George Gentieu and World War 1

In honor of the Armistice Day Centennial Celebration, November 11, 2018

the modest great war story of a modest great uncle

“I am in your place over here so that America returns to France your services,” George Gentieu wrote in a letter to his father from St. Nazaire, France on January 5, 1919. “Best Wishes  1842 – 1919, France – America, Father and Son.”

George is Pierre Gentieu’s third son, born in 1878. He was 40 when he served in the Army in France during World War 1. He liked to say that he served in France so that America could return to France the service of his father in the Civil War.  Pierre Gentieu came to America from France in 1860 and was not even an American citizen when he fought in the Civil War.  (In fact, 150 years later, Pierre’s descendants are still saying it was amazing that Pierre volunteered to fight in the Civil War when he was not yet a citizen.)

The Civil War had an enormous impact on Pierre’s family, because fighting in the Civil War profoundly affected Pierre’s entire life.  Pierre’s involvement in Civil War veteran activities and all things military and commemorative influenced George, along with each one of his five siblings. For example, in 1901 George was Captain of the Appomattox Camp, No. 2, Md. Division of the Sons of Veterans, in Wilmington, Delaware.

Frank, Pierre, George Gentieu, circa 1898

George moved to Imperial, California. When the Big War came, George  wanted to “give the Germans a sample of what we are in America when we get fighting mad.” He wanted to show solidarity with the French by fighting in France. Even though age 35 was the limit for military enlistments and George was 39, he filed for an age exception.

“I feel more fit at 39 years than I was at 20, know more, can take care of myself and am stronger,” he wrote. An age exception was made and in August of 1917, George enlisted in the California Army National Guard, which he joined because he heard they’d be going to France. This group formed the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment of the 65th Artillery Brigade, 40th Division, and George became a corporal. They were sent to France in August 1918, just four months before Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

George did not face combat but did serve during the transitional period. Soldiers with technical skills were kept in France long after the war ended. As an engineer, George stayed in France until July 1919. He was granted three furloughs during that time, which he used to visit his father’s family in Orthez and Bordeaux three times.

Corporal George Gentieu shaking hands with his French cousin, Auguste Pondarre, and Sergeant Henry, 1919, Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France.

George went to great lengths to become a soldier in the Great War against Germany, much like the efforts of his father in regard to the Civil War 55 years earlier. After all, George and Pierre were descended from soldiers who fought in Napoleon’s Army – the grandfather and great uncle of Pierre. “I want to uphold the honor of the country and the name of Gentieu,” George wrote to his mother on April 1, 1917. While accomplishing that, he had the good fortune of getting to know his French aunts, uncles and cousins. George experienced the culture of the ancestral home that was so important to the new American Gentieu family, because they so loved and honored their father, Pierre.

George never married and never had children. He was an investigative writer and owner of an industrial plumbing business. He died in Tucson, Arizona of a heart attack at age 52 in January 1931, just six months after Pierre passed away. He is photographed below with Pierre in 1919 after World War 1, and in 1929, the last photograph taken with his father.

Photo by George Gentieu, circa 1928

Ground from the Gentieu Vineyard at Orthez, France 1898

9/11 seventeen years ago

Seventeen years ago

It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and we were living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I was working from home that morning, making arrangements for a big shoot scheduled for the next week. Clients would be flying in from San Francisco for the shoot. Tom came in from outside and said that he saw the super, who said that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. We lived about five miles east of downtown Manhattan. We ran up to the roof to see it. It was unbelievable to see a tower up in smoke. Later on, we witnessed the actual collapse of one of the towers.

Anna, who was 11 at the time, was safely at school in our neighborhood, so before noon that fateful morning, being in a bit of shock, we walked up to 7th Avenue, to the Rite Aid store. The air on our street was permeated with dust and smelled like burnt metal. At the store, the shelves that had medicine and first aid supplies were completely empty. The clerk said that people had been buying things up to donate to first aid centers.

We then walked to the nearby hospital to see if we could donate blood. They already had more people donate than they could handle, but we could check again later.

It was the worst moment in history that we have ever witnessed. The city was in mourning that week and the week after, and all work stopped.

My photo shoot had been postponed to the week after that. The clients told me that under the circumstances, they would not be flying to the shoot after all. The first day back in the studio, we had the casting for the shoot, and it was a record turn-out. We were all overwhelmed with grief and sadness, but we were all ready to get back to work.

