Old Red Courthouse Magic

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Featuring the Photographic Artistry of Gail Nogle
by Bill Hedrick

Gail Nogle started taking pictures when she was 8 years old at Sky Farm Camp in upstate New York when a Kodak Brownie was put in her hands. Born and raised in Troy, New York, Gail got her first introduction to photography at the age of 13 while baby-sitting. The father of the child was an architect and photographer and, after he and his wife left for the evening and the baby was asleep, Gail would hang the film to dry. Eventually, she was shown how to develop film and print images.  At 17, she purchased her first camera, a 35mm Nikon Photomic TN for the small fortune of $360 in 1967, an experience that she hails as the greatest thrill of her life.

“Only passion, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.”
– Denis Diderot

In those days, Gail did a lot of baby-sitting. This early experience gave her valuable insight into photographing children, something that would come in quite handy in her future career. “I was able to observe how different parents treated their children and what worked and what didn’t work,” she recalls. During high school, she could be found photographing on the sidelines of football games and other sporting events. Her weekends were spent developing film and printing contact sheets which she took to school on Monday to pass around in study hall. Photography had become her passion. She couldn’t get enough of it and everybody wanted to be in her photographs. Then, at her high school graduation, Gail received an award for the “Best Photographer of the Year.” It was only the beginning and that is when fate took its course.

She had applied to two schools, one for physical education and the other for photography. After the school for physical education declined her admission, she received a one year scholarship from the Photographic Society of America to the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology and the die was cast. Things have a funny way of working out for the best sometimes and, four years later, Gail received a Bachelor of Science degree and immediately applied for a job with Gittings, one of the most renowned portrait studios in the country.

 

“I got the job with Gittings and, two months later, moved to Houston to work in their negative inspection department with Arthur Heitzman,” she explains. It wasn’t the position Gail had hoped for but you have to start somewhere. It didn’t take long before her talent was recognized and she was soon transferred to the Gittings Portrait Studio in Dallas where she finally got her wish to work full time in the camera room making photographs of children, her first love and forte.

For the next 14 years, Gail was the chief children’s photographer for Gittings, and was trained along the way by Yvonne Blumberg Reisman, the first woman ever to be hired by Mr. Gittings. “She taught me how to handle kids, what toys to use, what worked and what didn’t work. We were a team… in sync with one another. It didn’t matter which one of us was behind the camera at the time. Each one built up the other.”

By the year 1994, Gail Nogle fulfilled her lifelong ambition to open her own studio. Admittedly, she was terrified at the thought of being in business for herself and wondering if the phone would ever ring… but it did. Within two short years, she had outgrown her original studio and was overseeing the construction of her new studio in Dallas. Everyone knew the name Gail Nogle.

Like many artists, Gail’s passion for her work is driven by her love of art and a desire to tell stories with images and light. Degas and Norman Rockwell were two artists who inspired her. “I consider myself fortunate to have a family, life, and position that allows me to pursue this love and accept new photographic opportunities and challenges as they arise,” she explains. In 2003, all of this came together at the Old Red Courthouse in Dallas, Texas.

“I had never been inside the Old Red Courthouse in downtown Dallas for all the years I‘ve called Dallas my home,” says Gail. “One day, I received a call from the Crystal Charity Ball, an organization that has funded charities throughout the Dallas area. Crystal Charity had donated funds to the Old Red Courthouse for renovations and the construction of a children’s wing. I was asked to shoot twenty-five photographs in the courthouse to be published in their annual Crystal Charity Ball Book.”

In many ways, this historic building with its light, colors, and character was the piece of art that Gail had been looking for throughout her career. “As soon as I stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor, I knew something magical could happen here,” she recalls. The setting was every photographer’s dream with abundant natural lighting and one-hundred foot corridors. It was Gail’s canvas. An amazing opportunity had been handed to her and all she had to do was take it. As the director of the courthouse escorted her from floor to floor, she asked, “How do you expect me to sleep tonight?”

There were certain constraints to the project, however. She would only be allowed access into the courthouse at certain times of the day and had to complete the entire project in only six weeks. “Had it been left up to me, I would have stayed at the courthouse and photographed day and night,” says Gail. But she quickly set about her work building sets and rounding up a collection of things she had been acquiring from antique and hardware stores. Like many other artists, Gail collected items based on the notion that “I don’t know when, but one day I’ll use this.”

Earlier in her career, Gail built her first sets in an old building in Denton, Texas. Her goal was to shoot in the style of Degas. A ballet school provided dancers to be photographed and Gail used the soft light that the windows in the old building provided.

With that experience in mind, she decided to tell similar stories using the Old Red Courthouse as her new backdrop. Her inspiration came from the many Norman Rockwell books she looked through. “First, I asked my mother-in-law, who was 97 at the time, to be my first volunteer subject. I photographed her in an old wicker wheelchair I’d purchased previously because it reminded me of the chair in which Renoir died. Of course, I didn’t tell my mother-in-law that at the time. Using old love letters passed down through generations in my family, I photographed her sitting by the window and reading. It was magic.”

Another of Gail’s favorite images captured at the location was “The Music Lesson,” used on the cover of this issue. With Etude Magazines and sheet music placed in a corner, an old calendar, and the help of two former clients, a story was created that called to mind a young student learning to play an instrument. The image is now in the Jesuit Dallas Museum and the Photography Hall of Fame in Oklahoma.

To say that Gail Nogle was possessed during this courthouse project might be somewhat of an understatement. According to Gail, “It was love.” To this day, photographing in the Old Red Courthouse ranks among the most exciting projects of her career. “It was a unique blend of excitement and exhaustion. When the last day came to dismantle our sets, the last wall I’d used as a backdrop strangely fell down as I turned my back to walk away. It was time to go and it seemed the walls had a quiet way of knowing, too.”

But, just when it seemed like the project was finished, Gail begged the courthouse superintendent to allow her to return during the renovation and construction phase. For the next six months, she lovingly photographed every inch of the inside and outside of the Old Red Courthouse… walls, mouldings, windows… even the construction workers. All of it became part of the final collection of photographs.

The teenage girl from New York who turned Texan has come a long way since she processed film while baby-sitting. The journey was not always an easy one and she had to work hard to achieve her goals during a time when men mostly dominated the profession of photography.

Although a school somewhere in the country may have lost a very dedicated physical education instructor, the world has gained an extraordinary artist whose work is reminiscent of the style of Monet, Degas, Renoir, Mary Cassatt, and of course, Norman Rockwell… and Texas proudly claims her as our own.