Elkins would drive until he saw it: A man sitting on a front porch, an old pickup left to rot in the kudzu, kids running around outside a Clay County trailer.
That’s a good picture, he’d say. That’s an interesting story.
He’d stop the car, walk up to the man on the porch.
“And he’d sit down and talk to him,” Elkins’ wife, Marcie, remembered. “He’d pick up the camera.”
Elkins, former chief photographer for The Star, died early Thursday morning at the age of 76.
Also: Ken Elkins: Snapshots of a picture taker
A Marshall County native, Elkins spent more than 40 years taking pictures that told stories, reflected rural life in a way that cannot be duplicated, his colleagues, friends and family say. He worked for The Star for the majority of his career, starting out in July 1973 as a contract worker making $170 a week. He later became the principal photographer, the photojournalist who shot luncheons and laughing children, Ku Klux Klan marches and impoverished farmers. He retired in 2000 on his 65th birthday, with hundreds of awards under his belt and a book of photos in the works.
“Gentleman it has been a long ride, and I can’t start to tell you how much I have enjoyed it,” Elkins wrote in a retirement letter dated May 2, 2000.
Six years later, the award-winning photojournalist suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, unable to pick up a camera. His health declined after that, his wife said, culminating in a colon surgery last October from which he never fully recovered. At 2 a.m. Thursday, he passed away at a long-term care facility associated with Anniston’s Regional Medical Center.
Marcie was at his side.
“He did not struggle, he went real peaceful,” the 78-year-old widow said in a phone interview. In a way, she said, Elkins’ death was a blessing. Marcie remembers the years, the months that he spent as an invalid. He was always looking out the window, watching the birds in the trees. The sunlight.
That would make a pretty picture, he’d say.
“I think in his mind, he made pictures all the time,” Marcie said.
His colleagues call him an artist, a storyteller. A historian.
“I think Ken is the only true genius I’ve ever worked with,” said Charlotte Observer reporter Mike Gordon, who worked with Elkins at The Star during the 1970s. “Not only was he the finest photographer I ever worked with, he was by far the best journalist.”
It was in the way Elkins searched for his subjects, the way he approached them. The way he never knew a stranger. Elkins didn’t have a process, he didn’t work on false pretenses to get into people’s homes, former Star reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg said. He didn’t cajole or condescend.
“He just walked up and was open and friendly and honest and calm,” Bragg said. “He had this ability to move in and around people’s lives.”
Bragg remembers a series he did on the rural poor while he was a reporter at The Star. Elkins “essentially took me to the assignment,” Bragg said.
“He took me to the driveway, to the front porch, introduced me to an old woman who was struggling in her isolation,” Bragg recalled. “Ken knew where she was, and — quite frankly — knew where 100 were.”
More than showing her who to talk to and where they were, Elkins taught former Star metro editor Laura Tutor how to treat people with respect. While Tutor was a young reporter in the 1990s, the paper published a series of Elkins’ photos showcasing the area’s poor. The pictures looked like they had come straight out of the Depression era, Tutor said. They were sad and revealing. But there was dignity there, too.
“He took these pictures of people, but didn’t take advantage of them,” she said. “It spoke to me very much.”
Elkins was the son of sharecroppers, born poor on a cotton farm in Marshall County. He grew up, joined the Army and during the 1950s served overseas in Germany. While he was there, he bought his first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye.
“He started taking pictures there,” his daughter, Ansel Carr, said. “And then he was really inspired by this one photograph he saw in Life magazine.”
It was a picture of a dead man after a snowstorm, recalled Basil Penny, a longtime friend of Elkins and associate editor at The Star when he retired in 2000. The photo showed the man’s footprints through the snow, his body lifeless where he’d fallen and frozen.
“You didn’t have to have a caption for that picture,” Elkins told Penny later, when they were working together. Elkins said he knew he wanted to do that, to be the “Picture Taker,” a title that would eventually end up on the cover of a book of his own photos published in 2005.
But it took time and hard work before Elkins developed his talent enough to earn the title.
A job first as a paperboy and later as a photographer for the Huntsville Times started him on that track. He spent years in the darkrooms at the Times and The Star, working with negatives, burning and dodging pictures. Cropping them. Learning techniques and developing his own.
Other than a few Associated Press training sessions throughout his career, Elkins was completely self-taught, Penny said.
“It just didn’t matter,” Gordon said. “Ken could take any raw film out there and make a photo.”
As a child, Ansel Carr’s feet turned black from playing in the darkroom at The Star. She remembers helping her father develop his pictures, waving photographs in the fixer pans. Watching the images appear as if by magic.
Elkins took Ansel and her sister on assignments with him. They rode — as so many others did — shotgun as he navigated backwoods roads and country farmland.
“It was a really special childhood,” said Ansel, now 30. “He taught me how to see the beauty in the world and in other people — people who weren’t pretty, he’d find something beautiful in them.”
When in 1994 a tornado ripped through Piedmont and destroyed a Goshen church, Ansel went with Elkins when he photographed the devastation. While her father took pictures of a woman whose trailer had been destroyed, she collected the woman’s pink hair curlers strewn about the yard.
“I was trying to help her,” Ansel said. She was trying to be like her dad — the man who’d buy food for stray animals or homemade fiddles he didn’t need from an Ashland man, just to help him out.
“He did anything for anyone,” Penny agreed. “He had a compassionate heart with everyone and everything.”
Many of Elkins’ pictures hang on the walls in Gordon’s Charlotte home. But one of them, Gordon said, stands out. He describes it as something that belongs in a museum: A young mother and her husband are sitting with their two children on a concrete porch. It’s a shotgun house somewhere in Clay County; a safe sits on the front porch. The father wears a railroad cap and his arm wrapped in a bandage. Maybe he injured it working, maybe he got in a fight. The mother could be anywhere from 18 to 40, Gordon said, and the story goes that she’s a working prostitute.
The kids look straight at the camera — all squinty-eyed distrust. There is grime on their faces, dirty fingerprints on their cheeks.
“It’s a picture that’s almost equal parts depressing and gratifying,” Gordon said.
It’s just one example of how Elkins made ordinary life stand out.
“I wished I could do with words on paper what he could do with a twitch of his finger — and spent my whole life trying to tell the story as well he did,” Bragg said.
Penny also has a favorite Elkins photograph — one he took of a man laying concrete in Huntsville or Guntersville or somewhere near there.
In the picture, the man is finishing the new driveway. Elkins has captured him just as he looks up at the camera — just as two children are riding stick ponies across the new concrete, wrecking the man’s hard work.
“There is this anguished look on his face,” Penny said of the man in the picture. “It’s so typical. It’s life.”
Marcie misses her husband, the father he was to their children Karen and Keith. He was a good father, Marcie said, he loved people. On Saturday, she and other family members will honor his life at a graveside service at Maple Grove Cemetery. It will be an unpretentious affair for an easygoing man, a man who loved fishing as much as photography, the countryside as much as the people who lived there. Marcie said she and Elkins loved to travel together.
“We’d head out and we just ride and ride until we’d see something we’d like to see.
“Then we’d stop.”
It wasn’t ever about the destination. Not for the picture taker. It was about the roads, the search, the story without the caption.
“That was his life,” Marcie said.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.