Pierre Gentieu Photographs


Pierre Gentieu (1842-1930) came to America from Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France in 1860 when he was 18. While still in France, he drew and painted, and learned the bookbinding trade. His introduction to photography could have been through a cousin who owned the first camera in Orthez. Also, his experience as a Yankee soldier and his being a subject of a 1863 Civil War encampment field photograph could have contributed to his interest in photography.

After serving in the Civil War, Pierre married the sister of his friend and comrade from the 13th Connecticut. Since Pierre’s family in France were breveted chocolatiers, he began his career by opening chocolate bakeries in New York. He later opened a restaurant, but that got him into financial trouble. At the age of 35, with a wife and two young children, he changed career direction. In 1877, Pierre found a job at the Du Pont Powder Company and moved his family to Wilmington, Delaware.

Beginning as a powderman in the Lower Yard, Pierre soon received the attention of his boss, Lammot du Pont, with a gouache painting he made of the Lower Yard. He was then promoted to a job making sieves for separating powder grains, which was safer and maybe saved his life from the frequent accidental explosions. In 1881, Francis du Pont appointed Pierre to be Yard Clerk. From then on, Pierre worked in the office.

Pierre sometimes brought his camera to work with him. Francis and other members of the dPont family shared Pierre’s interest in photography. Considered the “best amateur photographer in the Brandywine Valley,” Pierre was the only worker allowed in the Yards with a camera.

Pierre Gentieu created sharp-focused, sensitive portraits of the workers and families who worked at the mills, landscapes and workscapes carefully composed with an artistic eye. His work shows what life was like for working people, many who were new immigrants, at the first big industrial company in the United States, which happened to be situated in the most photogenic location there ever could be for a gunpowder corporation, along the banks of the picturesque Brandywine River Valley in the rolling hills of northern Delaware.

In 1946, Pierre S. du Pont, familiar with Pierre Gentieu’s photographs, purchased the collection of 354 glass plate negatives from Pierre’s children, dating from 1879 to 1917. Pierre S. du Pont made a set of prints for the family and for the Eleutherian Mills Historical Library, and donated the glass plate negatives to the Historical Society of Delaware.

Pierre Gentieu is often mentioned in the books about the old Du Pont Powder Company. Pierre was a loyal employee who always gave more than what was expected. Through his photographs, and also his writings, Pierre greatly contributed to the history of industry, immigrants, and the Brandywine Valley. His fine photographs present a rare, long-term study of how it was during the heyday of the old powder mills at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

“The photographs of Pierre Gentieu are truly one of the key collections without which Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation exhibits, publications, and restorations would not be the same.” – Hagley Newsletter, Fall 1981

“Gentieu’s pictures show a deep sense of camraderie…

“Pierre Gentieu’s photographic record of the Du Pont powder mills is rich and extremely valuable…

“Gentieu’s photography was very straight forward, with simple camera angles and poses dictated not only by his equipment, but also by his clear minded approach. He was a gifted amateur photographer who desired to show things distinctly in his pictures. For this he was encouraged by the officers of the Du Pont Company, and we can be thankful that he has left us the benefit of his vision. His photography was to leave a mark in the history of the company he worked for so faithfully for so long.” – Corporate Images: Photography and the Du Pont Company 1865 – 1972, Jon M. Williams and Daniel T. Muir

Auguste Pondarre and Pierre

French photographer, Auguste Pondarre, and my great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, who emigrated from France in 1860, are two photographers whose work was not recognized until long after they died, but whose contributions to history, both worldly, and on a very personal level, are invaluable.

Auguste Pondarre (1871-1962) is Pierre’s nephew, the son of his sister, Marie. He lived in Orthez, Basses Pyrenees, France. He served in the French military from 1892 to 1895. He married Sarah Bessouat, a milliner, in 1905. They had a daughter, Simone, born in 1907. I met Simone in 1994.

After his service, Auguste worked with his father, Germain at his paint, art and frame shop on Rue de l’Horloge.

From 1901 to 1905, before he was married, Auguste made photographs of Orthez that were published as postcards under the name of his father’s shop, G. Pondarre & Fils.

Today, Auguste Pondarre is known for being the first photographer to create a photographic body of work that documents Orthez.

