The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

Adventures in Photography
Rick Bell
Program date: May 19, 2010

Rick Bell is well known to many of our members. His wife Eva (Dzilums) who joined him tonight, is also a photographer. With over three decades of experience, Rick has worked for Toronto Life magazine, the Evening Telegram, and Ontario Place. He joined Gulf Oil in 1974. At the time it was the best job any photographer could have - a top floor studio, access to executive assistants, permission to ride the executive jets and a generous budget. His boss sent him to a PPofO (Professional Photographers of Ontario) meeting to see what he could learn - he came back as chairman of their Commercial branch. Two years later, he became president of the Ontario division (wife Eva later became president of the Ontario division, and then of Canada). Rick left Gulf in 1979 just ahead of the oil industry downsizing to open his own studio, Rick Bell Associates (

Both Rick and his wife have been active in training photographers since Rick joined Gulf Oil. Rick attended Humber, NSIbut says he never graduated (he is a member of their advisory board). A number of years ago in 2002, he proposed a five-day school program to the PPOC (Professional Photographers of Canada Inc.) and was turned down. Today, Niagara School of Imaging at Brock University, the result of that idea, is still going strong with Rick as the executive director. The late summer get-together features a variety of programs with small classes at reasonable prices, good food, top accommodations and leading photographers from across the continent as instructors.

Following are just a few of the stories told by Rick. Members wishing to hear the full presentation can borrow an audio or video version from our library. Before beginning his talk, Rick "tipped his hat" to our editor, Bob Lansdale as his mentor (Bob and his late wife Marg were long time friends with Rick and Eva).

What looked like a dream job turned out to be the worst six months of Rick's career. He was working for Gerald Campbell Studios when he received an invitation to join sports photographer Mike Burns at a local race track to show what he could do. The two photographers stood at the finish line. Their objective: to capture the winning horse on film at its last stride before crossing the finish line. The photos had to make the horse look like the winner it was. Mike used a vintage Nikon F while Rick was handed a cheap Kodak Instamatic. Over a week went by with no word, so Rick decided his shots were no good. Then he received a call and a job offer. Eight of his ten photographs with the little box camera were as good or better than Mike's Nikon F shots. Unfortunately, his new job took him to races all over Southern Ontario from November to the following April - lousy weather filled with snow, mud, rain and sun.

Terminal One TorontoRick took many aerial shots for Gulf. On one trip, Rick's pilot called the tower at Pearson airport to say he was flying to Brampton next. To their surprise, they were told to fly directly over the airport terminal. This gave him the opportunity to photograph the old Pearson Terminal One from a seldom seen perspective. He quickly loaded a 2 1/4 camera and leaned out of the plane to shoot. The control tower spotted him and alerted the pilot someone was hanging out a window - he was promptly pulled back in but he did succeed in grabbing a shot. On another outing, he rented a helicopter ($600/hour) and along with his client, flew out over Lake Ontario flying back towards the Clarkson facility. The refinery looked like two white boxes. Unlike the old days when lots of smoke and steam were desirable, he had alerted the manager to ensure this shot would be pristine and ecologically correct. All machinery except for two cat crackers, which don't emit smoke or steam were idle. Suddenly, as they were coming in for the shot, plumes and plumes of smoke rose up in air. Once over the refinery, two other helicopters were flying below them. Wondering what was wrong, he took his shots anyway. It turned out that one of the cat crackers had blown up and was lying across a nearby road on fire. While his photographs didn't make the annual report, they did help to get money from the insurance company.

Rick became one of first digital photographers in spite of his love of film. Rick takes photographs for Canada's Walk of Fame and for TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). He typically shoots 20 rolls a day, keeping the Colorgenics lab open beyond 11 pm to process and print 4x6 prints - six copies of each (36 frames x 20 rolls x 6 prints = 4,320 prints). That's a lot of prints. It is important to be sure the frame number on the back of each print matches its negative frame number. Every print had to be hand-numbered and double checked before sending them to the news media, and host organizations. It was this logistic nightmare that led Rick to digital photography.
At a PPOC meeting one night, a speaker from Kodak mentioned that when you have a JPEG file, the number imprinted on the back of EACH print will always match the image file. Since the print number is extracted from the file's metadata, it has to be exactly the same number. Rick waited until the end of the program and asked the chap if he had heard correctly. The Kodak rep assured Rick that indeed the number on each file was identical on the resulting print. Rick went out the next day and spent $10,000 (to end his nightmare) for his first digital camera - a 6 megapixel Olympus and a new Mac laptop. He thought they would last forever.

Three months later Rick was photographing visitors from Japan for his company's chairman. The session was taking longer than usual because the camera's write-time was extremely slow. The exasperated chairman kept asking what was taking so long and urging him to speed things up. Thus to overcome that problem the following week Rick bought his second (and third) new model digital camera. From the beginning Rick took an inverter and Mac laptop along in his car. This lets him dump his image files to computer and edit his shots on location. A DVD with images was immediately given to the client at the end of each assignment.

