On episode 68 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with freelance photographer Al Pereira, about being an entrepreneur and running Advanced Photo, a photography store in North Reading, Massachusetts.

Show Notes

Advanced Photo’s Website
Contact Al Pereira
Find Al Pereira on Facebook
Find Al Pereira on LinkedIn
Gear Review: Yashica FX-3 35mm Film SLR
UPI – United Press International
The Eagle Tribune
Link to SaviorLabs Assessment


Picking Up A Camera – The Start of a Career
Working as a Freelance Photographer
A Hands On Experience – Working for United Press International
Darkrooms Before Computers
When Color Printing Became Popular
Camera Equipment Back In The Day
Al’s Photography Work
A Freelance Photographer is an Entrepreneur
The Danger of Being a News Photographer
Starting a Photography Business

Freelance Photography and Entrepreneurship with Al Pereira

Paul: Welcome to the Edge of Innovation. I’m here with Al Pereira, president, founder, chief photographer of Advanced Photo in North Reading, Massachusetts.

Al: Thank you very much for having me, Paul.

Paul: So, Al, we’ve known each other for a long time, and I’ve been following your career as a photographer and I thought it’d be interesting for our listeners to talk with somebody that is really good behind the camera.

Al: Ah, thanks for the compliment.

Paul: Well, we’ll see if we can find somebody after this. Right?

Al: There you go.

Picking Up A Camera – The Start of a Career

Paul: So, what, what made you pick up a camera?

Al: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. I was kind of laid up from work for a while due to an injury. And, I got bored, and I bought a camera. Not even a week later, I was driving down the street, and there was a fire. It happened to be in Malden, and I took pictures, and I actually had a black and white darkroom that I had started in my basement a couple of days after I bought it. So it was actually about a week after I bought the camera, I had a black and white darkroom, had somebody show me how to process the film. Anyway, I processed the film, and I printed a couple of pictures, showed them to a couple of friends. They said, “You should have taken that to the paper.”

And I said, “Okay. Maybe next time.” And then low and behold, something else happens, I get it, and I sold it to the paper, and here I am 35 years later.

Paul: Wow. So what is it? It’s 2017. So that would be…’83? Yeah. About ’83.

Al: Yeah. A little before ’83. Yeah.

Paul: So, alright. What in the world made you think, “Okay. I’m going to get a camera”?

Al: I’ve always been the photographer in the house, and the Polaroid Instant Cameras that we had and the little point-and-shoots. So everybody else would always cut everybody’s head off, and I always seemed to do it the right way. And I’ve always kind of been interested in cameras and taking pictures. So I’ve always been one for capturing that moment because it’s all about family and back then, it was about family. It should be all today too.

Paul: Okay, so it’s 1982, ’83, and you’re going to go out and buy a camera. What did you buy?

Al: A Yashica FX3.

Paul: Wow. See, now whenever you talk to photographers — just so you know. So if you’re out there listening, and you talk to a photographer, they know their equipment. They’ll always remember your first camera and so it was Yashica.

Al: FX3.

Paul: FX3. Did you buy a lot of lenses or just the one that came with it?

Al: I bought two lenses, a zoom, and a regular 50 millimeter.

Paul: So you were in… You were like, “Alright, I’m going to go and become a photographer.” At least a hobby. Right?

Al: Well, I intended it to be a hobby, but then after that first print got published, I had the bug, Basically, what I ended up doing was getting a scanner and putting it in my car. I had a portable scanner.

Paul: Oh, a police scanner.

Al: Police scanner.

Paul: Not a, not a photo scanner.

Al: Right, no. Well, we didn’t have them back then.

Paul: No, I know. I was just like, wow. That was early for a scanner. Okay. Go ahead.

Al: And, I’d go to sleep with it on. Something would happen, and I’d get up at 3:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning, and I’d get there, a bad accident or a fire or something. And the next day, I’d have the film processed and prints, and I’d take it down to the local paper.

Paul: Wow. So you were…I think the technical term was a stringer.

Working as a Freelance Photographer

Al: Well, I was a freelance photographer.

Paul: Freelance. Okay.

Al: Stringer came later on when I actually got picked up by United Press International.

Paul: Okay. So now you’re doing this. How many years were you doing it before you started…? You know, so you were freelance. Then you got picked up by UPI, and was there something between those?

Al: I was freelancing for a bunch of local papers. I actually expanded. I did the Summerville Journal, Medford This Week, Medford…what else? Cambridge Paper. And at times, depending on what I covered, The Globe and The Herald would buy my stuff. UPI picked me up after an incident in Melrose where there was a drowning of a young child, and he fell through the ice. And I happened to get there as they were bringing out two of the four and then they went looking for another one that actually ran home. And they didn’t know there was someone else in there. And then they basically said, “Let’s put the boat in,” and they found him, like about two minutes later. And I captured everything from them putting the boat in to finding him, putting him in the boat, and doing the CPR. The whole bit. And I happened to just take my film. I didn’t even process it. I took it down to The Herald, and then I believe, if I remember correctly, The Globe. And I went home.