Could it be that his uncle, Pierre Gentieu, who had been creating photographs of the Brandywine Valley in America since 1880, inspired and influenced Auguste to make photographs? For that matter, who introduced Pierre to photography, was it someone in Orthez before he left for America?

I have some clues.

Pierre visited Orthez in August and September, 1898. He took his camera with him and made, at least, these three photos, that have survived.

The book, Duex Photographs Ortheziens du Debut di Siecle

I found a book that Simone sent to me in 1998, Duex Photographs Ortheziens du Debut di Siecle (Two Orthezien Photographers at the Start of the Century) by Jean Teitgen, about the first two photographers of Orthez that left a body of work, Auguste being the first, and their postcards.

In the book is this photo of the bridge by Auguste Pondarre:

Auguste’s photo of the bridge is nearly identical to Pierre’s photo, taken from the same spot, close to the same time, but perhaps years apart, because of the evidence of grown ivy on the rocks to the right. The lens was the same focal length and it was captured on the same size quarter plate, 4×5 glass negative.

Some Pondarre postcards received by Pierre, dated 1901 to 1905

Some Gentieu photographs of the Brandywine Valley, a body of work that Pierre began in 1880 and worked on for nearly 40 years:

Their cameras

Pierre’s camera is on the left. Auguste’s camera is on the right, which I photographed at Simone’s house. Pierre’s camera can expose a glass negative as large as 8×10. Auguste’s camera appears to be 6.5×8.5, but both cameras accommodate half and quarter glass plate negative sizes.

The equipment Pierre used and would bring with him to Orthez in the summer of 1898:

According to the biographical details in the French book about Auguste’s life, Germain and Marie were living in Bayonne, where Auguste was born. Toward the end of the nineteeth century, the family moved to Orthez to live at the old Gentieu homestead with Marie’s sister, Rachel. Perhaps it was around 1891, when the mother, Anne Celeste Gentieu-Baillan died, who had been living there with Rachel.  The Pondarres remained at the old Gentieu home until 1911, when they bought a building and moved up the street. Auguste served in the military from 1892 to 1895, returning to Orthez at age 24, and going to work as a house painter in his father’s business.

Pierre visited Orthez in 1898, presumably staying with his two sisters, Marie and Rachel, along with Germain and Auguste. Pierre brought along his camera and processing equipment. Could it be that Pierre’s photography interested Auguste? Perhaps Auguste was with him when he photographed the bridge and other scenes.

This postcard shows the backyard of 54 rue Moncade, the address of the ancient Gentieu homestead, and surrounding houses, with the castle ruins Tour Moncade across the street from these buildings. It is Auguste’s card number 2, printed in 1901.

If Pierre influenced Auguste, who influenced Pierre?

It is ironic that a hint comes from a detail about the second photographer subject of the book, Duex Photographs Ortheziens du Debut di Siecle. Joseph Barbe was five years younger than Auguste. At age 20, he opened a portrait studio in Orthez in 1896. In 1903, perhaps at the suggestion of Auguste, Joseph Barbe moved his studio next to the Pondarre art shop on Rue de l’Horloge, and started producing images for postcards, as a complement to his portrait business. Auguste stopped publishing postcards in 1905.  The author of the French book asks the question, where did Joseph Barbe get his inspiration to be a photographer? The suggestion is that it was through Andre Laffitte-Forsans, one of the first persons to own a camera in Orthez.

Laffitte was Pierre Gentieu’s great grandmother’s maiden name

Perhaps the same Laffitte who owned one of the first cameras in Orthez was Pierre’s cousin, who could have inspired Pierre with an interest in photography.

The pre-1860 photograph of the bridge

Which could explain this postcard, published by Barbe nearly 50 years later of the ancient bridge photographed before 1860, the year that Pierre went to New York.  Simone had a mural of the exact photograph in an alcove of a room in her house.  She told me it was taken by my ancestor.   Pierre, I understood her to mean.

This is why I believe that Pierre’s photo experience began in Orthez, and that he brought his love for photography with him to America from France, and back again.

Pierre Gentieu, Orthez, Basses-Pyrénées, France

Story of a young French immigrant who came to America in 1860, what war meant to him, and the importance of his French heritage as he fathered a new American family.

