Bob Preston: The Legend Who Photographed Our City’s ‘Golden Era’

Bob Preston was a student at St. Pete High when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. The professional photographer who worked on the school yearbook was soon drafted to serve in the Army. With no formal training in photography, Preston stepped in to take over as yearbook photo editor. After graduating in 1943, he too joined the Army. When asked what experience he had, he said, “Photography!”

Combat photographer Bob Preston at Nagasaki atomic bomb devastation. He was only two years out of high school at the time, image circa 1945.

Preston was assigned to the Army Signal Corp as a combat photographer, eventually ending up with General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in the Pacific. According to his daughter, Patricia Preston Mastry, Bob Preston was there when MacArthur fulfilled his famous promise, “I shall return,” wading from a landing craft to the Philippine shore. Later Preston was at Nagasaki photographing the devastation of the atomic bomb blast. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in combat. His daughter said, “Like many combat soldiers he seldom discussed the war.” Not surprising after visiting Nagasaki just a few months after the atomic blast.

After the war, Preston got jobs as a photographer-stringer with the St. Petersburg Times and the Evening Independent (St. Petersburg’s afternoon paper; it famously provided the paper free on any day the sun didn’t shine). In 1950 he joined the Timesfull time, eventually rising to the level of photo editor.  While he was also an accomplished journalist writing hundreds of pieces for the Times, the love of his life was photography.

Preston’s photo of the last trolley (“Old 100”) on its final run ending in Gulfport in 1949. Among the passengers was baseball enthusiast and former St. Petersburg mayor Al Lang.

Some of Preston’s photos were published in national publications like Life and Look magazines and penned a popular column for the Times on how to take good photos with simple home cameras. In addition to his photographic artistry, Preston was master of a vast collection of photo equipment, experimenting with 35 millimeter and Polaroid film for newspaper use before it was common. His camera also served as a shield. On one occasion in 1949 he used it to ward off the blow of an angry criminal during a police raid. He also got the photo.

As a photographer:journalist, Preston was permitted to equip his personal car with a police radio, flashing light, and siren to help him to get to breaking news quickly, image circa 1951.

In the 1940s and 50s breaking news came from the police departments. TV had not yet become common and radio did not cover much local news. Preston prided himself on being the first reporter to arrive on the scene of breaking news. To help do that he got police permission to outfit his car with a police radio, flashing light, and siren. Preston shared his photos with the police department, which did not have its own police photographer at the time, and his photos were often used as evidence. He later became captain of the police reserves and, at times, his crime reporting and photography blended with his police reserve duties, something that newspaper ethics no longer allow. Preston’s crime-related photography and on-scene reporting also became a significant source of supplemental income. Attorneys involved in the cases often paid for his photos and occasionally called him to testify in court.

Preston’s photo captures four military planes flying over the city, including Albert Whitted airport, Demens Landing, and Mirror Lake, image 1947.

Once, Preston and fellow journalist Jerry Blizin got to the scene of a murder before the police. They collected shell cases and interviewed witnesses, then turned that information over to the police when they finally arrived. The perpetrator was later caught and convicted. The story became known as “the hotrod murder case” – the perpetrator drove a hotrod – and it came to the attention of NBC, which made it into a drama film for a show called The Big Story. Blizin was made the hero, and even though Preston had accompanied him, and taken the photos, he was never mentioned – although his pictures were later republished by Look magazine. Blizin got $500 from Pall Mall cigarettes, sponsor of The Big Story, for using his reporting. He also got a monthly supply of Pall Malls, which he gave away as he smoked a pipe. Preston got nothing.  

“No Fishing From Dock Please.” It wasn’t all war, crime, and ducks. Preston also took many fashion photos. Image from 1961.

Bob Preston was fearless when reporting on storms. He said, “If I can survive war, I can survive anything.” When Hurricane Dona brushed St. Petersburg in 1960, he tied himself to a palm tree on the waterfront so he could get a good picture of water churning in the bay. When huge waterspouts were seen on Tampa Bay, Preston hired a boat and rowed towards the spouts to get better photos. 

