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The man who stops time

Spike Bell’s camera is a time machine of local history
Author: Devan Mighton
Photographer: Syx Langemann, Photographs courtesy of Spike Bell.
3 months ago
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A photographer’s lens can stop time. A photograph is a frozen frame of a split second of life that is permanently etched on a sheet of celluloid. Photographers capture our special moments – weddings, vacations, the birth of a child – but some photographers, those who are lucky enough, get to document moments that shape society as a whole.

Local photographer and author Spike Bell has seen and documented a bit of everything – a who’s who of our society and history.

“I worked in the newspaper industry, and it was pretty interesting because there were some really interesting people,” states Bell. “I photographed nine Canadian prime ministers and six US presidents.”

The soon-to-be nonagenarian says his interest in cameras started around 1950, during the Korean War, where he served with the Royal Canadian Navy. After his service, he started into the newspaper industry in Victoria, British Columbia, before jumping over to the Vancouver Sun. After learning his trade out west, he moved halfway across the continent and became a photographer with the Detroit Free Press.

Bell says that the kind of access he used to get with yesterday’s dignitaries would not fly in today’s atmosphere. “The Secret Service tells you what to do, but that’s fine, I didn’t mind that – but it’s pretty regimented today,” he says. “It’s a struggle for a lot of guys with all the security and all that, but you try to work around it and do the best you can.”

Over the decades, he has met and photographed an assemblage of some of the most famous and infamous people in the world’s geopolitical and sports universes.

“I met some really interesting people,” recalls Bell. “Martin Luther King Jr. – I had a beloved conversation and photographs with him. I met Billy Graham, the Queen – I met her and Prince Philip. When I look back, I think, ‘Boy, am I lucky!’

“Compared with today, you probably couldn’t get within a mile of these people. Rosa Parks came over here to Windsor, and just what an absolutely delightful lady. I think back about all of these people that I was very fortunate to meet.”

Among the people he has photographed include former US presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and his brother, former Attorney General and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

“I met and shook hands with Dwight Eisenhower when he was president,” reflects Bell, who recalls Eisenhower as an outstanding gentleman who was loved by all who met him. “It was in at Cobo Hall, he was here for the Detroit Auto Show, and I was just lucky enough. His press secretary asked if I’d like to get closer to the president – and try that today!”

Senator Kennedy, who had declared his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan three weeks to the day after Bell photographed him. He also photographed President John F. Kennedy more than once during his political career.

He recalls that Martin Luther King Jr. had a voice that was unforgettable and stuck with you. Describing one of his speeches, “You could have heard a pin drop on a carpet. He was just so outstanding, an amazing man.”

“These little things you never forget; they just stick in your mind,” he says. “There’s all these people living in your head and when somebody brings them up, that’s when the memory kicks in.”

Bell has run his own studio sine 1971 and has worked weddings, shot portraits, commercial photography, and aerials. Now semi-retired and working out of his home, he looks back on the experience fondly. Also, over the course of his career, he has published three well-received books on the Windsor-Essex County area.

In 1993, Bell was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Government of Canada, as well as the Governor General of Canada 125th Medal in 1992. He is also a member of the American Society of Photographers and received his master’s degree in photography in 1980. He is a proud supporter and volunteer with Easter Seals, Rotary, and The Humane Society.

He says he sometimes look back on his career and asks, “Holy, did I do that? – and I did.”

When asked how he achieves such proficient shots, Bell compares how he shoots to how film directors, like Steven Spielberg, see and capture imagery.

“It’s like watching a movie,” explains Bell. “It’s going to unfold in front of you. Just pay attention and watch it – like a wedding. You watch from the beginning and how it ends at the reception and how these people react to each other – and you record what happens with these beautiful people at these weddings. I shot a lot of them. There were some good ones and some bad ones, but there was always something unfolding in front of you, and you just record it.”

As a local photographer, Bell has had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest sportsmen of his time. Naturally, several them have left indelible marks on both him and our society as a whole.

“I got to know Gordie Howe pretty good – he was a funny guy – and Ted Lindsay, they came into my studio,” remembers Bell. “There’s some really interesting people. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, when he played with the Tigers – just an incredible guy. Some of these guys had a sense of humour and you would just crack right up.”

One of Bell’s fondest memories of Howe revolve around how dedicated he was to the kids – even if it held up the lives of media members – indefinitely.

“I’ll tell ya, Gordie Howe never stopped giving out autographs,” he recalls. Bell says that if Howe was busy handing out autographs, it didn’t matter how long the lineup was, he was sticking around, and if you wanted a picture or quote for the paper, the kids came first.

Bell remembers famous pugilist and world champion Joe Louis as a kind, kind man and, also, recalls that fellow boxing G.O.A.T. contender, Muhammad Ali, was a charismatic and great man.

“Muhammad Ali, he’d have two bodyguards with him, and he kept saying to me to not worry about the bodyguards that their not going to beat your head in,” laughs Bell. “I said, ‘Oh good, I’ll live another day!’ He was that kind of guy – a real showman. He was just an incredible guy.”

Despite a career that has spanned into its eighth decade, Bell says that he isn’t done. He doesn’t think he has another book in him, but he has narrowed his once extensive camera collection down to his three favourites and he keeps them clicking.

He credits his stick-to-it-iveness to his wife, Christine, for supporting his passion.

“We’ve been married for 25 years, and she’s been my support,” admits Bell. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but, my God, we just keep plugging along. As long as my health holds out, I will continue on – that’s what I want to do.”

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