It was 1956. Prentis Drew, then a 13 year-old boy living with his parents in Cleveland, Ohio, was given an opportunity of a lifetime. An opportunity to travel for 66 days, spanning the entire globe. If you look carefully at the Lockheed Constellation in the photo above, you’ll note members of the media as the Drew family prepared to depart on their journey. According to Prentis, “around the world travel was very rare in 1956.”
Many years later, Prentis came across a box of the old slides from the trip and began the painstaking process of digitizing and restoring each precious photo, creating a collection of memories and images that tell the story of a family that set out with a borrowed Leica M2, two lenses and an uncommonly adventurous spirit. When Prentis posted these photos to his Smugmug site, he was surprised by the reaction – 180,000 views and counting! In short, the story of the 1956 international jaunt has become an international sensation in 2011.
I had an opportunity to chat with Prentis recently about the trip, including the photographic aspects, and he graciously agreed to share a number of the photos for 2 Guys Photo readers. Read on for more…
How did a trip around the world come about?
My parents always loved travel. A typical conversation might include, “We need a new washing machine but the old one could be fixed. How much would a new one cost? I wonder how far we could travel for that amount of money?” My father was a minister for a large church and got a fair amount of vacation time in the summer. This trip was their dream and part of the reason to go was to check out some missions in India that the church supported. So although it wasn’t an official business trip there was some support from the congregation for the expenses. The M2 Leica was loaned to us for the trip by a member of the church as well. When I was approached by my parents to come with them I couldn’t believe it. The idea took some time to get used to. I was mostly concerned with the number of vaccination shots I needed to take (over 30, many of which made me ill). I think they figured it would be a great education and boy they were so right. The experience changed me for life.
Please describe the trip itself.
Travel like this was relatively rare in 1956. What a traveler won’t miss today are the propeller driven planes we traveled in. Of course I now cherish the experiences having flown in DC3s, Vickers Viscounts, Boeing Stratacruisers, Convairs, the DC7B, and of course the beautiful but very noisy Connie that is pictured at the start of my gallery. But jets sure are an improvement in world travel, including much less need for “discomfort bags.” We figured that we were airborne for a total of five 24 hour days. The trip took 66 days spanning part of July, August, and part of September. We spent about 5 days in each country except for 3 weeks in India. We had an open itinerary so we booked flights as we went (you could do that in those days). We always had one reservation at a hotel at our next stop but occasionally changed after one night when we found out how good or bad the place was. The trip was organized by KLM Airlines and we would stop in at their offices in the larger cities along the way to plan the next legs. We hired a local guide in many of the countries.
We traveled with one bag each and took old clothes which we discarded as we went and replaced them with purchases. Currency exchange was a dizzying prospect with so many different kinds to deal with. We used Traveler’s Checks and cashed them along the way, converting left over currency at banks when leaving for the next destination. This would be much easier today using credit cards. We carried a little PanAM guide book that we used to bone up on local customs, money, language, etc. as we flew to the next country on our itinerary.
The route in order of stops was as follows: Cleveland to New York, Holland with fuel stops in Newfoundland and Ireland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Hawaii with a fuel stop at Midway, San Francisco and back to Cleveland. Our travel was entirely by air except for considerable train travel in India. In India we landed in (then) Bombay, traveled to near the tip of the county, up through the center to New Delhi, East to the holy city of Benares on the Ganges River and finally to Calcutta.
The total cost for all three of us: $6,000.
What was it like traveling with your parents for the duration of the trip?
One might think we would have had some difficult times but the experiences were so overwhelming that we didn’t have time to get on each other’s nerves. We had a ball together.
Which memories stand out most fondly? Were there any challenging times?
There are too many to mention. I can tell you we each had a vision at the start of the trip that when we had seen it, we would feel like we had traveled. My father being the minister wanted to see the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. My mother felt that when she had seen the King of Siam’s temple and gardens she will have traveled. I (remember I was 13) wanted to see a snake charming act in India. We succeeded in seeing all three.
There were a couple of challenging moments, one on the train in the south of India when we couldn’t get food to eat for a couple of days that wasn’t spiced to the point of inedibility and was frankly dangerous for us to eat. We were pretty far off the beaten track at that point. We lived on banana chips. Another dicey moment was when I got very sick with an intestinal bug in Calcutta and the hotel contacted a witch doctor that was treating me by shaking rattles over my stomach. My parents were frantic. It took a while to find a western trained doctor to set me straight with antibiotics. It was a scene right out of a Kipling novel, monsoon rains and all.