Pierre writes:

I was at the time working at the bookbinder trade in the City of Pau, and my home was in Orthez, about 40 Kilometers from there…

Napoleon 3rd. at that time issued a proclamation that all young men under age who were willing to fight for the liberty of Italy could enlist; and whatever time they would serve in that war would be deducted from their own term which they would have to serve at conscription time when of age; but all such must have the consent of father and mother, as minors, before being accepted. The excitement among the young fellows was great, and all wanted to go and fight for the liberty of Italy.

I had to write home to get the consent in due form, and telling them that all my shopmates were enlisting — would they please sign the papers at once so that we could all be in the same company. What was my surprise and disappointment when the next day I received the news that father’s and mother’s conscience did not allow them to give their consent to such enlisting. That if it had been to defend France, well and good; every Frenchman’s duty was to do so; but to go to a foreign country and maybe lose a leg or an arm in the undertaking, they would always feel sorry that they had allowed it, and consequently, I would have to wait till the regular time before going in the army. (Incidentally I would mention that two cousins were killed in that war; one at Magenta and the other at Solferino.)

Young and foolish I took offense, and told them I would then travel on my trade, what was called the tour of the country from shop to shop to perfect yourself in the trade, which was allowed by law; and as they could not keep me out of that and being afraid that I would not learn anything good on such a trip they wrote to my uncle in Brooklyn about if for advice, as I wanted to travel away from home; so Uncle answered at once saying that the best thing for them to do was to send me over while I was under age and not subject to conscription yet and could then escape the regular service when I would come of age; and being well pleased with the prospect of going to America, I was willing to accept the challenge.

Pierre’s father, Bernard Auguste Gentieu-Baillan

On the Fourth of March, 1860 I left home, father was coming to Bordeaux to see me off on a sailing vessel. He was sad all the way, I remember, and the last words he said to me on leaving I have never forgotten. Pierre, said he, you are going very far and we may never see each other again in this world, but surely live a Christian life, so that at last we may all meet together in heaven.

He stayed with the Darrigrands in Brooklyn, N.Y. until the severity of the winter drove him South to New Orleans, La. in search of a warmer climate. He was in La. when the Civil War started, a member of the New Orleans Artillery and the Louisiana State Militia. When these State troops were called into the Confederate service, the soldiers were given an opportunity by their colonel, just before leaving the State, to leave the regiment if they did not wish to go. Being a native of liberty-loving France, he could not become reconciled to the cause of slavery, end consequently was first of about thirty-five men to step out of line. Jessie Gentieu family history, 1939

“I would state that the reading of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in the old country influenced me first against slavery. The story was published as a serial in the daily papers; and I remember how intent we were in the evening to hear our father read each installment, and all the remarks we were making about it, how it was possible that the country boasting of being ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ could legalize such an institution, when in France, which was not then a republic, would not tolerate such a thing; for to us children, all the people before God were equal, and the color of the skin had nothing to do with it; but it was only the degree of instruction and civilization that made the difference in people.”

Pierre’s letter from the battlefield to his uncle Darrigrand

Regarding the Gentieu-Baillan name

Full name of the family in France, is Gentieu-Baillan, the last having been added through marriage. The home place is Orthez, Lower or Basses Pyrenees, France - have kept only the name of Gentieu, as being the real family one, both not necessary and shorter in use. My full name otherwise is Pierre Auguste Gentieu-Baillan, shortened to Pierre Gentieu. Born at Tarbes, Hautes or Higher Pyrenees, France on January 26, 1842 during a temporary absence from Orthez by father and mother on a call to his brother who was sick. Taken from record in the family Holy Bible written in Pierre Gentieu’s own hand-writing
The addition of the name of Baillan to the family name of Gentieu was explained verbally by Pierre Gentieu thus: "A girl by the name of Baillan was the last of her family, and rather than have her family name die out, she requested when she married a Gentieu, that her name be added to his, and continued thru the years." This was done in France, and was continued in the U.S.A. by Pierre Gentieu until he enlisted in the Civil War. When the man who signed him up during the war asked him his name, he said, "Pierre Auguste Gentieu-Baillan." Then the man in charge repeated that he wanted his name, and not his pedigree, he replied, "Pierre Gentieu". Jessie Gentieu family history 1939

Pierre’s carte de visite album

Pierre prized his father’s French Holy Bible

Pierre’s professions

From a chapter on Pierre Gentieu’s photographic contribution to the history of DuPont in the book, Corporate Images: Photography and the DuPont Company 1865-1972

