Memories and Musings

Memories and Musings: On Back Stories

Then-Mayor Charles “Chuck” Beatley, a much younger Nina Tisara, and Potomac Yard Superintendent Jack McGinley. (Photo by Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography)

Alexandria, VA – There’s almost always a backstory.

I was searching for images that were taken in the early 80s, when I had just started taking photography classes at Northern Virginia Community College. Around the same time, I began working as a part-time freelance photographer for the Alexandria Packet, now the Gazette Packet.

There used to be a Colorfax lab in the 600 block of South Washington Street where I occasionally had color prints made. Colorfax welcomed photography exhibits, and I talked to the manager, Jack Masarsky, about exhibiting my work there. When I showed it to him, I remember his saying that it was refreshing to see good black and white photography. Remember, this was a Colorfax store.

In an instance of serendipity, I recently met Jack Masarsky again at a health club where I work out. He and his wife recognized “Tisara” on my license plate in the parking lot and sought me out.

Back when I was planning an opening reception for the Colorfax exhibit, I hoped to find a business to sponsor the reception. My editor at the Packet, Jim Coldsmith, offered to approach RF&P Railroad and suggested it would be nice to have a print of the rail yard in the exhibit. You may be sure there was a print of the yard in the exhibit.

Potomac Yard train tracks in snow. (Photo by Nina Tisara)

The RF&P switching station was near where the Potomac Yard shopping center is now. Permission was arranged for me to photograph in the yard. It was winter, very cold, and it had snowed recently. I found the view from the control tower beautiful. The design that the tracks etched into the snow made it into the exhibit, as did a print of an RF&P rail car with the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in the background. At the opening reception, in appreciation for their sponsorship, a framed print was given to RF&P Superintendent Jack McGinley. Some years later, three prints from that shoot were used by RF&P for their holiday greeting card.

I savor these memories now. I remember how Ruth, a woman I sometimes shared the darkroom at Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College with, told me she thought the Packet was short a photographer. I remember gathering up my courage to bring my black and white prints of plants at the National Botanic Gardens to Coldsmith. I remember his looking at them for a long, long time and then asking whether I could photograph anything that moved faster than a plant growing. “I think so,” I said.

He pulled two rolls of Tri-X film from his bottom desk drawer and said, “Let me see what you can do. If I can publish anything, I will.” Jim eventually gave my photos a weekly “double-truck” – the centerfold of the paper. What a gift to an emerging photographer.

RF&P rail car with George Washington Masonic National Memorial in background. (Photo by Nina Tisara)

I worked then for virtually no money: $5 a published print. It was soft news. My photos were used to fill space. Sometimes I made $10 in a week. Once when the staff photographer was on vacation, I made $50. The Packet provided my film and printing paper but, most important, I met enough prospective clients along the way that eventually I quit my full-time job and opened my photography business.

I loved telling the story of Alexandria in photos – loved it, that is, until photography went digital. I didn’t want to make that change, so I switched tracks (pun may be subliminal) to making mosaics.

Mosaic artist/photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.

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