Bob Shell: Letters From Prison – Part 5

Heidi: Photo by Bob Shell

Photography and Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2017


Letters From Prison, Part 5


Let me briefly sketch an accurate bio of myself.  I was born in 1946 in Roanoke, Virginia, and named Robert Edward Lee Shell in honor of the Confederate general who is a distant relative.  My father, Jim Shell, was a radio DJ right after the war, and moved into TV when it came to the area.  He became a TV newsman, later evening news anchor, a job he held until he retired.  He was an avid photographer, and we had a darkroom in the basement of our house where I learned to develop film and make prints in my early teens.  When I was old enough to trust he let me use his Leica and Exakta cameras, and I developed a love for photography.  But I never thought of it as a way to make a living, more as a likely hobby.  My original intention was to become an artist, with a specialty in wildlife art.  Before I finished high school I was already frequently published, doing pen and ink drawings of animals and birds that were bought and used in magazines like Wildlife in North Carolina, Georgia Fish and Game, and several others.  I met two artistic mentors at this time, Andre D. Pizzini, staff artist at the Smithsonian Institution, and Roger Tory Peterson, the great ornithologist and painter of birds.  Both encouraged me in my art, and Roger, who was at the time Art Director of the National Wildlife Federation, commissioned me to do some paintings of insects for use on the Federation’s Wildlife Conservation Stamps, my first national publication.

After high school I went on to Virginia Tech, where I studied zoology and art (drawing, painting, sculpture) as well as music.  I got permission as an undergraduate to take graduate-level zoology courses because I already knew what the undergraduate course taught.  I was on the Dean’s List.

After two years at Tech I was offered a job as a biological illustrator at the Smithsonian Institution and moved to DC.  I loved working at the museum and hoped to make a career of it, but the projects I worked on kept being defunded by Congress (one year they appropriated money for our salaries, but denied our research funds, so we basically sat around unable to do anything).  I finally got burned out on government stupidity and left, and spent some time drifting through some dead end jobs and hanging around the late 60’s scene in DC.  When I saw myself going nowhere, I moved  to Richmond, and then later back to Roanoke.  In Roanoke I followed in my father’s footsteps and worked for a small TV station doing a little bit of everything and learning the business.  My boss at the TV station was Adrian Cronauer, the real man Robin Williams played in “Good Morning Vietnam”. On Roger Peterson’s advice I had moved into photography for a startup publication called Shutterbug Ads, a buy-sell-swap tabloid published in Titusville, Florida by Glenn Patch.  In those days there was little editorial content, mostly classified ads, and writers were paid in copies of the magazine.  I did my photo writing parallel to a a series of jobs in camera shops, photo labs, photo studio, etc.  By 1980 I was ready to take off on my own, so I bought out a studio/camera shop in Radford, Virginia, that was being shut down by the owner.  I ended up operating this business for ten years, ultimately selling it to a friend when Shutterbug, by then a prosperous photo magazine, offered me the job of Editor.  Iwas Editor until the end of 2000 when I retired, continuing on as Editor at Large and contributing regular articles.  Parallel to my Shutterbug work I began writing a series of books on cameras in the late 80’s, and by the time of my trial I had written or co-written more than two dozen books.  Four were written while I was out on bond between arrest and trial, a period of more than four years.

My contract with Shutterbug allowed me to freelance, so I wrote articles about photography for magazines in England, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, India and others.  I was also selling my photos through agents in a number of countries, and they appeared in books and magazines worldwide.


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 10th year of his sentence. To read more articles by Bob Shell, go here




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