Photographer Fonville Winans captured history, hard times

Fonville Winans had a way of capturing personalities.

Faces along the Old State Capitol’s gallery walls are proof of that. Some are known; some aren’t. All are part of the exhibit, “Fonville Returns,” which runs through July 12. The show also includes Winans’ photos documenting south Louisiana, as well as his film, “The Cruise of the Pintail.”

A portrait of Dudley Le- Blanc clutching a cigar reminds Meriget Winans Turner of her dad’s portrait session with Leander Perez.

The political boss of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes from the 1920s to the 1960s didn’t like sitting for portraits, and Winans’ session was going badly.

“Dad told Leander Perez that this wasn’t working out and that he’d have to come back,” Winans Turner recalls. “Leander Perez didn’t like that, because he didn’t want to have to come back. Then he stopped, took a cigar out of his pocket and lit it, and my dad said, ‘hold it right there.’”

Though that portrait isn’t included in the show, Winans Turner’s story is an example of how her dad approached his subjects.

She and husband James came to Baton Rouge from their Leesville home before the exhibit’s opening to check on its progress.

Winans was born in 1911 in Mexico, Missouri. He was a high school senior in Texas when he purchased his first camera, a Kodak 3A model, with which he eventually won $15 in a photography contest.

He came to Louisiana in 1928 with his dad, who was working on a construction job. The 17-year-old fell in love with the state, its swamps and grassy coastal wetlands, and, most of all, its inhabitants.

“Dad paid $25 for a small cruiser boat at that time,” Winans Turner says. “He saw the waterways of Louisiana as the Amazon in South America, and he was going to use the boat to make a film.”

“He was going to make a million dollars,” adds James Turner, laughing.

With two friends, Bob Owen and Don Horridge, who each paid $50, he filmed “The Cruise of the Pintail” between 1932 and 1933. In the film, the crew travels from Grand Isle to New Orleans to the Atchafalaya swamp, and are introduced to south Louisiana’s people along the way.

James Turner later coedited Winans’ trip journal, also titled “The Cruise of the Pintail,” published in 2011 by LSU Press.

“He recounts these adventures in his own words,” James Turner says. “ … He really thought the film would make him rich and famous.”

Winans didn’t become rich, but he did learn a lot about taking photos. He also learned a lot about Louisiana.

Late Advocate arts writer Anne Price probably best described his photos. They are a “human, cheerful record of a people who were self-sufficient enough to make their own way with dignity despite the times,” Price wrote. “Fishermen, hunters, moss gatherers and other wetlands residents are seen at work and at play. His landscapes and seascapes are haunting and enduring, and his always accurate eye captures the essence of time and place.”

“I didn’t take any of these pictures deliberately,” Winans would later say. “I just took them for fun. None was on assignment. I wasn’t even a freelancer. I just took my camera and got pictures when I saw something interesting.”

“We have those photos in the exhibit, but we also have a lot of my dad’s portrait work he did in his studio,” Winans Turner says. “A lot of these are wedding portraits, which are on exhibit for the first time, and this is also the first time that my mother’s work is on exhibit.”

Helen Winans, whose portrait hangs in the exhibit, was the studio’s colorist, adding hues to black and white portraits.

“She painted the sepia photos,” James Turner says. “The results are amazing. They’re so realistic. This is a lost art.”

After his cruise, in 1934, he enrolled at LSU. He played saxophone in the LSU Tiger Marching Band, led by Gov. Huey P. Long’s hand-picked director Castro Carazo.

“He played in a big band at the time, too,” Winans Turner says. “He eventually dropped out of the Tiger Band because the rehearsals took too much of his time. He was paying his way through college by playing in the big band, so he had to make time for that.”

Winans opened his studio in 1940. He died on Sept. 13, 1992.

“He made movies, flew airplanes, captained cruisers, shot photos, made music and courted beauties all before he was 25,” James Turner says. “He was adored and he was famous in his lifetime. Even great men seldom are so lucky.”