I’ve been photographing First Communions, one of the three Catholic Initiation Sacraments, since 1971. One of my first ‘serious’ photographs depicts my Aunt Millie and her son John standing in the rain outside our parish church. John has just made his First Communion and is proudly holding his little prayer book wide open for me. Over the years I often returned to photograph at this church St. Michael the Archangel in Sunset Park (where I had made my First Communion), and to St. John the Evangelist in South Brooklyn where I lived in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Lately I’ve been photographing at St. Francis De Sales in Rockaway, Queens where I live.
The First Communion photos I most admire now were routinely taken in neighborhood studios in the past: well-lit and sharply focused portraits printed in black and white or sepia on thick, fiber-based 5x7 inch paper.
There no longer are many photographers using these types of painted backgrounds but I found one in the Bronx.
Based upon the small sample of studio portraits my extended family has saved, and the ones I’ve bought at flea markets or found discarded in dumpsters, photographers eventually stopped using actual painted backgrounds. Instead they photographed their subject in front of a neutral or black background, and then in the darkroom, double exposed the resulting image with a sheet of film containing religious imagery, often drawn in ‘soft focus’.
I have photos of my cousins Joe (black and white) and Kathleen (hand-colored black and white ) along with the sheet film drawings used for double exposing. I bought the first one at a studio’s going out of business sale, and found the second in dumpster outside a recently closed photo studio in Bay Ridge.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s, long before everyone had a cell phone, there was a small photo studio in almost every Brooklyn neighborhood. Folks went there to commemorate important events in their lives, such as getting married, and of course, in the predominately Catholic neighborhoods I knew, Baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations. Purchased photographs were sold in cardboard frames that could be folded to stand.
I have one of these with my cousin Kenny looking – with the hint of a smile – directly at the photographer. Years later I photographed three of his children at First Communion parties in their 16th Street backyard.
The ‘go to’ photo studio used by most of my extended family was Gabriel’s on Fifth Avenue, near 12th Street. I met Mr. Gabriel briefly in 1980, as he was closing his business. I did not appreciate his artistry then as I do now.
I wish that I had spent more time with him…but years later I did buy his large Century camera from a third party.
My beautiful cousin Marilyn had her first Communion photo taken there.
One could count on the work of these local artists/craftsmen at a time when most amateur photographers were pretty inconsistent.
Although I worked for a while in a commercial studio, I’ve always preferred shooting on location. I photographed my cousin Joe’s daughter Laura outside their home, alone and with her brother Joe Jr. Nineteen years later I photographed them at her wedding.
Here is my own first Communion photo, circa 1954.
All photographs are property of Larry Racioppo. Visit Larry's website here.