Book signing: Over the Hill? No. Never, photog says

“Fred Hill: A Photographer’s Life” features a cover photo from Mount Evans in Colorado.
“Fred Hill: A Photographer’s Life” features a cover photo from Mount Evans in Colorado.

“Fred Hill: A Photographer’s Life” features a cover photo from Mount Evans in Colorado.

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What: Fred Hill book signing

• When: 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. today, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday

• Where: Blue Turtle Gallery, 1124 Adams Ave., La Grande

• Details: Coffee table book “Fred Hill: A Photographer’s Life” sells for $39.95

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By Jeff Petersen

Go! staff

Fred Hill caught the photo bug as an 11-year-old in Elgin when he got his first “plain old” box camera.

He still has the bug 82 years later.

Hill, 93, will visit Blue Turtle Gallery, 1124 Adams Ave., La Grande for a book signing from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. His 8-1/2 by 11 coffee table book, “Fred Hill: A Photographer’s Life,” produced with assistance from George Venn, retails for $39.95 and was printed by Color Press Inc. in Walla Walla, Wash.

The 82-page book features a stark shot Hill took of 14,240-foot Mount Evans in Colorado on its cover. The road to Mount Evans is called the road into the sky.

The Mount Evans trip was just one of many adventures Hill has taken in his lifetime — and recorded on film.

The idea for “A Photographer’s Life” was born when Hill, then 90, anticipating his funeral service, put together an autobiographical DVD.

“The 10-minute DVD had only one problem,” Venn writes in his introduction. “There was no text, no story line, no voice to illuminate the photographs. Recognizing this problem, Fred asked his friend Eric Valentine, photographer and judge, and Venn, his editor and a writer, to provide narration while the DVD played at his funeral.”

Only one problem. Hill continued to thrive. So at age 92, he was talked into throwing a public party where Hill could play the DVD and comment on the images.

The book is an outgrowth of that public party and the DVD. The book also includes, in its back, captions tied to the pictures with explanations of how they were taken and in what situation.

The book also includes transcriptions of what some of the speakers said at that gathering last August at the First Baptist Church.

Eight decades earlier, at age 11, Hill caught the photo bug. He remembers a visit to Garth Westenskow of Imbler, who was three to four years older and had a darkroom in his cellar.

“He showed me as the prints came up in the tray of developer, and I was really hooked,” Hill
said.

Among the highlights of the book are pictures showing Fred’s Photo Service in Elgin in the late 1930s.

“I rented the building for $3 a month including water,” Hill recalled. As a high school student, he offered drug store-type film finishing for the town.

“In by 5 p.m., out by 9 a.m. was my motto,” he said.

Hill had the capability of developing 20 rolls at a time, and at age 17, convinced the school superintendent to hire Hill to take all the class pictures.

Big-time mentors

A big break in Hill’s life came in 1940 when he met Minor White, then the director of the Works Progress Administration, which was headquartered locally in the Ten Depot Street building in La Grande. White today is hailed as one of America’s greatest photographers.

Then, White was offering a beginning photography class. Fred’s mom, Etha, saw the ad and said, ‘Minor, that’s an odd name. Let’s go take his class.’”

Hill and White became friends, and White didn’t have a car, so on many Saturdays, Hill would pick White up and they’d go on photo adventures, often to High Valley near Cove.

Later, Hill joined the Army Air Force and during World War II served in a unit that developed film for photo reconnaissance in the Philippines.

Another big break came after the war when Hill was accepted into the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. There, one of his teachers was Ansel Adams, a photographer and environmentalist famous for his black-and-white photographs of the American West.

“He taught me how to make a living in photos and his technique of painting with light,” Hill
said.

Hill’s life came full circle when he retired and came back in the late 1980s to the Grande Ronde Valley he loved.

The pictures in “A Photographer’s Life”are some of Hill’s favorite prints. They take the reader on a journey from when Hill was 3 months old, in 1920, before he caught the photo bug, to the present.

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