk fixing. At the time the Sentinel was still letter press so I learned the operation of the klischograph which was used to cut plastic engravings of prints for use in letter press printing.
Who were your first mentors/instructors?
I suppose I was primarily my own instructor. Having an interest in the sciences from junior high onwards was a big help as I had an understanding of the experimental method. So I bought every photography magazine with how-to-do articles I could lay my hands on and began learning the process.
An old German named Albert Kalten owned the Kamloops Camera House and Studio which was the only source of darkroom supplies and equipment at the time. He would patiently answer my questions on which chemicals were best, etc. I ended up buying a rickety old enlarger, trays, tanks etc and set up my first darkroom in a bathroom in the basement of my folk’s house.
Carmen was his daughter and she ultimately inherited the shop when her father died.
I remember having a large cardboard box (probably the container from the new kitchen stove my mom had acquired) which I would fill with “prints” which just didn’t look good enough! So by the process of trial and error, lots of reading and a great deal of “wasted” film, paper and chemicals I learned my darkroom skills.
As to mentor’s I was still looking to the great photojournalism in Life and Look, as well as every issue of the photography magazines I was now buying. I was also looking at the work of some of the photographers on the Vancouver Sun and Province at the time.
Who were your first influences?
The major influence in all things was my father, who would often say to me (and my siblings), “You can do anything you set your mind to!”
I would also have to say the city editor at the Winnipeg Tribune, Peter Liba would brook no excuses from reporters or photographers who did not bring back the story. Remember the old Lou Grant show? He was Lou Grant, before the Lou Grant show; a crusty editor of the old school. In his mind there was always a story, even if it was not the one you originally were assigned.
He was later to become a member of the Order of Canada, was inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, was Lt. Governor of Manitoba and the first member of the Order of Manitoba
Following that, George Smith the managing editor of the Sentinel was a great editor for a young newspaper man. He had trained as a journalist in Britain and would back you up to the nth degree as long as you had the facts correct, otherwise, he would tear you a new one!
I suppose also in those days getting the “scoop” or being one up on your competitors was a major driver in pushing one to improve. Those were the old days when the news business was actually competitive!
Meryl Matthews the city editor at the time was also influential in helping me hone my grammar skills. You had better never write “over” $500, when the correct phrase was “more than” etc. My copy at the time was often given back to me for a rewrite if I made too many egregious errors.
Can you give a brief outline of your career? (As I remember you were in Kamloops most of your career but didn’t you take a job briefly in Prince George?)
Well, as stated above I started in Winnipeg at the Tribune, then moved to Kamloops to the Sentinel. After a year or so I went back to Winnipeg, worked briefly for a fellow trying to start a young persons’ newspaper, and when that failed, I worked for Strain’s Camera Store in Winnipeg. Another good learning experience as well as a chance to acquire some equipment with an employee discount.
Returning to Kamloops, I went back to the Sentinel and worked there for some years (first as a reporter, night news editor and part time photographer which became full time photographer, before heading to the Prince George Citizen as a photographer, where I worked for six months during one long winter. The snow was so high it covered the tops of stop signs! So I returned to Kamloops and the Sentinel.
I was the first photographer to use 35 mm at the Sentinel and was only allowed to do that after I showed that the quality was close to the larger formats, although the real reason was telling them the economics of 35 mm were better than 21/4. My big mistake though was basing my argument on using bulk 35 mm film, so we were stuck loading bulk film from then on. Cheap as an argument always worked with a Thomson Paper! This was also the time that the Sentinel had converted to offset printing.
I returned to Kamloops and after another stint at the Sentinel, quit the Sentinel just before getting married and then went over to the Kamloops News Advertiser where Mel Rothenburger was the Editor. Spent, several years there and then returned to the Sentinel, which was now a tabloid and was branded as The Daily. Danny Bucholtz was the managing editor there at the time. Can’t remember much about the dates, as they all mush together in my memory now.
