— Jon Sapers, former Star reporter
Main story: His lens captured life: Longtime Star photographer Ken Elkins dies at 76
When I was a 21-year-old state reporter at The Star (I won't say what decade), Ken and I would ride together to assignments. I enjoyed that for two reasons: I didn't know the backroads in the counties we covered, and Ken was simply charming. Ken was into fishing in a big way, and one day we passed one of his favorite fishing spots.
"I'm going to teach you how to fish," he announced.
This city girl dressed in her heels and cute miniskirt did not want to learn how to fish. No matter; Ken pulled to the side of the road, jumped out, and pulled his fishing equipment from the bed of his truck.
"Come on; let's fish." Despite my protests — and my high heels — Ken led me to the creek bank where I teetered on a couple of rocks. He was oblivious to my discomfort and lack of enthusiasm. He loaded his hook (is that the right term?) and cast the line — after he had explained fishermen use different weights of line and varieties of bait depending on the kind of fish swimming around in the area. He may as well have been explaining a math problem.
Thirty minutes later and no fish, Ken decided we needed to get back to the office. Thank goodness.
"Wasn't that fun?" he asked. Not so much the fishing part, Ken. But I always had fun working with you.
— Veronica Kennedy, former Star reporter
Back in the late ’80s, I had the pleasure of being one of The Star’s stringers when I was a student at Auburn University.
All of the photographers at the time — Eddie Motes, Bill Wilson, Steve Gross, Trent Penny and Ken Elkins — helped me along by teaching me many practical tools that would take me to a much higher standard of photojournalism, but it was Ken’s patience and father-like demeanor that really impressed me for life.
I will always cherish the time that I spent with Ken in the darkroom at the old Anniston Star site. Ken reminded me of Mark Twain with his nicotine-stained mustache and quarter-length cigarette bouncing off of his bottom lip as he spoke to me about philosophy and life over a tray of photo paper developer.
Ken regularly sent me out to find features on Anniston’s “west” side, because to him ... it was the people who had nothing material in life that needed to be lifted up by having their picture made for the paper. He once told me that rich kids have it all — toys, nice yards … but the kids in the rural areas and poor parts of town had dreams that were played out in sandlots and porches … places that made for wonderful imagery.
I will never forget my days at The Star — working with some of the best photojournalists in the trade. I have a vibrant vision of our world – because of great people like Ken Elkins.
These days, I reside in Denver, but the miles don’t disrupt my connection back to home. I proudly display my autographed copy of one of Ken’s photo books — Picture Taker — on my coffee table.
Rest in peace, my friend.
— Chris Kirby, former Star stringer
Ken and I, out doing a mood piece in the wake of a double-murder that had rocked quiet Clay County, pull up onto a front lawn. The homeowner’s up and at ’em early, tending to some unidentifiable (to this Northeasterner anyway) white mass hanging from a tree. As we get out of Ken’s truck and approach, it becomes clear to my eyes and nose that the gent is in the later stages of skinning a pig. My stomach, empty but for a breakfast Diet Coke and the remnants of a Peerless night, lurches.
Ken says hey to the fellow, who hocks up something deep and brown from his throat and spits it into an empty beer can. Then he holds up a voice box to a theretofore unnoticed hole in his throat and begins to speak. I stagger back toward the car all set to hurl. Too visceral, too early.
Ken keeps going. Snapping pictures. Talking to him. Getting good stuff. Doing my job for me.
Not sure how often he’d left Alabama, but it seemed like he’d seen everything.
I thought he was going to beat me dead with his Nikon once when I didn’t know the term for a front-end loader.
Tough to imagine a better guide to northeastern Alabama.
— Matt Creamer, former Star reporter
As a rookie newspaper reporter in 1998, I can't imagine any photographer who would have been better to go on assignment with than Ken Elkins. Not only was he a master at capturing the human spirit on film, he was also slyly funny.
He picked me up one day in December 1998 at some ungodly hour, and we hit the Hardees drive-up on Quintard for biscuits and gravy. Then we hit the highway on our way to the mountains of northwest Georgia for a story on some nut who wrote a book about how the world would end on 5-5-2000.
I'd dozed off, baseball cap tipped over my eyes, when I heard Ken's soft, raspy voice say this as he puffed on a smoke: "Wanna hear a joke?"
"Two guys are driving down the highway. One's from Alabama, the other from Georgia."
"The guy from Georgia is driving and says, 'I bet if I pull into this store up ahead, the clerk will be able to tell I'm from Georgia."
"No way, you're on," the Alabama guy says.
"They pull in, walk to the counter, and the Georgia guy says, 'I'll have some taters, some 'maters and some mayo-naise.'
"You're from Georgia, aren't you?" the clerk says.
"Yep," the Georgia man says. "How'd you know?"
"I can tell from your voice," the clerk says.
"They get back in the car and the Alabama man says, 'I can do the same. Pull over at the next store.'
"Georgia man pulls over at the next store, they walk in and the Alabama guys says to the clerk, 'I'll have some taters, some 'maters and some mayo-naise.'
"The clerk says, 'You're from Alabama, aren't you?'
'Yep," says the Alabama man.'"How'd you know?'
‘Cause this is a hardware store,' the clerk says.
I laughed till my stomach hurt.
— Mark Baker, former Star reporter
I had the pleasure of doing a two-week internship with him back in the early ’90s during intersession for Donoho. Every day we would drive around the county just looking for interesting things to shoot. One day Ken stopped the car suddenly and made me take pictures of a homeless man digging through a trashcan. I was nervous, but the end result was a tragically beautiful snapshot of a world I wasn't used to seeing. He had such an eye for finding life, beauty and a story behind the lens.
