Thursday, March 31, 2011

Portraits, Weddings, Passports

In a turreted brick two-storey on Parc Avenue north of St. Viateur, Regent Photo Studio advertises portraits, weddings and passports in old-fashioned lettering on its glass door.

The buzzer blared while the door, with its faded hand-tinted photo of a bejeweled smiling woman, closed behind me.

Parc Avenue traffic grew muted as I walked down the narrow hallway of shiny gold wallpaper flocked with red velvet.

In the office at the end of the hall, I found a small white-haired man behind a desk and a younger man seated nearby. The walls around them were filled with graduation photos, family portraits and wedding pictures of big-haired brides and grooms with wide collars. All the images seemed to date from at least a generation ago, like the pale bouquet of silk flowers in the corner. It was extremely quiet in there.

"Can I get a passport photo?" I wondered out loud. Maybe I should just go get the clerk at Jean Coutu or Uniprix to do it, instead of bothering these people.

"Of course, of course!" said the man behind the desk, all gracious host.

Norman Epelbaum approached the small assignment with gravitas, getting out a comb to make my hair presentable. With a hand on my elbow, he ushered me to a seat in front of the vintage Polaroid MiniPortrait camera, accompanied by John Notte, his assistant of 32 years. John turned on the photo lights.

Norman touched my shoulders, lifted my chin and stepped back behind the camera.

"Steady, steady!" he instructed in a soft voice with an Eastern European accent and then there was a click and a flash.

Back at his desk, Norman set the red plastic Kodak timer and while the Polaroid developed, he made out a receipt for twelve dollars. The dated wedding portraits on the walls made me wonder if the marriages were still intact. I wondered about Norman's story, too. He didn't reveal much.

Later I learned that he was born in Poland and had moved to Montreal in the mid-fifties. During the war, he'd obtained a Russian passport and served in the Russian army in Siberia. He and his wife, Esther, had four daughters.

In Mile End he was known affectionately as the guy with the hat. He never went out without a fedora, or in the summer, a straw hat. He always wore a shirt and tie, usually with vest and jacket.

He owned a couple buildings, but had frugal tendencies, perhaps acquired during the war years. At Navarino on Parc, they joked about how he liked to appropriate the cafe's copy of the newspaper.  He often went to St. Viateur Bagel Bakery where he preferred to get his bagels free of charge.

He was a mysterious figure. Some thought he'd worked with Karsh in Ottawa. (He may have.) Others said the woman in the photo on his door was his wife. (It wasn't.) No one knew how old he was. He recently said: "72."

photo: Andrew Gryn

Norman Epelbaum died on Sunday, March 20 at the age of 82. He'd been having heart problems. The previous Friday he'd gone to work at the studio, as usual.

"I will miss him a lot," said colleague John Notte who's keeping the studio open for business, which in recent years has been a handful of passport photos a day.

When Norman was in the hospital a few months ago, his youngest daughter Suzie called him up. He picked up the phone in his room and, out of habit, said: "Regent Photo Studio."

The name of the studio comes from the old telephone exchange for the neighbourhood. Norman greeted customers there seven days a week, for the past 47 years, when he wasn't doing weddings or insurance photo work.

John Notte

"He used to say that he loved photography so much it didn't feel like a job. That's why he could do it every day,"  said Suzie. "I grew up at the studio with him."

"He was very friendly. Everybody knew him," said Georgia Mangafas of Rodos Bay restaurant, his neighbour for 41 years. "He was at work until the last minute."

I have two passport photos by Norman Epelbaum: one current, one expired. As the Regent Photo business card says: "Photographs are memories."