I do remember however, that my job interview with Bucholtz involved drinking copious quantities of beer around his kitchen table, and despite breaking the leg on one of his kitchen chairs, I still got the job.
I worked at The Daily as their Sundaily Editor as well as doing a lot of feature photography and writing, later doing a stint as city editor.
A few years later I did make a trip to Edmonton to interview for a photographer’s job at the Edmonton Sun and was offered the job, but my wife was into her career as a school teacher in Kamloops and basically did not want to move, so we stayed in Kamloops.
What were some of the highlights/biggest events of your newspaper career?
Funny things stick in my mind, like the great Kamloops Flood of 1972. I was knee deep in water at Oak Hills when Jack Tennant, (used to be city hall reporter at the Sentinel, but semi-retired) yelled over if I had any film he could send to the Vancouver Sun. I reached into my bag and threw him two rolls of film. The Sun ran a front page and an inside two page spread of those photos. Returning to paper around 11pm after the first day shooting the flood, the publisher was in the office (unheard of in a Thomson paper!) and he asked if I’d seen the Sun? The publisher at that time was an oddity in Thomson papers. He’d come from the editorial side and told me good job! I mentally wiped my brow, because technically my paper should have first rights. I worked all night, and had so much film, mine and reporter’s that I ended up resorting to making 16×20 contact sheets!
Worked all through the night and the next morning there was a knock on the darkroom door. The editor introduced me to Deni Eagland from the Vancouver Sun and asked if I’d take him out to Oak Hills (we called it Soak Hills then). I said sure, I just had to finish up a couple of prints. I can remember inviting Deni into the darkroom and he sort of turned up his nose a bit. As you probably remember, the Sentinel darkroom was a crude and dank place. I said to Deni something along the lines that it just needed a couple of things to improve it! Deni’s response was, “Yep, two sticks of dynamite!”
On our way out to Oak Hills there was a road block at Halston Crossing, which was then a level crossing. The RCMP, seeing me approaching, immediately removed the barricades. Deni sort of looked at me, but we continued on the Oak Hills. Arriving at Oak Hills there was a line of cars parked on the roadway, so it looked like we would have to hoof it half a mile or so, but another RCMP member waved me on and said I could park closer. On parking and getting out of the car, the RCMP dog handler saw me and said, “Hey Mike, we’re going to take a boat and look for looters, want to come along?”
I said “Sure, if there’s room for two of us.” So off we went with the cops, we got some more shots and then head back to Kamloops.
On the trip back Deni turned to me and said, “How you train them so well?”
I said, “train who?”
He said, “the cops”
Then I remembered this was shortly after the Gastown riot in Vancouver, which had resulted in many news photographers having less than pleasant experiences with the Vancouver Police. I then told Deni, we’d often just have coffee with the cops, they got to know us and we got to know them. For instance I learned that it was not a good idea to take an RCMP members photo without his hat on, as this was considered “being out of uniform” and they’d be called on the carpet for that.
Do vacation adventures count? On vacations to Burnaby where my first wife’s folks lived, I would usually call up Chuck Stoody, bureau photographer for Canadian Press and would ask him if he would like to go for a beer. His first question for me, was always had I brought any camera equipment with me. He’d hand me some assignments and one time in the summer of 1984 the keys to the bureau when he had to suddenly go to Los Angles for the Summer Olympics.
This would have been in 1984 and there was the federal election going on at the time. After Stoody returned we set up for coverage of the Papal visit of Pope John Paul to Vancouver, and also assisted in election night coverage. There were several fun stories from that time. Several stand out. There was at the time the controversy of John Turner patting Iona Campognolo on the ass.
While covering a Turner campaign visit to a senior citizens facility, I hung around after all the National Press guys had got back on the bus, and noticed a woman wanting to get a photo with Turner. As I watched from the back, I noticed she put her hand down and patted Turner’s ass. When I interviewed her, she said she was a therapeutic touch specialist!