— Heather Adams Ellis, former Star intern
He was a friend for life. He was a gifted photographer. He was a fishing buddy. And a nice person to everyone he met. I remember him picking me up at my house at 4 a.m. in his old Cadillac fishing car. For some reason, the car's horn blew every time he made a turn. I could hear him coming a half mile away. So could the neighbors. So long, buddy.
— Wayne Hester, former Star sports editor
When you drove down Alabama 21 but never hung a right down those dirt roads you always wondered about, you felt better knowing that Ken had been there and saw it better than you ever would. His work was as close to art as daily journalism allows.
— Chris Roberts, Jacksonville native and former Star correspondent
When you went on an assignment with Ken, you knew you'd laugh. You knew you'd hear stories from your subject that you never would have heard had Ken not been in your company.
You knew his photos were going to go to the heart of the story so you were inspired to give your best with your words.
He loved calloused hands and weathered faces and always found a way to capture the fundamental worth and dignity of every individual.
He knew what real stories were, the stories we often rushed by on the way to the latest "news."
I learned more about interviewing people from Ken than any editor or reporter ever taught me.
— Thomas Spencer, former Star reporter
Ken was easily one of the finest photojournalist that I have ever known. He had an incredible ability to put his subjects at ease, giving him the opportunity to make truly wonderful images, which he shared with us all.
— Dave Martin, Alabama Associated Press photographer
I first met Ken Elkins when I started working at The Anniston Star in the spring of 1987. He was my boss for 13 years. First and foremost, he was a great photographer in the vein of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. His documentary style was unique and very thought-provoking. The way he put his subjects at ease to get their portraits was amazing. He made it look easy!
His photos have and will stand the test of time.
I have many memories of Ken. I remember the rides with Ken in the country (even the time my radiator exploded) and the many places we would go. He would always drive slow as not to miss something interesting. Ken loved his subjects — The Goat Man, One Shot Annie, Ernest Mostello and countless others who crossed his lens. The world was his palette that he used to simply paint Southern culture. Besides photography, he really enjoyed fishing and painting.
Today as I write this, many other photographers are remembering Ken's influence, style and his many ways. I'm glad I got to know him, and I know I am a better person because of it.
— Bill Wilson, Star photographer
Ken was a master of film-era black-and-white photography. He taught me many, many things, and I appreciated him taking a chance on me by giving me my start in photojournalism at the tender age of 18!
Ken and I were scheduled to shoot the Alabama vs. Tennessee game in 1977 in Birmingham. I was excited as this was my first big game to shoot.
We met at The Star and drove to the game. Before we got there, Ken asked if I brought his film. NO, that was Ken’s job! We turned around and drove back to Anniston and picked up film. Got back to Birmingham and Ken asked if I got the photo passes. NO, Ken was in charge of the passes. We turned around again and drove back to Anniston and picked up the passes. Got back to Birmingham, and Ken asked if I got the parking pass ... We turned around yet again and drove back to Anniston to pick up the parking pass.
We finally got to the game well into the first half. Ken and I both were a mental wreck. It was the first and only time that I turned in well over 400 miles to a game in Birmingham.
— Stephen Gross, Star photographer
In 1994, I was a stringer photographer for The Anniston Star. I was actually a full-time employee working in the press room. I had a keen interest in photography and had purchased a cheap starter camera to learn the craft. I would spend spare time in the photo department asking questions of Ken and the other photographers all the time. I started keeping my camera with me all the time and would take feature photos when I would see them.
Slowly, some of those pictures found their way into print. I kept learning from Ken and the other guys, and then Ken finally had enough trust in me to allow me to start covering the weekend shifts in the photo department. At that time, I would work in the press room at night, get very little sleep and then work all day on Saturday covering photo assignments. After doing this for about a year, there was a full-time photographer opening at the paper. I applied for the position and a short time later, Ken sent me to an alteration shop in Oxford one day and said come back with a photo story about the operation there. Little did I know that Ken was using this assignment as a test to see if I could qualify for being his new photojournalist.
And I guess I passed his test because I was hired for the full-time job in March 1996.
I will forever remember and be grateful for Ken Elkins giving me the chance to pursue a dream of becoming a photojournalist. I remember being surprised to land the job considering I didn’t have a college degree. Ken told me he would rather have one good person that he knew could do the job, rather than 10 people with a piece of paper saying they could. I learned a lot from a master of photography and will never forget the fact that he took a chance with me. He was a great photographer and a true friend. The thing I will always remember about his work is the fact that he had a knack of being in the right place at the right time to capture award-winning photographs. His legacy will live on in his pictures forever. RIP Ken Elkins ...
— Trent Penny, Star chief photographer
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but, as a young reporter, I always tried harder when I was on an assignment with Ken.
I wanted the story to be worthy of running alongside a Ken Elkins photo.
I remember going to Draper Correctional Center in Elmore in 1994 to write a story about youth and gun violence.
Ken rode along … and directed me to take “the shortcut.”
We went over a mountain, through woods, across a ford … It seemed like we traveled most of the two-hour drive without touching a named roadway.
The whole time, Ken was smoking and telling stories, talking about his other two passions — family and fishing.
That’s the way I’ll remember Ken … never taking the beaten path, and always remembering to enjoy the ride.
— Anthony Cook, Star managing editor