Daily News photographer loved his work
(Originally published on Jan. 27, 2001)
The game seemed like any other to Elmer Brewer: a Friday-night, season-opener football game.
While on the sidelines at McKeesport Area High School's Weigle-Schaeffer Memorial Stadium two seasons ago, Brewer took his usual spot, camera in hand, his eyes focused on the bodies scrambling to block an opponent, a pass, a kick. As Brewer raised his camera to snap a few shots, he suddenly became part of the action — but not in a way he expected.
Defense began to run after an offensive player, who was making his way toward the sideline — and Brewer.
As Brewer raised his camera to squeeze off a third shot, he got broadsided by a beefy body. Brewer fell to the turf, his hand still clicking away.
But it wasn't the player's hit that caused the damage.
Ironically, it had happened when his nose hit the camera on the way down.
A few minutes later, he was staring up at the faces of concerned players and the ambulance attendants who stand by at every game.
Brewer's nose was smarting, and the attendant wanted him to go to the hospital.
But Brewer wouldn't have any of that.
“I wanted to get back to the game. I held up the play for five minutes,” he recalled.
After repeated requests for him to get it X-rayed, Brewer conceded. As he stood up, fans in the stands immediately broke into applause. Was it because he was able to get back up?
Later, at McKeesport Hospital, an X-ray confirmed the nose was broken, all right, but Brewer wasn't concerned.
“You can't hurt this nose,” he said, twisting his proboscis to emphasize the indestructible nature of his schnozzle.
You also can't keep a photographer down. Upon his release from the hospital, Brewer went back to The Daily News to check on his film, which had been “souped” — lingo for developed and processed — by another photographer.
In the paper the next day, much to the surprise of the former Daily News Managing Editor Pamela Reinsel Cotter, were photos of the game bearing the familiar credit: “Elmer C. Brewer, Daily News Photo.”
Brewer reflects on the day, but isn't slightly upset by it.
It is, in the world of a photojournalist, all in a day's work.
And after 52 years of them as a photographer at The Daily News — the last 25 of those years as chief photographer — Brewer has logged plenty.
Through his lens, he's captured hundreds of brief moments of Mon Yough history — the best and the worst of it — from sporting events and ribbon-cuttings to devastating fires and car accidents. Along the way, Brewer has become a familiar face to the many members of clubs and organizations who have stood for poses.
Now 74, Brewer is getting ready to put the lens cap on his Daily News staff photographer moniker. He plans to retire Wednesday. But he certainly is not going to put his camera away. Just like many journalists, Brewer's passion for his trade is still very much intact.
The passion dates back to when Brewer, who grew up in the Greenock section of Elizabeth Township, first bought a beginner's photography developing kit out of the Sears catalogue when he was 12 years old. Brewer developed, so to speak, an interest in photography, but he had no idea at that time it would become more than just a hobby.
“Not really,” Brewer says about making photography his life's work. “In the beginning, I just liked taking pictures.”
His father and grandfather were masons by trade, and taught the young Brewer to lay brick. But Brewer's father never pushed his son into the field.
“‘I want you to be smarter than your old man,' my father said to me,” Brewer recalls. “I want you to get an education.”
Two days after D-Day — June 6, 1945 — Brewer graduated from McKeesport High School. He enlisted, and after taking a test, qualified to go to the Army Air Corps Cadet program.
Brewer wanted to get into B-29 gunnery school, but the Army Air Corps (which, two years later, would change its name to the U.S. Air Force) didn't need any more pilots, and closed its training school down.
He eventually was sent over toward the end of World War II and became a quartermaster.
While in the Army, his love of photography continued to flourish. Brewer recalls developing black-and-white photos in his Army helmet, and even had a dozen different cameras to pacify his hobby.
In the latter part of 1946, Brewer came home and remained on the reservist list for six years. Soon after, he decided to take his one-time hobby and turn it into something more. After looking through several photography magazines, he found a school — the former Baltimore Institute of Photography — where he could earn a certificate in photography.
The nine-month course couldn't teach a photographer everything, especially the instinct to find the photos, but it did teach him the basics he still uses today.
When Brewer returned from Baltimore, he got his first photography job at Buchman Studios, shooting home portraits, high school photos and the first of hundreds of weddings. After six months, the 22-year-old Brewer was told by a friend that The Daily News was looking for a photographer temporarily to replace one who was drafted.
Brewer met with the late Doug Mansfield, editor-in-chief of the paper, who told Brewer he still would have a job once the other photographer returned to work.
“He looked at my portfolio and liked what he saw. He said they were thinking of hiring a fourth photographer, but said, ‘We will still keep you on when (the other photographer) comes back.'” And Brewer's shutter hasn't stopped clicking here ever since.
The Daily News' chief photographer at the time was Ervin Saylor, who gave the young Brewer some of his best advice about Daily News photos: “He said, ‘Forget 90 percent of the stuff they taught you in school. If it looks good, take it,'” Brewer recalls.
And Brewer did just that. In his more than five decades crisscrossing the Mon Yough, and, in those days, on assignments that often took photographers and reporters across the state, Brewer's camera has served as a permanent recording of the changing history of the blue-collar region — from the rise and decline of the steel mills to the newest revitalization of Duquesne City Center and the Waterfront.
The photojournalist's job must compliment a reporter's prose. Many news stories, especially the dramatic ones that show human emotion at its rawest, can't exist without the perspective of a camera to guide the readers' visceral impulses. And Brewer has seen his share of the frailty of the human condition.
He recalls being called out at 2 a.m. to cover the fire of the famous Vogue Terrace Lounge, a Pittsburgh nightspot, which played host to such national names as Lana Turner; he also recalls seeing his first accident in which a person died. Through the years, journalists learn to emotionally distance themselves from the subject they are covering, but even the most hardened veterans have limitations to such an emotionless response.
“The only time I got upset is when I saw a kid being abused. I had two young children of my own (daughters Sue and Lynne), and I kept thinking about my own kids,” he says.
Brewer also has come face to face with celebrities, both local and national names.
He has taken shots of the Steelers at their Forbes Field and Three Rivers homes, and such stars as Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, the Beatles and Jimmy Stewart.
He also has photographed most of the presidents during the last 50 years, including one of his favorite shots: Harry S. Truman waving his arms as he got off a plane at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.
But a local newspaper's real meat and potatoes doesn't come from celebrities, but the pictures of the average Joe or Josephine, the pictures of women's clubs and high school officers.