On returning to Vancouver Stoody was looking at the photos I had filed on the wire and reading the caption on that one said to me, “you can’t use “ass” in a CP caption!” Later when some of the Ottawa CP photographers came in for election night coverage, Stoody was introducing me to them, and one of them said to me. “your the son of a bitch who took the Turner ass shot!” I guess it had got a lot of front page play in the back east papers.
For the Papal visit CP rented a smallish RV which we took out to the Abbortsford Airport and set up by covering most of the windows in the back to create a darkroom space, while using a smallish table for the three photo transmitters we had. The BC Tel guys had dropped in multiple phone lines, which had to be pre-arranged. While they were doing that we shared some of our beer with them.
A little while later a very large RV from Washington State pulled up near us. They were from the Seattle Times and were wondering how they could get some phone lines installed. I asked them if they had pre-arranged that, and they said no. So I asked them how much beer they had with them. Learning that they had purchased several cases of Canadian beer, I told them, hang on. Went looking for the BC Tel installers, after after some negotiations, they got their phone lines for two cases of beer!
Nick Didlick, bureau photographer from UPI had gone whole hog and had an ATCO trailer with two serious dark rooms, one for colour and the other for black and white. His being the biggest trailer, most of the press photographers gathered there the night before the Papal Mass for a booze up. I can’t remember who it was, but it might have been one of the Vancouver Sun photographers who managed to spill a half a bottle of scotch onto the strip of phone plug-ins under the table.
After the mass, we in the CP RV had managed to file about 20 photos and the transmission quality was excellent according to Toronto, Stepping out of our steaming hot RV for a breath of air, Stoody and I saw Nick wandering around with a handful of wet prints! He wanted to get a helicopter or some fast way back to Vancouver, but of course the air space was totally shut down for security, He had not been able to file even one photo. Talking to the BC Tel guy’s later I asked if half a bottle of scotch might have wrecked his phone connections. They of course said, “yep, that would do it!’
Hmmm, other high lights: Winning first place in the Canadian Community Newspaper competition for a baby birth essay, shooting Margaret “Ma” Murray grabbing Pierre Trudeau by the tie and wagging her finger in his face as she gave him what for during a local Liberal party fundraiser. As a side note, I was using a little flash gun with built-in rechargeable battery. It’s recycle time was taking about a minute or more, so I only managed two shots. Dumped that strobe shortly after and bought my first Vivitar 283 with multiple spare battery clips!
Later I would take one of the very last public photos of Ma Murray when she came backstage on opening night and met the actress Joy Coghill who had portrayed her in the play “Ma!” which was put on by WCTC in April of 1981. I had access because I was the WCTC “house photographer” at the time.
Who were some of the photographers you worked with over the years at the newspapers, either as a co-worker and/or as a competitor?
I don’t think I can name them all, mostly because many blur together in the memory, but over the years in Kamloops I can remember working with or against quite a few, often changing sides. I’ll name a few and give some short stories about them.
When first at the Sentinel I worked alongside the aforementioned Richard Gough (who at the time was a volunteer fire fighter, later becoming a full time firefighter), and later a fellow named Bill Becket (if memory serves on the name. Becket had been a studio photographer and had acquired a bad case of contact dermatitis to the chemicals primarily from processing colour, but it progressed to the point that he couldn’t even handle black and white chemicals. He left photography to become an engineer on the railroad.)
Of course, there was Debbie Brash.
Once I played a bit of a trick on Debbie. (Remember we were very competitive at the time!) While we were both covering a softball game in the old diamond in Riverside Park, I heard about an accident up the Yellowhead Highway on a little 4-channel crystal scanner I carried in my gadget bag. I was working for the Advertiser at the time and we had scanners, CB radios all that high tech stuff!
So I ran towards my car and headed out. I went under the underpass onto Victoria Street and could see in my rear view mirror that Debbie had decided to follow me, so I quickly headed towards the Overlander Bridge, but turned right near the Spoke and Motion shop, parked out of sight on the side and watched Debbie high tailing it towards the bridge. I then headed back up Victoria Street and then onto the Yellowhead Highway.
