Bob Shell: Letters From Prison 2018 #6

Photo: Bob Shell, Copyright 2018


Letters From Prison: Part 6, 2018


Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018


I promise that I will return to 2003 soon, but right now I want to talk about the more distant past, specifically the 50s and 60s. I grew up in the small city of Roanoke, Virginia. From an early age I was interested in science and art. Originally, like so many teenage boys in those days, I wanted to grow up to be a dinosaur digger like my idol Roy Chapman Andrews, the man who found the first dinosaur eggs back in the 1920s. I’d read all his books and couldn’t think of a more adventurous life. He once fought and killed a leopard that had jumped on his back with only his knife! If you like real life adventures, read his book Heart of Asia. The title has a double meaning, which I won’t spoil for those who read it. He was sort of a real life Indiana Jones.

I spent a lot of time drawing and painting dinos, but when time for college came I found out how few jobs there were for paleontologists, and faced the problem of finding a career related to science that would let me make a living. Someone gave me a book, the Handbook of Biological Illustration, and I was hooked! During these same years my father, an avid photographer, taught me to develop film and make prints in his basement darkroom. I must have been about 12 or 13 when I developed my first film. But I never thought I’d ever make photography a career. In my later teens I met the two people who would influence my life the most. The first was Andre Pizzini, who was an illustrator at the Smithsonian in DC. He was a classically trained artist who was doing meticulously detailed paintings of tiny moths for museum publications. Later he got me a job there doing pen and ink drawings of moth genitalia (really!! That’s not as strange as it may sound. Some moths look so much alike that they use a ‘lock and key’ system to keep males from mating with the wrong females. Only genitalia of the same species will physically fit, so entomologists use the genitalia as a reliable diagnostic feature.). Later I actually worked for the C.I.A., although I didn’t know it at first. I was drawing mosquito heads for something called the Southeast Asia Mosquito Research Project, which the Washington Post later outed as a C.I.A. front. But all I did for them was draw mosquito heads, honest!

The second most influential person I met through the first: he was Roger Tory Peterson, the bird painter/ornithologist. Roger took me under his wing and got me my first real commissions, to do some paintings for the National Wildlife Federation, for which he was Art Director at the time. These were small paintings used on their Wildlife Conservation Stamps, which older people will remember getting in the mail every year. As well as being my mentor in art, Roger also steered me back to photography. He had become an accomplished wildlife photographer himself, and was making a good side income from stock photo sales. He hooked me up with my first agency. Roger and I shared another interest as well. The last time I saw him, he was well into his 90s. This was at one of the NANPA (North American Nature Photographers Association) conferences, which Shutterbug helped sponsor. Roger had just come back from Antarctica, and looked “fit as a fiddle,” as the saying goes. “Roger, how do you do it?” I asked him. “Young women,” he replied with a wink, and then introduced me to his latest wife, who looked like she was in her twenties.


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Mr. Shell is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here




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