by Bruce Checefsky
Known around the neighborhood as a seasoned coffee maestro, Bob Holcepl was born in Tremont (the South Side). His mother’s side of the family has been here since 1915. He moved away with the family when he was young but returned in 1986. He opened Civilization (formerly Cravings) with his wife Nancy in 1990. He’s been roasting coffee since 1994. In 1999, he founded City Roast at the West Side Market followed by Crepes de Luxe. He’s currently Manager of the Tremont Farmers’ Market.
Before coffee, there was photography. Holcepl was a well-respected and successful advertising photographer for more than twenty years. A survey exhibition of photographs from his career titled Another Time/Another Life, Photographs 1976 – 1986 opens at Wooltex Gallery in the Tower Press, 1900 Superior Avenue, from August 16 – 24, 2019.
How did you get interested in becoming a photographer?
There was a glancing blow of interest in high school. I went to Tri-C and Cooper School of Art to study theater and painting. There weren’t many photography programs back then. The Cleveland Institute of Art was mostly a painting school, which didn’t interest me. The Kent State University program was photojournalism. I could have gone to Rochester Institute of Technology, but I grew up lower middle class so that wasn’t an option. Their program was too technical for me anyway. I’m more of a ‘shoot from your gut’ kind of photographer. I got into photography in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1975, I was operating my own commercial studio. I had a studio in the Tower Press Building from 1976 to 1981. I moved to East 21st and Euclid Ave in 1981 to 1986. After that, I moved my studio to Tremont. I rarely worked outside the studio until I left photography in 1990.
What was the photography scene in Cleveland like back in the 1970s?
It was the last vestiges of Mad Men. I was a generation after the Mad Men advertising type. People liked to party a lot. They drank and did drugs, and, well, it was a different life. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but back then it was a party especially in the early 1980s. It was very open and weirdly more creative than it is now. You had to create images not manipulate them in Photoshop. If you needed grass in February, you had to find a place that had grass for sale. We had a great time.
Who were some of the major commercial studios?
Andy Rossetti, Martin Reuben. Ian Hutchinson had a studio above mine in the East 21st Street building. Wexler Studio…George Remington, Keith Barr. There was a whole lot of talented people. I was on this weird fringe of being both an artist and commercial photographer.
What was your specialty?
People, illustration, and fashion mostly. I did a lot of editorial fashion for the Plain Dealer, Ohio Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine, plus some national stuff.
How did you find your clients?
They found me more than I found them. I’m the worst salesman on the planet.
What was a typical day in the studio?
You sit around hoping the phone rings. Either you worked or you didn’t. If you worked, you worked all day and night securing props, building sets, finding talent, then finally doing the shoot itself, which lasted anywhere from a half-hour to two days. I did this shoot in New York City for Tappan appliance, the people that make the stoves, and they only had this one specific model available in NYC because they were using it for a show or something. So, we had to rent a studio. I hired an assistant from the city. They were stunned that we wanted to start before 10 AM. We took the entire day to do the shoot, until 6 PM or later, then dropped the film off at the processing lab. We had dinner then went back to the lab at 8 PM to pick up the film. The lab guy looks at us and says, ‘There’s a problem.’ The assistant we hired, a big city photography assistant, loaded all the 4×5 film backwards. There was nothing at all on the film. We called the studio, re-booked it for the next day, and hired a new assistant. That was an untypical day, but it stands out. On typical days, we hired talent, built the set, followed the art director’s instructions, and went back and forth to the processing labs and camera store. It wasn’t a hard life. There was plenty of time to get into trouble.
What kind of trouble?
It was the ‘80s. I’m not going to go there.
When did you get out of the advertising photography business and why?
I got out in 1990. I was burned out. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t contributing anymore. There wasn’t as much work either. Time had changed. I met my wife Nancy, and we opened Civilization (formerly Cravings).
You and Nancy were one of the few early business owners to revitalize the Tremont neighborhood.
Yeah, there were very few businesses. Miracles was here. Patisserie Baroque was here, but then they went broke (laughs). Sokolowski’s and Dempsey’s, and all the rest of the bars. There weren’t many restaurants except places like The Golden Spot.
How has social media like Instagram, Snap Chat, and Facebook changed photography?
It’s all about instant gratification now. I remember this great art director from the Mad Men generation named Frank Bertucci. We were in a photo shoot one time and he said, “Bob, what did we do before Polaroid?” Polaroid film was an instant way to pretest a shot. I said to him, “Frank, we did it over.” With digital, it happens and there it is. There’s a lot of really great tools with digital photography. The opening photograph to my show at the Wooltex Gallery is from 1978. A very simple shot. I couldn’t find the negative or an original print. I eventually found a 35mm Ekctachrome slide of the photograph from an exhibition back then. The slide was at the bottom of a box and literally, mold was growing on it. I showed it to Nancy and said, “This is what I’ve been looking for.” It had big black blotches on it. She told me to take it to Roman, my printer for the exhibition. He scanned the slide, hit a button and all the mold, scratches, and dust disappeared.
What photographs did you leave out of the exhibition? I left a lot of stuff out. I have over 100,000 negatives in my basement. I like maybe a thousand of them and maybe a hundred that I’m proud of. From that, we narrowed it down to forty or fifty pieces. What isn’t in the show is a lot of the day-to-day commercial work like catalog product work, that sort of thing. I tried not to duplicate things stylistically. The show is about forty to fifty percent personal work that I didn’t get paid for, thirty percent is editorial work, and twenty percent commercial advertising work. That about sums up my career as a photographer. Twenty years of work represented in forty or fifty pieces. There’s a lot not in the show.