Photographer to keep on shooting

Eighty-two-year-old still takes portraits and teaches photography

Len McGregor

Len McGregor

Knock on the door, then walk into Len McGregor’s 1960s-style photography studio on 224th Street, and you jump over the years and land somewhere in the 1970s.

Dark-wood panelling lines the walls and lime-green shag carpet softens steps. Even the counter where photos are ordered, decades ago by poring over film negatives, today by scanning the screen on a digital camera, features the shag treatment up the front of the counter, to blend in with the carpet.

Old photos that capture family memories and marriages and photography awards, such as “Best Commercial Colour Print, 1971” are posted everywhere.

And Len McGregor is still at work. Now 82, having lost his wife and business partner Norma more than a year ago, McGregor still takes portraits and teaches photography, though not at the same pace he’s done for more than the last half a century.

“I almost stopped,” he said during a recent visit by a MeTV KVOS documentary crew.

The TV crew had stopped into his studio a few weeks ago to interview him for a feature they were doing on the station’s 60th anniversary. McGregor used to do cartoon animation photography of a Beatles cartoons series at the station.

But McGregor is carrying on, celebrating his own 65 years in photography.

“But I’ve been operating my business since October 1948. I still have the original invoice I sent out.

“I started the business just after Bruce’s Country Market opened.”

He’s taken lots of photos, starting with industrial and commercial work. His first work photo assignments was when he was working at what was then called B.C. Forest Products Hammond cedar mill.

He did portraits and weddings and has no idea how many people he’s captured on film and camera card over the years.

“Absolutely none,” he affirms. “My files cover a very large area.”

It’s been a fun ride, judging by his comments on the subjects he’s photographed.

McGregor regales the KVOS crew with tales of Raymond Burr, George Burns and boxer Rocky Marciano and says their public personas usually matched their private.

“Those people were absolutely wonderful people to work with and they were coming in on a day-by-day basis.”

Most people usually cooperate with the photographer.

“Be friendly. Be truthful. Ask them to do what you want them to do, and most people will respond. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

He’s also photographed politicians, the most notable being 1960s Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker, also “a nice guy, wonderful guy.”

While he’s comfortable in the world of non-film photography, many photographers forget or don’t know, it’s what’s in the mind’s eye that’s most important.

“Photography still requires a filter, the grey filter, as in the matter between your ears,” he said.

“Without that, it’s only a camera taking something in front of it.”

In pre-digital world of photography, when it was expensive to buy and shoot and soup film and make the prints, photographers thought carefully before pressing the shutter button.

McGregor comes from a time, only a couple decades ago, when you took one correct photo.

“You see it happening and you know what’s happening next, so you take the picture.”

Many images taken now, by both great and not-so-great photographers, never see the light of day, remaining locked on a card, hidden from all but a three-inch square viewfinder.

While his studio is old, McGregor has kept up with the times, using special computer programs for retouching and restoring old photos.

In his latter years, he focuses mainly portrait photography, restoration and teaching. He wants to pass on his expertise to up-and-coming photographers, so they don’t have to struggle like he did.

He plans to return to the board of the Professional Photographers of Canada.

Last March, he received the Bar to Service to Photographic Arts award, the first given in Canada, by the Professional Photographers of Canada for his service to the industry.

This month, he judged photojournalism at the Skills Canada competition at B.C. Place.

“I’m not going to stop,” he says.

“God willing, he will stop me.”