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Plain Talk and Painter's Photography a good team


While searching our archives, "the morgue files," I came across this Feb. 1989 photo
we made at Painter's Photography. Elza is posed with an 8-by-10 inch format billows
camera. Irene has a Hasselblad, much like the camera Elza is shown with in another
photo here that I made last Thursday at his home. Karen Travis did a feature on the
Painters in 1989 and I made this photo.
Published: 9:56 PM, 12/14/2012

Author: David Popiel
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

Mid December is looking more like there will be a winter after all in our hometown when heavy rain early last week ushered in much colder temperatures and frosty fogs in the mountains. Winter makes its official arrival this Friday, December 21.

Last week we visited with Elza Painter and his wife, Irene, at their Golf Course Road home where he has lived over 45 years. Born in West Virginia coal mining territory he had to leave to find his future course, training, and career. With not much opportunity in post World War II and no desire to work in coal dust and mines, he left the Appalachian Mountains and entered the US Navy about 1949 at which time I was riding a tricycle in sunny Miami. Those who were military in the 1950s recall the Korean War but that was still on the unseen event horizon for Elza. Stationed in the Caribbean and Atlantic he eventually was placed on the escort destroyer USS Saufley. This ship went into naval service in 1942 and was recommissioned in 1949 as an experimental sonar and anti-submarine warfare ship. During his stint overseas, the coal mines shut down so there was little reason to return home. An uncle who was editor of the Middlesborough Daily News invited him to come to work. I surmise that this was his first influences towards photography, as he soon worked for Black Diamond Studio just before Ford Motor Company rolled out its 1955 Crown Victoria. The uncle had been editor of the newspaper for years and wanted to leave and start his own photography business. One of the projects Elza did around 1954 was the Lincoln Memorial University annual. He was also making his first photos of the deceased in coffins at funerals, as was the custom then in this area. Elza and I talked about the cameras, bulky Graflex models, that used a four-inch by five-inch sheet of film and were still in use by the time I made it to Newport. Elza liked photography but made the smart decision that he needed more training to succeed and enrolled in the New York Institute of Photography on 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue in 1955. As this address meant nothing to me or you, he gave me a landmark: "It was across the street from the Empire State Building." He eventually got to the observation platform for a view never forgotten. "I was a little disappointed looking up from the ground. I gained respect when looking from the top down."


Steak griller at Stouffer's


One of the neat part-time jobs Elza came across in New York was with the famous Stouffer's Restaurant. The name is currently floating around in my head because Lenny Zmich worked with the Stouffer's food processing company in Cleveland as a young man. You and I like the macaroni and cheese dinners. Elza handled the charcoal grilling of steaks for the evening shift featuring tenderloins, T-bones, sirloins, NY strip, and lamb chops. "We served over 5,000 meals a day," recalled Elza. He had one special customer who always purchased a steak dinner. If the 13-ounce steak was cooked to his perfection Elza got a dollar tip from him, and if not, Elza got the steak back and that rarely happened: How about a complete breakfast for 19 cents, and lunch for a quarter. The real photography training took place in daytime and by 3 p.m. Elza left the school for work. He spent about a year in NY before graduating and moving. Not only did he learn all the aspects of studio photography and lighting but retouching and hand coloring prints and print-making. You may enjoy some of his work today and also picture frames he crafted in Newport.

With this professional training he got several job offers one being in Saudia Arabia. He instead took a job in Elyria, Ohio, working with a great photography teacher Gordon DeLavars and the Chronicle Telegraph as a photojournalist (1956-1959). Elza worked two jobs: with Gordon until 3 p.m. and at the Telegraph from 4-11 p.m. This got my interest because I immediately relished news photography at the Plain Talk, and Elza gave me a lot of helpful tips when film cameras were not auto-piloted by computers. Did Elza meet and photograph any interesting folks? The most important photo work, in my opinion, he did was of Eleanor Roosevelt then the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Elza shot three features on her; one he obviously liked was a series of close-ups of her hands. "They were very expressive. She was a wonderful and fascinating woman." He recalled. Also impressive were the photos he made of J.C. Penney: Yes, Mr. Penney who founded the famous retail chain. "I was at his store in Elyria," where a reporter was interviewing Mr. Penney and Elza was making photos for a newspaper feature. Suddenly, Mr. Penney stopped them, said "excuse me," and walked over to help a waiting customer. You sports and golfing fans may know of Patty Berg. Elza photographed her when she was the foremost female golfer in the world. She was at the height of her career in her late 30s when Elza met and photographed Berg. It was the era of big cameras, flash bulbs, and long hours in the darkroom with Elza sometimes putting in 16 hours in a day. The first flashbulbs he used were the size of 100-watt light bulbs.


On the road leading to Newport


After four years he left Ohio and specifically recalls January 25, 1959. Why? That's when he ended up in Newport at age 30 with his first wife Maxine. Close friends of his know the story, which explains again to me why he was so involved in the Newport Kiwanis Club in the 1960s along with my mentor and late Plain Talk Co-Publisher Arthur L. Petrey. This was the era of the club's popular Kiwanis Kapers. Maxine was going to college studying nursing where Jo Runnion was attending, The University of Virginia. Elza was wondering what path to next take in his career and photo work. Jim Runnion, who was an accountant in Newport, working at Haywood-Wakefield, convinced Elza to come to Newport, which they did. 

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