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Art in focus | Merrimack Valley

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Nifty, nifty, thrifty.

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

“I’m just … thrifty,” says the MacGyver of optics, the Edison of scrap heap camera equipment.

People give the North Andover photographer broken and unwanted cameras and lenses and he transforms them to custom rigs that take ultra-close-ups otherwise requiring gear costing thousands of dollars.

Good grief, in a day of $4.25 a gallon gas, $50 bags of groceries and $2,500 rents, who wouldn’t be looking for breathing room.

Except Vaughn has been thrifty all along. Also inventive — and, at least once in his life, not above committing minor larceny.

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

Vaughan braked by a corn field enclosed in rusty wire and, slinking low, unwound a strand of barbed wire from the bottom rung and jury-rigged a hanger for his dangling exhaust.

Head-scratchers

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

His photography is homespun and handy, the product of a technician’s precision and a tinkerer’s imagination.

He finds things to shoot nearby and dials in for 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 North Andover basement.

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

For the spider picture Vaughan used a standard portrait lens, circa 1968, with an objective lens from a zoom reverse mounted to it, making the image larger and sharper, he said.

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

After he releases the shutter, images emerge that marvel, and the head scratchers look in wonder at what he gets.

Recycled parts

Vaughan can’t abide the newest, shiniest high-end cameras and lenses — and their eye-popping prices.

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

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

Instead, Vaughan shoots with older, digital cameras, using optical parts salvaged from throwaway lenses and snapped together to compress wide images. His homemade flash brackets are fashioned from metal strips, paper cards, foil, clothespins and binder clips.

Even savvy, veteran photographers, including Fred and Mary Boucher of the Merrimack Valley Camera Club, do not fully fathom how Vaughan reengineers old gear to yield his images.

He has repurposed an old stereo microscope into a close-up photography camera and has fashioned a macro flash system from pieces cut from plastic plates used in frozen dinners, the Bouchers say.

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

Curious eye

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

Hall and her brother will be in an office supply or hardware store, and he’ll wonder how a small clamp or bracket might be improvised on a camera rig.

Or they’ll be driving to Texas, and he’ll be intrigued by a ghost town and want to see what pieces of the dusty past are preserved in a broken-down building.

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

He’ll have her photograph him standing inside the cavern to demonstrate its enormous size in relation to his body.

“It’s all the same thing,” Hall says. “It’s the same curiosity. He’s always fiddled with things and been an ingenious guy.”

He still has the Gilbert microscope that his aunt Marjorie Lundgren gave him at age 9. In his room, he studied diatoms and other microscopic life he had scooped from local ponds. He liked to read manuals and science books and had one called “How to Know the Protozoa.”

Andover to Arizona

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

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

Outside, he trained his handheld glass on ants and ladybugs and spiders, not to scorch them, as other kids might, but to see them better.

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

His mom gave him an Agfa Selecta camera for graduation.

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

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

He hollered for his brother to slow down, and he did, to about 90 mph. Art panned the camera and got a shot of a Native American woman and a child riding at the roadside on a white horse.

Western Electric

He still has the photo, as he does many other mementos of the past.

They include the log his grandfather Seva Howes kept as he ran the Shawsheen powerhouse in Andover for mill owner William Wood.

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

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

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

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

The interviewer asked Art if he had trained as an engineer. He said no, but that he liked to look 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 communication equipment.

His brother Robert and sister Susie worked there, too.

Zooming in

Art Vaughan delved into photography as a member of the Merrimack Valley Camera Club. He was its president for eight years. He’s been active with the New England Camera Council, an umbrella group for some 70 camera groups.

He enjoys talking about photography. So much so that he used to get tossed from camera stores for engaging in long conversations with salespeople.

He also enjoys sharing his do-it-yourself techniques with others. He gives workshops to camera clubs and posts how-to information on his Flickr page.

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

Vaughan takes pics of creatures big and small.

At his house above a small kitchen table are framed pictures showing faces of fallow deer taken in north Texas, where he spends parts of the year. Another is of a black and white cat he found curled in the bow of an old rowboat in Nova Scotia. In another shot, songbirds perch on a clothesline.

Cancer survivor

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

In a stack of large prints are a funky yellow and red grasshopper and a shot of an insect’s big orange eye and all the geometric patterns in it.

In cabinets are small plastic cases with trays of parts that go into his innumerable rigs.

In square compartments sit camera lenses people have given him. They look like chocolates in an oversized Whitman sampler box. Instead of nuts and nougats, they hold components for Vaughan to make macro photo devices. He fits them with snap rings so he can attach a series of lenses.

On shelves stand plastic animals, plaques and more photos.

Some people collect souvenir spoons or bobbleheads. Vaughan collects photo- related minutia.

“A bunch of crazy stuff,” he says.

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

Digital realm

He maintains a healthy sense of humor and a photography fascination that goes well back to the days of film and darkrooms.

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

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

Digital possibilities are endless. So are the expenses.

What’s a frugal fellow to do?

“People owe it to themselves to learn as much as they can about how to use their photo equipment before they cast it aside and move on to more expensive gear,” Vaughan says.

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