By Karen Cornelius
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s the case then Vermilion Photojournal photographer Katy McElroy’s pictures in the community newspaper have spoken volumes recording local history and events for over twenty years. Sadly, McElroy has decided to retire, put her camera on the shelf, and devote herself to her exploding business of breeding exotic birds, namely Cockatoos, beautiful crested parrots.
According to McElroy, she has always been fascinated about photography. Even as a little child she was highjacking her family’s Brownie as much as she could, but then film was very expensive. Once while living in Australia with her husband, Jim, she met a newspaper photographer who was retiring. She purchased all his equipment and picked up on photography again as a hobby. Back in the late 1980’s, she saw an ad in the former Erie County Reporter for a photographer and was hired. Once the Erie County Reporter was closed she started working for the Vermilion Photojournal never thinking she would pursue photojournalism for so long.
The start of this long career began when she and Jim lived on the west coast of Australia in Perth for seven years. Back then she stated Austrialia would pay someone’s way there if that person had a trade to use. As an electrician, Jim went to work with his uncle and cousin. At the same time, a passion for birds was developing as well as film due to the wild Cockatoos in this country. The couple even brought two home to America and that started thoughts of her business eventually constructing an aviary in Berlin Heights where they now live.
Katy feels like Vermilion is a second home to her she has spent so much time here in the community. “I will miss all the people. Everyone is so friendly.” She often shops in Vermilion and will continue to do so and visit. So many years of photos seem to all blend together, but she remembers her favorites were probably feature assignments for interviews about what people were doing and why they were doing it. “Features are the most interesting to me, the elderly couple together in a nursing home, the raising of alpacas on a farm, the police dog and his training and duties, stories filled with information.” Of course she has to remember the floods, the drama, and calls to come photograph the unexpected. She comments on Third Thursday as being the most fun to cover. The Festival of the Fish and Woollybear were perhaps the most challenging duties because of the long days and so much work on the photos once she got home.
Over twenty years, photography has changed from film and dark rooms to digital. “My dark room has now changed into a bird nursery, “stated McElroy glad to be rid of those tedious development procedures and chemicals. Changes were also made from all black and white to color photos in the newspaper. Katy still loves black and white and its special appeal and misses it. There were also changes in her routine, in past years Katy had to bring baby birds into the Photojournal office in portable heaters to feed them in between day-long festival activities. Sometimes Sam, her Cockatoo, would visit the staff and take drinks out of pop cans on the desk. He also liked to ride to Vermilion in her Jeep.
She has learned a lot over the years, and defines photojournalism as a special field much different from portrait photography or landscape photography. The photographer is not going for artistic for newsprint. “You want to catch people in the process of doing what they are doing. If they turn around and face the camera and smile, it takes all the skill out of taking pictures,” said McElroy. “The photographer should not inject herself or himself into the photo.” She said If people are looking at the photographer, then she or he becomes a part of that picture. There should be no evidence of a photographer in the picture. The pictures should be people moving, doing something as if a photographer is not there. Of course, that’s the ideal and there are situations where kids just smile and parents and grandparents like those shots the most. Then there’s the effort to take large groups to give some credit to volunteers and good deeds. Most newspapers frown on printing “grip and grin” photos of people exchanging checks. Still, those contributions are worth community recognition.
While McElroy is reluctant to give up her photography, her passion for breeding birds has taken off into a growing business and she needs every hour to devote to this calling. She is in demand to speak at national conventions on husbandry for specific bird species, and has recently been invited to come to India for an Avian -culture worldwide seminar. McElroy states that India loves their birds and it is a very exciting time to be in the country at this time with avian veterinarians at the top of their game. The United States can no longer import wild birds, but India has no restrictions. Breeding keeps these beautiful rare birds from disappearing.
Currently, India is using McElroy’s own formula for feeding baby birds that she devised on her own. She stated that babies were dying because humans were not feeding them correctly. She observed that birds feed their babies with a gravel, not smooth food. So McElroy began grinding their food to be lumpy and coarse which solved the problem. She is presently working with various zoos around the country in their breeding loan program. She said zoos have a species survival plan and she shares their role and can breed from her own stock raised over the years. Cockatoos can make nice pets, but they can be a handful. “They are needy birds, but they are smart with lots of personality,” said McElroy. “You can train them.” Raising pets is not Katy’s goal.
The pages of future Photojournal’s will be missing McElroy’s contributions, but they will not be forgotten. The photos are all captured and preserved in the archives for all of us to recall and future generations to see what wonderful events and exceptional people are the fabric of Vermilion life. Thanks, Katy, for your amazing dedication and unique point of view. You will be missed.