‘This Is My Corner’: Portrait Studio Captures East L.A. Through the Years
For three generations, the Goveas created portraits, and photographed the people in their neighborhood.
By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer
“This is my corner… it’s kind of a special place,” East Los Angeles resident Rita Govea says of First Street and Indiana Avenue, the intersection where her family’s portrait and photo studio, Navarro Photo Studio, is located.
An avid photographer, Govea often displays photos she takes at community events, such as Abuelitos Day, the Latino Film Festival, and the Latino Book Fair, on the studios’ windows.
A passion for photography has sustained the family for three generations. Govea’s mother, Louise Navarro Govea, opened the studio in 1957. Rita ran the studio part time back in the 1980s and 1990s. Her nephew Frank Govea has been running the studio for the last fourteen years.
Govea’s contribution these days include dressing up as a bunny rabbit for Easter photo shoots, and taking photos of the community that she then posts up in the studio. “I do it for the neighborhood. I post the pictures on the window, so that the community can see,” she says.
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Up now are pictures of folklorico dancers showing off their colorful dresses, high school marching bands proudly displaying their school names, beauty queens striking a pose, and politicians flashing winning smiles for her camera during last year’s Mexican Independence Day parade.
People who walk through their studio will see a gallery filled with the happiest memories of people from their neighborhood. Pictures of girls in their sweet sixteen gowns peek out from behind the studio windows. Couples smile sweetly in their wedding photos. A baby in an animal costume is caught laughing.
One portrait shows a girl who worked at El Mercado down the street. Next to it is an aged picture of someone’s grandfather taken when he was young; a retouched version that looks as good as new is posted next to it.
The pictures posted in the studio windows often stop people in their tracks. “They walk in… and they look, and they look, and they look,” Govea says.
Many of them then turn to Govea or her nephew and ask, “Do you take pictures? What kind of business is this?”
On most days, they get asked to take people’s passport and immigration photos, as well as their portraits on special occasions such as graduations and birthdays, but several times during the 1980s, men walked into their studio with an unusual request.
They wanted full body photos taken to send back home to their mothers in Mexico, to show that they were still alive and intact, Govea said. “There were a lot of horror stories going back to Mexico, that their sons and daughters were being mistreated here.”
The mothers would hear that their sons were in wheel chairs, or missing arms and legs. Govea said she had to cajole some of the men, who rarely smiled or posed naturally, to take a pleasant photo to send home.
Louise Navarro Govea first got into the photo business because of a defective photo. She paid for colored photos, but got back sepia-toned ones instead. She asked another photographer named Juarez to fix them. He asked her if she wanted to learn how to color them herself, and she said yes.
She found she had a talent for hand-coloring photographs. The meticulous practice of painting or tinting black and white or sepia-toned photographs was especially popular before color photography was widely accessible.
“She was real creative. She could draw real beautiful, draw pretty faces, hair. She could color really well,” Govea said.
Govea’s mother began running her own studio on First Street where there were already two other photo studios: one was run by Juarez, who helped her mother get started, and the other was run by a photographer named Campos.
Frank Govea said his grandmother started the business at a time when women were expected to stay in the kitchen.
A photo of Louise Navarro — sitting on a stool in the back of the studio, with her shoes are off; she is busy talking on the telephone, surrounded by large photo processing machines — hangs on one of the studio walls.
In the early days First Street was lined with bars. A brothel sat across the street from their shop. But the Govea kids and others in the neighborhood found it hard to get into much trouble.
“Everybody knew my brother and me, and our cousins, and our friends. If we did something on our way home, my mom would know by the time we got home,” said Rita.
After passing through the management of several people in their family, it was Frank who finally took over from his grandmother.
Navarro Photo Studios is now the last of its kind in the neighborhood. The studios owned by Campos and Juarez have since closed.
These days a hair salon, furniture store and a café surround the studio. The Eastside Gold Line now runs past their shop.
Meanwhile, the practice of hand coloring photographs has become a lost art, said Frank, who learned to hand color from his grandmother. Today he uses photo-editing software to colorize or fix old photos.
He said their studio has been affected by the increasing ease and accessibility of digital photography, but adds that just motivates them to become better. “Business goes down, but the photography needs to become better, to where you do something they can’t do,” he says.
Times have changed, but as longtime residents and business owners, the Goveas, who reside just down the street on Indiana Avenue, continue to stick by their neighborhood.
Rita Govea says she and other community members fought to get the nearby “second chance” high school, Ramona Opportunity High School, built. As part of the review advisory committee for the Gold Line she pushed for safety gates to be installed at the light rail crossing outside their shop.
The studio continues to capture the goings on of their neighborhood. As the third generation running the studio, Frank finds people at their best, while his aunt reports back with more pictures to post on the windows to keeping the neighborhood abreast of what’s going on.
Frank says they post these photos because “we want people to stop and look and see what they missed.”Print This Post
April 19, 2012 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.