At 5:40 p.m. last Wednesday, longtime Riverhead News-Review photographer Barbaraellen Koch emailed a story pitch to the newspaper’s editors. The subject line said “don’t forget to do a story about this guy.”
She was minutes from the end of her final shift at the paper, but she was still coming up with ideas.
In her 24 years at the News-Review, Barbaraellen, or BE as you might know her, was as good as just about anyone at finding and developing story ideas. Riverhead was her adopted hometown and she loved profiling the people who make it a special place right up until her retirement last week.
BE served as staff photographer at the paper for so many years, it’s hard for many of us to imagine her having worked or lived anywhere else. But she was born and raised in Bethpage and got her first taste of eastern Suffolk County as a summer resident in Lake Panamoka, where her parents purchased one of the last waterfront houses.
Her professional journey began even farther from Riverhead, with brief stints at newspapers in Portland, Maine. And while the image many folks in Riverhead have of her is with her eye staring through the viewfinder of her Canon, she worked in the darkroom at her second job in Maine.
“It was the policy of that paper [more than 40 years ago] that women worked in the darkroom,” she recalled to the Times Review staff last week. “They didn’t allow women to take photos in the field.”
In 1976, BE got her first opportunity to work as a full-time photo journalist at The Santa Fe Reporter. She’d later work at two more papers in New Mexico and two more in Miami. She eventually settled in Polish Town with her husband, Bert Vogel, and their sons, Spenser and Austen.
Over the course of her career, BE shot just about every type of assignment imaginable and was often recognized for her work in the New York Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. Earlier this year, for the first time, she received an honorable mention from NYPA as Photographer of the Year. The judges made an astute observation about her work in their comments: “Barbaraellen is clearly a seasoned community photojournalist consistently producing sharp, quality images … [she] excels at capturing people in peak action, in moments that bring life to the stories her photographs complement.”
She helped make that a standard at Times Review, where we aim to avoid the stagnant photograph in favor of an active one. BE also won many awards over the years for her art photos, which often graced the cover of the News-Review. Her recent Sunday Scene contributions to northforker.com were a showcase for her ability to also report as she photographed subjects, getting more out of the sources than most any reporter could.
When I reflect back on BE’s career at the paper, during the last half of which I was honored to work alongside her, I’ll most often think of her passion in pitching a story and how she saw stories through a unique lens. She championed the pieces that might otherwise go untold and continued to fight for them when they sometimes did.
The masthead listed her as a staff photographer for decades, but Barbaraellen is a journalist — and a damn fine one at that.
When I told her I wanted to write this column, she sent me an email with some of her own thoughts on her career at the News-Review. Here she is in her own words:
“I have worked full-time for newspapers as a photojournalist for 40 years — since 1976. I never went to journalism school, and my brief attempt at studying photography when I was studying art got me a ‘C.’ I quit and went on to study environmental education, but never lost sight of the pursuit of my passion.
“I have never really thought much about developing sources. In all the places I have lived I have always been interested in people’s concerns, obstacles, triumphs and interests. So it is the familiar faces I come in contact with each day at the deli, bakery, gas station, groceries and bagel stores and farm stands whose stories I’ve told. I may or may not know their names or when or how they came to this country, for example. Maybe they told me they missed their wife’s funeral because their visa wasn’t in order yet — every personal tidbit has had a big impact on me.
“It is also the school bus drivers and crossing guards and the mailman I might only recognize with a card each year at Christmas — but I remember they are working steadfastly in our community and they see everything. These are the people that make up the fabric of my everyday life. And I want to thank them for everything they have given me.
“In addition, some other noteworthy people stand out for me and I’d like to recognize them: Sister Margaret, Highway Superintendent Gio Woodson, town historian Georgette Case and the late Justine Wells, the late volunteer ‘ombudsman’ Vince Tria, Jim Dreeben of Peconic Paddler, the Wells family farmers, the Massoud family winemakers, Riverhead’s poet laureate Bubbie Brown, the late Burte Harris and Kay Davis of the Polish Civic, former town councilman Eddie Densieski, photographer Steve Berger and his wife, Ellen, for their constant encouragement, all of the East End Artists who have enriched my life, historian and preservationist Richard Wines, master gardener Nancy Gilbert and the two special Thelmas — Thelma Booker and Thelma White — for always being there for me!
“Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”
She then sent me one more email reminding me of two more recent story ideas. I think I speak for the staff of the News-Review and the people of Riverhead when I say: No, BE, thank you!
Top courtesy photo: Riverhead artist Keith Mantell snapped this photo of longtime News-Review photographer Barbaraellen Koch when she was working on a story about him painting a mustard field in Aquebogue. (Credit: Keith Mantell)
Grant Parpan is the executive editors of Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at [email protected]esreview.com