DuPont Powder Company, old Hagley office, Pierre Gentieu on the road

Excerpt of the chronological history of Pierre Gentieu at DuPont Powder Company, Hagley Research Library

Pierre’s 1898 trip to Orthez

During the summer of 1898, Pierre Gentieu made a return trip to France, and looked over old family records in the Town Hall. Among his papers are listed these names - Bergerie Marie Gentieu, Nov.9,1750, V. Saudenerx Gentieu, Nov.1,1756 - Marguerite Gentieu, May 5,1759, Maryana Bernard Gentieu, son of Alexis Gentieu and Marie Crohare, July 22, 1764. There is also written, “In 15 July l782, I find one Pierre Gentieu as witness to the christening of Pierre Pierrette.” The balance of the records were destroyed during the French Revolution, so the family tree is incomplete. Jessie Gentieu family history 1939

Pierre’s letter to his son Frederic, 1926, while Frederic was in France. Pierre writes about what he knows of other Gentieu family members in France.

World War 1: Pierre’s son George in France. “I am in your place over here so that America returns to France your services.”

George Gentieu with Simone Pondarre, who is Auguste Pondarre’s daughter, Sarah Pondarre, Simone’s mother next to him, at the apartment house, La Prairie, owned by Auguste Pondarre.

From a French English Walnut seed, an American family tree grew

Pierre Gentieu 1927 letter to granddaughters Harriet and Esther telling the story of growing a tree at his old home at Rising Sun from the seed of a walnut tree brought home from Orthez in 1898.

Gentieu family motto taken from the motto of the old Capital of Bearn, Orthez, Lower Pyrénées, France

The basis of the Gentieu motto "Touquoy si Gaoses," meaning "Touch It If You Dare" as shown on the family Coat of Arms was taken from an old bridge bearing that inscription at the entrance of Orthez. "Touquoy si Gaoses" is not strictly French, but a Bearnaise language spoken only by a small group of people inhabiting one of the Southern Provinces of France. In the Gentieu home in Orthez there wan a maid who spoke that language. She could understand the Gentieu French, but they could not understand her Bearnaise, so in making the Coat of Arms, Pierre decided to use the Bearnaise, rather than the French, thinking it would be more distinctive, and something no one else could read. He succeeded. Jessie Gentieu history 1939

Chris and Andrew and Pierre’s bullet

I’m descended from two Civil War Yankee soldiers. Well, that is, one Yankee soldier, Pierre Gentieu, and Binie Weed, the sister of Yankee soldier Frank Weed, who was Pierre’s closest comrade in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and his tent mate.  Had it not been for a split second decision made by my great great grandfather, enroute to Vicksburg as a Confederate soldier in April 1862, Pierre and Frank would never have met on such agreeable terms, Pierre would not have been introduced to Binie after the war, and there wouldn’t be me! I suppose that’s why I felt compelled to find out all I could about the inspiring story of courage that he left for us.

While researching my great great grandfather’s Civil War story in Louisiana, March, 2000,  I met two very special Civil War historians, Chris Pena and Andrew Capone, who lived in the area of Pierre’s first battle, an hour up the river from New Orleans in Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux.

They gave us a tour of the area, showing us where Pierre’s camp was, where his first battle was. Later, they treated us to a delicious Louisana home cooked dinner of sauce piquant at Andrew and Judy’s house in Donaldsonville, the town where Pierre Gentieu took his stand.

Site of Pierre Gentieu’s first battle at Georgia Landing, between Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux. The road here separates the two plantations where the battle lines were drawn in the Fall of 1862.

I told them the story of  how in 1861, Pierre initially signed up with a Louisiana militia, but ended up fighting in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

It was April 1862, and Colonel Theard of the New Orleans Guards was leading the militia to Vicksburg from Fort Livingston. Half way to Vicksburg, in the very town of Donaldsonville, he lined up his men and gave them a speech.

Colonel Theard told them of his orders to go to Vicksburg, but explained that he had no right to take them outside the state without their consent. He hoped they would go, but he didn’t want to force anyone. The Colonel then offered any man an opportunity to declare if they were against the cause of the Confederacy. If any man had any scruples about it, that man was free to step out of the ranks.

Pierre Gentieu’s painting of his 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry,  Company B encampment at Camp Hubbard in Thibodeaux, La.

