Legendary star photographer Bob Olson dies at 91
Bob Olsen, an award-winning photographer who documented pivotal episodes of Canadian history for the Star for nearly three decades, has died. He was 91 years old.
Olsen died in a long-term care home in Aldergrove, British Columbia, on Dec. 22 after a few years of declining health, according to his daughter, Christine March.
« He was one of the best press photographers in the country, » recalls Frank Calleja, Star’s former colleague and longtime friend.
Always keen to delineate the best vantage point to capture the moment, « he was tenacious at work, » Calleja continued, adding that Olsen « would not accept someone usurping his shooting space. »
Robert Eric Olsen was born on April 13, 1931 in Edmonton, Alberta, one of eight children. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Vancouver, where, without a high school diploma, Olsen got his start in photojournalism in his late teens. He started as a copyist at the Vancouver Daily Province before being entrusted with a camera. He then worked for the Vancouver Sun and the Vancouver Times.
In 1954, Olsen married his high school sweetheart, Louise Johnston. The couple had three children together.
Shortly after their marriage, Olsen’s career took off. The dramatic footage he captured of the Ripple Rock explosion in 1958 – an undersea mountain and nautical hazard off Vancouver Island that was destroyed in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in peacetime — seemed to raise his profile, March said. He won two National Newspaper Awards during his years as a West Coast photographer, once in 1959 and again in 1964.
In 1965, Olsen joined the Star. Over the next 27 years, he was a privileged witness to many historic events in the history of this country, including the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the October Games. The crisis, a moment that still looms large in March’s memory.
« Dad was supposed to be gone for a few days, and I think he was gone for three weeks, » March said. « It was the first time I knew my mum was scared, because it was an incredibly terrifying and disruptive time. »
Her father always stored boxes of Kodak color film in the refrigerator to keep them cool. Even as a child, she knew he had an exciting job. Who else had a relative who disappeared for days to photograph the Royal Family – capturing history, up close, as it was made?
« He’s one of the best photographers I’ve ever worked with, » said Dick Loek, another former star photographer and friend. He remembered Olsen as humble, generous and unassuming – « just a good reporter ».
« There was, of course, the one photo that everyone knows him for, » Loek said.
Taken in August 1979, the image shows a group of people in a prairie field outside Saskatoon saying their goodbyes as the train carrying the body of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker slowly moves forward.
“The images he took were always different,” Loek said. « Perfect. »
In 1992, as the digital camera revolution began, Olsen retired.
Although he was strict – he liked to say he ran the house like a “benign dictatorship” – March said his father had a great sense of humor, an appreciation for the absurd and always encouraged the creative pursuits of his children.
Olsen himself tried his hand at watercolor and acrylic paint. He was also an avid fly fisherman who tied his own flies.
Calleja, who often fished with Olsen on the Credit River, remembers sharing a bug-infested evening years ago. « So Bob said, ‘I have a net that I can put on my hat, and it will protect my face.’ What he forgot was that he had a lit cigarette in his mouth, » Calleja said with a laugh. « When he pulled the net there was a puff of smoke and Bobby got burned. eyelids. »
Olsen is survived by his daughters, Christine and Suzanne, his youngest brother, William, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, one of whom is named after him. He was predeceased by his wife, Louise, and his son, Robert.
“We are very aware that he was not just our father and remains a legacy of a body of work,” March said. « We’re just extremely proud of that. »
JOIN THE CONVERSATION