He shot thousands of photos of the major league baseball teams spring training in St. Pete during the 1940s and 50s. These included the Yankees, Cardinals, and Giants. Among the family papers held by Preston’s daughter, Patricia, is a letter from Atlantic Pictures dated March 4, 1956, authorizing him to “shoot for us 1,000 feet of Eastman Color film (film to be supplied by us), covering ten exhibition baseball games at Al Lang Field.” There is another letter from Yankees manager Johnny Neun thanking him for a photo. Unfortunately, all of Preston’s baseball photos have been lost from the family collection.

In 1956, Preston photographed Elvis Presley when he performed at the State Theater in St. Petersburg.

Many photos were of his family, particularly his daughter Patricia when she was a child, and these somehow found their way into the pages of the Times and Independent. There are photos of Patricia riding her tricycle on the city’s hex block streets; with a chameleon on her nose; dressed for Halloween; reading a book; peaking out from behind a door; at the beach sporting a sailor cap; and chasing ducks at Mirror Lake.

Speaking of ducks, perhaps Preston’s most widely distributed photos were not those of crime scenes, or hurricanes, or baseball, but ducks. In 1953, he snapped a mother duck leading a bevy of 10 ducklings crossing Mirror Lake Drive. Preston was there that day looking for photo opportunities with Patricia. She remembers the day well. “I was frequently ‘bribed’ to do these photo outings with a small doll or something to eat. I wanted to chase the ducks, but Dad wouldn’t let me.”

While working as a photographic journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, Bob Preston, was also captain of the police reserves, image 1961.

After publishing the photos in the Times, the pictures went what we call today “viral.” Life magazine published seven of Preston’s duck photos for which he was paid the grand sum of $25. The article described the duck images: “A domestic problem, which might beset any mother with a flock of children, recently confronted a mother of 10 in St. Petersburg, Fl. A Muscovy duck, for reasons known only to herself, left her home in Mirror Lake and led her family across a downtown street. Her trip was observed by photographer Robert Preston who waited to see what would happen. Eventually the Muscovy mother, with superb aplomb, led her obedient children back home through rush hour traffic, which braked respectfully to a stop. For the ten dumb little ducklings, oblivious of danger, the real trouble was clambering to safety up the curb where they were all checked by the mother.”

Patricia recalls that many other publications asked to use the duck photos, including the U. S. Information Agency. Shell Oil Corporation even used them in an ad, perhaps to show that auto traffic powered by oil, also shown in the photo, could co-exist with nature.  

Bob Preston’s photo of a Muscovy duck mother and her 10 chicks crossing Mirror Lake drive went viral. It was published by Life magazine and many other publications nationally, image 1953.

After leaving the Times in 1957, Preston joined WFLA/NBC TV as area news chief. In 1960, he joined the Evening Independent as managing editor. Later Preston worked for Florida Today in Brevard County (precursor of USA Today), Progress Index in Virginia (as managing editor), the Palm Beach Post (as executive editor), and the Naples Daily News. He also did freelance work for the Tampa Tribune.

Bob Preston retired in 1982. But even in retirement, he continued to serve his community as volunteer guardian ad litem, perhaps a harkening back to his days as a crime photographer and journalist covering the police and courts. As Patricia reflected, “Dad was continually reinventing himself.” Former Times and Independent reporter and editor, Jon Wilson, recalled, “Bob Preston was a legend at the Times and Independent when I first worked there in 1963.”

Preston was photo editor for the Times and managing editor for the Evening Independent.

What is Bob Preston’s legacy? One leaves different legacies to different people and places. But Preston’s legacy to St. Petersburg is certainly his rich collection of professional photos documenting life in our city during what Jon Wilson calls the “golden era” following World War II.

Will Michaels is a former director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburgand The Hidden History of St. Petersburg. Contact him at or 727-420-9195.