He's the man behind those beautiful sunrises seen each day on Channel 13's morning news show. He's also a veteran television news photographer who only recently has come out from behind his camera to be the host of WJZ-TV's twice-weekly "Now and Then" segments -- aired at 6:40 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays as part of the news show.
Those sweet, nostalgic glimpses into Baltimore's recent past have made a minor local celebrity of Norm Vogel, a South Baltimore native who almost randomly chose photography over radar training when he joined the Air Force in the late '50s. At the age of 54, his face is a leathery tribute to years of fighting the good fight. His right collarbone is literally bowed under the weight of shouldering a camera for almost 30 years, but he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, with his having overcome alcoholism in the middle of his career, and now in the process of raising three grandchildren with his wife, Cathy, the gentle irony of the "Now and Then" title of his latest venture is not lost on him. Nor is it a burden. He says he's more excited about what he's doing now than ever before.
When we met at Channel 13 recently, he'd just come from his garden, his antidote to the daily grind of shooting fires and accident footage. But it was evident from the fresh, earthy abrasions on his hands that Norm Vogel doesn't take anything -- not even a tranquil garden -- for granted.
Q: How did "Now and Then" come about?
A: I was down at our warehouse and I found cans of old news film and old photographs dating back to the '40s. All of it just lying on the floor. The news director asked me if I'd be willing to spend some time down there putting it in some order and she said while you're at it, why don't you show the folks what you've found. So I did. She came up with the name: "Now and Then." I came up with the concept. We start off with an old photograph or an old piece of news film and we show it to the audience. And they help me identify who that person is. In those days, in the '40s and '50s, everything on TV was live, but there was always a photographer on the set who took a picture of every little amateur 4-year-old who had a top hat and a cane. So I took those pictures and I said if anyone recognizes this little girl, drop me a line.
Q: Did you get much response?
A: It's kept me going for over a year now. I showed a photo of a little girl playing the piano and several callers said it was [jazz singer] Ethel Ennis. I called Ethel and said, "Were you ever on Channel 13 as a little kid playing the piano?" She said, "I sure was." And that's the way all these things went. I had a picture of a little girl playing the accordion and found her. The accordion had been in the attic for the last 36 years. But I got her to get the accordion out and play it. She played "Lady of Spain." It was tremendous.
Q: How does it compare with shooting action news?
A: There has never been anything that's held my interest so totally and so completely. All my pieces have happy endings and news isn't normally like that. People can sit back and spend two to five minutes in pure peace and know that they're gonna wind up with a smile on their face.
Q: Not many camera people make the switch to reporter.
A: I'm not a reporter. I'm a storyteller. I just dig up some facts and go and talk to the person and I tell a story and all the little stories have happy endings.
Q: Speaking of happy endings, you're a recovering alcoholic.
A: Yes. I started here in 1963 and I'd been here about nine years. I had just won cameraman of the year for the third time and was elected president of the Baltimore Press Photographers Association. That same year I was fired. They simply could no longer tolerate my behavior. And you could have hit me upside the head with a two-by-four. No one ever sat me down and said, "You're a drunk." But I was just getting in so much trouble. My wife was leaving me constantly.
Q: What happened?
A: Everything fell apart. Finally I met a couple of fellas who attended Alcoholics Anonymous and who explained to me about alcoholism. And then, at 36, I stopped drinking. I haven't drunk in 18 years. [Channel 13 newsmen] Jerry Turner and George Bauman went to bat for me here, and I was given a second chance. I was reinstated and they gave me everything back as though I'd never left.
Q: Why did you drink?
A: I learned if the going gets tough or you need a little courage, get yourself a little of that firewater.
Q: What replaces that now?
A: Not to be hokey -- and I'm not a Bible pounder -- but I have learned over the years whenever the going gets tough, it's when you start saying a few prayers.
Q: How'd you start shooting sunrises?
A: Well, I have a law. It's called Vogel's Law: If you're riding down the street and you look twice, pull over and shoot it. Because if it makes you look twice, it'll make everybody look twice. One morning, about six years ago, over in Brooklyn where I live, the sun was coming up. I just pulled over and shot it. They liked it here at the station. A week or so later I shot a sunrise somewhere else. And they liked it. And I started doing it a little more frequently. Now I do it every day.
Q: What does the sunrise mean to you?
A: When it comes up it says to me, "It's a new day, Vogel. You can do anything you want. The heck with yesterday." It's a gift. And then, what I do with the day is my gift back to my Higher Power. I can screw it up, I can be depressed all day. I can be angry and aggravated and full of resentment. Or I can go ahead and do the best job that I know how to do and try to make it a pleasant day for everybody.