CHRONICLES OF RECENT HISTORY: PICTURE PERFECT
They should bottle spit – it’s the best glass cleaner!” according to famed New Orleans photographer C. Bennett Moore, as recalled by his granddaughter, Eugenie Stoll Ragan, who was only seven years old when her grandfather died in 1939. “I remember him vividly, putting those pictures together,” she says. Obviously, the glass in Moore’s frames had to be spotless.
Besides portraits and events, Moore had a thriving business selling colored photographs of French Quarter scenes, and even today his views are still sold at the gallery of Joseph Bergeron, who began his own photographic career working in Moore’s studio.
Capturing a memory on film is a custom that generations of Orleanians have treasured. In New Orleans, most of those important photographs were taken by commercial photographers whose ranks have included a wide range of personalities.
C. Bennett Moore was born in 1879 in Sauk Centre, Minn., served in the Spanish American War and then went to work for a New Orleans photographer, Emile Rivoire. In 1904, Moore purchased Rivoire’s studio, and renamed it for himself. Until his death in 1935, he held a reputation as one of the great portrait photographers of the South, but he was not the only picture taker in town.
New Orleans was home to photographers from the time the art was invented in the 19th century. By the 20th century, E.J. Bellocq was one of many working photographers in the city and gained posthumous fame for his portraits of the working girls of Storyville (and a somewhat skewed characterization in the movie Pretty Baby.)
Joseph Woodson “Pops” Whitesell, an Indiana native who arrived in New Orleans in 1918, was one of a quirky group of bohemian artists and writers in the French Quarter.
Whitesell lived and worked on St. Peter Street, in the building that now houses Preservation Hall. He was famed for his portraits.
Bergeron, whose gallery today offers some Whitesell prints, recalls that Whitesell often included himself in photos. “There’s one that is supposed to be in an operating room, with Pops as the patient on the table.” Whitesell photographed the literary personalities of the city, and he was honored with a one-man exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1946. He died in 1958.
Photographers are convivial people, and the local group formed the New Orleans Camera Club in the 1930s. Among its members were Bennett Moore’s daughter Phyllis, especially known for her portraits of children and women; Clarence John Laughlin, famed for his romantic and surrealistic landscapes and architectural photos; and commercial photographer C.F. Weber, who did advertising work for such local corporations as D. H. Holmes, Adler’s and New Orleans Public Service.
The Professional Photographers of America organization dates back to 1880, and beginning in 1937, the group began offering a degree program for a Master of Photography. There were regular juried shows at national and state meetings, courses offered in the summer and candidates for the degree were required to enter shows and to lecture and complete courses.
Phyllis Moore, Bennett Moore’s daughter, who regularly taught PPA courses at Winona Lake, Ind., recalled her daughter, Eugenie Stoll Ragan’s, experience getting her Master’s designation. “You had to have a lot of knowledge before you went – and you had to know how to process film, and what a Speed Graphic was,” Mrs. Ragan remembers, explaining that Speed Graphics were large boxy cameras that produced 4 inch by 5 inch negatives and were preferred by news photographers.
Mrs. Ragan started her own career early: “I got my first set of paint – oil paints, not water colors – when I was seven,” she says. Photographers painted in oils on the black and white prints, and she learned quickly. Brides were a specialty of the Moore women, Eugenie and her mother Phyllis. “We’d go to the shops to do bridal portraits at the last fittings. It saved transporting the dress.”
Phyllis Moore was the first woman to be president of the Professional Photographers of Louisiana, and her daughter would follow in the role.
Another photographer trained at C. Bennett Moore’s studio was Joseph Bergeron. “I started working there as a helper and an assistant while I was still in high school,” he explains. When Bergeron joined the Navy, he was chosen for photography school and gained three more years experience. By the time he left the service in 1970, the Moore Studio was closed. He went to work for C. F. Weber, and in 1977, bought the business from him. “I still operate it as C.F. Weber Photography, and we still have good relations with his clients today,” Bergeron says proudly.
He opened Bergeron Studio and Gallery, where he shows and sells prints from photographers including Jack Beech, Fonville Wynans and Michael Smith, as well as the Moore family. Another past president of the Professional Photographers of Louisiana, Bergeron earned his own Master of Photography degree in 1985.
The Moores were not the only camera-happy family in town. Leon Trice, Jr., was born in Texas, but came here as a child when his father Leon Trice, Sr., opened a New Orleans photography studio. The younger Leon went to Tulane University and, after serving in the Navy in World War II, came home to join his father. The Trice business was flourishing in the 1940s. “During the war, everybody was getting married, so everybody wanted wedding pictures,” his widow, Lydia Eaves Trice, remembers. Leon, Jr., participated in programs and courses at the PPA, and “he really enjoyed more commercial work, that’s what he really liked.”
His work often took him up in the air. “He flew with (Mayor) DeLesseps Morrison to photograph the damage from the 1947 hurricane,” she says, “and he went to South America with Congressman F. Edward Hebert.” Trice would do extensive work for Tulane University, and today his family has placed his large collection at the university.
While the Trice studio closed, Mike Posey Photography kept on, even when the founder retired. Rudy Bierhuizen, from the Netherlands, came here with university-level photography training. After working with Posey for 17 years, Bierhuizen bought the business when Posey left in 1998.
Although their work includes a “fair amount of weddings” and “lots of debutantes,” the specialty of the studio is executive portraits. “We photograph a lot of attorneys,” Bierhuizen notes. “You’d be surprised how many women are working, how many female attorneys there are – it’s a big change from 20 years ago.”
With Mike Posey Photography’s Canal Street location in Mid-City, flooding presented a problem. “We did save a lot, but there were an awful lot of negatives that were lost,” Bierhuizen says. More recent work might be done digitally (and thus more easily saved,) but Bierhuizen admits to using film, especially for large portraits. “Film has a different quality, it’s a little softer,” he says.
For photographers, the aftermath of Katrina has not meant an end to work. Even the storm’s worst devastation produced some business; for instance, Bierhuizen has been photographing levee damage.
People are coming in to get copies of photos they lost, and, rest assured, the photographers of New Orleans are ready to replace those memories, one frame at a time.