Toronto sky lineRick touched on the current hot topic of copyright and the complexity of copyright issues in this day and age. (Since 1972 Rick has been deeply involved in pushing corrective legislation before the Canadian copyright issuegovernment). A Calgary firm called searching for an aerial night shot of Toronto (such shots are just not possible). Rick offered the firm a night skyline shot taken off shore just after dusk. The image was accepted to be used on a Toronto Yellow Pages cover. His contract stipulated a one time use. To his surprise, his photo appeared in TV ads, on buses and even on billboards - including one attached to his studio building. He complained to the company that his $500 fee was for a single use. The issue was complicated in that the subsequent uses were of a photograph of the Yellow Pages book with his photograph on its cover, taken by another party. Now who owns the copyright in this case? He managed to squeeze $4,500 out of them.

spot the mouseRick described one copy work assignment with a twist. He was hired to photograph paintings at Inco after Vale bought the company. The paintings had been commissioned by Inco in the 1950s. After photographing the collection, Rick carefully went over each image inch by inch to be sure there were no faults. Suddenly, in one image he spotted a tiny mouse on skis. He asked his client, who said she had hoped it wouldn't be noticed since the story will be told in a book. This is the story: The first painting, Leaving the cagefinished in 1952 or 3, was called "Leaving the Cage." In the group of miners depicted there was one black person. When the finished painting went to New York for comment, word came back "we don't have any blacks working in the mines." The artist responded noting the faces in the painting included the actual faces of the men who worked in the mine including the one negro face who was front and center. New York replied, "if you want to keep the assignment, we have no blacks in the mines." The black miner became white. However – the miner's nick-name was mouse, so the artist added a tiny mouse in every painting - some hard to find, some quite obvious.

photographers' cageRick has photographed for Canada's "Walk of Fame" and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) since they started. He is one of the few photographers allowed on the red carpet - all other photographers are behind a barrier. Rick gave us behind the scenes insights about the many entertainment people we all know, like Celine Dione, Mike Myers, Shania Twain, Keno Reeves, Danny De Vito, Paris Hilton, and many more. Since he does work for Warner Brothers, Rick gets to use the privilege of a "seat sitter" who holds a choice seat for him. 
During the TIFF red carpet ceremonies, regular photographers are in a caged box outside the barrier. Rick helps them get shots by moving media people out of their way. Some of the pros shoot and wi-fi the images to a nearby car. Their shots are in Los Angeles before the red carpet walk ends!

Brad and AngelinaAt one TIFF gala on Yonge Street, Brad Pitt and Angelina were scripted to enter the Winter Garden theatre. Only top world-wide media and TV reporters and photographers were there. Instead of entering the Winter Garden, they walked down to Queen Street and up to Dundas Square, then back down Yonge to the theatre. All the while their security team was having a fit. Rick had security clearance enabling him to follow the famous pair - they stopped to sign autographs, one of the young female fans got pinned in the excitement. Only one other photographer was on the carpet at the same time and he was from Los Angeles. For star interviews, the media wait in rooms set up with movie posters. The stars do a fast circuit, going from room to room, giving different media two or three minutes for an interview.

One evening Rick got a clandestine call from a client who asked him to be ready at Pearson airport early in the great white at Myrtle Beach facilitymorning to go to an unnamed location for a two day photo-shoot. When he asked what he should bring, he was told, "the location and subject are top secret. Bring everything. Location will be dark." A video guy arrived at Pearson too, after the same cryptic instructions. (Rick finds the video guys a bit weird. Their cameras never leave their sight - they even sleep with them! He suspects this because they have rented and under-insured their gear.)

The flight ended up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at a place with sharks. It turned out to be a holding station for fish shipping to an aquarium. The shoot was tied to a failed proposal to construct an underground sea aquarium at Ontario Place in Toronto. Inside the building Rick set up his gear at a window built into the side of the large tank. He said it was a strange feeling, shooting through a window with his nose glued to his camera and the camera pressed against the window. It was most startling when the great white shark sneaks suddenly into view. The great white controls the pool, circling in one direction for an hour or so with all the other fish following him. When the shark changes direction, all the other fish immediately do as well. The lesser fish seem to keep one eye on the great white at all times.

Superman at NiagaraFor his last anecdote of the evening, Rick chose the man of steel episode. Warner Brothers introduced Superman Returns two or three years ago at Niagara Falls, Ontario. The Superman emblem was projected onto the Falls in cahoots with the Falls lighting technicians who chose light colours that recorded best. Rick went down to the shooting area in summer cloths to find the others dressed for wet weather. When he challenged them, they just said wait for after ten tonight. He forgot about the warning but at 10:10 pm, the upriver gates changed, sending water down from a different direction to create a heavier than normal spray, soaking Rick to the core with cold fishy water. When he reached street level again, dripping wet, it was a warm summer evening to dry him out.


Some of the other slides Rick presented during his talk...
City Bees
City Bees
Rick Bell doing copywork
Copy that
Painting with Light
Painting with light
Grip and Grin session
A "Grip and Grin" shot
gang's all here
The gang's all here
Great White tank
Tank at Myrtle Beach
Waiting for Justin Bieber
Waiting for Justin Bieber
Cleaning up the dump
Cleaning up the dump
Superman at Niagara
Superman Returns at Niagara
red carpet at TIFF
TIFF Red Carpet
Angelina and Brad at TIFF
Angelina and Brad at the TIFF
TIFF at Roy Thompson Hall

This page was designed in Dreamweaver CS5 on an iMac running OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). Unless otherwise noted, images on this page were taken from the projection screen with a Sony F828 digital still camera and subsequently adjusted in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V3 and Photoshop CS5. Presentation images are ©2010 by Rick Bell and may not be used with out his permission. Contents and all other images are ©2010 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Copies of photographs displayed during this presentation may not be used without the copyright holder's permission. Contact PHSC at if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

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