In Pierre’s own words, as he recalled the moment 50 years later in a letter to his nephew, Frank Weed’s son:

Then came the time for me when I had to decide at once.  My conscience and pride were struggling; one was saying you ought not accept the cause of slavery; and the shame to appear before my comrades, as if I were afraid because we would have to fight, was a struggle indeed; but I made up my mind now or never whatever happens—I stepped out the first one in my company with cries of coward from the rear.

There I stood for a few long moments until Albert Fest stepped out from the right of the company. A very tall man compared to me, he said, ‘Pierre, I am with you on this!’ Then 30 German men stepped out soon after that. As we were the butt of all insults from behind, the Colonel put a stop to that very quickly, saying ‘None of that, men, it takes more moral courage for those men to step out as they have done than to stay in the ranks’; and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all our equipments, taking only our personal property—-that New Orleans was so many miles off, in such a direction—-we could get there the best way possible—-that we were free;  and so we left worrying whether or not some of the hot headed ones might shoot at us; but the Colonel kept them in line until we disappeared in the woods.

Back in New Orleans, the trip of which was not without adventure, Pierre signed up with the 13th Connecticut. One reason was that the great looking uniforms appealed to his sense of style, with the dark blue trousers and polished brass buttons. He survived nine battles.

Pierre Gentieu in his uniform of the 13th Connecticut Infantry Volunteers. This regiment featured dark blue pants, as opposed to the common light blue of most of the rest of the Yankees. Because the 13th Connecticut was so well dressed and polished, they were called the “dandy regiment.”

After dinner, Andrew took us into his workroom. He excavated battle grounds, including the site of Pierre’s first battle as a Union soldier. Andrew looked through the baggies of bullets, then handed me a bullet covered in white rust and dust, saying, it was Pierre’s bullet. Pierre dropped it during his first battle. The bullet never hurt anyone, Andrew pointed out, and it was mine now because Pierre wanted me to have it.

I gladly accepted the bullet for all of its poetry and brought it back up north. I arranged it in my studio along with some toy soldiers that I bought in New Orleans, one to represent each of five generations, and a broken brick Chris and Andrew gave me from the ruins of Fort Butler, and some spanish moss.

The soldiers were slightly precarious on the brick, because some mornings I would come in to find that the soldiers had fallen on the floor or into the spanish moss, from the vibrations of the Six train that ran through the basement of the Lafayette St. building. But never Pierre, and never the bullet.

My list of influential photographers and why

Is that guy on the Rogers High School yearbook cover really saying, “SHIT”???

Sam Abell

When I was a lowly sophomore on the Rogers High School yearbook staff, Sam Abell was an English teacher and the yearbook advisor. He was 24 and really funny, smart and had so much energy.

He told us that we were coming out with a 16,080 page Summer Supplement for the yearbook. But how could that possibly be, it would be so big! We had to wait and see.

The Summer Supplement arrived, and it was less than 1/4 inch thick. It was comb-bound with a tab to stick in the front of the yearbook, 25 pages that were cut in thirds, “2x to the third power,” which created the 16,080 different page combinations.

It was a genius example of thinking out of the box. It was a great teaching moment, and the math lesson was the least of it. And what a lot of amazing photographs! Not only the “original” photography of the students, but famous photos from the Sixties.

Smart, clever, creative, cool. Stuff that just settled into my subconscious about photography and what went into it.  Sam Abell was an inspiration to my nebulous self that had no clue, not even for another six or seven years, that I might actually become a photographer.

Sam Abell left the next year to work for National Geographic — to the top of the world, that was his destiny. It was the most coveted photography job for the most iconic publication, through which his beautiful photos are appreciated by, and inspire, millions of people. We were so lucky to have him to ourselves for that one year.

Robert Frank

In college I majored in painting, my painting teacher, John Botts was a great mentor. He was extremely charismatic and philosophical. He had all the answers. Students followed him around like he was the Pied Piper.

When I discovered photography during my last year of college, I found my thing. There was no going back to painting. Perhaps to John Botts’ relief.

But John Botts thought my photos were really good. The mentor that he was, he gave me a first-edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans (in trade for some of my photos) because he wanted me to know about Robert Frank’s unsentimental, poetic, loose, artistic, and truthful black and white photos. So forevermore, Robert Frank became my favorite photographer..

