Honoring art | Merrimack Valley


Shrewd, shrewd, thrifty.

Art Vaughan says, with conspiratorial glee, that he wouldn’t call himself a vulture.

“I’m just…thrifty,” says the MacGyver of optics, the Edison of junk-pile photographic equipment.

People give the North Andover photographer broken, unwanted cameras and lenses and he turns them into custom cameras that take ultra-close-up close-ups, which would require equipment costing thousands of dollars.

Hell, in a day of $4.25 a gallon of gas, $50 bags of groceries, and $2,500 rent, who wouldn’t seek respite.

Except Vaughn has always been thrifty. Also inventive – and, at least once in his life, not above committing petty theft.

Years ago, on a rural stretch of highway in Nova Scotia, his van dropped and dragged part of its exhaust system.

Vaughan braked through a cornfield surrounded by rusty wire and, creeping low, uncoiled a strand of barbed wire from the lower rung and jury-rigged a hanger for his overhead exhaust.

Brain teaser

Alas, Vaughan is known more for art than muffler repair.

His photography is artisanal and manageable, the result of the precision of a technician and the imagination of a handyman.

He finds things to shoot nearby and composes the money shot. Often his subjects are alive.

A frog on a stone on his back porch. A bug on a backyard branch. A spider in his basement in North Andover.

A few days ago he found a male spider in his basement looking for females. Vaughan put Spidey in a clean, empty plastic applesauce container before his 23-year-old cat, Lady, could capture him. Then he took a macro shot for posterity before gently releasing the arachnid into the backyard.

For the spider image, Vaughan used a standard portrait lens, circa 1968, with an inverted zoom lens mounted on it, making the image larger and sharper, he said.

People who see Vaughan’s improvised devices scratch their heads, at first.

After releasing the shutter, wondrous images emerge and the scratchers watch in wonder at what he gets.

Recycled parts

Vaughan can’t stand the latest and greatest high-end cameras and lenses – and their eye-popping prices.

It forgoes a finely-appointed photo studio with soft-light boxes, umbrellas, and diffusers—again at eye-popping cost.

Why punish yourself and go bankrupt chasing your tail, he reasons.

Instead, Vaughan shoots with older digital cameras, using optical parts salvaged from disposable lenses and stitched together to compress wide images. His homemade flash holders are made from metal strips, paper cards, aluminum foil, clothespins and binder clips.

Even knowledgeable and seasoned photographers, including Fred and Mary Boucher of the Merrimack Valley Camera Club, don’t quite understand how Vaughan rearranges old equipment to produce his images.

He turned an old stereo microscope into a close-up camera and designed a macro flash system from pieces cut from plastic plates used in frozen dinners, the Butchers say.

Truth be told, put a plastic container that once held powdered lemonade in Vaughan’s hand and he’ll place it in a light diffuser.

curious eye

Vaughan’s sister, Susie Hall, of Ballardvale in Andover, says shopping or traveling with Arthur is an adventure. (Most people call him Art, but Hall – she and her brother were the youngest of six children – always called him Arthur).

Hall and his brother will be at an office supply or hardware store, and he’ll wonder how a small clamp or stand could be improvised on a camera rig.

Or they’ll drive to Texas, and he’ll be intrigued by a ghost town and want to see what bits of the dusty past are preserved in a crumbling building.

Or they’ll drive the shore to Nova Scotia, and he’ll spot an ocean-carved cave and want to explore it.

He will ask her to photograph him standing inside the cave to demonstrate his enormous size compared to his body.

“It’s the same thing,” Hall says. “It’s the same curiosity. He always played with things and was a resourceful guy.

He still has the Gilbert microscope that his aunt Marjorie Lundgren gave him when he was 9 years old. In his bedroom, he studied diatoms and other microscopic life forms he had collected from local ponds. He loved to read textbooks and science books and had one called “How to Know Protozoa”.

Andover Arizona

Being bookish and not very good at gym, he was bullied by other kids.

