Erik Poppke: Roving Cameraman

Poppke with camera and mountain rangeWhat can be said about a man who willingly gets up before 5 a.m. on a winter day, dresses in an odd assortment of clothing (thinking only of the warmth the layers will provide against the chill) and drives on a desolate two-lane road to a point overlooking California’s Death Valley to take photographs before sunrise?

Perhaps it’s best to let Erik Poppke say it himself. “I’ve tried to be normal,” he explains with a laugh emphasizing the tiny lines around his grey-blue eyes, “but I’ve always had adventurous blood. When I worked 9-to-5 jobs, I was in constant pain.”

Other than the discomfort of rising at an unnatural hour, Erik is feeling no pain today. He has a carful of sleepy shutterbugs who have joined him for one of his “Golden Lotus Photographic Safaris.” The only sound is that of hot coffee being sipped. The participants are an interesting combination: Joanne is a jewelry designer and art student, Manya is the designer for dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov’s clothing line and Kim is Manya’s assistant. All are following Erik’s lead in pursuit of the best possible pictures of Death Valley and, to do that, they have to be there when nature’s lighting director flatters it most.

The scramble to get to the best possible position before the sun breaks atop Zabriskie Point is almost frantic, with Erik calmly stroking his salt-and-pepper-tinged beard and quietly making suggestions. “Set up your tripod first.” A few minutes later he adds, “Be sure and cover yourself, bracket every shot” (translation is to shoot at several exposures to be certain to get it just right). The final instruction: “The sun will break over your left shoulder and there will be this incredible glow, lighting up the entire valley. But it’s only for a short time and then it’s gone. So be ready to shoot and shoot a lot before the sun flattens out the colors.” Minutes later, cameras start clicking and the drama of the sky’s pink and violet hues is not lessened because of Erik’s accurate prediction. It’s almost overwhelming to be able to scan a full 360 degrees and see potentially great photographs from every angle. Heads are turning, tripods are shifting, positions are jockeyed, producing an incongruous buzz of activity on the overlook, otherwise barren of visitors. But just as Erik warned, the magical moments are soon gone.

“See that cliff over there?” he says, motioning to a precarious ridge jaggedly stretching to a point high above the immense valley. “I once carried my large-format camera and a 30-pound tripod across the narrow goat path that runs along its rim, using only a flashlight to see, so that I could get a sunrise shot.” (He admits to several moments of doubt during that climb.)

Although obviously willing to push himself, Erik is no taskmaster. For one thing, not everyone on his safaris is a photographer. Some go to observe the wildlife, to sketch or just to experience the surrounding beauty. And the photographic ability of the others runs the gamut from beginning to expert. If they don’t care to give 150 percent in the hunt for the ultimate image, “that’s OK,” Erik says, but for those who do, he’s game. When a fleeting sunset frustrates two members of the group, he arranges another wee hour wake-up call and makes plans to return to the same site with them the next morning.

Erik has spent much of his 50 years behind a camera in one capacity or another, including 12 of those years as stage director for “The Tonight Show” and other NBC-TV programs. He shares his expertise eagerly and effortlessly in the spirit of the great photographer Ansel Adams, with whom he studied for two weeks during the NBC days. What still stands out in Erik’s memory is the master’s sincere appreciation for everyone’s photographic ability. In his critiques, Adams always stressed the positive aspects of a photograph and made only simple suggestions about possible variations of shooting to improve the work.

Reflecting on the day’s shooting, Erik’s students comment on the particular beauty of the desert in winter. With another nod to Adams, he replies that on his trips, timing is never accidental. “Ansel Adams felt that every photograph has that ‘decisive moment’—the perfect time to take the picture,” Erik explains, and whether or not those moments ever come depends in part on scheduling. A photographic safari to Africa, for instance, is timed to coincide with the animal migration; his train trip through Mexico’s spectacular Copper Canyon is taken in the cooler winter months.

The object of Erik’s safaris is always nature, the realm of photography he likes best. Other destinations have included the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, the Rocky Mountains and Utah’s Bryce Canyon. When asked his favorite, his reply is, “When I’m in the mountains, I’m convinced it’s the mountains and when I’m in the desert, I’m convinced it’s the desert. I guess it’s where I am at the moment.”

