Xavier Magazine

Camera Man

It may be a digital world today, but leave it to Ted Thepe, S.J., to hunt down his favorite Kodachrome film in order to shoot his favorite subjects—unusual flowers and Xavier women’s basketball. Of course, he does have a digital camera, and in his photography class last fall he taught both digital and film. Thepe’s early interest in photography began at age 4 and led to him teaching chemistry at Xavier. But he never lost his fondness for the magic of black and white emulsion and how it responds to light and shadow.

“My photography is self-taught. When I was 22, my dad bought a Leica camera and let me use it. I couldn’t own it because of the Jesuits. His brother, my uncle, loved photography. Uncle Clement had no children, and he treated me like a son. He had an old-fashioned 4×5 negative film camera with a wooden base, a Kodak from the 1920s with a cover to put over your head. I was 4 or 5 when I first saw it. He took photos of every family event, and he gave me the camera when he died.”

“It was important to me because he did it and enjoyed it, and because I could represent people at events, even to be able to find sunlight and shadows that made sense to me. They felt good. I would ride my bike for miles out into the country and take my camera. I had a darkroom my uncle built for me near the coal room in the same place where my mother stored jars of cherries.”

“In the early days with the Jesuits, I thought I would do physics. A friend of mine and I were both interested more in science, and we built our own telescope. But I didn’t do well in calculus, so I decided to do chemistry because I didn’t need as much math. I taught high school for three years in Chicago, got a master’s in chemistry and was sent to Xavier to teach. The chemistry faculty liked me, and in the summer of 1962 the department chair sent me to an eight-week program at Texas A&M that was a basic course in radioactivity for college teachers.”

“The chemistry department had a classroom and I used it to build a radioisotope lab. I got $15,000 worth of government grants for our radiation monitoring equipment. I would buy radioisotope sources and bring them in and store them in our lead shields. We would take pre-1960 dimes, which had more silver, and stick them in the shield, and the silver became radioactive in the dimes and then it would dissipate quickly. It isn’t taught much anymore except in physics.”

“I used money I inherited from my mother for the Jesuits to buy the equipment we needed for our first science of photography course. We bought used cameras, a used enlarger and good tripods. I would teach the chemistry of photography in the first semester and the physics of photography in the second semester.”

“I also taught traditional black and white film photography for communication arts. This is a skill you can use for the rest of your life because you can take lovely pictures of your children and your pets and put these in a scrapbook. One of my students said one of the most important pictures she took was of her cousin, a young man who was visiting for the holidays, and he was driving back to college and was killed in an automobile accident, and that photo was the last photo ever taken of him.”

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