WESTERLY — Tucked away with the hundreds of press passes he’s amassed during his 30-plus career as television cameraman, is David Zapatka’s very first: a hall pass issued by Maureen Logan, his former English teacher at Westerly High School.
He was a high school freshman with a camera around his neck when Logan offered him the job of year book photographer in exchange for a hall pass, recalled Zapatka earlier this week. “It was the first time I was able to understand what being part of the press was all about.”
”I don’t know if she remembers me,” said Zapatka, a 1977 Westerly high graduate, who grew up in the Avondale section of town. “But I credit her with giving me my start.”
Zapatka, who has since traveled the world twice over during his years as a freelance cameraman for NBC, CBS, ABC, TBS and ESPN, and has covered four olympic competitions, eight Superbowls, and 20 Men’s Final Four championship series — among other televised sporting events — has returned to his still photography roots.
Next week, Zapatka will release his first book of photographs, “Stars & Lights: Darkest of Dark Nights,” a 200-page book featuring 130 lighthouses — each one photographed at night — in the dark.
“When they’re doing their work,” said Zapatka. “Under the stars.”
It was a four-year project, said Zapatka, who makes his home in North Kingstown these days, not far from the Plum Beach Lighthouse — the century old lighthouse underneath the Jamestown-Verrazzano bridge that inspired the book. A four year project full of adventures — some more harrowing than others.
“My first picture of a lighthouse under the stars was the Dutch Island Lighthouse in 2013,” he said. “It started on a whim.”
Zapatka said he thought it would be cool to take a picture of a lighthouse at night, so one starry October night, he went out alone in his Boston Whaler, armed with his camera and a flashlight and began to shoot.
“My intent was to get those millions and millions of stars,” he said, but without the trails that can be seen when the camera’s shutter is open too long.
Zapatka soon realized that while photos of lighthouses and books full of photos of lighthouses are plentiful, there are few featuring nighttime shots. His plan for a book took hold. He began experimenting with lighting and positioning, studied up on lighthouses, tide charts and moon phases, and eventually enlisted the help of a welder pal who fashioned him a 20-foot, 80-pound iron tripod.
His adventures took him to Lake Sunapee, where there are three lighthouses; Race Point, Avery Point, Montauk Point and on a “hair-raising” overnight shoot at Gray’s Light in Boston Harbor.
Every lighthouse in Rhode Island is included in the book, along with lighthouses from every New England state, and some from New York and New Jersey.
“I went as far west as Buffalo, as far south as Cape May and as far east as Lubec, Maine,” said Zapatka, a married father of three. “And I stayed in a lot of the lighthouses.”
Anne Snowden Johnson, president of the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, recalled the lengthy conversations she had with Zapatka while they made arrangements for him to shoot the Watch Hill lighthouse under the stars.
Typically, said Snowden Johnson, such requests must be denied because of restrictions imposed by the Coast Guard and the association’s rules and regulations regarding equipment and nightime visitations to the property.
But Zapatka’s local connections and Coast Guard affiliation made a difference, she explained, and his request was approved.
“It was a lovely experience all around,” she said. Plus the rewards were extraordinary.
“He caught the most stunning photographs of the lighthouse … with the milky way and the stars,” said Snowden Johnson, “photos we never would have caught.”
Zapatka bought his first camera when he was 13, from money he earned cleaning kennels for Dr. Barrett, the neighborhood veterinarian. He had seen a photograph in a catlaogue from Alden’s of Chicago of a man with a camera slung around his neck and knew he wanted to own a camera.
“He was running and it looked so cool,” said Kapatka, the youngest of six children whose dad, John, was a popular longtime Westerly letter carrier whose walking route took him downtown, past the High Street businesses and into Pawcatuck. “My parents said I could buy a camera …. but with my own money.”
Zapatka took photographs all thoughout high school and then went on to Rhode Island College where, as a junior he won second place in the college division for his animated film “Dominoes and Other Facts of Life,” during the Rhode Island Film and Video Competition. He also began working for WJAR during his college years, a job which lead to his TV work for other Providence stations and his freelance work.
“I’m also a longtime preservationist,” said Zapatka who, as president of the Plum Beach Lighthouse Association, worked to repaint and repair the iconic lighthouse by helping to create the Plum Beach Lighthouse License Plate fundraiser. It was while working on the project that he became friendly with members of the Coast Guard, a friendship that opened doors to photographing many of the lighthouses.
Veteran Rhode Island newsman Sean Daly — called “the longest-serving street reporter in the Ocean State” by his former employer WPRI-TV when he retired in 2014 — accompanied Zapatka on some of his journeys, and has written the book’s preface.
“I’m really proud,” said Zapatka. “I’ve poured my heart and soul into it.”
Betty-Jo Cugini-Greene, the supervisor of new media at the University of Rhode Island who for many years was the news director at NBC 10 WJAR, said Zapatka is one of the reasons she worked in TV news. The two, who were neighbors in Avondale, rode the bus to school together when they were growing up.
“David was the neighbor who always had a smile, a kind word and a camera around his neck,” she said. “I have tremendous respect for him as a photojournalist and now as a video journalist. This new book is just another way he gets to share his incredible work with all of us.”
Zapatka’s book will be available on Nov. 27 through local booksellers and online at starsandlighthouses.com for $39.99 in the softcover and $49.99 for the hardcover. Zapatka will also be part of the Association of Rhode Island Authors Holiday Show at Rhode's on the Pawtuxet in Cranston on Dec. 2 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.