I still say Robert Frank is my favorite photographer, even though I recently sold the book on Ebay for $1,500. (I am so unsentimental!)

Duane Michals looking at Penny Gentieu's portfolio

Duane Michals

I loved Duane Michals and his storytelling photos, and I heard he was pretty nice to young wannabees. So I made a trip to New York to show him my work.  He invited me to his studio, but when I got there, he needed to rush off to the bank to get a deposit in, and said that he’d look at my portfolio there.

He sat on a bench at the bank and looked at my portfolio. I brought way too much stuff, including my camera and tripod to memorialize the event. He very kindly played along.

After he looked at my portfolio, I asked him the burning question that I really needed him to answer for me: “Do you think I can move to New York?”

“Why not?” he said, “I did.”

That’s all I needed to hear! Duane Michals gave me permission to move to New York!


Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson

I was Bruce Davidson’s first female assistant. I just fell into it. A female colleague in my ASMP assistants’ group had been trying to persuade Bruce Davidson for a very long time to hire a woman – to hire her. He finally offered her a freelance job. But how terrible, she was already booked, and she couldn’t do it! So she passed the opportunity on to me. Bruce Davidson apparently had his mind set on hiring a woman, because he hired me, even though I told him I had never worked with strobes before.

He said, no problem, that I could get familiar with the lighting equipment at his apartment while he was in Vancouver. His wife would let me in. I was to pack up 10 cases of lighting gear and fly with them to San Francisco, where he would meet me from Vancouver, and we would start the job. I would be the only assistant.

The job was an annual report for Celanese – a 10-day shoot spanning seven states. Bruce Davidson realized the very first morning just how much I didn’t know about strobes.

I tried, I really tried! But they didn’t have youtube videos back then!

He told me that after work that day I had to take all of the equipment into my room and learn it, by myself, and stay up all night long if I had to, but I’d better know the strobes inside and out by the next day.

But that wasn’t necessary. We worked 10 hours that day (and every day). By early afternoon that first day, I definitely had the hang of the strobes, and I was totally a pro!

Did I mention that Bruce Davidson was a really hard worker? We started at dawn and worked all day and sometimes getting a break for dinner but most times catching a plane for the next location. He shot tons of film. Even when he wasn’t shooting, he was a demanding boss. He always had to play Scrabble on the plane, in the waiting area, in the cab, wherever, using his magnetic Scrabble board. I never caught a break! But he paid well, $125 a day, which was a lot for 1981. He would say, he worked his assistants hard, but paid them well.

I’m not complaining, and I actually worked for him a few more times after that over the next couple of years. So I feel good about myself!

I learned strobe lighting from Bruce Davidson, and unfortunately (maybe) I picked up his work ethic. But I have yet to own a magnetic Scrabble board.

Annie Leibovitz t-shirt

Annie Liebovitz

I had a great gig processing and printing for Annie Liebovitz during my first couple years in New York.

The t-shirt, above, was made by her first assistant, George Lange, as a joke for her birthday, because Annie Liebovitz had a reputation for screaming at her assistants. She never screamed at me, because I rarely assisted her other than the darkroom work, which was done outside her studio. But I did work on the John Belushi shoot. I was sent home early though, because she liked to be alone with her subjects, so she could try to get them naked for the shot. At least that’s what I understood.

After a few years and I was doing more of my own photo shoots (I had just gotten an assignment from Vogue!), Annie Liebovitz called and asked me to be her studio manager. I didn’t even hesitate before answering — my cocky delusional self told her I couldn’t because I was too busy doing my own thing.

Immediately afterwards, I felt like that was the dumbest thing I ever said. What an amazing photographer to have worked for, and think of the connections I could have made! But in retrospect I feel like I did the right thing, because I have managed to have a pretty nice career in spite of it all. (And I named my daughter Anna.)


The last time I saw Bruce Davidson was in 1985, having run into him at the color lab where I was printing my new baby project — naked floating babies printed life size. I showed him the prints, and he gave me the best compliment ever. “I think you really have something there.”

And I did.


Copacabana 1981

My first job in New York was photographing at the Copacabana, 1981. The film was quickly processed in the back and sloppy prints were made, full of fix, slapped wet in a folder, and then I’d have to try to sell them. I’d be off work at 2am, taking the subway and walking through Washington Square Park alone to get home!