If you haven’t already done so, take a few minutes to read this charmingly offbeat obituary of Harry Weathersby Stamps, a recent viral sensation. Thanks to Amanda Stamps, we learned that her father, a resident of Long Beach, Miss., liked to drink buttermilk out of martini glasses and amuse his grandchildren by crowing like a rooster over the phone.
We’d like to think there are countless other American originals like Harry Stamps out there. And, thanks to the Suislaw News in Florence, Ore., we recently read about one.
In the paper’s obit titled “Willard Conrow, ‘adventurer,’ dies at 100,” we learned that Conrow, who passed away on March 16, was perhaps Florence’s most beloved resident. He volunteered in a local soup kitchen, read aloud to a friend who was blind, and took daily walks during which he dutifully picked up litter as a public service. He made it a habit to smile at passersby and to bring along a supply of dog biscuits, just in case he happened on a person walking a dog. “He was well known in our little town,” recalls News reporter Amy Barrett. “People didn’t know his past. They would just see him walking along the road, picking up litter.”
Conrow also made it a habit to carry a digital camera for taking photos that he framed and donated to decorate houses built by local Habitat for Humanity volunteers. It wasn’t until Barrett struck up a conversation with Conrow in 2012 and wrote this feature story about him, however, that Florence learned that the kindly old gentleman who liked to take snapshots had once been a renowned avant-garde fine art photographer in Los Angeles.
A 1951 article in Popular Photography paid tribute to him for exploring the “frontiers beyond realism” in his work by using metal mirrors and curved glass to manipulate light and give objects such as masks and watch faces an otherworldly look: “Conrow refuses to be bound to literal presentation of subject matter, and pushes his camera up imaginative roads. … Whether you like these pictures or not, they are adventures – adventures of a mind with a camera – and as such are worth studying.” A Los Angeles Times critic, reviewing an exhibit of Conrow’s work, praised his “vivid imagination.”
According to a biographical sketch written by son Robert, Conrow’s life was an exotic adventure from the time he was born in New Jersey in 1912, the son of a foundry sales manager who served in the cavalry during the Spanish-American War. After Conrow’s parents divorced, his father won custody, but his mother Moots – a nickname that stemmed from her penchant for arguing – eventually absconded with him to Florida, where they lived with her new husband, the author of a 600-page encyclopedia titled The Book of Wonders. In 1929, when his mother and stepfather abruptly moved to California to become followers of an Indian mystic, Swami Yogananda, Conrow followed along. He soon decided that the holy man was a fraud when he noticed him snoring while meditating. After graduating from Pomona College, he began studying photography at the Los Angeles Art Center.
Conrow’s studies were interrupted, however, when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. After the war he returned to L.A. and became an instructor at the Fred Archer School of Photography while pursuing his artistic ambitions. He later worked for the aviation giant Northrop as an optical engineer. In 1965, he and his wife, Eleanor, went to Alabama to participate in the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Eventually, after years of retirement spent roaming the country in a motor home, they settled in Oregon, where Eleanor passed away in 1998.
People who noticed a cheerful centenarian picking up trash along the highway might be surprised to know that in 1950, the same man created this striking, dreamlike image of a female model’s face adorned with geometric shapes, now an Internet meme of sorts that pops up in numerous Flickr and Pinterest pages.
“Light itself is the most flexible element in photography,” Conrow once told an interviewer. “And when light is broken down into its component colors, its possibilities for creative expression are limitless.”
Photo by Willard Conroy, 1950, courtesy of Christine via Flickr