Ed Woehl, Newspaper Article

Tiffany Bauer
Added
by
At Ed Woehl`s Place, Anything Could Develop
Things Click When This Photography Buff Gets To Inventing
October 01, 1991|By Ron Grossman.

Mix equal parts of Thomas Edison and pack rats like Sanford & Son, and you pretty much have Ed Woehl.

Sixty years ago, a grade school teacher back in South Dakota had already spotted that. She could see that sitting quietly at a desk doing lessons wasn`t Woehl`s thing, which made it tough keeping order in the one-room schoolhouse she ran. Yet give him a few scraps of wood, some rusty nuts and some bolts, and there was no telling what his inventive hands might produce.

``On a trip home, I saw Miss Graham just before she died,`` said the 72-year-old Woehl. ``She said: `How`s my little Edison? What kind of

contraptions has he been dreaming up lately?```

A first-time visitor to Woehl`s shop might ask a similar question. More likely, the visitor would assume that neither plan nor intention could possibly have shaped this place. Ed Woehl Photo Supplies (and miscellaneous enterprises: A window sign says, ``We Make Keys``) occupies a sidestreet storefront in the Bucktown neighborhood on Chicago`s Northwest Side.

From the floor up, nearly every horizontal surface is piled high with heaps of objects whose only common denominator is that all were produced by some long-ago assembly line. The only exception is an easy chair reserved for Princess, a coal-black mutt who greets newcomers with the cautious eye of a big-city shopkeeper.

Were it not for the sign outside, the place might be mistaken for a museum of the Industrial Revolution whose funding must have dried up before cataloging could be completed and exhibits properly mounted.

Threading through those castaways toward the display counter momentarily restores your bearings. It is lined with cameras and other photographic equipment, as are glass shelves on the wall behind.

Traveling camera buffs phone for directions, so they can visit between connecting flights at O`Hare International Airport. Photography students at local universities are tipped off to the place`s riches by their professors. For Woehl`s pack-rat instincts have focused longest on photography.

Mixed in among his other collections are cameras and enlargers, some of which are as old as he is. Underfoot and on shelves are dozens of vintage movie projectors, some dating to the era of silent pictures. One display case is reserved for types and sizes of film Kodak discontinued years ago. To Woehl and his special clientele, nothing about the magic of photography ever goes out of date.

One-of-a-kind cane

Yet the minute you decide the place does qualify as a camera shop, your eye spots a long strand of twisted electrical wire running from one wall to another near the ceiling. Hanging from it are several dozen canes.

``I got fascinated by canes a while back,`` Woehl explains. ``So I decided to put a display of them in the shop. Wait, I`ll show you one of my own design.``

He disappeared into a back room, then emerged carrying a Rube Goldberg contraption that was, indeed, built around a cane. A long pole had been lashed to the cane, and an umbrella mounted on the end of the pole. What better way to protect a pedestrian from a sudden rainstorm? Woehl observed.

Similarly practical considerations led him to equip the device with a bell and an automobile`s rearview mirror, while his aesthetic tastes dictated that a tiny camera, whose shutter can be tripped in midstride, be mounted to the cane. Wandering through Chicago, capturing neighborhood landscapes on film is Woehl`s enduring passion, he explained.

Sadly, city life grows rougher with the passing years. So his cane is also fitted with leather holsters, one of which holds a flashlight (to spot potential muggers), the other a first-aid kit (should one fail to spot brigands in time).

As no one has ever asked to buy one, production of the Woehl Walking Stick has been limited to this prototype, he noted. But no matter. To Ed Woehl, the thrill of invention is more important than the ringing of cash registers.

He recalled that he caught the photographic bug while a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The corps was a Depression-era government program that put unemployed young people to work on environmental and building projects. Members were also provided with after-hours recreation programs, and the South Dakota camp where Woehl was stationed offered a class in photography.

``The first time I developed a roll of film, it was magic to me,`` Woehl said. ``From that day on, I`ve always perferred working in a darkroom to sitting in a bar.``

A unique angle

During World War II, Woehl taught photography at an Army base in Alaska, and after V-J Day, he came to Chicago, where a brother and sister of his were living. He went to work in a machine shop but continued doing photography in his spare time, sometimes processing film until 2 in the morning. In 1951, he opened his camera store. In addition to offering a standard array of late model cameras, he also started buying and selling used and vintage models.

He discovered that the city's basements and attics are a treasure trove of older equipment, tucked away by former enthusiasts who gave up the hobby. Some of those old cameras might have been banged up or allowed to rust, but given Woehl`s magic hands, it was a snap for him to put them back in working order. The knack, he notes, is a family inheritance.

"My grandfather was a homesteader who built the farmhouse I was born in,`` Woehl said. "Dad used to drag old cars home from a junkyard and get them to running, so we'd have a way of getting to town."

Sometimes, Woehl would find himself with a camera that was beyond restoration, even though some parts were still usable. So he experimented with mating, say, a lens from one camera to the shutter of second one, then splicing those parts to a film transport salvaged from yet another camera. He got so good at his craft that he could take bits and scraps of several camera lenses and assemble them into a fish-eye, wide-angle lens-a task usually performed by computers and high-tech optical equipment.

In all, he built nine cameras, each neatly labled as ``Woehl No. 1,``

``The Woehl-e-Flex,`` etc. Some of Woehl`s creations are as small as a standard snapshot camera. Others are as bulky as the big view cameras with which school photographers take class portraits.

All of Woehl`s cameras, though, share one characteristic: They produce a negative whose width is three or four times greater than its height. Those specifications correspond to Woehl`s special taste in photography.

No sooner had he arrived in Chicagothan his eye was drawn to a similarity between his boyhood home and his new one. Beyond the Loop`s skyscrapers, Chicago is as resolutely flat as the plains of South Dakota. Having grown up with one such horizontal landscape, he found himself irresistably drawn to the big city`s variety.

So for 40 years, Woehl has been tramping Chicago`s streets and bringing home photographic souvenirs in the form of those long, narrow images he prefers. Setting Woehl No. 6 or No. 8 on a tripod, he will record a neighborhood`s contours, seeing an infinite variety of urban beauty in ordinary street scenes others might dismiss as boring and repetitious.

``I`ve been recording Maxwell Street ever since coming to Chicago,``

Woehl said. ``I love the street, and not only because there is so much to photograph. I also buy and swap cameras with the pushcart merchants there.``

For years, Woehl`s life has revolved around an unvarying schedule. Mornings he ``makes his rounds,`` as he puts it, ferreting out old cameras and making photographs. He spends his afternoons in the store, which also houses his workshop and a tiny living quarters. He never married, thank goodness. Few women would tolerate the studied chaos that seems to be the psychological catalyst for his personal brand of creativity.

Instead, Woehl has shared his life with a series of canine companions, of which Princess is the latest.

A bronze plaque on a counter notes:

Ed Woehl and Princess Proprietors
Write a comment

People in this story

Tags for this story