Aerial Display: John Larson photos donated

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Library preserves work of famous photographer/pilot

Shannon Morrell, Times Herald Correspondent

Many of John Larson’s photos are aerial shots of Oconto County landmarks. (Photo by John Larson, print courtesy of Oconto Falls Community Library)

Joan Denis, head librarian at the Oconto Falls Community Library, pulls a box of John Larson’s negatives from storage. (Photo by Shannon Morrell)

An old adage says, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” If this is true, it would appear to apply to Oconto Falls High School’s Class of ’46 graduate John Larson, who parlayed his passion for flying and photography into a business and became one of the state’s most renowned photographers.

A collection of Larson’s negatives was recently donated to the Oconto Falls Public Library. Head librarian Joan Denis is undertaking the daunting task of organizing, digitizing and posting them online.

“It’s going to be a lengthy project,” said Denis, who is sorting the photos into chronological order. “We would like to see John Larson’s legacy continue. Fortunately, he was kind enough to give us written permission to use all of his negatives for educational or research purposes.”

Reached at his home in Beloit, Larson said he was always interested in both flying and photography. His school friend Bill Reigel got his pilot’s license while still a senior in high school. At first, the young men believed Larson couldn’t get a license to fly because he wore glasses.

“Bill told me I couldn’t become a pilot,” Larson recalled, “so I went into photography.” Fortunately, his friend was wrong, and Larson was able to get his pilot’s license soon after his high school graduation.

With regard to never having to “work,” Larson did need to take a job felling trees by hand for a local sawmill in order to earn money to buy his first camera.

“We had the newest chainsaw at that time, but it was a two-man saw and weighed 120 pounds, so we didn’t use it much,” he said. The job paid $5 a day, and he eventually saved enough money to purchase the camera for $171, a princely sum at the time.

He then went into business for himself and opened a photo studio when he was 19.

“I didn’t take many air views at first, because I had to hire a pilot and rent a plane,” he said. That pilot, Vernon Matravers, was also Larson’s first flight instructor. As it turned out, the relationship worked out well for both men.

“Every time we went up and I took shots, Vernon would mark it down toward my flight instruction hours.” And for payment, Matravers would have Larson take baby pictures of his new son.

Over time, Larson’s business grew. In addition to aerial photos of local farms and businesses, along with graduation, confirmation and baby pictures, Larson is credited as being an innovator by taking wedding photos, something other photographers had not done much of in that era.

Larson’s early wedding photos are especially important today because they depict the elegant interior of churches before the ’70s modernism movement hit, Denis said.

“Right now, we’re sorting and picking out photos that have historical significance,” she said. “The wedding photos are important because the churches have since been remodeled and look completely different. The original ornate altars and fixtures have been removed.”

Denis said she and her staff are trying to identify the churches on the wedding photos by cross-referencing with local newspapers’ archival photos. But first things first.

“We are doing the class reunion and graduation photos first,” said Denis. “Then we’ll tackle the churches and wedding pictures.”

In this digital age, another of the many challenges facing Denis is locating the proper equipment to view the decades-old negatives. To this end, local photographer Mark Mortell has loaned the library a photographic light box with which to view the negatives.

And to make it more challenging, the negatives come in a variety of sizes. On top of that, Denis discovered an archaic Canon scanner was the only one that offered clear resolution, but it could only be used on the outdated Windows 7 operating system. She eventually was able to track down a computer still running on Windows 7.

When the rewards of her persistence pay off and the project is complete, Denis plans to add Larson’s photos to the Digital Public Library of America. They will first be posted on the Wisconsin Recollections Digital Library, a division of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

One notable absence from the collection are perhaps Larson’s most famous set of aerial photos. They are of the flood that hit the city of Oconto in the early 1980s. Larson remembers it well.

“It was April 13. I heard WOCO broadcast that bridges there were getting flooded out,” he said. “I called up the airport and got a pilot take me up for air views. He was flying really low, about 400 feet.”

Larson took photos of the ice dam that was backing up the Oconto River and creating the flood waters.

“They were some of the best pictures. I developed them 8-by-10 and took the rest to the Oconto Reporter,” he said.

The photos caught the attention of the U.S. Army, which bought all of the photos and negatives. They are now the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.