Mention the name and Valley residents recall the post cards, the school portraits, the shots taken from Mount Spokane every New Year’s Eve. Most of all they remember Leo.
Leo Oestreicher was known for his photographs of Valley development in the 1930s and 1940s. He was known for his outrageous affinity for collecting things: wires, wood, tools, cameras.
Though he never met the legendary Leo, portrait photographer Andrew McAlpin shoots pictures every day in Leo’s former studio and home.
“If I was to meet one person in my whole life in all of history, it would be Leo,” said McAlpin.
Not surprising for a man who lives among the photographic relics of Leo. Just as Leo did, McAlpin lives above the studio at 920 S. Walnut. He walks through the multi-level house with 52 rooms that Leo built. He also realizes what a gem he has. In 1994, McAlpin bought the studio and the name Leo’s Portraits from Laurence Morgan, the man with whom McAlpin worked for four years. Morgan was Leo’s protege.
“I bought into a lot of history,” he said. “I learn something more and more about the building and Leo every day.”
So are Spokane and North Idaho residents. Cheney Cowles Museum and the Museum of North Idaho in Coeur d’Alene have acquired Leo’s collection of photo post cards, cameras and photographs. Cheney Cowles archivist Karen DeSeve is busy cataloging more than 250 photographs of the Spokane area. There are school pictures of little boys and girls from the late 1930s, Dishman Hills cliffs, Spokane University, Millwood. Each photo is kept in an acid-free envelope, in an acid-free box in a temperature-, humidity- and dust-controlled storage room.
Ed Nolan, curator of special collections for the Tacoma-based Washington State Historical Society, began trying to acquire the collection a decade ago when he worked at Cheney Cowles but had little luck.
Nolan hoped one day Leo’s work, particularly his post-card photos, would be available for Spokane residents to view. He no longer has to hope.
“We’re fortunate at least that it’s come into public hands,” he said.
“In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Leo was in his prime - it was prime post card era,” said Nolan. “To my knowledge, it is the very best documentation of the area for that period. There’s just nothing I’ve seen that equals it.”
Laurence Morgan would say the same thing.
Morgan, 77, and Leo, who died in 1990 at age 87, were inseparable, working together for 32 years. “People didn’t know if I was Leo or if he was,” Morgan said.
“He was my mentor,” said Morgan. “My father died when I was in high school and his wife was my Sunday school teacher. She offered my mother a job to keep us from starving. But I took the job and I got 15 cents an hour to clean Leo’s studio.
“That’s what we lived on ‘til I graduated high school. I got off work at 10 p.m., did homework, went to sleep, woke up to milk the cows and then went to school, to work and all over again.”
Morgan bought the business from Leo in 1955 and lived above the studio. Leo decided to retire and, along with his wife Alice, moved to Coeur d’Alene. That gave Leo time to dabble in the camera repair business as well as 14 other businesses.
“He had everything there,” said Morgan. “He was a collector and never threw everything away.” Even film and tin cans, he saved.
“He had a metal shop, a wood shop, Leo’s waterworks, Leo’s repair shop, Leo’s paints, I could go on and on,” said Morgan. He was a very congenial man, said Morgan. “I never heard him ever use a strong word with anybody. He was aggressive in things he did. But not with other people.”
He loved photographing landscapes and scenery. He traveled the country, taking photographs for the National Guard.
He made an annual New Year’s Eve pilgrimage of sorts to Mount Spokane. Once at the summit, Leo would photograph Spokane. The following day, one of his photos would run on the back page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
“He’d go up with some college kids with only gunny sacks on their feet,” said Morgan. “They eventually got skis.”
By 1992, Morgan tired of the business. He decided to sell different aspects of Leo’s Photography. He had survived a 1978 fire that burned all the negative files except those stored in the underground tunnels Leo had constructed in the house’s basement.
Today, Leo’s legend lives on with three Spokane men. Jim Nelson runs the school portrait studio, Leo’s Photography. John McLaughlin runs the wholesale finishing aspect of the original operation and Andrew McAlpin owns Leo’s Portraits.
“I would’ve loved to have known the man,” said McAlpin. “I feel deprived of knowing him. But I’ll live here for a lifetime.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos
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