Vaughan was the kid with a magnifying glass in his hand and a microscope in his room.

Outside, he pointed his portable glass at the ants, ladybugs and spiders, not to burn them, as other children would, but to see them better.

He and his family lived in Andover until 1962 when they moved to North Andover. He graduated from high school with the class of 1966.

Her mother gave her an Agfa Selecta camera for her graduation.

His older brother Robert gave him the trip of a lifetime. Art, a cousin and friend of hers, rode cross country in August 1966 with Robert in his new GTO convertible.

Art still has a photo he somehow captured while driving down a lonely stretch of desert highway in Arizona.

He yelled at his brother to slow down, and he did, at around 90 mph. Art pans the camera and snaps a photo of a Native American woman and child riding a white horse by the side of the road.

Western Electric

He still has the photo, as he has many other memories from the past.

They include the diary his grandfather Seva Howes kept when he ran Shawsheen Power Station in Andover for factory owner William Wood.

Alice Howes was Art’s mother. Wood would send a pony cart to the Howe house to pick up the child Alice so she could play with the children at the Wood mansion.

Next for Art came a stint serving in the Vietnam War. He couldn’t stand the thought of sweating in a hot, humid jungle, so he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Coast Guard, working as a buoy off the coast of Maine.

He got into photography during his years in the Coast Guard. He liked to film unusual sights at sea.

Meanwhile, his brother had put his name on a roster to work for Western Electric, and after Art got out of the Coast Guard, he got a call for an interview.

The interviewer asked Art if he was trained as an engineer. He said no, but that he liked looking at things under a microscope.

He was hired and spent 31 years working locally for Western Electric and Bell Labs doing experimental work on fiber optic communications equipment.

His brother Robert and sister Susie also worked there.

Zoom in

Art Vaughan immersed himself in photography as a member of the Merrimack Valley Camera Club. He was its president for eight years. He was active in the New England Camera Council, an umbrella group of some 70 camera groups.

He likes to talk about photography. So much so that he used to get kicked out of camera stores for engaging in long conversations with salespeople.

He also enjoys sharing his DIY techniques with others. He gives workshops to camera clubs and posts practical information on his Flickr page.

The Connecticut Entomological Society had Vaughan as a guest speaker at Yale University, presenting on Pop-up Flash Extreme Macro Photography. At least one of the members has embraced the Vaughan method, indulging his affection for the caterpillars with close-ups of them.

Vaughan takes pictures of creatures large and small.

At home, above a small kitchen table, framed photos show the faces of deer taken in North Texas, where he spends part of the year. Another is of a black and white cat he found curled up in the bow of an old rowboat in Nova Scotia. In another shot, songbirds perch on a clothesline.

cancer survivor

In his basement are piles of photos, humorous signs and a wall of award ribbons.

In a pile of large prints are a funky yellow and red grasshopper and a photo of a bug’s big orange eye and all the geometric patterns in it.

In the cabinets are small plastic crates with coin trays that fit into his countless rigs.

In square compartments lie camera lenses that people have given him. They look like chocolates in an oversized Whitman sample box. Instead of nuts and nougats, they contain components that allow Vaughan to make macro cameras. He equips them with elastic rings to be able to fix a series of lenses.

On the shelves are plastic animals, plaques and more pictures.

Some people collect souvenir spoons or bobbleheads. Vaughan collects details related to photos.

“A lot of crazy stuff,” he says.

Vaughan is a cancer survivor. He had breast cancer in 2002 and had his lymph nodes removed.

Numerical domain

He retains a healthy sense of humor and a fascination with photography that dates back well to the days of cinema and darkrooms.

When digital photography hit the landscape some 20 years ago, Vaughan was convinced it was a fad.

Then he realized the benefits of being able to immediately see the results of a shot or shots and not having to spend a fortune on film.

The digital possibilities are endless. So are the expenses.

What should a frugal man do?

“People need to learn as much as they can about using their camera gear before they put it aside and move on to more expensive gear,” says Vaughan.

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