A few days later Debbie came up to me and said something along the lines of “you bugger”. Apparently she’d driven nearly to the McClure ferry on Westsyde Road looking for where I was going.
Our opposite numbers at the New Advertiser at the time were Neil McDonald (later operating a Mr. Roto Rotor business) and Lou Armstrong. Both excellent photographers who kept us on our toes. Interesting story about Lou, he and Mel Rothenburger had both been working in Williams Lake at a paper owned by Ben Ginter.
They both were fired after running a photograph of a cowboy walking away from the camera with several cases of beer under his arms during the Williams Lake Stampede. They captioned the photo “The Spirit of the Stampede” The only problem with the photo was that the beer was Carlings Black Label, not the brand marketed by Ben Ginter’s brewery!
While I was over at the News Advertiser, a fellow named Coleman Cooper was working at the Sentinel. He was quite the brash fellow who had graduated from either SAIT or NAIT in Alberta.
I remember one instance where there was small office fire in the Royal Bank Building at Second and Victoria Streets. Coleman went into the elevator, and closed the doors to go up as the fire fighters were arriving. Needless to say they did not appreciate that. A few weeks later they got their revenge at a grass fire in Brocklehurst. They directed their hoses in such a way as to cover Coleman in black muddy soot. I remember setting up a wide angle shot in front of their hose from a low angle showing the burnt grass in front. The firefighters were still grinning from their revenge, but made sure I didn’t get splattered.
While I was with the News Advertiser, Tom White was the other photographer. He also later left news photography to become a railway man.
Although I didn’t work directly with him there was also Ted Jacob who worked at the Sentinel, before going off to the Calgary Herald.
You taught at Cariboo College (now Thompson Rivers University). Can you talk about the experience of teaching photography?
I guess I should give a little back story to how I came to teach at the College. It revolves around the defeat of Social Credit in the BC elections of 1972. I had made a photo of “Flying Phil” Gaglardi, his wife Jennie and his campaign manager with very glum faces watching the returns on TV.
Previous to election night I had taken some vacation time and a young photographer who had graduated from the first year of the Communications Media Course at Cariboo was handling the work. He was a young lad, who thought news photography was all fires and fashion!
Anyways, come election night I had to get my prints onto a Greyhound bus to Kelowna, where Canadian Press had a wire photo transmitter. The deadline was tight so I had to print my negs while still wet. Unknown to me the young lad had mixed fresh fixer while I was away, but he did not add any hardener to the solution. After drying the negs and trying to make prints for our own use, I found they were all so reticulated they looked like the cracked mud you see in the typical drought photo. I was not a happy camper!
We ended up using a discard print from the batch I sent to CP.
A few weeks later I was up at Cariboo College to take photos of a donation of some sort of heavy equipment to the mechanics course there. Chuck Bishop was Student Affairs director and also the college PR person at the time. While getting the news release details from him on the donation, he asked me what I thought about the Communications Media program.
Needless to say I gave him an earful, not realizing that the CMMD program was his idea and baby. The first year was taught by Bill Hadgkiss, who was the college’s AV coordinator.
Anyways, Chuck asked me if I thought I could do better, and I said, I certainly could do no worse. Two weeks later there was a contract in the mail which I ended up signing.
I got busy, making up lesson plans (a skill I had learned as a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor. Began looking for books which might be specific to basic news photography, but not finding any I started writing short instruction screeds for each of the lessons. My first lesson was usually to shoot a roll of film and process it to negatives. A sort of “throw them into the deep end and see how they react” process. I must say students after that first lesson paid very close attention to my class even though it was on a Friday afternoon, when most were thinking about the pub night and coming weekend.
I made my course heavy on practical work, and my final test was always a deadline photo assignment: shoot, process and print a “news photo”. When asked how that test would be graded, I always said if some editor of a little newspaper would publish the photo, they would pass.
