Cameras and lenses have long been a part of former Baltimore Jewish Times photographer Fred Nagel’s life, beginning with the Baby Brownie Kodak camera he received at age 10.
“I remember one of the first images, I can still see it — I shot a picture of the train coming toward me on the Pennsylvania railroad,” he recalled recently at Nancy Café, where about 40 of his images are on display.
A veritable who’s who of Baltimore, and then again Jewish Baltimore, adorn the walls of the café, of which owner Kevin Brown, a longtime friend of the Nagels, said it makes the space feel like Baltimore’s version of the venerable Sardi’s of New York — where dozens of portraits of famous celebrities fill the walls.
Nagel, 79, a member of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation, considers himself more of an introvert and said it was his wife, Sandie Nagel, also a former JT staff member, who coaxed him into photographing Baltimore’s galas.
For 18 years, from 1986 to 2004, Sandie Nagel wrote the “Around Town” column for the JT. She focused on charity events and parties and kept track of celebrity visits to town, what the Baltimore big names were up to and generally kept tabs on the tux-and-ball-gown circuit.
One weekend there was an event Sandie needed to cover that required photos.
“The JT photographer [at the time], who was a single woman, said, ‘It’s Saturday night, I have a date, and I’m not going to break it,’” recalled Sandie. She then told Fred, who typically attended all of the events with her anyway, to grab his camera. And just like that the team of Nagel and Nagel was born.
Fred remembers warming up to the job quickly and recalled that most of the celebrities and politicians he encountered were very nice and willing to cooperate for his camera. There were some moments over the years that really stood out for him too.
Fred was photographing an award event at the Hyatt one evening, where mostly non-locals were in attendance. Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson was there as the local celebrity. Robinson recognized Fred (from attending many celebrity events) in the crowd of unfamiliar faces and asked, “Hey Fred, do you mind if I hang around with you, I don’t know anybody here?” Fred kept Robinson busy by setting up shots with attendees who wanted to be photographed with the Hall of Famer known as “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.”
Fred also played a charity golf tournament with Johnny Unitas, who then nicknamed him “Fast Freddy,” and photographed John Denver at his last concert (a local benefit) before Denver was killed in a plane crash days later. Another memorable shot was of Pope John Paul II. Fred photographed the pope while visiting Rome, noting recently that he “had only three shots left in my camera, one shot that made it.”
Fred has since gifted his Canon 35-mm film camera to his grandson, Jayden, who has taken up photography as an art major at the University of Maryland. Fred still considers his old film cameras as dear friends of imagespast but studying at MICA really sold him on the speed and convenience of digital cameras. He came to study at MICA because of his former job.
Fred worked at Westinghouse for 30 years, where he was involved with a very different type of camera. As a solid-state technician, he made parts for the LEM (lunar excursion model) camera that went to the moon on the Apollo missions. Fred recalled the 1969 landing and said, “They had moon-landing parties all over the country, and when I saw it (on TV) I said, ‘Wow! That son-of-a-bitch works!’” Fred helped create the small packages of solid-state devices that were placed in cameras and said, “I put my initials inside each one. Hopefully one of them was in that TV moon camera.”
Fred was laid off from Westinghouse in 1993 and received a package that included tuition coverage for classes anywhere. He enrolled in his first MICA course, which helped bring his photography to the next level, while continuing to shoot for the JT.
Now, Sandie said, she and Fred are in the process of clearing out and consolidating at home, and when they came across all of the negatives and prints from almost 20 years of photography, she grabbed some and took them down to her old friend at the Nancy Café.
Sandie and café co-owner Brown have known each other for many years, starting when Brown covered the social circuit for The Baltimore Sun.
“She taught me everything I know,” said Brown. “Sandie Nagel was everywhere, queen of the social page!”
When Sandie arrived with Fred’s negatives, she said to Brown, “We’ve got to do a show. It’s a part of our life together. All three of us!”
Both Sandie and Fred are grateful that their friends, family and especially their grandchildren are able to see the history of Baltimore they documented together that is displayed on the walls. Donations and sales of the images will go to the Miriam Lodge Cancer Fund in memory of their daughter-in-law, Dr. Faina Nagel, who died three years ago of stomach cancer at age 54.
Thinking back on his years of photographing Fred said, “A camera gives you license to do things that normally you would never do. In a way I’m sort of
introverted, I don’t normally initiate conversations, but a camera lets you do that. With a camera you can go almost anywhere.”
Photographs by Fred Nagel
on view at Nancy Café by SNAC
131 North Ave., Baltimore
Runs through July 31. For more information, call 410-685-0039; Miriam Lodge Cancer Fund donations can be made at 410-653-3415.