Please describe the photographic aspects. Which family member played which role?
The camera was a Leica M2 with 50mm f2 collapsible and 35mm wide angle lenses. Since the camera was loaned to us we shot some practice rolls of film with my father operating the camera. I had the job of shouting out the exposure with a hand held light meter. My mother spotted the photo opportunities and told my father what to shoot. It was a team effort that continues throughout the trip. The film used was Kodachrome ASA 10! Yes ASA 10 was a challenge. But that is what we had to work with in those days. It was what it was. I’ll take credit for the exposures being right. I clearly remember calling out, “50/5.6” (1/50th at f5.6) for a majority of the sunny daytime shots. It became kind of a joke between us, it was so repetitive. However when the going got rough, that Greek statue or the golden Buddha shots for example, I remember him finding a post to lean on, cramping his elbows to his chest and holding his breath. They were probably shot at f2 and 1/10 or so. We sure have it easy these days with fast ASAs not to mention digital.
Did your father ever display the photos after the trip? If so, what kind of reaction did they receive?
Absolutely. There was a big dinner and slide show at the church with hundreds in attendance. He used about 150 out of (I’m guessing now) 1,500 shots taken during the trip. Culling down to that number was a challenge. It was a hit of course. People knew very little about the rest of the world back then. But I am actually getting more reaction out of these photos today than in 1956 for a very different reason.
Where were the photos for the many years between when they were taken and when you decided to resurrect them?
The slides were with my parents who retired in Florida until they died some years ago. They were avid travelers and there were many more slides. As they started discarding most of them they gave me a box of the world trip slides that they thought applied mostly to me. These are the only ones that survived
When the technology became available to digitize slides at home I started the task of dealing with the boxes and boxes of slides that I have taken as well as a retirement project. I decided to start with the world slides first because they were in such bad shape. The Florida climate was not kind to them. It was a lot of work but worth it.
What was your process to bring them back to life?
The Kodachrome slides weren’t in very good shape when I started with the project. There was mildew on the emulsion which was particularly noticeable in open sky areas of the shots. In some cases I had to completely replace the sky. There were scratches and blotches that had to be cloned out. I will say I didn’t have to do much boosting of the colors though. Some were faded more than others but most of them still looked pretty good color wise. Too bad Kodachrome is dead. That said, I don’t think I would want to go back to ASA 10, or film for that matter.
First I scanned each slide using a Nikon Coolscan V ED to a JPEG of the slide. I moved the file to Photoshop which I used to make all the adjustments. I use a Spyder2 Express calibrator for my monitor. Having a calibrated monitor is essential for this kind of work in my estimation. I pretty much treated each slide individually because each one presented different problems. I started by adjusting brightness and contrast. A little treatment with color temperature compensated for fading in some cases. I used the clone tool for scratches and blemishes on the film where it was practical. But the sky was the real problem for many of the shots.
Observe the sky in the Parthenon shots and “My father “the archeologist” – Kumran – Lebanon” shot (there are others that got this treatment as well). The sky in those shots is of my own manufacture. I generated a blue gradient on a second layer, cut out the original sky with the magic wand in the image layer and merged the sky into the cutout. It took some time but there was no way to clone out the blotches the mildew had made. There was way too much of it. This process brought the images back to life. It was a labor of love. Of course it helped that they were great shots to begin with.
What kind of reaction have they received? Has it been a surprise?
A while ago I was living vicariously by surfing the Leica forum on dpreview and thought to myself that even though my Smugmug site is populated with only Nikon photographs I did indeed have some Leica shots to share, albeit from 55 years ago. I had no idea the reaction I received. By the time the traffic slowed down I had amassed over 180,000 views and had received many compliments from the Leica shooters. I was amazed and delighted that our little traveling photography team’s efforts would be so well received. It is also a testament to my father’s photographic eye for which I now have much more appreciation. He wasn’t an experienced photographer but was a lover of art which I believe shows in his composition.
These photos are a trip back in time and many of the shots can never be repeated in today’s world.
To see the entire gallery, click here. Enjoy!
Posted by Rey