EDITORIAL: I Called Him Burt Sunday, January 6 2008

EDITORIAL: I Called Him Burt

By Mason Resnick

Burt Keppler, my friend, advisor, and mentor--and the first person to give me a job in the photo industry--has died. I knew the end was close when I learned a several weeks ago that he had taken ill and hadn't been in the office in over a month. Knowing how important Burt felt it was to keep working every day, over a decade after most people have retired, I realized something serious was up. On Friday night, his heart finally gave in after too much of the wrong medicine and several heart attacks over the last three decades.

It always seemed like nothing could keep Burt from getting to the office before 7:30 every morning. I know: For five years, from 2000 to 2005, while I was the Managing Editor of Popular Photography, I raced to get into the office a few minutes before him, and almost always failed--Burt was usually sitting at his desk by the time I walked in the door. But my association and friendship with Burt went back farther than 2000.

In 1983, I was looking for work and Burt was looking for somebody to do a promotional mailing for Modern Photography. Through a temp agency, I got a four-hour assignment, and when I realized it was for Modern Photography--the magazine I'd read every month cover to cover since I'd processed my first roll of film at age ten--I was in heaven. Even if it was just to do a mailing.

I somehow stretched my four-hour assignment into three days; Burt, his assistant Kay Harris, and others at the magazine liked my work ethic (I'd call it "keeping my foot in the door") and kept finding more for me to do. When they finally ran out of assignments, I left a resume with every editor, ad salesman, production person, and of course, Burt. "I want to work here," I said. "You're our kind of people. I'll see what I can do." was his encouraging response.

Two weeks later, I was called in: Burt was starting a program, policing the magazine's mail order advertisers. "Some of these guys are robbing our readers blind," Burt said, bluntly. "If our readers can't trust our advertisers, why should they trust our tests or the rest of the magazine? We can't have that. I want to know who the offenders are, and get rid of them. And I want you to run the program to help me find out." It quickly became obvious that the job was mine before I'd even walked in the door.

And so I became Modern Photography's Mail Order Advertising Coordinator. I coordinated a nationwide team of spot-shoppers who called advertisers and tried to order advertised items at the price published in their ad in Modern. Many dealers didn't (which we already suspected based on the piles of complaints we'd recieved), and those dealers were soon removed from Modern's pages. That was my first job, and it eventually led to my learning the ropes and becoming an editor at Modern--a memorable, wonderful eight-year experience.

Burt had a simple way of separating friends from pretenders: The name Herbert is usually shortened to Herb, but Burt knew anybody who called him Herb didn't really know him, and if someone called and asked for "Herb" he (or his secretary) would blow them off. His friends all knew he was Burt. If you called Modern (or later, Pop Photo) and asked to speak with Burt, he'd pick up the phone. "Herb Keppler" was unreachable.

Another mind game Burt played had to do with the time of day. "How are you, Burt?" would almost invariably be answered with "Three O'Clock!" This would usually result in a blank stare, and Burt would explain: "I don't know how I am until 3:00, because most of the day has passed by then." I never asked him how he was doing until 3:15, just to be safe.

Burt's persnickityness was legendary; his rewrites and demands on his writers and art directors could be maddening, and often caused deadlines to be missed, but ultimately the changes he demanded usually improved the quality of the work, which some of those working for him grudgingly admitted. When I switched from advertising to the editorial side, I ran afoul of Burt's changes, but quickly decided that I would try hard to learn from Burt's sometimes fickle demands.

In my first lens test writeup, I described image quality as "crisp and snappy." He threw that article on my desk: "What the heck are you reviewing here--a lens or a potato chip?" His green pen marks on my copy often drove me crazy, but I must admit he made me a better writer.

I did get him back. Once. While editing his column for Popular Photography, I came across his phrase "I threw up my hands in frustration." This was too good to resist. I marched into his office, and in a mock scolding voice, said "Burt, if you threw up your hands, you've only yourself to blame. You never should have eaten them!" He burst out laughing. Still giggling, he changed his text.

Before I met Burt, I read Modern Photography every month, and knew him through his column just like most of the world. He seemed larger than life. It turned out the man was a loyal friend, full of compassion. We would have long discussions about almost anything--especially early in the morning, before things got hectic--but it always came back to photography, a subject we shared a passion for. He was my first boss, my mentor, friend, and advisor. He constantly inspired me to raise my standards.

But beyond that, I will never forget how Burt Keppler gave me my first big break in the photo industry, and how he opened many doors for me during the time we knew each other.

I am honored to be able to say that I called him Burt.

© 2008 Adorama

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