L. Ron Hubbard

f we will always associate L. Ron Hubbard with the written word, then let us not forget he also long wrote with light. Properly, the story of LRH as consummate photographer, commenced in 1918 with a cherished Kodak Brownie. He had previously experimented with a wooden-box camera, presumably a gift from a grandfather. But the Kodak, among the earliest models to employ roll film, offered real flexibility and even initial efforts reveal a firm eye for composition: Lonesome studies of the empty highways between the Hubbard family seat in Montana and the San Diego naval station where his father served on destroyers; weary figures in fedoras seated at a camp table; a closeup of a motorist changing a tire while a dangling forelock forms a question mark. The point: even at the age of seven, Ron did not miss much.

      With his 1927 voyage to the island of Guam (where his father again served the United States Navy), came an apprenticeship in the Mayhew Photo Studio–apparently a thriving concern given naval personnel were, as Ron quipped, always taking pictures like mad. Initially, duties were perfunctory, and he would later speak of mixing baths and cleaning trays. Ultimately, however, he came to master the whole of Mayhew’s thoroughly professional developing line, and would thereafter describe himself as “an old pyro-ortho man.”

      With his subsequent passage to Beijing in the autumn of 1928, the Mayhew lessons come into very sharp focus with his altogether stunning shots of the Great Wall. A deceptively formidable series, it was actually taken from a most extreme rampart above Nan-k'ou Pass–a six-thousand foot precipice and a sixty-minute climb in biting wind (as opposed to the fifteen-minute stroll advertised in a British tourist guide). All was nonetheless worth the effort; for having captured a full seven turns of that great China wall, with the structure fully intact, the shot factually proved, not only the first such shot, but one of the most popular Oriental studies of the day. The work also proved inordinately profitable, after purchase by the photo syndication house of Underwood and Underwood and National Geographic. Also enjoying broad circulation through Underwood and Underwood were the deeply evocative “Junks on the Huang He (Yellow River),” and “Rickshaw Driver.”

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