Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we decided a good way to welcome the Fourth of July for our readers would be to interview the Saugus photographer who shared with us several photos this year of the bald eagle – the majestic bird that America’s founding fathers decided would be our national emblem. Earlier this week, we sat down with Charlie “Zap” Zapolski, one of the town’s best-known amateur photographers, who has spent many hours this year checking out popular spots around Saugus where the bald eagle nests and is known to hang out. Zap, 77, is a 1962 graduate of Lynn Classical High School, which will be celebrating its 60th reunion in August. (“Of course, I will take my camera and it should be interesting.”) He developed a passion for photography as a teenager growing up in Lynn. His High School yearbook notes “Charlie will make a good photographer because he is interested in everything and has a wonderful personality. … Ambition: Freelance Photographer.” Instead of having a career as a professional photographer, in 1963 he entered the Apprentice Program at GE in Lynn, where he made a career for himself. He started out as a machinist, worked several foreman jobs and also in a management position. He was a casualty of GE layoffs in 1967, but he was able to return several years later and wound up working an aggregate of 35 years for the company – enough to get a good pension.
Photography remained his favorite passion throughout his working career. But his priority was raising a family. He married Kathy Johnston in 1965. She is a 1963 Saugus High School graduate. They were living in Lynn when they decided to look for an apartment in Saugus. They ended up buying their first of three homes and have been Saugus residents since 1967. They have three sons – Michael (of Marlboro), John (of Franklin) and Kevin (of Danvers) – and four grandchildren.
Zap has taken some great shots over the years. In 1967 he happened to be listening to info on his police scanner about activity at the Lynn-Saugus line. It piqued his interest enough for him to grab a camera and head out into the cold. Zap took photos of the roadblock set up for Albert DeSalvo – reputed to be the notorious “Boston Strangler” – who police believed was responsible for the killing of 13 women in the Boston area in the 1960s. Zap wound up snapping two photos of DeSalvo, who was later murdered in prison. Several years ago, one of his photos of a jet plane soaring skyward with the moon in the background wound up in Parade Magazine. It was a rare daytime shot that he waited about a half hour to shoot. The moon was visible on “a cool and crystal-clear day,” and Zap figured it would be a great shot if he could capture a jet plane in the same photo with the moon.
In Zap’s retirement, his passion for photography continues to burn brightly. He always packs a camera in his car when he goes out, just in case he comes upon a photo opportunity worth taking. He shares his work on two Facebook web sites: “Charlie Zapolski Photography” and “Charles Zapolski.” Highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: You moved to Saugus because of your wife’s ties? Or do you have family roots here?
A: When I was a kid, growing up in the 40s and 50s, everybody on my mother’s side of the family all lived in Saugus, on Vine Street. Seemed like every weekend, we’d go see my grandparents. My grandfather owned a piggery that used to be behind the Kowloon property at the back of the parking lot
Q: How long have you been shooting photos now?
A: Since I was 14 years old. My first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye camera that I got from S & H Green Stamps. There was no instant gratification for photos in those days. You had to wait a week to get the film developed. My passion continues, after all of these years. I’m still learning what to do and what not to do. These days, I’m using a Pentax.
Q: Your high school yearbook says it was your ambition to become a freelance photographer. But you went into the Apprentice Program at GE Lynn and made a career as a machinist for more than three decades. So, how come you never followed your ambition into photography as a profession?
A: I was married in 1965 and family was my priority at the time, but my passion for photography was still with me.
Q: You seem to enjoy photographing birds, and a lot of them are posted on your websites.
A: I like to shoot everything. I’m an eclectic photographer. I shoot anything that appeals to me. I try not to be a one-trick pony. I like to do sunsets. I always have the police scanner going, so sometimes I’m chasing accidents. I only live a quarter of a mile from Route 1.
Most of the bird pictures I take are from sitting in my living room, shooting through the window. But birds are just a small part of what I photograph. I love to do the hummingbirds. For the past year or two, I have been taking a lot of osprey shots. It’s only been recent that I have been shooting photos of the bald eagle.
Q: Okay, let’s talk about your photos of the bald eagle. What makes this photo special from the many others you have shot over the years?
A: Of the eagle? It’s relatively new in this area. There have been the ospreys around and the other birds, but when the eagle started showing up, so did everybody else show up, taking pictures. So, I said to myself, “Let me try, too.” It’s only been this year that I have been photographing the eagle.
Q: What makes it special as far as capturing that photo?
A: When you see them, their claws are enormous, and when they spread their wings, it’s like it’s really, really graceful.
Q: And the patriotism in you. Does it move you to be out there taking photographs of a bald eagle?
A: That’s a small part of it – yeah – the excitement of seeing the eagle and trying to capture a good shot. And in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, this is a symbol of the country, too, so I try to do it justice, taking a good picture of it. That’s why I was saddened by the baby eagle that got killed recently.
