Photos by Ira Latour
Children, San Francisco, 1945
Maximís, Paris, France 1950
(in foreground, from left:
Lucette Caron, Gene Thompson, Ira Latour)
Florence Bench, Italy
Nanny in her Whale-bone & Sod Igloo, Point Hope, Alaska, 1968
The Orient Express, 1952
Gene Thompson, San Francisco, 1949
Edward Weston, Wild Cat Hill, Carmel, 1950
A force in contemporary photography—Latour reveals his passion for life in his art
By Stephen Metzger
Ira Latour (above) at his home in 2008. Photo by Beiron Andersson.
Ira Latour’s 70-year career has taken him from Arctic Circle tundra and North African casbahs to Barcelona barrios and Parisian promenades, from Sierra Nevada mining camps to the Nuremberg Holocaust archives. Along the way, Latour has made stunning, highly regarded photographic art of flamenco dancers and gypsy children, soldiers and prospectors, and some of the most influential people of the modern era, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Elie Wiesel, Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller, and Robinson Jeffers.
Latour has studied with influential American photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White. He has shown his work across Europe and in Guam, Mexico, Japan, and China, and his works are in such permanent collections in this country as the New York Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress.
Latour has also made award-winning films, including the 1964 documentary Antonio Gaudí. Latour has published numerous papers in a wide range of art and academic journals.
He served in the U.S. Army in England, Africa, and Italy, installing and maintaining gun cameras in the noses of P-38 fighter planes, and painting “nose art” on many of them. He jokes that he has shown his art “over most of Europe.”
Latour spent more than two decades in other countries, including eight years in Germany and about three in Spain, the latter reflected in much of his work and largely defining his views of art, politics, and life.
And he’s had a distinguished teaching career—encouraging and inspiring countless students, many going on to careers in the arts themselves. After 23 years at CSU, Chico, Latour became professor emeritus of art and art history in 1991.
A family legacy
Born in New York City on Nov. 28, 1919, Latour comes from a long line of artists. His grandfather, William Latour, learned daguerreotype photography in the early 1850s and is on record as being the youngest American to learn the art. William’s son, Ira Hinsdale Latour Sr., co-founded the California Photographers’ Association in San Francisco in 1903. When his son Ira Jr. was 8 years old, he gave him a 35-millimeter hand-cranked motion picture projector and old films from the 1910s to the early 1930s.
In 1929, the young Latour began private lessons with painter and set designer Joseph Rous Paget-Fredericks, whom he credits with opening his eyes to the arts of the world and to the joys of creativity. That same year, Latour began Saturday classes in photography at the California College of Arts and Crafts.
Latour joined the Boy Scouts at age 12, a year after his father died. “The Scout masters became my surrogate fathers,” he says. “I owe a lot to the Boy Scouts.” He spent summers hiking in the high mountains from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite. To photograph a bear that habitually visited one Boy Scout camp, Latour hooked a 98-cent box camera to a trip wire. The bear, walking past the camera, literally photographed itself.
The 12-year-old Latour had watched Ansel Adams photograph the Easter Sunrise Service in Yosemite National Park in 1933. He spoke with Adams for the first time the next year at a pictorial salon—an exhibition hosted by a camera club allowing professional and amateur photographers to display their work. Further exploration of nature photography convinced Latour that he wanted to learn the art under Adams.
In 1936, Latour joined a special course in photography taught by Hungarian painter and photographer Nicholas Ház. Latour worked closely with Adams, who served as Ház’s teaching assistant.
In 1937, Latour and two other scouts took a two-week hike down the crest of the Sierras to Yosemite. Adams hosted the three at his Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley. At the time, Latour bought a signed print of Adams’ famous “Monolith: Half Dome” for $5. He and his wife, Terri, sold it a few years ago, recovering the original investment and “gaining a bit of pocket change,” he says.
Growing as an artist
By high school graduation, Latour had finished two years of college-level work through his Saturday classes at the California College of Arts and Crafts. He enrolled full time at the college for one year and then transferred to the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) due to its reputation as the most progressive art school in the West.
In February 1939, the Berkeley School Board gave Latour his first solo exhibit of paintings at the Berkeley Women’s City Club. Among those attending the City Club reception was Adams, whose attendance made the young artist’s day.