That’s the kind of guy Erik is: intensely involved with whatever he is doing, wherever he is, but always alert to the possibility of something completely new and different, somewhere else. The “adventurous blood” he refers to has been in command ever since he first ventured into the adult world.

After a test given by the Navy, a young Erik was told he showed aptitude for several job assignments, including a C.T. “What’s a C.T.?” he asked. Told that this was classified information, he immediately decided to become one (a communications technician, that is).

He spent the next two years in intelligence work with the U.S. embassy on the island of Cyprus, during far more tranquil times in the Middle East, and he jokingly describes this period of his life as straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. “There I was, halfway around the world, driving a red 1954 Corvette convertible all over the island and chasing cabaret girls,” he says, his hands in energetic, expressive motion. (“I’m Italian,” he explains. “Tie my hands behind my back and I’m speechless.”) After that assignment Erik went on to work for the CIA and the FBI for a time — hard to believe, given the happy-go-lucky free spirit that he is today, until you think about the fervor that he brings to photography.

When Erik wanted a change, he decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He contacted Lucille Ball about getting into her actor’s workshop. She wrote him saying that from his previous work experience, she felt a better place for him would be on the other side of the camera. He took Miss Ball’s advice — and a job as a mail boy at NBC.

The network had only five stage directors at the time, each with tenure of around 20 years. “They told me ‘the ranks have never been broken,’” Erik says, “but it must not have registered with me and it certainly didn’t deter me.” After each day delivering mail, Erik would go home, change clothes and return to the studio, put on earphones and studiously observe any director at work. His persistence finally paid off when a desperate department head tried him out as director of Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal,” launching the former mail boy’s 12-year NBC career and a gig with the “Tonight Show.”

Erik never did take on a corporate persona, though. On the contrary. “Having become a true product of the ‘60s,” he recalls, “off came the penny loafers and down came my hair — to my shoulders. They didn’t quite know what to do with me. Because many of the stars at the time related to me and therefore requested me, they couldn’t fire me,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes and a barely suppressed grin. “I became somewhat of a resident hippie, the ‘enlightened one.’”

Eventually, detachment turned to alienation. “I was hobnobbing with movie stars, television celebrities and presidents but something was missing,” he says. I lived on Mulholland Drive, horsebacked on those hills, partied with Hollywood’s biggest and brightest. But one day, I woke up and knew I had to go.”

Through the ups and downs of the ensuing years — including several relocations, a stint in public television, learning carpentry to support a new family — Erik stubbornly continued to refine his skills in still photography. “Successful people never think ‘No . . .’ They’re determined. They may suffer,” he says with the heartiest of laughs, “and it may take a long time, but with tenacity, they can’t miss.”

Erik’s first commercial photography job was for Martin Marietta. He continued shooting nature photography and as time went on, he was able to market fine art photography as well. But as he approached his 50th birthday, he grew weary of competing with aggressive young photographers and longed for the freedom to travel. The idea of doing photo safaris struck him as a creative solution.

That was about six years ago. Today, Erik’s life is a pleasant mixture of Golden Lotus Photographic Safaris, commercial photography and co-parenting (he is now divorced) with his former wife. He is back in southern California, conducting his affairs from a hilltop location — in an art-deco-style Greyhound bus.

“I honestly didn’t want to even look at the bus but did just to get a friend off my back,” he says bluntly. “I took one look and went ‘whoa’! It’s so good-looking I get stopped everywhere I go. People even applaud when I pull in!” The bus gives Erik the mobility he craves. “I must be akin to a Bedouin.”

What’s in store for a man who willingly gets out of bed before 5 a.m. to take pictures, worked for the CIA, directed Johnny Carson and was once a carpenter?

Erik wants to retreat from the frenetic pace of southern California and concentrate on fine-art quality photography. He plans to move to Oregon, buy a dome to live in and set up his studio there, continuing his involvement with his children and, of course, escorting travelers on photographic adventures.

Does this highly individualistic professional ever have trouble dealing with his temporary apprentices? “No,” he says. “Keep in mind I worked with a lot of personalities during my days with the ‘Tonight Show.’” With an all-knowing wink, Erik adds: “The only person I ever had any trouble with was Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

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