And all of a sudden, I got a call from this guy from UPI saying, “We understand you have some photos of an incident.”

And I said, “Yeah.”

“Well, can you come in?”

And I did. And I started stringing for them ever since.

Paul: Oh, wow.

A Hands On Experience – Working for United Press International

Al: Yeah, and it was interesting because I felt like I was going to college but not going to college. I was getting the hands-on experience. I mean, I covered presidential races, the Jackson-Mondale races for president. I covered movie stars going to the Hasty Pudding, Sean Connery, Joan Rivers. I had spectacular photos of that. I covered the Celtics, the Bruins, the Red Sox, the Patriots. Every sporting event in Boston I did. You know, it was a lot of fun.

Paul: So now you did that for how long? I mean, you probably still do it occasionally, but when that was the main bread and butter of your business.

Al: Right. I mean, I was actually working a lot of hours for UPI, which I didn’t mind because I was learning the trade, and, like I said, it was like going to college, but I was actually doing the actual work without the books. I did it till ’86 when I got picked up by The Eagle Tribune. That happened was I put in an application, and they called me in for an interview. And I was still stringing, of course, for UPI. And, if you remember correctly, the riots in Lawrence was happening at the time. And the day before my interview I went and covered the riots up in Lawrence. And I took some great photos of an arrest and so forth, went back to UPI, and I reprinted them, and we put them on the wire.

But The Eagle Tribune was not a customer of UPI, but I had inserted a bunch of those photos that we used, took it with me to the interview along with my other pictures in my portfolio. The gentleman that interviewed me noticed the photos. He didn’t recognize where they were, and he said, “Do you mind if we use them?”

I said, “Absolutely not.” And the next day, I was hired.

Paul: Wow.

Al: Yeah. It was a surprise.

Darkrooms Before Computers

Paul: Okay. So you went from being injured, thinking about photography, buying a camera, starting to set up a darkroom. I mean, this is just such a different world, because now everybody’s got a darkroom in their computer.

Al: Right. And that is today’s darkroom. It’s harder now, to be honest with you.

Paul: Oh, definitely. But I’m just saying that you had to go out and buy chemicals. You had to buy enough enlarger. You had to buy the trays. You had to learn all about it. You had to get a darkroom. You know, so you were really committed to it. And, so it’s sort of, I mean… You know, back in those days, it was a commitment. You really became a photographer, and you sort of learned all these different things.

Al: It was actually easier to learn to be a photographer, back then than it is now.

Paul: Yeah, that’s probably true.

Al: You can actually set your mind to do it even today, but, you know, like for example, mixing chemicals. It was easy because your heart was in it. But you could pick it up a lot faster than you can do like, for example, Photoshop, unless you have a really big brain, and you’re really smart. You know, you can pick it up faster. But I find that Photoshop, at the beginning, was very difficult to maneuver and so forth. Even today, there is so much to it that, where do you start?

Printing, for example, locations in the photograph and the dodging and the burning, that was art because you could put your hands together, and you’d have a little hole that the light would go through, and you make it wider or lighter. The smell of the chemicals when you mixed it. It was just amazing.

Paul: Yeah.

Al: It was a different world.

Paul: It was. It was.

Al: Simpler.

Paul: Well, it was very simple. It was simple. There was a lot of depth to it, though. You could get very complicated. And I think a lot of that is lost in the new digital photography because you don’t appreciate what’s really going on. You don’t learn the actual, don’t want to say the physics of the situation. But, when you see that paper develop in the pool of developer, you know, in the tray…

Al: The image coming before your eyes.

Paul: The image coming up, you’re sort of like, “Oh, okay.” And then the dodging and burning. And it sort of teaches itself to you. Whereas with Photoshop, you just open it, and there’s a picture on the screen. Oh, is that good, or is that bad? And you don’t really get sucked in as much.

Al: Right. And what’s interesting is, though, that if you go from one screen to another, you’re going to get a different color, a different tone. Actually, it could be lighter or darker, and that confuses a lot of people. Where, when you see that photo come up, it’s either you did it the right way or you didn’t. And there’s no in between.

Paul: And we’re talking about black and white.

When Color Printing Became Popular

Paul: Did you ever do developing color printing?

Al: No because—

Paul: Without a machine?

Al: No. It was actually… And I don’t know if it was even possible to do it in the trays because—

Paul: No, you had to do it in a drum. Remember? I mean, Cibachrome? I don’t know if you remember that, but that the “easiest,” but it was just so… I remember, being a black-and-white photographer in the darkroom and you being so involved in the process. Color, you couldn’t see what was happening. And that really disappointed me. And then you’d sort of put it in this jar, you know, this big tube with the cover on it. You’d rock it back and forth. You’d dump that out, put the other stuff in, rock it back and… Well, it was like developing film.

