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The man behind the Old Austin pictures

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Neal Douglass documented the local scene

Michael Barnes

Two years ago, Cedar Park resident Constance “Connie” Douglass Vanzura shared her childhood memories of Austin during World War II with our readers.

From the vantage point of her family’s rooming house located downtown not far from the city’s two train stations, Vanzura recalled the soldiers lined up to be shipped off to training camps, the chatter and flirtations of war brides and the efforts of her family and friends to get by with domestic livestock and victory gardens during times of shortages and rations.

RELATED: Life on the Austin homefront during World War II

Vanzura died Aug. 18, 2018, at age 86.

Before that, she sent me a neatly typewritten letter about her father, Neal Augustus Douglass Jr.

An award-winning photographer and journalist, Douglass documented the Austin scene on and off for more than three decades, from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. So valuable is his visual record of the era, Douglass’ crisply composed images have appeared alongside this newspaper’s historical columns scores of times in the past few years.

Both a photojournalist and a commercial photographer, Douglass knew how to report the news but also how to make people look their best. Unlike his contemporary, school namesake Russell Lee, who sought out the beauty and dignity of downtrodden people, Douglass showed Austinites as perhaps they wanted to be seen, usually well-scrubbed, well-dressed and well-behaved, although sometimes also stiff and posed.

His work, both for the newspaper and for his private photography firm, was nevertheless consistently inclusive. His are, for instance, among the rare surviving public images of East Austin during its most segregated decades.

Douglass also pioneered aerial photography in the city.

“He loved to fly,” Vanzura writes. “His flying instructor was Doc Hale of Austin’s pioneer flying field, Doc Hale Flying Services. Douglass was licensed in 1940. His first plane was an Aeronca. He was half owner with Mr. Johnny Cuneo, owner of Cuneo’s Bakery on Guadalupe Street. Later, he owned a Taylorcraft; however, to take aerial photos, he always rented a Piper Cub with pilot, so he could take off the door to make room for his camera.”

Luckily, before his death, Douglass donated tens of thousands of prints and negatives to the Austin History Center. Later, Vanzura granted explicit permission that they could be shared with the public copyright-free. Many of those images are available digitally for no charge at the searchable Portal to Texas History, a website managed by the University of North Texas Libraries.

I recently browsed the 3,794 matching results for “Neal Douglass” on the portal because I wanted to share part of his vision of our city.

The man behind the pictures

Vanzura gave us another treasure: a three-page biographical sketch of her father, also donated to the History Center. Based on her memories and those of her mother and her stepmother, the 1992 document answers countless questions that casual historians have been asking for years about the man behind the Old Austin pictures.

Born in Snyder on April 14, 1900, Neal Douglass Jr.’s veins ran with newspaper ink. His father was a schoolteacher and newspaper owner; his mother also worked in the family newspaper business. They had eight children.

When Neal Jr. was 12, the family owned the Roaring Springs Echo in Northwest Texas. Later, they started the first newspaper in Littlefield. After that, they purchased the newspaper in Pocahontas, Ark., where Neal married his first wife, Catherine Hughes.

The couple moved back to Texas, where, at age 19, he became the editor of the Lubbock Avalanche. They divorced. Catherine and their child, Sarah, moved back to Arkansas, while Neal headed to Austin.

In 1929, he became a reporter and occasional photographer for the co-owned newspapers that became the Austin American-Statesman. Here, he married Elnora Ruddell in the home of Raymond Brooks, the newspaper’s Capitol correspondent.

Douglass, however, was lured away to the San Angelo Standard. In an indicator of his future bifurcated career, he also worked as a writer for the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce.

He next became a reporter for the Texarkana Press. Connie was born in this Northeast Texas town. Yet the family was soon off to the Rio Grande Valley, where Douglass became a reporter for the McAllen Monitor.

By 1934, he was back at the American-Statesman. In 1935, the paper, which didn’t have its own photography department, sent him to the University of Texas for a crash course in the field.

So the first darkroom for the Statesman was the Douglass family kitchen at 1204 Eva St. in South Austin — the hidden block north of the Austin Motel that has since presumably been subsumed into Nellie Street. The newspaper at the time was located at East Seventh and Brazos streets. On Aug. 9, 1936, its new building at West Seventh and Colorado streets opened with a brand-spanking-new darkroom.

“His agreement with the paper allowed him to have his own commercial photography business at the paper,” Vanzura writes. “So between 1929 and 1954, Neal Douglass wrote about and then photographed every important event in the city. His work included: sports, dignitaries, government, murderers, accidents, buildings, dams, bridges, highways, football, politicians, funerals, births, arrests, awards, fires, floods, soldiers, and also the many personal and private events that made up city life. His logo was: ‘Neal Douglass photos: Your photographer too.’”

Douglass was drafted in 1942 and served in the Signal Corps, stationed in the Santa Fe building in Dallas.

“Although they were divorced in 1940, and Elnora Douglass had her own commercial photography business, he asked her to take over the paper’s photographic department while he was away,” Vanzura writes. “She did until he returned in 1944.”

Douglass’ next wife, Patricia Kruger, joined his photography business. In 1946, they bought a Scottish shorthorn cattle ranch near Liberty Hill, with the intention of retiring there eventually. He left the American-Statesman in 1954.

RELATED: The Statesman has had more than a dozen homes

His stand-alone commercial business, Neal Douglass Photos, opened in the newly opened Perry Brooks Building in 1954. Patricia worked in the darkroom while Neal was on assignments. In 1962, they closed the business and retired to the ranch — he must have continued to dabble, because photos of his are dated after that — but by 1973, they had sold the ranch because of their faltering health and moved to Kingsland.

Douglass died Nov. 25, 1983, and is buried in Lakeland Memorial Park near Longhorn Caverns.