With a Mexican friend during summer 1939, Latour explored Mexico from border to border. Upon his return to California, Latour was commissioned by the National Railways of Mexico to paint an 18-foot mural for the Mexican Pavilion at the 1939–1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in the Bay Area.
In order to fulfill his military duty under the nation’s first peacetime draft, Latour volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1940. He ended up in a fighter squadron bound for Europe. With no instruction whatsoever, Latour was put in charge of aerial photography and the gun cameras, possibly because of his work with Ansel Adams.
In the 2006 documentary Visions of the 20th Century Through the Lens of Ira Latour made by CSU, Chico alum Mike Wellins, Latour talks about the difficulty of maintaining gun cameras in the noses of the planes: The vibration from the engines, along with that of the four 50-caliber machine guns and one 20-millimeter canon, often shook the cameras loose.
Nevertheless, Latour managed to obtain aerial fight sequences and still photographs that are used on television and in a wide range of books on World War II and aviation history. One of Latour’s painted aircraft—a P-38 Lightning named Tangerine featuring a rumba dancer—is on display at the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon.
After the war, Latour returned to the California School of Fine Arts, enrolling in the first class of the photography department launched by Ansel Adams in the fall of 1945. “The classes, worth five academic units each, were completely unstructured,” says Latour. “We were with Ansel all day, every day, taking pictures and talking. We’d stop for breakfast or lunch. Everyone knew him. And he’d talk about his ideas for photography and for teaching. I don’t think later students ever had such a close or intense time with him.”
Returning to Europe
In the spring of 1946, Latour enrolled at UC Berkeley. There he worked part time in the photography department as an assistant to photographer Homer Page. At Cal, Latour met writer and Groucho Marx protégé Gene Thompson. As a teenager, Thompson had been a staff writer for the radio show Duffy’s Tavern and would go on to write several detective novels and for I Love Lucy, Mission: Impossible, The Bob Newhart Show, Columbo, and other television shows. Together, Thompson and Latour edited the university’s humor magazine, The Pelican.
In 1950, after they both graduated, the two headed for Paris to work as a photojournalism team documenting the reconstruction of Europe for the Marshall Plan (see Thompson and Latour in photo right).
In 1951 they moved to Heidelberg, Germany, to work at Headquarters, U.S. Army, Europe, and to write the Great American Novel. “It was intended to be from both our perspectives,” says Latour, “Sort of letters home, journal entries. Mine were more observational; Gene’s more internal, emotional.”
The completed novel was sent to their agent in the States. It never saw print, and Latour and Thompson moved on to other things. Latour became director of photography at the Headquarters, Europe Special Activities Division in Nuremberg. His office maintained the photographic files of the Nuremberg trials.
In 1955, Latour accepted a position teaching photography at what is now San Francisco State University. He spent his summers traveling abroad, mostly in Spain. There he photographed and filmed bullfights that were broadcast in Germany and the United States. He also photographed flamenco dancers, ibex hunting in the Sierra de Gredos, and the architecture of Antonio Gaudí.
As was his experience in World War II, “Spain was a very important part of my life,” says Latour. “It brought me to focus on basic elements of philosophy and existence. It became the key to many other subjects. It opened doors.
“Learning about Spain’s Moslem period, its role in the New World, and especially its own Civil War, was important to me. Spain was the Vietnam of my day. It has taught me about how complex things really can be, and to look at issues from every possible side, diligently. I would tell my students, ‘Don’t believe everything you see or hear—even from me. Investigate!’ ”
In 1959, Latour resigned his tenured position at San Francisco State to accept an offer from the International Media Company to set up a motion picture production studio in Germany. Just before leaving for Europe, he met Teresita (Terri) Pangelinan, the daughter of a Guamanian cattle rancher and copra (dried coconut) representative for Guam.
After completing the International Media Company’s first documentary, Antonio Gaudí, in 1964 in Spanish, German, and English versions, Latour returned home, which gave him the opportunity to see Pangelinan again. The next year, they were married in Switzerland. A year later, their son, Marcus, was born in Nuremberg.
Inspiring others to create
Latour returned to UC Berkeley in 1967 for additional study. While there, he accepted an offer from Chico State College to start a film program, but the program was never officially approved, so Latour was given a position in the Department of Art, where he was instrumental in the rapid expansion of its art history area and art slide collection.