Q: Please, tell me about that.
A: I was telling you about the nest at the end of Chestnut Street; there was one chick in there. And the racoons will go after it. I guess the racoons climbed up the pine tree. In certain places where they have eagles in trees, they put a skirt around the tree so the racoons can’t get by – but not at this tree. And a friend of mine down at the VFW, he knows a woman who lives right there. And she told him there was all kinds of screeching going on between the raccoons and the eagles who were trying to fight off the raccoons. And photographer Jim Harrington – he took a picture of the dead chick on the ground that the racoons had gotten to. But those eagles are basically still around the area and they will probably make a nest somewhere else.
Jim’s a pretty good photographer. He likes to go out and take a lot of pictures. He’s big on the aerial shots [use of drones to take photographs].
Q: By shooting photographs of the eagles, what have you learned about them?
A: They’re a raptor. They like fish. They like small animals. The osprey is basically a fish-eater, but the eagle will go after basically anything that has blood in it and moves. I heard – I don’t know if it’s true – about a month ago an eagle grabbed someone’s little dog. That was something posted on Facebook. Somebody said, “Be careful where your pets are.” If a small dog is out there and the eagle sees it, it’s gone.
Q: So, the eagles hang out near the old Spud’s restaurant [Kpub Kitchen & Bar] and down around Ballard Street?
A: Yes. I took my first bunch of pictures right across the street from Spud’s in that pine tree. As you’ll see in that picture, the long pine cones look like hotdogs! I was very pleased when I started shooting the eagles. How nice the photos came out with the new lens on my camera. And the quality was really sharp. I’m always trying to tweak it and make it better.
Q: Did you do any shooting of the eagle this week?
A: I drove by where the eagles might be. I didn’t see them, so I parked the car and wound up going by the osprey nests and took a lot of shots there before it rained. But I didn’t see any eagles.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share about the eagle?
A: Another aspect that I’ve observed: The male eagle is smaller than the female. The male being smaller, it’s a lot faster at maneuvering and trying to go after something. But the female is bigger.
Q: Do you remember the first time when you photographed the eagle? What it was like?
A: It was across from the Spud’s parking lot.
Q: Is it what you expected?
A: Yes. I see what other people are photographing and I say, “I can do that, too.”
Q: You say you take more pains and pride on the shots because you want to treat the eagle with respect.
A: Yes. It’s something I take pride in doing, and I’m my own worst critic. I throw away a lot of pictures that other people would like. I see a lot on Facebook, and I say to myself “I wouldn’t put it there. Those aren’t good enough.” Whatever I do, I try to do a representation of what I saw and was shooting that day.
Q: As you look back, where does the eagle rate in your top shots?
A: In the top shots? It’s kind of hard to say. I do sunsets. Some are really, really nice. And the bird pictures, some are really, really nice. It all balances out.
I got some shots that I consider real good in one subject and real good in another subject, and whatever appeals to me, I put out there for people to look at. On Facebook, I got two sites there and I got 6,000 followers.
Q: The two combined?
A: Yes. And I post the best shots I do – whatever subject – so people can enjoy them.
Q: How many hours a week do you spend on your hobby?
A: Maybe, on a given day, an hour or so. I took some outside today around the house. I spent a half hour yesterday taking photos of the osprey. At the most, it might be two hours a day, but not every day. When I walk the bike trail, I might be there for an hour to see what’s going on down there.
Some of those people who take the eagle shots, they’re there early in the morning, and they wait and they wait! I can’t do that. My wife would say “Where were you?”
Q: Anything else that you would like to say about July 4, the bald eagle and the passion for the hobby you have?
A: I would like to see the bald eagle come around for the Fourth of July. That would be a good symbol for that day. If I don’t have much to do that day, I will go out in the area and see if I can get him for the Fourth of July.
Q: Do you think a lot of other photographers in the area will be trying to get him, too?
A: Oh yeah, probably. There are, like, four or five out there by the nest taking a picture of him. They’re still around. You got to be lucky. I look up and see if he’s there. If he’s there, I’ll grab a camera and take a shot.
Q: Why do you do what you do and what do you get out of it?
A: It’s my hobby and it’s a passion. I enjoy doing it. I’ve been doing it for over 60 years, I guess, and I’m still learning different techniques. And I go from there, trying to enhance my skills a little bit all the time.
Q: And yet you’ve remained an amateur photographer?
A: Oh yeah. That way, I like doing what I do better. Everybody says, “Why don’t you get in it for the money?” And I say, “What for?”
In my years at GE, I worked a lot of overtime, and my wife was pretty sharp, putting the money where she put it. She handles the money and does it well. When she was in her 40’s, she went to Suffolk University and got a degree in accounting. We’re not rich. But we’re comfortable and I don’t have to do it for the money.
I just do it because I like it. If I had to do it for the money, I wouldn’t enjoy it.