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Comegys: Five Decades of Photography

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Fred Comegys has been called a state treasure, and at least one fan described him as Delaware’s Picasso. News Journal readers would agree that Comegys has consistently and artfully reflected life in the First State for nearly 50 years, and a shot by Comegys is as recognizable to us as the Rockford Tower or Joe Biden. Tell this to the man himself and he will smile and say, “I’m just a newspaper photographer. That’s what I do.” The Delaware Art Museum is celebrating Comegys’ career with  a retrospective exhibition that runs from February 12 through May 1. Herein, a sampling of Comegys’ work, with his commentary.

 

“This was 1986. It was 18 floors up in Wilmington. They were just taking a break on the edge out there. There’s the old News Journal building and a parking garage. That was another scary situation. Those guys walked right on top of the beams. I put my feet on the inside things and I would just kind of hold the girder and monkey-walk to wherever they were. I would never stand up and walk like they did. That’s really stupid and dangerous. It just gives people the willies when you’re up that high…but it’s kind of fun.”
 

 

 

“I spent most of a day at Muhammad Ali’s training camp. There were a lot of photographers around. I said, ‘Is there any way I could get your photo in your cabin before you go to bed or do whatever you’re doing?’ He let me in. I was amazed. Of course, by then he had had enough. People were around him all day, wanting him to hold their babies and sign autographs. He could have really shooed me out of there because I was nobody to him. It was pretty awesome.”
 

 

 

 

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Lenape Park, 1971. “It was a great little amusement park up in Pennsylvania, right over the line. Of course, now it’s not there anymore. It had an old wooden roller coaster that would come down, go around and come back. I asked if I could climb up the big hill to get a photo. Just the fact they let me go where nobody else had ever been is really cool. They would never let you do that nowadays. It’s a view that nobody else will ever have—and nobody else did. That’s why I like it.”
 

 

Comegys was shooting a feature story at the John G. Leach School, which serves students with physical disabilities. He had already gotten the shots he had come for, but decided to follow a physical therapist who was taking a class to the pool program. “This guy’s been there for like 10 years. The little girl was in a wheelchair and he took her out and walked into the pool. She just kind of relaxed and fell asleep in his arms. He said she does this all the time. I thought that was so cool. It’s the weightlessness to her. There’s a calming effect to her to be in that pool with him. Everybody who saw that picture loved it. It just had a nice feel to it.”
 

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“Big Nose Sammy was just one of the characters when (The News Journal office) was in town. He had a paper stand right down on our same block. There were three characters in Wilmington: Jake the Broom Man, Big Nose Sammy and Herbie the Paper Boy. I shot Sammy four or five times. Those guys, I’m not always sure what they were thinking. I’m not saying he had all his marbles, but he wasn’t ignorant or dumb. He was sharper than what you probably gave him credit for.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gloria Swanson, 1971. “I hadn’t been a photographer that long. We were in her room at the Hotel du Pont. She wasn’t real friendly, as I remember. She was older, then. I think she was a little self-conscious about that, and she was worried about the kind of picture that I was going to get. I saw the mirror there and thought that would be kind of cool. That picture won some kind of contest.”
 

 

 

 

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Wilmington Mayor Dan Frawley rode an elephant down Market Street as part of a circus promotion. “It’s just a photo op. There’s no skill involved. It’s a photo anybody could have taken and probably a lot of people did. Actually, I had a nice picture of five elephants parading past The Grand Opera House. You’ll never see that again.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joe Biden runs for president, 1988. “That’s something that I don’t even remember. I just like it because it was him when he was young.”
 

 

 

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Jamie Wyeth, 1990. “That was up on Monhegan Island (Maine). I showed up out of the clear blue. He said, ‘Fred, what the hell are you doing here?’ I told him I wanted to take some pictures of him out by the ocean. He said come back in an hour. The kid in the background, Orca (Bates) is the kid he was painting at the time. They went out on the back porch and I took the picture. He loved it. In fact, I gave him a print.”

 

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