Images of our times

Eight decades of world history have passed through the lens of Chico photographer Ira Latour

“Dos Niños,” Seville, 1953

“Dos Niños,” Seville, 1953

Photo By Ira Latour

Ira Latour picks up a mounted photograph, taken in 1999, of Luftwaffe pilot Gunther Rall cradling model of a Messerschmidt 109 plane between his hands.

“That’s the third-ranking fighter pilot in the world,” Latour notes. “An ace is five planes. Guess how many he shot down.”

I estimate high: 45.

“Two-hundred and seventy-five. He was shot down himself eight times. … Ha ha ha! A very nice guy—he would have shot at me, and I would have shot at him. But times change.”

Latour pauses. And then we are off in a new direction.

You may have taken an art history class from him at Chico State University. Or perhaps you’ve seen one of his stunning black-and-white photographs while strolling through the MOMA in New York or San Francisco, or in collections side by side with works by Edward Weston or Ansel Adams. An irrepressibly jovial and modest man, Ira Latour, who’s now 86, has led a creative life that has made him a legend in the art world.

Throughout this Saturday afternoon, we repeatedly rise from our seats to explore the office of his south Chico home. We flip through books on the Spanish artist Antonio Gaudí, about whom Latour produced an award-winning film. We admire a picture illustrating the type of WWII airplane “nose art” genre that he pioneered and lament his short-sightedness in never photographing his friend and mentor Ansel Adams, whom he knew for 50 years.

Each artifact uncovered reveals that this dapper, silver-haired man, clad fashionably in slate gray and black, well deserves his designation as the 2003 San Francisco Elder Arts “Artist of the Year.” His ability to view the world with objectivity (and disarming humility) is infused into the photographs that have earned him the respect of his profession.

There’s an elf of a girl, transfixed and illuminated by a rushing world, and the indifferent man staring through her, in his 1952 “Orient Express.” A distant, contemplative Henry Miller, knuckles on thighs, in Big Sur. And his favorite: “Dos Niños,” of two children hungrily eyeing a well-stocked candy counter in 1953 Seville.

Twenty or 30 binders line the floor. A serpentine column of Post-it notes frames the doorway. An original manuscript detailing his travels in Europe with friend and writer Gene Thompson sits expectantly nearby. Thousands of his slides await transport to the Ira Latour Visual Resources Center at CSU, Chico, where he taught art history from 1968 to 1994.

Latour rifles through some old equipment.

“I’ve got tape recorders here from the old days. Here’s one, for instance. There’s a glass case for it. I bought it 40 years ago in Germany. That was state of the art. Ha ha!”

“Orient Express #2,” 1952

Photo By Ira Latour

The heir to two generations of photographic artists, Latour began what is now almost an eight-decade career with a 35mm projector and a Kodak camera when he was 9. He recalls his first foray into the photographic arts, selling tickets to moving picture shows projected via hand crank in his childhood home, in Berkeley. One of these films, which he’d “give his eyeteeth” to possess, was of his mother, Ruth Arnold Latour, an extra at D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios in New York City. It was, Latour’s father joked, a very good picture of a hat.

"[I’d] sell tickets up and down the street, and it wasn’t the kids that came, it was the adults! Ha ha ha.” Latour developed a fascination with timing. “I would do them in slow motion and watch the magic of [the characters] jumping up in the air.”

During his elementary-school years, Latour was the envy of his class. Recognized by his teacher as gifted in art, he lived the fantasy of young day-dreamers everywhere.

“It was called ‘progressive education’ at the time, and they meant well. … They allowed me to go to the back of the room and do my own thing while other students were learning hard subjects like math! Ha ha ha!”

Latour barely contains his own incredulity. He deadpans, “I’m a retired professor; if people knew how dumb I was. …”

It was during this time that Miss Wade, principle of the Craigmont Grade School, successfully persuaded his mother to hand him over each Saturday morning to Joseph Padget Fredericks, of the California College of Arts and Crafts, for personal tutoring.

“I would paint in his living room every Saturday morning for three hours, and there was a great big bell jar in there with Anna Pavlova’s ‘Dying Swan’ costume and ballet slippers.” Latour chuckles.

“He would take me to these exhibits, and to the ballet, and we’d go to wine parties … and I was just a kid!”

Through Fredericks, he became aware of the photographic revolutionary Ansel Adams. In 1932, Latour attended the Easter Sunrise Service in Yosemite that Adams captured on film.

And then, the crowning moment: Latour’s art teacher at Berkeley High, Myrtle Gifford, insisted that he put on a one-person show of his paintings.

There, among the turnout, was the master himself.

Tempering the excitement of this memory, Latour revises his account with his characteristic humor.

“The truth of the matter is, Ansel just happened to be in the building. Ha ha ha!”

Photo By Tom Angel

From 1937 to 1938, Latour studied the arts, briefly under Adams, then at the California College of Arts and Crafts. While a student at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts, from 1939-1940, he embarked on a three-month jaunt to Mexico, with fresh black dye in his hair as a traveling disguise.

The result? A commission by the National Railways of Mexico for Latour to paint a mural for the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition, an event remarkable not only for bringing together the greats of contemporary art, but also for being quickly forgotten.

At the turn of the millennium, four books came out chronicling the greatest events of the last 100 years. There was no mention of this “world’s fair.”

“According to Peter Jennings,” Latour recounts with his ever-present laugh, “nothing happened in San Francisco in the entire 20th century except for earthquakes.”

And so his participation in that remarkable experiment was essentially erased from history.

History wasn’t through with him, however, as a year of voluntary service for the Allied forces turned into four. Latour outran Rommel in North Africa and received the more desirable (and safer) position as the head of aerial photography for a squadron of fighter planes in Europe.

“That was a big part of my life. For years [afterwards] I forgot about the war. I didn’t want to talk about it. … And then we’d started having these reunions, and you realize you were a part of history.”

“The still photograph, in a way, has more impact than the motion picture.” Latour brings up the infamous photo of a Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong suspect. Latour says Eddie Adams, who took that picture, later regretted his part in history.

“He said people didn’t know that the man had just killed the entire family of one of General Loan’s best friends. In other words, there are two sides to every story. [The photo] ruined General Loan’s career.”

As a politically aware teen in Berkeley, Latour passionately supported the Loyalist “good guys” and opposed the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Over a decade later, during the ‘50s, Latour spent his summers in Spain, doing movie work for Hollywood, filming bullfights, flamenco dancing and Gypsies. Another side to the story emerged.

“Only after I’d lived in Spain over many years … did I learn that there was another side, that the ‘good guys’ weren’t as good as they were supposed to be, and the ‘bad guys’ weren’t as bad as they were supposed to be.”

In 1961, he returned to Spain, spending much time each evening at an “urban palace” built by Antonio Gaudí in downtown Barcelona. On the roof of this palace were fantastic, geometric chimneys, a hand-sized piece of which Latour now possesses from when they were dismantled in 1964.

The basement of the glorious structure, where the long-ago count had kept his horses, was known as a “cheka.” This word, in time, became synonymous with human “liquidation chamber.”

“And under this"—here he picks up the small chunk of tile—"tens, dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, women and children were liquidated. By the good guys. So you have to be careful. I’ve got blood on my hands; I gave money to them.”

Ira Latour holds open my car door and pauses. His jovial tone of the last three hours shifts and becomes very serious, as though poised to confess a secret. With three carefully spoken lines, this 2003 San Francisco Elder Artist of the Year reveals and celebrates his truest passion in life: his wife of 26 years, Terri Latour:

“I love her very much. She holds the family together. I don’t know what I’d do without her."