by Guest post by Larry Racioppo
Apr 23, 2018

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.

Millie and John, Fourth Avenue, 1971 by Larry Racioppo
Millie and John, Fourth Avenue, 1971

 

Communion children, 1983 and 1997 by Larry Racioppo
L: Communion Boy, 1983; R: Communion Girls, 1997

 

Lately I’ve been photographing at St. Francis De Sales in Rockaway, Queens where I live.

Photo Session, Rockaway Beach Boulevard, 2015 by Larry Racioppo
Photo Session, Rockaway Beach Blvd., 2015

 

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.

Left: My grandfather Angelo and Uncle Patsy, circa 1935; Right: My Aunt Angelina, circa 1939
L: My grandfather Angelo and Uncle Patsy, c.1935; R: My Aunt Angelina, c.1939

 

There no longer are many photographers using these types of painted backgrounds but I found one in the Bronx.

Bronx Photo Studio & Studio Photographer, 2009 by Larry Racioppo
Bronx Photo Studio and Studio Photographer, 2009

 

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’.

My cousin Joe T, circa 1956
My cousin Joe T., c.1956

 

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.

My cousin Joe A., circa 1955 and film with religious drawing, 2018
L: Film with religious drawing, 2018; R: My cousin Joe A., c.1955

 

My cousin Kathy T., circa 1965 and film with religious drawing, 2018
L: Film with religious drawing, 2018; R: My cousin Kathy T., c. 1965

 

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.

My cousin Kenny’s photo, circa 1954 and Kenny, wife Marie and daughter Lisa, 1978
L: My cousin Kenny’s photo, c.1954; R: Kenny, wife Marie and daughter Lisa, 1978

 

Kenny’s daughter Debra, 1977
Kenny’s daughter Debra, 1977

 

Kenny's son Michael, 1980
Kenny's son Michael, 1980

 

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.

Mr. Gabriel with his camera, 1980
Mr. Gabriel with his camera, 1980

 

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.

My cousin Marilyn’s Communion photo, circa 1964 and Marilyn with her parents, 18th Street, circa 1964
L: My cousin Marilyn’s Communion photo, c.1964; R: Marilyn with her parents, 18th Street, c.1964

 

Marilyn, Sixth Avenue, 1971
Marilyn, Sixth Avenue, 1971

 

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.

Joe A’s daughter Laura, 76th Street, 1985 and Laura with her brother Joe, 1985
L: Joe A’s daughter Laura, 76th Street, 1985; R: Laura with her brother Joe, 1985

 

Laura's Thank You Note to Larry, 1985
Laura's Thank You Note, 1985

 

Laura with her brother Joe, 2004
Laura with her brother Joe, 2004

 

Here is my own first Communion photo, circa 1954.

Larry Racioppo's First Communion Photo, circa 1954
My First Communion Photo, c.1954

 

All photographs are property of Larry Racioppo. Visit Larry's website here.

Comments

Comments

These are great, had I known you were doing this I just threw , out Vanessa's Communion pictures i had them taken at Natoli on 13th Avenue.
Dear Larry, I really enjoyed seeing these photos very much. When I have a moment I would like to email you some from my personal collection. Best regards, and good luck with sharing these., Maria
Such heart in these photos and such an interesting history.
FANTASTIC PIX & HISTORY OF YOUR FAMILY
What a wonderful story and family collection. I too was born in Brooklyn and have family First Communion photos going back to the late 1800s in Brooklyn. I no longer live in NY but was recently surprised to find that people in other parts of the country did not have this tradition of a formal photo of their First Communion, even people who grew up in major cities. Lucky us!

Post new comment

close navigation