It All Started with a Stolen Camera

Mike Baroli

When I met Mike Baroli I was a happy snapshooter. He gets much of the credit for turning me into a photographer.

I met Mike behind the sales counter in a camera store, but Mike was more than a salesperson, he was a Photographer with a capital “P”. Our meeting came about quite by chance (or – looking back – maybe not by chance), but he transformed my photography.

In August 1984, some low life person broke into our home and stole my camera. Insurance would replace the camera. What made me angry was nothing could replace the photos that were still in the camera from a very special family vacation in Colorado. Like the photo of our young daughter holding her fishing rod with her first brown trout on the line. Or the photo of our three children in the jail in the historic Jackson Hotel in Poncha Springs Colorado. Or the photos of the hotel. Jesse and Frank James had stayed in the Jackson Hotel, as did Billy the Kid and Ulysses S. Grant. All of my Jackson Hotel photos were gone.

Canon F-1n, Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens

Insurance money in hand, I headed for a local camera store in Oklahoma City and found myself talking to Mike Baroli. Based on his excellent advice I bought a Canon F-1(n) camera, a fast 50mm f/1.4 lens, and a camera bag. I told him the bag he picked for me was WAY too big but he prophetically said I would need a bigger bag. (He was right. Over time I eventually acquired a 24mm lens, a 70-200mm zoom lens and a Sunpak flash which all fit into the bag.) I walked out of the store, happy with my purchase.

Fortunately for me, Mike was not only a salesperson, he was an avid and passionate photographer. A few days later, I came in to pick up my first roll of developed slides taken with my new camera. He spotted me at the front counter, came up and snatched my yellow Kodak box of processed slides out of the hands of the sale clerk (before I even had a chance to open it) and we went back to his corner of the store. At his light table he went through the slides and sorted them into two stacks of four slides and 32 slides. He pointed to the stack of four slides and said “Keep these.” When I asked what I should do with the other 32 slides, he said “Throw them away.” I didn’t like that. A little bit hurt, I gathered up my precious slides and left.

Before the camera theft I only took my camera along on vacations or to special events. After the camera theft I started carrying my camera lots of places, including job related trips. Which meant I was taking more pictures. Before the camera theft I would be driving to New Mexico and saying to myself, “Wow, what a beautiful sunset!” After the camera theft I would say the same thing and then get out of the car and photograph the beautiful sunset. Instead of a roll of film every month or two, I was going through one or two rolls a week.

The next time I came in the camera store to pick up another roll of slides, Mike did the same thing again. Although I found the process annoying, the annoyance went away with time, the pain of the reject pile diminished somewhat, and it became a challenge for me to make the “keeper” stack bigger. That didn’t happen for a while, and the keeper stack never did get much bigger than four. So I finally said to him “Why should I keep these and not them?” That’s when he started teaching me how to be a better photographer. He started sending me to the best books to read, he converted me from Ektachrome 200 to Kodachrome 64 (a much better film). He would show me some of his own work as examples of what I should be going for.

One day he looked at one of my slides and said “You shot this way too loose.” He pulled out a 2 1/4 inch chrome and put it down on the light table next to my 35mm slide. It was a gorgeous, tightly framed, beautifully executed image of a young woman. “Like this” he said. I got the point.

I wish I had some of his beautiful images to share. Put a young woman in front of his camera and Mike could work magic.

I started reading Outdoor Photographer magazine. Thanks to Mike, I bought The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques by John Shaw, and Mountain Light by Galen Rowell, two books that helped transform my photography. They are still two of the best photography books I have ever read and I recommend them highly. (The latest and preferred digital version of Shaw’s book is John Shaw’s Guide to Digital Nature Photography.)

He sent me to the best photo seminars. When Ernst Wildi came to Oklahoma City for an evening photography seminar, Mike said “You have to be there!” I went and I was blown away by Wildi’s gorgeous 2 1/4 inch chromes projected onto two huge screens by twin Hasselblad projectors. Wildi had lots of great ideas to share and I took notes.

When George Lepp was going to be in Dallas Texas for an all day nature photography seminar, Mike said “You have to go!” So my wife and I went to Dallas for a long weekend. She dropped me off Saturday morning at Lepp’s photography seminar and went window shopping for the day.  At Lepp’s seminar I was blown away by the photos and overwhelmed by all of the content. I took notes like crazy and recorded everything on micro-cassettes.

Mike challenged me to be a much better photographer, our visits became a source of inspiration, and his critiques led to my first published photos and my first magazine cover. I was in once or twice a week to pick up slides and we almost always had some time to visit unless he was swamped with other customers.

It was a red letter day when I came in and he was sorting another photographer’s slides into two stacks on his light table, a very small “keeper stack” and a big “throw these away” stack. He took my slides, showed one of them to the other photographer and said, “THIS is what you should be going for.”

Mike didn’t just do that to other photographers. He was equally rigorous with his own work, as his cousin told me in an e-mail:

“I watched him keep 2 or 3 shots out of a roll of developed film. So much work put into 2 or 3 pictures it seemed.

“Mike loved life, and he loved photography. He found great wonder and beauty in the world and did his best to capture it on film. I would say Mike was happy when it came to photography, but joyful is an even better word. Beautiful imagery, no matter who the photographer was, brought him joy.”

I could only find one photo of Mike online (which I posted above), but I can still see him behind the camera counter, happy, talkative, expressive, big smile, filled with energy, and promoting his favorite hobby.

I have Mike to thank for sending me well down the road to being a better photographer.

In 2007, I wrote to Mike and thanked him for everything he did for me. He wrote back and said:

“WOW thanks for all the praise but I don’t think I deserve it. All I did was share my love of photography with others. Lucky for me my boss at the time let me do what I do best and that’s talk to people about my favorite thing.If I did anything for you it would be to excite you about what I believe is the greatest hobby of all.

“It was great hearing from you after all these years and by the work that I saw you have learned your craft well.”

In June 2010, when my photography book was in the works, I wrote to Mike again and asked him if I could say a few nice words about him in the book’s acknowledgments. He wrote back and said:

“How wonderful. I would love to see the book. Yes you can mention me in the book, that would be a great honor.”

After the book came out, I sent him an e-mail to tell him I was going to send him an autographed copy as thanks for the difference he made in my photography. I never received a reply. I eventually learned why.

I received an e-mail from one of Mike Baroli’s cousins with the sad news that Mike passed away December 19, 2010.

I am so grateful that I expressed my appreciation to Mike while I had the chance. I never imagined . . . .

But life is uncertain and Mike was too young.

I will miss him.

I wonder what joy filled photographers do in heaven?


In Memory of Mike Baroli  – October 5, 2018

Favorite Photo, September 30 – my first magazine cover