Today at Berkeley Lab

Photographer Roy Kaltschmidt Looks Back on His 20-Year Career Documenting Science at the Lab

— By Keri Troutman

Roy-Kaltschmidt-webRoy Kaltschmidt began a long career as a professional photographer by leaving the small liberal arts college in Ohio where he’d been majoring in math. It was a realization that he didn’t want to pursue a career in mathematics and a lucky break at a military recruitment call that left him free to explore cameras and photography for the first time. “I started showing my images to friends and people kept telling me I had a good eye and should go to photography school,” he says.

A few years after being dismissed from military duty for being too tall (measured by a very kind soldier whom he calls his “guardian angel”), Kaltschmidt bought his first Nikon 35mm camera and some black and white film. A few months later he was enrolled in the Germain School of Photography in Manhattan.

“My parents were pretty dubious about the idea of a degree in photography; my dad had been in insurance his whole life and I don’t think he thought it was a way to make a living,” says Kaltschmidt. “But they finally did agree to help send me to photography school.”

Kaltschmidt actually followed somewhat in his dad’s footsteps, working for the insurance industry, after he graduated. He worked in a photo lab producing prints for court cases. After barely surviving a botched burglary at the photo lab, Kaltschmidt decided it was time to leave Manhattan for someplace a bit calmer, so he drove cross-country to San Francisco in 1972 and settled into an apartment in Haight Ashbury. He landed a job as a photographer for International Paper Company and traveled around the U.S. shooting paper plants for five years.

Travel continued to be a theme in Kaltschmidt’s work for the next 19 years, as he traversed the country and the globe shooting training lessons for the U.S. Army, corporate annual report work for Bank of America, Chevron, PG&E, and travel photography for cruise lines. “Annual report photography was very lucrative back in those days,” Kaltschmidt recalls. “I had clients that would send me halfway around the world just for a center-fold spread photograph.”

Below are a few of Kaltschmidt’s most iconic images

In 1996, Kaltschmidt noticed a full column ad in the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle
for a staff photographer position at Berkeley Lab and thought it looked interesting, so applied. He was hired on to join eight other members of the Lab’s onsite Photo Lab. By the early 2000’s and until today, Kaltschmidt was the lone surviving employee of the Photo Lab. Kaltschmidt was immediately assigned a project shooting the Lab’s physics division, starting with physicist George Smoot.

“I was pretty nervous walking into that assignment; everyone had prepped me for it by telling me he was a future Nobel Prize winner,” Kaltschmidt says. Indeed, Smoot went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006. “It turned out though that George was so interested in talking with me about my new digital camera that we never really even got into his physics; he really made me feel at ease, and to this day we are still friends.”

The photograph that came of that meeting was one that Kaltschmidt envisioned the minute he walked into Smoot’s office and saw a whiteboard covered with equations. “I immediately knew that’s where I’d shoot George,” he says. “I prettied it up a bit and added some interesting lighting, and now that’s a photo that’s pretty commonly associated with George.”

Kaltschmidt’s next big project, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) was also an unforgettable one. And the research conducted there was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. Back in 1997, Kaltschmidt traveled to Sudbury, Canada, to take the first photographs of the neutrino detector, which turned out to be an experience of a lifetime.

“It was built 6,000 feet below the earth’s surface in a working nickel mine,” he recalls. Kaltschmidt started out with the miners at the surface, where temperatures were 25 degrees below, and traveled down in an elevator, letting miners off at various levels, until he got to 6,300 feet below the earth’s surface. Then there was a one-mile walk to get to the detector observatory. “You go from 25 degrees below zero above ground to about 90 degrees once you’re at the level of the observatory, because you’re so close to the earth’s core,” he says. “Once you get to the observatory you’re all sweaty and covered in dust and you have to go through all these levels of showering and drying and then they release you into an air-conditioned chamber that’s kept at 72 degrees.”

Kaltschmidt was lowered in a captain’s chair into a giant sphere of 20,000 photo diodes all pointed at a huge acrylic cavity, along with all of his equipment. “I was one of the last people to see it before it was filled up with heavy water,” he says. “I was able to shoot the whole cavity that they’d carved out, and the dome…. That shot was repurposed over and over again, eventually making it into National Geographic in 2006 as a full-page spread.”

Many of the images Kaltschmidt shot over his 20-year Berkeley Lab career have gone on to appear in national and international magazines and newspapers. “And the thing about the Internet is that it gave a lot of my images a life of their own,” he quips.

“I’ve been sent on some strange missions over the years—a couple times I went way out into the Pacific Ocean with the Earth Sciences Division to shoot these robots that were sent down into the depths to record data about how the ocean was changing,” Kaltschmidt says. “It was like being isolated from the rest of the world; we were literally out in the middle of nowhere, and there was no connection except in case of dire emergency.”

“My photos from that trip made it into magazines and journals all over the world.”

This June, Kaltschmidt will bid farewell to Berkeley Lab and to the Bay Area. He and his partner are retiring to sunny Sarasota, Florida, where Kaltschmidt looks forward to sailing his boat and taking part in the active arts community in the area. “I definitely plan to keep having my camera by my side,” he says. “I’m looking forward to having some time to explore my own photography and perhaps even put together a book based on my work from Berkeley Lab.”

A no-host farewell gathering takes place Thursday, June 9, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Henry’s in Berkeley.