Acclaimed photographer has Bourbon roots

BOURBON — Before he became a respected photojournalist at the Gloucester-Matthews Gazette-Journal in Virginia, Walter Becknell was just like any other teenage boy growing up in Bourbon. He took the first step toward what would become a life-defining hobby one day in 1938 when his father told the family about a hawk’s nest he had found in a field. Becknell’s interest in birds began that day, and he started his nature photography a short time later—taking his first photo with a Brownie box camera in 1939. He was 14 years old.
“If you wanted a close up picture in those days, you had to get close,” said Becknell, chuckling.
Becknell is full of stories about his escapades in trying to get the perfect picture. He remembers being perched in a tree photographing a owl nest when the mother swooped down.
“Back then, when you looked through the viewfinder everything looked much farther away than it was,” said Becknell.
When he brought his camera down, the bird was right on top of him. Fortunately, Becknell had the presence of mind to abandon his photo shoot and slid down the tree’s trunk as fast as he could, kicking at the attacking mother owl.
After graduating from Bourbon High School in 1942, Becknell dabbled in farming, ministry and grocery selling before returning to his passion for photography. He and his wife Maxine and their two sons Gary and Kevin moved to Gloucester, Virginia in 1956. Becknell took a six month correspondence course from the New York Institute of Photography and placed an notice in the Gazette-Journal to advertise private photography services. The paper hired him on the spot and he began work that afternoon.
Becknell worked for the paper from 1956 to 2002 during two different time periods. He worked at the paper three days a week, and did freelance photography for members of the community on the side. Because no one else was doing it, Becknell was able to make a comfortable living in photography.
Besides photographing news events, he kept up with his nature photography, and also developed a skill for taking pictures from aerial points of view. His “Hi-Vues” (shots taken from the air) from the 1950s and 60s provide an interesting perspective on how the landscape has changed over the years. Now retired, Becknell enjoys spending time entertaining nursing home residents with his second wife, Margie. The two play the piano and sing for the residents.
“We have a lot of fun,” said Becknell.
Becknell has donated his entire portfolio to the Gazette-Journal, and his work was displayed there during an open house last week.
“I didn’t realize I had taken so many pictures,” said Becknell of his extensive collection. “It’s been a great life.”
Becknell visits the Gazette-Journal office almost daily to commiserate with old collegues and “catch up on all the good news around here.”
He has retired from photography and said that he does not even own a digital camera.