My first meeting with John Peterson was memorable. He, a battle-hardened photo editor fresh from the war that was the Toronto Star in the early-1970’s; me, a fresh-faced kid newly off the train from small-town Saskatchewan, just 18.
We met in the gymnasium at Loyalist College on the day students signed up for classes. I proudly showed him my portfolio – perhaps a dozen prints of my best work in an old yellow enlarging paper box. He flipped through them, barely looking at them, pulled a drag on his cigarette and grunted, “well, at least you can use a camera.”
I was crushed. And then I got mad and vowed to prove myself to this SOB and to make myself the best photographer I could be.
I was in the Journalism program and did well in that introduction to photography course. Sometime in that first semester John cornered me to ask about my career goals. I told him I wanted to be a news photographer and he told me that was a good thing, cause my writing wasn’t that strong. I should have been offended, but I was happy that I had a chance to chat about my career goals.
It was immediately evident that John had an incredible capacity for hard work. Several nights a week he’d stay late at the college, working until 9 or later. His supper was black coffee and a cellophane-wrapped sandwich bought from the cafeteria moments before closing time. The darkrooms were open one night a week and I usually stayed at school to make prints and hang out with fellow photo students. I didn’t have a car and often hitched a ride into town with a fellow student. One night I ran into John when leaving the building. He offered me a ride and then suggested we get a beer before going home.
Thus I was introduced to John’s second home, a faded watering hole called The Chart Room in downtown Belleville. The beer was cheap and a tradition was born. We (and often several other classmates) met a couple of evenings a week to talk about news, newspapering and photojournalism. I’m sure I learned more about the news business with a beer in front of me than I did in class.
John was different than anyone I’d known growing up. He was divorced, living in an apartment on his own, cooking his own meals, doing his own laundry. He cooked, baked and made marmalade and home-made ketchup. He loved to camp, hike, canoe and was a scuba diver. I’d dreamed of doing those outdoor activities and his example encouraged me to turn my dreams into reality.
On a snowy winter weekend he drove me and another student to the Adirondack Mountains where we hiked to a remote cabin. It was a long drive on snow-covered roads for one night of adventure, but John needed that wilderness time. It grounded him and it whet my appetite for more adventures.
John loved to hike and he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, twice. The trail runs from Georgia to Maine and is about 3500 kms. long. On the trail he was known as “The Antiques Roadshow” for his outdated gear and advanced age. He was age 60 and 70 when he did the AT.
In second year, our class was responsible for producing the bi-monthly school newspaper, The Pioneer. Production day was Friday and we often worked past midnight to perfect our small publication. John would make a run to McDonald’s to pick up supper and also beer and snacks for the post-production gathering at his apartment. Sometimes the party would go all night and we’d fall asleep on the floor. More than once he cooked us a hot breakfast. Needless to say we were a close-knit group and many of us are still close.
John was instrumental in getting me my first job on a daily. While at the Toronto Star he befriended the photo editors at several dailies in south-western Ontario. When Windsor Star photo editor Bill Bishop was hiring a photographer he called John and I sent off my pictures, hoping for a break. I didn’t get that job, but Bill told me he would have another opening in 18 months and that I should keep in touch. I did, sending Bill clippings monthly. I worked at The Star for 22 years.
John was a man of great vision. He transformed Canadian photojournalism as the driving force behind several innovations.
He was the behind-the-scenes spark that created the Ontario News Photographer’s Association, which has evolved to become a national organization representing photographers from coast to coast to coast. While at the Toronto Star, he called a meeting of a small group of photo editors and senior photographers and planted the seed for the ONPA.
He spoke at one of the organization’s early educational seminars and edited it’s newsletter Newsviews for many years.
He founded the photojournalism program at Loyalist, which continues to graduate quality photojournalists. He built the program, hired the staff and set it’s direction. He did innovative projects like the Pixel Pioneer, an all-digital newspaper published a decade before the tidal wave of digital photography.
He founded The Loyalist Photography Workshop, a four-day workshop for community newspaper photographers and reporters. The annual workshop ran for more than a decade.
But these ideas took more than vision to be successful. They took planning, organizing and hard work, thousands of hours of hard work. John was a successful immigrant, he worked hard, built a life in Canada and made a difference here. America’s loss was Canada’s gain. He made Canadian photojournalism better.
John was there to mentor me as my career grew. Many times on assignment, I heard his voice, urging me to work harder, see better, climb the next hill, push the envelope, print better – all to make better pictures. He set a standard – and a high one – for me and many other Canadian photojournalists. He made us better.
Later he encouraged me to consider putting the cameras down to become a photo editor. Few photographers want to make that career move, but through his example I saw the value in becoming a newsroom leader.
John made a difference in my life and career and in the lives and careers of many Canadian photojournalists. I was and remain thankful that he was there for me and I mourn his passing.
I’ll remember him as a teacher, mentor and friend. I’ll remember him every time I pack my dive gear, paddle a canoe or pitch a tent. And of course I’ll remember him when I pick up my cameras.