October 6, 2011
The eye of the story
25-year career captures the images of everyday life
Scott Conroe/contributing photographer
Cortland Standard staff photographer Bob Ellis photographs a tennis match Tuesday afternoon at Cortland Junior-Senior High School.
Bob Ellis remembers the stories behind many of his thousands of photographs for the Cortland Standard.
There was the image from November 1993, when he went to a Cortland Small Fry football practice and noticed a violin case among the pads and helmets. He waited for the boy who owned the case, thinking he could capture an image of him walking home with helmet in one hand and violin in the other. To his surprise, and without his asking, the boy who owned the violin took it out and played a tune as his football teammates sat around him and listened.
“Just an incredible scene, and I took pictures from about 100 feet away as I walked toward him, praying I had it in focus and exposed properly,” Ellis said.
Ellis, 55, has been finding such images since he joined the newspaper 25 years ago today as one of its two staff photographers.
For all these years, he has been going to assignments that can range from sports to music to schools to breaking news. He has gotten up in the middle of the night to race to fires and car accidents, while at other times he has been granted time to figure out the lighting and composition of an image.
Publisher Kevin Howe said Ellis could work at any newspaper, with his gifted eye and technical expertise.
“We’re blessed to have him, and have been for years,” Howe said. “You don’t find a guy with that kind of eye and ability at a small newspaper. Plus he’s a great guy. You wouldn’t find anybody who has dealt with Bob who has anything bad to say about him.”
Ellis is collecting his favorite photographs into a book to be published later this year. He taught himself to be a photographer after graduating from Dryden High School in 1974. He worked at Smith Corona for 12 years, starting on the production line and becoming a production and inventory control planner and scheduler.
He purchased a Minolta camera and a Vivitar zoom lens, with lengths varying from 70 to 120 millimeters, and began photographing sports, mostly at Cornell University. Then he won $300 in a photo competition sponsored by the Ithaca Festival, for a picture of a girl playing the cello.
He decided to leave Smith Corona, giving four weeks notice in September 1986, hoping he could find a job.
Ellis had shot freelance assignments for the Cortland Standard and was shocked when, just a week before his job ended at Smith Corona, the newspaper offered him a job.
He joined staff photographer Gordon Maynard, who left several months later and was replaced by Wayne Hansen. Ellis said he and Hansen pushed each other to be better.
He has worked with 10 other photographers, including Maynard and Hansen.
Ellis said his first assignment was a picture of giant pumpkins at the Mel Tinker farm in Homer.
Howe said Ellis has shown a gift for capturing Cortland County’s rural life, and has a knack for speaking with anyone, from celebrities and civic leaders to everyday folks.
“I used to be really shy, and now I can go up to almost anybody at any time and not have a problem,” Ellis said. “I treat everybody the same. I don’t talk down to anybody and don’t get caught up in who is important.”
Ellis learned by studying other news photographers, subscribing to newspapers and buying books that gathered the best news photography of the year nationally. He took a darkroom course at Tompkins Cortland Community College, but that was his only training.
Now everything he does is digital. His darkroom, with its chemical smells and enlarger, is gone. Howe marvels at Ellis’ versatility, as he creates images for advertising, “standalone” work that does not go with an article, feature shots, sports and breaking news.
Ellis lives in Dryden with his wife, Wendy Martin. He has two grown daughters, Sarah and Jessica, and six grandchildren.
Ellis still uses manual focus rather than auto-focus, and still feels the excitement of a late-night call, from an editor or from key words he hears on the police scanner.
“One time I drove out into Solon for a fire at 3 a.m., and when I got there the last flame was being extinguished,” he said. “There was nothing to shoot. I left without a picture.”
But in 25 years, that has been a rarity.
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