Mother seized the daylight for family photo opportunity

July 15, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

IT WAS a sunny summer morning when photographer Harry Patton rang our Guilford Avenue doorbell. It was 1960, and his skill with a camera was well-known, or at least talked about among my mother's friends. She wanted him to capture her six children on film.

His passing July 6 at age 85 reminded me of his gentle soul.

We had all arrived back from a summer at the beach. In a few days school would start. My mother knew she would have to work deliberately before her brood scattered to their separate ways and schedules. She seized the moment.

As if photographing six children separated by only nine years was not daunting enough, my mother decided to add to the pandemonium. She called in my cousins, Katie and Bill O'Hare, and their mother, Jean. Now we had an even eight to photograph.

The word in North Baltimore was that Harry Patton was highly skilled. And while he didn't know it, he had plenty of competition. To walk into that house was to be confronted with the portrait work of some of the city's best-known photographers.(While it was convenient that Mr. Patton made house calls, I never objected to a trip down Charles Street to the Udel Brothers portrait studio. If I behaved here, I got a good lunch across the street at the Belvedere coffee shop as part of the bribe scheme.)

He worked quickly, professionally and never displayed an artistic temperament. He didn't need to do that -- we supplied that commodity ourselves. Among the eight of us, I recall that several of my siblings were not in the mood to go before the camera or have their hair styled for the occasion. He worked wonders in the darkroom with the unruly hair of a 4-year-old.

The lights went up in the living room. There was talk about what to wear. Aunt Cora and Grandmother Lily Rose had the washing machine and the ironing board ready for quick costuming touch-ups. When the hair wasn't right, some of my sisters were sent to the showers.

And, as I recall, there was one 12-alarm temper tantrum. The rebellious child's photo turned out to be the best of the day.

There was considerable discussion about what shirt I should wear. Anything I produced was rejected. Finally, I don't know why, Mr. Patton gave his OK to a cotton gym shirt with an open collar.

It was an assembly line. Eight portraits in a morning -- and let's not forget the presence of two mothers and two grandmothers on site to oversee.

A few weeks after his visit, the proofs arrived. What Harry Patton produced delighted my mother, plus the other household critics, who were not reluctant to say what they thought about a photo.

My mother approved of his work and made her own house call to his Wiltondale studio, a curious little house that sat on a high bank overlooking York Road on the southern fringes of Towson.

She liked the pictures so much she ordered plenty and had him take the six individual shots and float them on a white background for a family Christmas card. All were signed "Patton."

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