Ellis Studio
Corsicana, Navarro County, Texas


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2/27/2005 TURNING OUT THE LIGHTS: Ellis Studio shutting down; began in '52

 

Atlas Ellis is closing down his well-known 'Ellis Studio' on Monday after more than 50 years in business. It marks the end of the longest-established photography studio in Corsicana. Daily Sun photo/SCOTT HONEA



By LOYD COOK/Daily Sun Staff

or more than a half-century, Atlas Ellis has been the stalwart of the local photography scene -- the longest-running operator of a portrait studio in town.

On Monday, Ellis ends a long string of years taking photographs of local folks. On Monday, it will be the first time since 1952 that Ellis Studios will no longer be in operation.

"I've got pictures back there," Ellis said, gesturing toward the back room of his Commerce Street studio, "that I used to use as displays. Those kids are probably grandparents now."



The past few days have unearthed a lot of memories for the local icon. As he's been gathering together his equipment, memorabilia and paperwork, Ellis keeps finding more stories he's forgotten.

An old coupon that he used to send out to the parents of every newborn baby in the county -- it gave the bearer the right to a free 8-by-10 portrait of the child.

That led Ellis to memories of an old price list.
"I had it set (up) here and a local printer printed them up for me," he said. "Well, one day another photographer told that printer he wanted his the exact same way ... just with all the prices 25 cents lower. That was competition.

"But he didn't last long ... about six months I think. You see, I knew how much I had to make to get along. I even told him it (the price cutting) would cost him 25 cents because I'd do it for free -- he'd have to pay people the 25 cents."

A gravely belly laugh accompanied the last statement; testament to the perseverance necessary to keep a small business rolling for all those years.

It was a toughness hard earned. Ellis learned his trade while serving his country in World War II. He wasn't a combat photographer, he was in the Signal Corps, earning four battle stars for service in Africa, Italy, France and Germany.

His ship was the only one in its convoy to survive its trip across the ocean. The rest of the group was wiped out.

"People asked me where I learned photography," Ellis smiled. "Africa, I tell them."

After a year in-country there, soldiers were allowed to have items like cameras. Ellis said he started out with an old Kodak. It used a size of film not readily available, so he had to use another type that had the same width, rolling it onto spools while he was underneath a blanket.

Developing the film wasn't just walking down to a local drugstore over there.

"I developed it in my steel helmet -- I pulled the liner out -- in the back of a deuce-and-a-half," Ellis said. That would be how he developed much of his work then. "The key to photography is to follow the directions."

He said it's all chemicals and proper mixtures and times, agreeing that old-style photography is much like following a recipe.

He is 86 and a Navarro County native, born on the banks of Post Oak Creek. His country boy 'get it done' attitude is obvious ... from his time as a cattle rancher to looking at the photography equipment he either built or modified of his own purposes.

Old Graphic brand equipment abounds; klieg style lights and timed back flashes are connected by cables running across the floor; he demonstrates a camera front he built to allow the use of both black-and-white photography and color work at that new-fangled color film that came out.

It all works. It's all well-kept. It stood ready to go, needing only a bright, well-scrubbed young face to come for a sitting Thursday afternoon.

But he remembers. He remembers.

"Oh gosh ... the weddings were something else, something always happens at weddings," he laughed. "Usually something to do with the groom stepping on the bride's dress or train, something like that. I've seen skirts ripped off, all kinds of crazy things with clothes."

"There was one wedding -- it was in Eureka I think -- it was so hot, the candles were melting," he reminisced, crooking his finger to show how they bent over. "Well the fire dropped off ... caught the bride's dress on fire. That was a sight to see."

He cackled, looking off into the distant veils of time.

"I had a mother of the bride tell me that I had photographed everybody at the wedding but the most important person of all," he grinned. "Now I couldn't think of who I'd missed. She said I hadn't taken a picture of a particular uncle. I looked at her and told her that the most important person at the wedding was the bride."

Ellis said the biggest change in his business over the years came in film improvements. The speed of film in the '40s was 8 or 12 (he wasn't sure). Today's film speeds are in the thousands, he said, and that doesn't even take into account the new digital cameras that don't even use film.

It's the new age that is another difference to the business. Everyone has their own cameras and can, if it's digital, print their own photos. Or there are one hour places everywhere.

It makes the traditional photo studio something of a dinosaur, Ellis said.

He saw Polaroid "instant photographs" come and go, he said. Saw the evolution of the art of photography, won a couple of awards along the way, and, above all else, always stayed busy. Whether it was his studios (he also had one in Tyler for a few years before coming to Corsicana) or as a Realtor ( he was an officer in the Realtor's association there) or as a cattleman (Charloais), Ellis always had a few irons in the fire.

"I just decided it was time to stop," he said.

A few unmentioned tears sparkled in a few of the many creases around his weathered eyes. An unremarked-upon dab of a handkerchief kept them in check.


 


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Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox