Creator of Herald-Sun’s photography department dies

Dec. 19, 2012 @ 07:13 PM

Charles Cooper, who created the Herald-Sun’s photography department in 1945 and kept his lens focused on Durham for the next 40 years, died Wednesday at his home after a long illness. He was 92.

“He was a fighter for photojournalism,” his longtime coworker and friend, Harold Moore, said. “He was a passionate photographer.”

Mr. Cooper photographed presidents and celebrities, buildings going up and coming down, joys and sorrows.

In 1948, he photographed President Harry Truman at the State Fair in Raleigh as Truman spoke to a crowd of 200,000.

He photographed President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 when he visited Raleigh and Statesville, and in the early 1960s, Mr. Cooper covered President John Kennedy when he arrived at Raleigh-Durham Airport for a speech at UNC in Chapel Hill.

But Mr. Cooper never let his eyes wander far from Durham, documenting the city’s growth from the end of World War II until he retired in 1985. His 40-year body of work reflects Durham as it transformed from a tobacco town to the City of Medicine.

Moore, who worked at the newspaper from 1954 to 2005, said Mr. Cooper gave him his first photography job while he was a senior at Durham High School.

Mr. Cooper was a one-man show at the paper from 1945 to 1950, shooting photos for The Durham Herald Co.’s two papers – the Durham Morning Herald and The Durham Sun.

“He worked day and night, seven days a week,” Moore recalled.

In a 2009 interview, Mr. Cooper said the photo he remembered best was of a Durham Christmas parade in 1955 – a challenge like none he had ever faced.

“I took about three cases of flash bulbs and spent the entire afternoon in a light drizzle,” he said. “Duke Power let me install flash bulbs in each light pole from Five Points all the way up to Church Street, so I could take a picture of the parade, which was always at night in those days.”

Mr. Cooper had just one chance to get the shot, because Duke Power was to flip the switch that cut on the flash bulbs when he signaled he was ready. The plan almost fell apart, however, when communications got fouled up. But then, as Mr. Cooper stood on scaffolding at Five Points, two blocks of flash bulbs went off at once, and he got his picture.

“I’ll never forget that,” he said. “I must have been out of my mind to have tried it.”

Mr. Cooper also served as executive director of the National Press Photographers Association.

Sean D. Elliot, current president, said Wednesday that Mr. Cooper’s work with the organization for 40 years “stands as a deep and lasting legacy.”

“He was not only a great photographer, but a great steward for photojournalism,” Moore said. “I don’t think there was anything that he didn’t enjoy shooting. But I think most of all, he enjoyed promoting photojournalism in general for all the photographers around the country.”

Moore said the best thing about working with Mr. Cooper was his knowledge of photography and his willingness to share it.

“His pictures preserved the history of Durham,” Moore said. “People can just go back and examine his work, and see the growth of Durham during the years.”

Another longtime coworker, Jim Thornton, called Mr. Cooper “one of the best photographers in the whole country.”

“To be a really good photographer, you have to feel it,” Thornton said. “You need a special eye, and he always had it. He didn’t have to go out and find pictures; it’s almost like they found him.”

In the 2009 interview, Mr. Cooper called himself “very fortunate” to have enjoyed such a rewarding career.

He said that having his camera focused on Durham for 40 years left him with rich memories, and he offered this advice to young people: “Pursue your dream and make it come true. Work hard and don’t give up. That was my motto.”