The kid staying in the picture

It has been, and always will be, a life behind the camera for Craig resident Kirk Libbee

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It's a bright Saturday morning, and the sunrays are shining through the windows at Quality Plus One Hour Photo, warming the small shop on an otherwise cool fall day.

Inside, the man perched on a stool -- the hot seat in this case -- is squirming a little as a photographer coaches him through a photo shoot.

And, why shouldn't he be a little fidgety?

After all, being in front of the camera instead of behind it is new territory for Craig resident and Quality Plus owner Kirk Libbee, a photographer for 40 years.

The difference is noticeable to a female customer, who walks inside, sees the turnabout immediately and asks with a smile, "So you're getting your picture taken?"

"Yeah," Libbee responds with an equally large grin. "How about that for a change?"

Several changes are in store for the 59-year-old Libbee, who has owned Quality Plus for the last decade. He's set to retire at the beginning of the year, and turn the photo hut over to his only son, Robert.

But that doesn't mean Libbee will retire from his life of photography, a passion that was born in 1966 while serving as an Air Force welder in Thailand, the southeastern Asian country bordering Laos and Cambodia.

The Vietnam War was underway, and the 19-year-old Libbee, a California kid from Salinas, found the allure of the country's blend of exotic people, villages and Buddhist temples too rich to pass up.

He began putting it all on film.

"It just kind of started as a hobby, and then I just started getting deeper and deeper," he said.

The setting and culture, coupled with the privileges afforded to him by being in the Air Force, laid the seeds to an activity that later blossomed into a full-time passion.

"I had to find something else to do," Libbee said. "I found out that the Air Force and their photo lab had some of the best equipment in the world, and it was free. I just enjoyed the heck out of it."

While in Thailand, Libbee -- who spent some additional free time by working as an air base disc jockey -- was able to get pictures of American icons Raquel Welch and Bob Hope. Later, when he was transferred to Las Vegas, he captured The Strip in all its glitzy, desert Rat Pack glory.

Libbee, who worked for the Colorado Department of Transportation and Trapper Mine, kept shooting over the years, capturing native wildlife, people and landscapes, finding America's beauty just as appealing and exotic as anything he'd seen overseas.

"Just about all of it," he said about the country's plush photo opportunities. "It isn't just one thing I enjoy. The people that I photograph, animals ... it's all just a good release."

In 1996, he turned passion into profession and opened Quality Plus. The photo bug that hit Libbee also found its way to the shop's new steward, Robert, who has helped at the shop since it opened.

Robert, 35, will begin running the shop full-time in January. He began taking photos when he was 23 years old. Much like his father, he enjoys snapping images of wildlife and local scenery.

Robert said he'll run the business much the same way his father did.

"The way I look at it, he's created a good business and I'm not going to change it," he said.

Kirk Libbee has been married to wife, Penny, for 36 years.

He said he'll spend his retirement years enjoying his favorite hobbies -- "taking pictures and riding motorcycles." Whenever he goes out on his Honda VTX 1300 for a "good long motorcycle ride," he carries a camera with him.

He and Penny have plans to go on a long trip in June, with pit stops scheduled all along the East Coast. While traveling, he'll visit friends and snap plenty of photos.

He mentions locations such as the covered bridges of Vermont to Niagara Falls as settings ripe to be captured with the camera.

So, while some things are bound to change, others will remain the same.

"There's definitely a lot to photograph here in the U.S.," he said.

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