In Memoriam; Honoring The Life Of Herbert Keppler 1925-2008
Keppler, perhaps the most gifted, honored, influential, and beloved journalist
in the photographic field, passed away peacefully on January 4, 2008, at the
age of 82 after a short illness. His career as a photo magazine writer, editor,
editorial director, and publisher spanned more than 57 years, beginning in 1950
as an associate editor at Modern Photography. As a result of his passionate
interest in cameras and all aspects of picture taking, his natural writing talent
honed by newspaper experience, his executive leadership, his brilliant, wide-ranging
intellect, and his tireless efforts to improve the magazine, Keppler rose steadily
through the ranks at Modern to become its long-time editorial director &
publisher, his title when he left Modern to join Popular Photography in '87
as vice president and publishing director.
Keppler worked at Popular Photography for over 20 years, helping to shape the magazine's format, enhance its state of the art on-site test lab, upgrade its content and graphic presentation, and ensure its successful transition into the digital era. He was, as he often said, "not the retiring type" so it is fitting that Keppler was still diligently turning out his much-admired practical hands-on columns on photography written in his inimitable homespun style until shortly before his untimely death.
The son of Victor Keppler, one of the most acclaimed and successful commercial photographers and illustrators on the New York advertising scene of the '30s through the '50s, he developed an early passion for photography. By the time he was a teen-ager, Keppler was shooting and printing portraits of his classmates at the Admiral Farragut Academy and selling them to their parents. After earning a B.A. in Military Science at Harvard, Keppler was commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy at the tail end of World War II, served as an officer aboard an LCS (landing craft support ship), and eventually became a lieutenant, the commanding officer of a crew of 65. Although he was only 21 at the time, his leadership ability was evident. When his crew of seasoned veterans of the Pacific campaign was reluctant to take on a particularly onerous and dangerous maintenance task, Keppler took up the proper tools and began doing it himself. "Sir, what are you doing?" a crewmember asked incredulously. "I wouldn't ask you to do anything I wouldn't do myself," he replied. Needless to say, the crew promptly rose to the challenge and did what was required. This incident has nothing to do with photography, but it reveals something about the unique character of the man who was to become one of the most influential people in shaping the photographic industry for over half a century.
Keppler, affectionately known as Burt to his close friends and colleagues, has been given countless honorary awards and titles throughout his long and distinguished career--and over the years he was widely hailed as "Mr. Photography" and "The Conscience of the Industry." Keppler was also among only a handful of Americans ever to receive one of the highest awards to be bestowed upon a foreigner by the emperor of Japan for his notable contribution to the Japanese photographic industry and its phenomenal success in the US. He was presented with "The Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette" at a splendid conferment ceremony held at the Japanese Consulate in New York on December 9, 2002, by Ambassador Yoshihiro Nishida, Consul General of Japan.
While Keppler was certainly appreciative of all the honors and recognition that came his way, there are no official honors given for his two most significant personal attributes--integrity and compassion. What probably mattered to him most is that millions of photographic enthusiasts all over the world thought of him as "Kind Old Uncle Burt," the man whose sage, warm-hearted advice and counsel helped them get more out of their photography for over half a century.
To note that Keppler was a positive force who helped advance the industry he loved so deeply, that he was a tireless advocate and thought-provoking guide for millions of amateur photographers all over the world, and that he was a practical camera design and marketing genius whose advice was sought and implemented by countless photographic manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, is merely to scratch the surface of his remarkable achievements. Knowing him was a privilege and working with him was an honor. But even those who never met him feel a distinct sense of kinship with him and a palpable sense of loss at his passing. He was a magnificent human being, not only in what he did, but also in who he was. We will sorely miss his puckish sense of humor, his joie de vivre, his insight, his unfailing loyalty, his kindness, and his staunch integrity. But most of all we will miss him because we know we will not see his like again. He was, in every sense, an honorable gentleman of the old school, a species all too rare in this or any other time.
While I am reluctant to add anything to Jason's loving and accurate descriptions
of Burt, I feel I must add some brief comments of my own in honor of a man who
had much to do with shaping my own experiences in the photo magazine world.
I worked for Burt for a few years during my tenure with Popular Photography
in the late '80s, and always found him to be a gentleman, an honorable
man and a fount of wisdom about all things photographic. But it was in his demeanor
and the way he worked with those around him that I drew the most inspiration;
always steady, always calm, and always concerned about his friends, associates,
and even competitors. To say that I owe him a personal debt for this, his guiding
principles, would be an understatement; to say that he had a profound influence
on photography and its popularization goes without saying. While his words and
works will stay with us in the archives of the various publications in which
he labored, his character and sense of presence will be what will stay with
me. He was and will always be one important thing to me: a gentleman.
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