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Shooting a 'Sleeping Giant'

Career barber combines passion for flying, photography to document changes in Springfield.

Residents of Springfield have been living with the noisy, at times inconvenient neighbor of construction on the Mixing Bowl for years now. To most, it’s another daily stress to deal with in addition to traffic. To Bob Stockton, however, it’s a series of ribbons and bows, wrapping up his hometown like a Christmas present.

Stockton, owner of Bob’s Barber Shop in the Tower Shopping Plaza in Central Springfield, combines his love for flying and photography by taking to the skies over Northern Virginia to photograph roads, capturing their evolution and the changing face of Fairfax County.

“What else would I be interested in?” Stockton asked of his hobby. A resident of Springfield since the 1960s, he’s had a front-row seat of the Springfield Interchange project from the days when Springfield was “the country we’d drive to on Sunday afternoons” through the current multi-million dollar construction project linking Interstates 95, 395 and 495 through the heart of town.

“This is the center of the world,” he said “Springfield has been a sleeping giant for a long time, and developers are just starting to realize that.”

Stockton, who has a pilot’s license, will often enlist the help of a friend and fellow photographer Tom Styles of Richmond, and sometimes an off-duty police officer to fly above Springfield and other places in Northern Virginia to document the construction of roads, bridges and other large projects.

“I do what I have to do to stay in the sky,” Stockton said. With increased regulations and heightened security in the post-Sept. 11 world, the extra sets of eyes help him stay away from the restricted air above downtown Washington.

Although he understands the need for increased regulations, Stockton said “the threat of being shot out of the sky or getting big fines is just panic talk. It’s very unjust for people who just want to fly as a hobby.”

WHEN STOCKTON first started taking photographs of the Mixing Bowl, he used to mount his camera on a tripod inside the plane. The vibrations from the frame of the plane led to fuzzy, blurry images, so Stockton started bringing at least one other person in the plane with him to take pictures.

“It’s wise to get as much assistance as possible,” he said. If he takes Styles in the plane, Styles will take pictures while Stockton flies. If they are joined by a police officer, the officer will look for other planes while Styles takes pictures, leaving Stockton to focus solely on flying.

Switching to digital photography “was a blessing,” he said. “I couldn’t afford my mistakes when I was using regular film. I couldn’t handle the film and the chemicals. This is so much easier.”

Inside his barber shop, across the street from where KSI, Services Inc. has planned the Midtown Springfield project, Stockton has images of Springfield that have inspired him. One picture, a black and white image of Springfield in the 1950s, shows a large, two lane road surrounded by grassy flat land. The glossy picture next to it shows the Mixing Bowl a few years ago, tall concrete ramps and pavement filled with cars.

“When you fly over Springfield, it’s actually really pretty to see it,” Stockton said of the Mixing Bowl. “When you’re on the road, you’re usually cussing at the traffic. The roads and bridges are like artwork. The people who put the roads together know they’re beautiful.”

From his position in the heart of Springfield, Stockton said he’s looking forward to the completion of the Mixing Bowl as well as the progression of the Midtown Springfield project.

“I’m anxious to see how that turns out,” he said. “I’ll have lots of before, during and after pictures of Midtown.”

In fact, Stockton said he often has to remind customers to his barber shop, which he’s run since 1978, that the Tower shopping center will not be moved or torn down when the midtown project begins.

Much like the Mixing Bowl, the Midtown project is another change for people to adjust to in Springfield.

“You just kind of have to step back and let things happen. There’s a lot of people who worry about the traffic that’ll come in with midtown, but there’s already something like this in Alexandria,” Stockton said, pointing out a photograph he took just last week of an enclosed public area in Alexandria that looks very similar to the KSI design.

The inevitable changes caused by progress and living in an economically healthy area are part of the reason Stockton takes pictures.

“Things are always going to change,” he said. “I want to hold on to something, so I take pictures. The only way you can share a moment you’re in is to take a picture of it.”

STOCKTON ALSO has a long-standing practice of taking before and after pictures of a child’s first haircut. He prints out certificates for the children, or maybe for the parents to remember an important moment in their life.

On a long bench next to his station at Bob’s Barber Shop, Stockton keeps several binders, filled with pictures of the Mixing Bowl, images of old Springfield and family photos of his grandchildren.

Stockton shares his love of photography with his wife of 37 years, Caroline. She isn’t as big a fan of flying as her husband, however.

“He can go flying whenever he wants, just so long as he doesn’t want me to go with him,” she said.

The two have worked side-by-side at the barber shop for more than 30 years, which they admit takes a “special kind of relationship” to be successful.

“We’ve been working side by side since we were married,” Carolyn Stockton said. “After 39 years, you really have to love each other.”

Bob Stockton said the best thing about working together is “being able to have lunch with your wife every day,” but the secret to their success may be “coming in to work at different times.”

Although she doesn’t like to fly, Carolyn Stockton agrees with her husband that it’s become too complicated for the casual flyer.

“You can’t just jump into plane and fly anymore,” she said. “There’s so much paperwork involved.”

Her husband is “a good pilot and a hard worker,” Carolyn Stockton said, and she supports his dream of one day putting his photographs of their home town into a book.

“This was where we’d go on Sunday drives when I was growing up in Alexandria,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of change in our lives.”

Some of Bob Stockton’s regular clients in the barber shop use his photographs to get updates on area road projects.

“He does a really good job,” said Dick Brown, a customer of Stockton’s. “I’m curious about the construction going on and he’s got the neatest shots of everything that I’ve seen in a long time.”

The comparison between the Springfield of the 1950s and 1960s and what it looks like today is “fascinating,” Brown said. Looking at the gravel roads of decades ago that have given way to fly-over ramps and concrete ribbons, Brown said the difference between “what it looked like in ’57 and what it looks like now” is like night and day.

“It’s like this town came out of nowhere,” he said.

Stockton is "a real ambassador for Springfield," said Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

She has seen several of Stockton's photographs and admires his dedication to his hometown.

"It's almost surprising how good his photographs are," Manney said. "You don't expect a barber to be a pilot or a photographer. I'm very impressed."

Having lived in Springfield for more than 40 years, Manney said Stockton is the rare citizen who "seems to welcome change" in his community.

"It's really nice to have someone like this here," she said. "He has a passion for Springfield and all the projects going on here."