During a career spanning 50 years in news, photographer John J. Landers Jr. captured prize-winning pictures for several Boston papers and commanded the night photo desk at the Boston Herald while working as a private detective by day.
“John was always generous with his tricks of the trade and his near legendary knowledge of the city,” said current Boston Herald photo editor Jim Mahoney, who had worked with him since the 1980s. “When I went home at night, I knew the paper was in good hands.”
Mr. Landers, who lived in Milton, died Saturday in Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton following a brief illness. He was 82 and had retired from the Herald in 2005.
He was part of a team at the Boston Herald American that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1979 for coverage of the Blizzard of 1978. In 1969, the Boston Press Club honored Mr. Landers as Photographer of the Year at its awards dinner.
“He was a living history book for a long time,” said Herald photographer Faith Ninivaggi, whose career at the paper began as Mr. Landers’s was winding down.
“He had a big heart, was always eager to teach me and offer advice,” Ninivaggi added. “He had my back.”
Mr. Landers, who always wore a shirt and tie — even during stifling summer heat, and amid sporadic newsroom air conditioning — never called himself a photojournalist. He preferred the term news photographer.
His father, John Sr., had been a Boston Globe photographer, and he took him along while cruising the city for news, beginning when John Jr. was 11 years old.
“There would be bad accidents, crashes — everything. He got a baptism by fire,” said Mr. Landers’s wife, Ann. “He observed all of that. Nothing really spooked him because he had already seen it all.”
He graduated in 1954 from Boston College High School and attended Northeastern University, which he left in 1955 to work at the Boston Traveler. Mr. Landers joined the Boston Record American in 1967, and became a staff photographer at the Herald in 1972. He was later promoted to picture editor.
His brother Tom Landers, who died in 2015 at age 71, was a longtime Boston Globe photographer. Mr. Landers had been one of the four children whose mother, Gertrude Gregory, was a homemaker and a nurse’s assistant at St. Margaret’s Hospital.
In the 1950s, Mr. Landers was a Coast Guard Reserve officer in the intelligence mobilization unit, and his military demeanor carried over into his photo editing career. Known for his meticulous planning and high standards, he sometimes barked at interns who turned in artsy images.
He launched his investigations firm, Landers Service Co., in Milton in the mid-1970s, after working in a Neponset Circle group. He investigated fraud and did surveillance and litigation support.
Mr. Landers had covered the 1960 Eastern Airlines disaster at Logan, in which 62 people were killed when a plane crashed during takeoff. At the Herald, he ran drills in preparation for any such future accident at Logan. He timed how fast news photographers could drive to the airport, charting ways they could get there before the city’s tunnels might be closed to traffic, colleagues said.
Several former staff members remembered debriefing-style conversations with Mr. Landers after they covered their first big fires or reported from New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“You’re not a kid anymore,” Mr. Landers told them — from him, a moniker of respect that they coveted.
A former arts reporter recalled a night in the 1980s when the Herald sent Mr. Landers with him to cover a punk rock show at The Channel nightclub.
“Why, I wondered, did they assign the straightest looking guy on the photo staff?” recalled Larry Katz, who later became the paper’s arts editor.
Mr. Landers, wearing his usual tie and suitcoat, went about making great pictures and befriending punk rockers who sported elaborate piercings and Mohawk haircuts, Katz said.
The Herald also sent Mr. Landers in those days to photograph the gender-bending 1980s pop singer Boy George.
“He always got the shot,” said his daughter Katherine Landers Keyes of Milton.
Mr. Landers’s own musical tastes ran more toward Johnny Cash albums, which he played on a tape deck during family dinners that were held early so he could head off to work the night shift, his daughter said.
Mr. Landers married Ann Horgan in 1960. They had met at a party, when she was a sophomore at Emmanuel College in Boston. John had brought a date to the party, and then returned alone after taking his date home, Ann recalled. They were together ever since.
In addition to his wife, Ann, and his daughter Katherine, Mr. Landers leaves another daughter, Suzanne Landers Zavatsky of Milton; his son, John of Hyde Park; and four grandchildren. A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in St. Agatha Church in Milton. Burial will be in Milton Cemetery.
Among Mr. Landers’s best photos — and the one his family said was among his favorites — is a picture he made from the press box at Fenway Park on Oct. 1, 1967, after the last regular season game of the Sox’s Impossible Dream season.
Other photographers rushed down to the baseball field. Mr. Landers stayed behind for a few minutes and looked out over a spectacular scene. He captured jubilant Sox fans swarming ace pitcher Jim Lonborg.
In the 1960s, Mr. Landers often covered the Kennedy family. He photographed John F. Kennedy outside Children’s Hospital, where the president’s infant son Patrick was dying. When Mr. Landers covered the child’s burial, Secret Service agents confiscated his film, he told colleagues.
In 1969, Mr. Landers photographed the unfolding Chappaquiddick saga, and captured a haggard Senator Edward M. Kennedy arriving back in Boston, after he had attended the funeral for Mary Jo Kopechne, who died 50 years ago this week when a car Kennedy was driving went off a bridge on the island.
In recent years, Mr. Landers posted some of his photos on social media, which drew admiration from friends.
“I did a lot of things before I became a desk jockey,” Mr. Landers once wrote, deflecting praise during an exchange about a photo.J.M. Lawrence an be reached at email@example.com.