Memories of postcard photographer Ross Hall

The prolific Pacific Northwest photographer and his wife Hazel leave a legacy of wonderful photographs and friendships
Ross Hall makes a photograph from the mountains above Lake Pend Oreille near Hope, Idaho in 1977.

When I was growing up in Sandpoint, Idaho Ross Hall was THE photographer in town. He and his wife Hazel Hall ran a commercial photography studio, camera shop and postcard company from a building on First Avenue.

He moved to the area in 1931 to manage a photo business for Mrs. Dick Himes after her husband passed. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that he may have photographed every person, wedding, or anniversary that was captured on film in North Idaho for many decades.

Before color film was readily available Hazel Hall would hand paint black and white prints with color pigments to simulate a color photograph. The postcards he produced during his career are now collector’s items and prints of his work continue to be sold by the family out of a storefront down the street from his old studio in Sandpoint.

Among the many wonderful images Hall created during his lifetime is one called “The Moonlight Tete-a-Tete,” made in 1939. To create it, he exposed a single sheet of film twice, once during the day and again at moon rise. More remarkably, he made this image in the mountains above Lake Pend Oreille in the dead of winter over a span of six hours. It is a masterpiece. To this day I am in awe of the physical effort, forethought, technique and artisanship required to create it.

Ross Hall makes a photograph from the mountains above Lake Pend Oreille near Hope, Idaho in 1977.

He was famous for his stories and outgoing nature. When he crossed paths with people he knew, and he knew everyone in town, he would smile and say “Howdy neighbor,” or “How you doin’ partner?”

He was also known for his unusual hats. You can see one in the picture here. I realize now they were the precursor to the bucket hat. A perfect choice for a photographer who doesn’t want a stiff brim interfering with the camera during a photograph.

After I graduated from high school I was invited to join Hall and a few other friends on a two day hiking adventure in the mountains above Lake Pend Oreille. Another photographer in town, Duane “Cap” Davis, a protege of Hall’s, dropped the group at a trailhead above Trestle Creek and we hiked southeast overlooking Hope, Idaho and the lake making pictures along the way.

“The Moonlight Tete-a-Tete,” made in 1939 by Ross Hall.

We had several bear sightings along the way, so we took precautions, making lots of noise on the trail and slinging our food bags from a tree in camp. I did not own a tent, so Hall shared a lean-to that he brought along. It was little more than a tarp with two sticks holding up the corners on one side. With all the talk of bears I was a little on edge as we bedded down for the evening.

My worst fears seemed to be manifesting in the wee hours of the night as I woke to the sound of snorting and heavy breathing just behind me. I lay paralyzed in my sleeping bag as I imagined a bear having a sniff before enjoying me as a midnight snack. After a few moments of indecision I screwed up enough courage to roll over expecting to be mauled to death. Happily it was just Ross Hall laying a few inches away snoring contentedly in his sleep.

I sometimes wonder what Hall would make of the digital age of photography? He used large format cameras the whole time I knew him. He would shake his head in amusement as I blew through rolls of 35mm film on assignments for the student newspaper, yearbook and as a part-time photographer for the Sandpoint News-Bulletin.

As a businessman during the depression, with film scarce and expensive, Hall would joke that his goal was to expose only one negative in his two sheet 4×5 film holder during an outing if possible. Despite improvements in film stock, he did not switch to 2 1/4 roll film and a Pentax 67 medium format camera until the late 70s. Even then he returned a telephoto lens he purchased because its sharpness was not up to his standards. Let’s just say I don’t think he would have been an early adopter of digital tech. I do think he would have realized the benefit of doing away with chemicals and a darkroom, however.

Photo nerd talk aside, the lessons I learned from from Ross Hall went far beyond cameras, lenses, f-stops and shutter speeds. He went to great lengths to visualize his photographs. He kept careful diaries about locations he visited, noting the wildflowers that might be in bloom, features of the terrain and how the light fell at various times of the day. He was a walking encyclopedias of the Pacific Northwest and the people who inhabited it. He made friends wherever he went and had a manner that would put a photo subject at ease in front of his lens.

An envelope from Ross Hall Scenics that I found among my grandfather’s belongings. It contained a collection of fishing pictures made during an outing on the lake in the 1950s.

He was also very generous with his time, mentoring many young photographers over the years, offering words of encouragement and advice in the classic mentor to student tradition of teaching.

While watching him work, I began to understand the importance of technique, planning and intention in the creation of a photograph. And perhaps most importantly, I was inspired by his passion for life, the creative process and the fun he had exploring the world through the viewfinder of his camera. A day does not go by that I do not draw from those memories in the creation of my own work.

A card from Ross Hall in 1978. The writing has faded, but it reads “To Chris Pietsch, a partner who can take it in the high country,” he wrote, adding “Here is Lake Pend Oreille from Trail 20 at a different season. Merry Christmas 1978 Ross Hall”

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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