And then you pull it out, and it looks terrible. It was like…huh. I remembered many times where I’d shoot something on the enlarger, expose it, and then develop it, and then pull it out and stop it.

Al: I remember when I was stringing for UPI. We were strictly a black and white printing in black and white. And the color was starting to get popular. And the AP was doing it.

Paul: Right USA Today came out, and it was starting to print in color.

Al: And of remember we were trying to get a really good color print. And at the beginning, it was very, very difficult that we almost gave up, but we couldn’t because our competition was doing it. Eventually, we mastered it and so forth, but it was a whole different world.

Camera Equipment Back In The Day

Al: Let’s go back to, for example, the equipment that we used. It was a manual focuses lenses. There were not auto-focus lenses. I had a very hard time giving up my manual focus. It took me a while.

Paul: Have you? Have you given it up?

Al: Yeah. I had no choice. Yeah.

Paul: Well, you know, I mean, it does work really well.

Al: It does. But it takes a little longer to focus where you go to a wedding now, you tend to want to do the job quickly. And today’s equipment is fantastic.

Al’s Photography Work

Paul: Right. So you’re United Press International. You go to the Lawrence Eagle Tribune. And then what? What was the next step in your career?

Al: Well, while I was stringing at UPI, I was also doing what ends I actually hooked up with a photographer out of Medford College. And he and I ran into each other when I was on assignment for a local newspaper. And he said, “You know, I need help, so could you come over?”

So I did. He interviewed me, and he sort of basically hired me on a freelance basis, but he was willing to train me as a wedding photographer, a studio photographer. And that’s where I learned how to be a really good wedding photographer and portrait photographer. I also ended up doing all his black and white printing. Back then, it was all black and white, and head-and-shoulder shots for banks or any companies his would do.

I remember one time he got a job for a company called You First. And it was a uniform company. They would pick up your uniforms, and they would clean them and take them back. So they hired him to do a photo of someone wearing a uniform. Half of it was really spotless, really clean. The other half was torn, greasy, and so forth. And I got to end up being the model.

Paul: Oh, really. Oh, wow.

Al: And they used it for many years. And what’s funny is that that company now is one of my customers at Advanced Photo. And they actually remember that photo.

Paul: Interesting.

Al: Yeah, so I was always, when I was freelancing for UPI as, as a stringer, I always kind of had my own little business on the side, doing photos for banks doing photos for doctors, the weddings, portraits, the sports photography. Also, I would, on my spare time, which was very little, would still do work for the local weekly newspapers.

A Freelance Photographer is an Entrepreneur

Paul: So now would you characterize yourself as an entrepreneur?

Al: I would think so.

Paul: I would think so. I mean, from what I know of you and knowing you always have that entrepreneurial edge, always thinking, “Hey, what about this?” Or, “What about this?”

Al: I’m always thinking.

Paul: Right. So now you’ve expanded. You’re working for Lawrence Eagle. You’re doing wedding pictures. You’re doing freelancing, and then what happened?

The Danger of Being a News Photographer

Al: While I was on assignment for the Eagle Tribune, I was covering this spot news and long story short, it turned out to be somebody, took their own life. And if I had known that, we wouldn’t have been there. But because of the secrecy that the cops ended up having, and the way they talk on the radio made you think that it was something serious.

So I took a reporter with me, and we went to the location. And, I get there, and I’m doing a few shots of the area, and we’re just waiting for the cops to come out so we could find out what was going on. But right next door, a family, these people, came out of the house, and apparently, there were family members of this person. And they didn’t like us being there. And all of a sudden, they just beat the you know what out of me. They really did a number on me, and the reporter was trying to get them away. And she actually got pushed around also. By the time the police came over, I was really bleeding and my back was really sore. And I ended up going to the hospital. And I was actually out of work for a long time. And I ended up getting a back operation because of it.

And with that free time, I decided, “You know what? I’ve always wanted to start a business,” so I decided to start a business.

Paul: Okay. Well not the recommended path to it necessarily. But, so what was that business?

Starting a Photography Business

Al: You know, a friend of mine owned a photo store in Methuen called Advance Photo, and I liked what he did. I liked the way he printed the photos. He had a one-hour photo, so he printed photos for people. He really loved it. People really liked the results, and I was thinking, “You know what? This could be me, but I want to do a little bit more.”

So before I opened up, I actually had a little portrait studio in his place. I learned how to use the machines, and about a year later, I opened up Advanced Photo in North Reading.

Al: When was that?

Al: 1992. March 4th.

Paul: Wow!

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You’ve been listening to part 1 of our interview with Al Pereira! Be sure to listen to Part 2 here!

Also published on Medium.