Like the main protagonist from Stephen King’s epic novel series, North Kingstown resident David Zapatka is on his own quest to find dark towers. However unlike the grizzled gunslinger in King’s story, Zapatka totes a camera and a flashlight instead of two ancient six shooters, and he actually found himself on a journey encompassing 130 different towers instead of just one.
Stars & Lights: Darkest of Dark Nights is the first book published by Zapatka, an accomplished local and network news cameraman, producer, photographer and lighthouse enthusiast. Although two Emmy awards dwell in his living room (both part of team efforts covering previous Winter Olympics for NBC, he clarifies humbly), it is easy to see how much flipping through the pages of the first proof of the book freshly delivered to his house on Monday morning truly means to him.
“It’s been four years to get to this point,” he said, talking rapidly with emotional wavering detectable in his voice. “I’m very happy.”
The four-year journey that resulted in the unprecedented publication (published by Vertel Publishing) is chronicled in the introduction to the book, along with stunning shots of each, and Zapatka’s personal journey – from his first camera purchased in high school to each of the lighthouse shots features – are included as well.
“I bought [my first] camera on my own,” he recalled. “I had a job cleaning kennels for a veterinarian who lived down the street from me. I saw this photography kit from Alden’s of Chicago. I told my parents I wanted to get this camera – I was the last of six kids – and they were like, ‘Nah, that will never lead you anywhere.’
Not discouraged, Zapatka went from photographing sports in high school to working for WJAR during college shooting video. He then worked years for Channel 6 and eventually racked up 27 years of working for network television, including contributing to the aforementioned Emmy-award winning work for NBC during the Olympics.
His passion for lighthouses was spurred by his involvement as the president of the group that sought to preserve the Plum Beach Lighthouse. This activity got him passionate about cataloguing all the lighthouses in Rhode Island, starting with the Dutch Island Lighthouse in 2013. His endeavor was made possible in large part by friendships he formed with members of the Coast Guard through the Plum Beach Lighthouse activism.
Once he ran out of lighthouses in Rhode Island – there are 16 active – he extended his range to Massachusetts and Connecticut. By the time the shots for the book were all done, he had photographed lighthouses in every state in New England, plus additional shots from New York and New Jersey.
The 130 lighthouses featured – under breathtaking star-filled skies – range from as far west as Buffalo, N.Y. and as far east as Lubec, Maine. Some of the lighthouses photographed have no official photographs on record, let alone in dramatic fashion from unique angles at night.
About a dozen impossible angles were accomplished via a specially-made tripod constructed by Zapatka’s friend Rob Winter, a welder from Coastal Ironworks in Wickford. The 20-foot long, 80-pound rig allowed Zapatka to ferry his boat out into the water and shoot the lighthouses from never-before-captured spots, making for much more dramatic photographs, even those well familiar to residents of Rhode Island.
To get to locations for the best angle to get shots, Zapatka studied tide charts to see where he could set up safely. He also had to work in accordance with clouds and the phase of the moon – as even a moon that was a quarter full would produce too much light over a 25-second exposure to take a high-quality shot at night. Many times he needed to acquire permission from public and private property owners beforehand.
Once or twice, Zapatka found himself close to harrowing situations to get the perfect capture, though he took numerous safety precautions throughout his journey. One example was off the coast of Narragansett while shooting the Rose Island Light. He had waded out into chest-deep water to get a perfect angle that could capture the lighthouse and the Newport Bridge in the background, with a slurry of stars overhead.
“The next morning when I got home I looked at the chart, and 15 feet away from where I set up the tripod is a ledge where it drops to 87 feet deep,” Zapatka said.
Much of the time, Zapatka was completely on his own to light his locations and set up the shot, but he was accompanied by friends and fellow local veteran television reporter Sean Daly for some locations as well.
Although his work is the culmination of years of historical research and voluminous depth of writing that covers a story about each lighthouse, Zapatka doesn’t insist on being defined as either a writer or a historian. He said he hopes that people will simply enjoy the book. If the book also inspires others to become more interested in preserving their local lighthouses, all the better.
“I'm neither an author nor a historian, just a guy with a camera, a dream and the desire to get to these iconic structures before we lose any more,” Zapatka said in a release announcing the book.
The 200-page book will be available on Nov. 27 through local booksellers and online at www.starsandlighthouses.com. It will be $39.99 for the softcover and $49.99 for the hardcover. Zapatka will 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. His works are currently on display at the Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown and Shayna's Place in North Kingstown.