If I looked at the photo and said to myself, “I wish I had taken the photo, you get an A+.”
In the beginning I very much enjoyed the experience of teaching, because the students fresh out of high school had a good grounding in English. As the years wore on I found that they were beginning to have problems even writing the standard newspaper and Canadian Press style of captions for their photos.
Near the end, I started getting calls late in the evening that there was no mixed developer, fixed etc left in the darkroom. I’d then ask if there were any cans on the shelf in the darkroom. On getting an affirmative answer, I would then say the can labelled Kodak D76 is the film developer, the can labelled Dektol was paper developer etc. “Turn the can around and read the instructions for mixing, Mr. Kodak wants you to get good results”.
After nearly 17 years, the college began requiring candidates for the CMMD program to take a remedial English program at the college. About this time I hung up my teaching hat.
I must say though, it was most gratifying to hear back about students who had won photography awards, and to hear many of them years later thank me for my practical advice on “real world” newspaper photography, Many of them told me they thought I was bull sh****g at the time, but told me my lessons had stood them in good stead when they went out to work.
Just after I quit the college a five or maybe it was a ten year (not sure on that one) evaluation document on CMMD came out. I was heartened to read that my news photography course was praised for “high standards”, while in the back of my mind I kept thinking about my criteria for a “pass”.
I’m also interested in your experiences with the Kamloops photo community. You were in Kamloops for a long time and knew a lot of folks there.
I’m curious about your memories of other photographers who may not have been part of the newspaper world. Maybe people like say John Enman who was mainly a portrait/wedding photographer I think but I’ve heard that he also organized various photo art events.
I remember when I first met John Enman, he was showing me a cover shot he’d made for some tourist/travel magazine. It was a very well composed scenic, good colour saturation, etc. He then went on to say that he would walk around till he saw something, set up his tripod and then make only three shots, basically bracketing his exposure. He had a poor opinion of news photographers because our style of shooting according to him was click, click, click, click etc. He never understood that news photographers were basically taking visual notes as they covered an event, getting some bread and butter shots while always looking for “the shot”.
I later took over freelance shooting for events at Thompson Park Mall. A job Enman had been doing.
Or maybe Wilf Schmidt the teacher. Those are just a couple of names that come to my mind but there must have been other photographers around town who were good and maybe documented the town but did it as a hobby rather than a job?
I first met Wilf at a Kamloops Camera Club meeting and would run into him often at the Camera House or at Westside High School where he taught.
Or what about the couple that had the Camera House?
I not only was friends with Barry Prost for many years, but I actually suggested him as a salesman to Carmen, when she inherited the shop from her father. I had met Barry in Winnipeg while working for Strain’s Camera Store there. Barry had worked many years there, first part time while still in high school and then later full time.
When Carmen tried to talk me into coming to work for her, I told her my one year’s experience in the retail camera business had been enough for me, but I knew of a fellow who would be perfect. So I called Barry and he drove straight out from Winnipeg non-stop. Carmen’s first reaction was, “Michael, he’s so young!”, but after they spent several hours on Carmen’s boat out on the middle of the Shuswap the deal was done and Barry moved to Kamloops.
Were they the original owners, what do you remember about them and their relationship with the photo community.
As I said previously about Mr. Kalten (Carmen’s father) he was always very helpful to me and it seemed as if he was like that with everyone. He was not a “high pressure” salesman type, but would answer any questions in his heavily accented English patiently.
Did you ever work on personal projects away from the papers or your later businesses?
Not that I can remember. Having a young family, working for the newspapers, taking free lance jobs, teaching at the college, being house photographer for WCTC and also doing light commercial scuba diving for my father’s dive business pretty much occupied all my time!
Do you have an archive of any documentary/art work (as opposed to the family images you are currently arriving) be it of people, places (Kamloops!) or events?
There is a storage shed in Kamloops with several boxes of old clippings, prints and wire photos but I’d hardly call that an archive!
Mike and his dog 2018.