Over the course of his career at CSU, Chico, Latour taught 32 different courses, including the history of film and photography. He initiated and taught all of the non-Western art courses using a decidedly anthropological approach. In 1973, Latour co-founded the University Film Series with scholar and film critic Peter Hogue of the English department, co-hosting it for 19 years.
James McManus, professor emeritus, Department of Art and Art History, worked with Latour for a quarter century. “When Ira joined the faculty at Chico State in 1968, he brought with him a rich personal history as a photographer, filmmaker, and historian of photography, which he graciously shared,” says McManus. “Many students told me over the years that his lectures were enlivened by his personal encounters with significant works, key monuments, and major figures. Additionally, Ira sought to understand and give value to the contributions of every person around him—students, staff, and fellow faculty members.”
In 1968, Latour began collaborating with anthropology professor Valene Smith, first on Three Stone Blades, an ethnographic documentary film about Arctic people of Point Hope, Alaska, an area now abandoned because of flooding by melting ice. In 1981, the pair produced Visual Pioneers of the 19th Century: The World of Theodore Wores. It is about the San Francisco painter (1859–1939) who became director of the San Francisco Art Institute. Both films were reconfigured into DVDs in 2008 and reissued by the CSU, Chico Museum of Anthropology.
“I’m very grateful to have taught at CSU, Chico,” says Latour. “This is a very fine school, and I’m very proud of it. And I had many, many exceptional students.” He smiles and shakes his head softly. “I still get letters from them—from Bangkok, Ireland, France, Africa—twenty, 30 years later! They write to tell how they finally got to those places we talked about. That’s very rewarding.”
Wellins (attended ’83 to ’89), a filmmaker, director, animator, and screenwriter, credits Latour with much of what he learned about art, photography, and filmmaking—indeed, for much of his success. “I was just starting to experiment with animation, and Ira let me use all of his film gear, his editing bench, cameras, all of it,” says Wellins. “He was profoundly generous and encouraging, and I’d have never made any real films without his help.”
Latour also inspired Wellins’ creativity. “As a broke student trying to make films and other creative projects, I often had pangs of artistic doubt, ‘Why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be worrying about rent? Shouldn’t I be thinking about a career?’ ”
Latour insisted he look beyond those questions and concentrate on the work itself, notes Wellins. “Doing art was the most important endeavor as far as Ira was concerned,” he says. “I never met anyone who had such a drive to create, not some pretentious idea of lofty art, but more as a record of our own explorations, discoveries, stories, and ideas.”
CSU, Chico honored Latour when he retired in 1991 by dedicating the Ira Latour Visual Resources Center, a learning/teaching center in Ayres Hall. The center houses the slide collection of the Art and Art History Department and a reference collection of art books, periodicals, and non-print media. Endowed with $500,000 from Walter Kohn—a Holocaust survivor, Chico State librarian emeritus (deceased), and one of Latour’s students—the center serves students and faculty and is a “model facility,” according to McManus.
His latest decade
Latour, at 89 still energetic and passionate about his art, continues to work. In 1999, he received an Ansel Adams Research Fellowship at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, and in 2001, he received a grant from the CSU Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association.
In 2000, CSU, Chico’s University Art Gallery presented an exhibition of photographs by Latour, William Heick, and Cameron Macauley, all of whom studied photography in the department Adams founded at the California School of Fine Arts in 1945.
In 2008, Latour’s “The Photographic Metaphor” was published in Visual Metaphor by Richard Garrod, and Ira Latour: Portraiture and Place was exhibited at Chico’s 1078 Gallery.
Latour is cataloguing some 70 years of film footage shot around the world. He is also organizing and producing a show called Continuum, exhibiting the work of three generations of Latour photographers—William, Ira Hinsdale Sr., and himself. To view more of his work and read more of his life story, visit his Web site at www.iralatour.com.
Ira and Terri live and work in a quiet ranch house in south Chico. Their son, Marcus, is director of sales for a technology company in San Diego. He has clearly inherited the creative Latour genes, having won several photographic awards. And it seems the two also share a thirst for adventure—in 2004, he took his father with him to Burning Man.
About the author
Stephen Metzger teaches English and journalism at CSU, Chico.