There are some in this world who make history. There are others to their credit who quietly document history.
By Karen T. Butler
There are some in this world who make history. There are others to their credit who quietly document history. Alfred Porto was one of the latter. For forty-plus years, Al photographed Rye — its children, families, and events. He steadfastly captured all aspects of Rye’s life and history from 1944 until he retired in 1977. Inadvertently, he left for us a kaleidoscope of happenings in Rye, some mundane but more often poignant. Many a family who now lives in Rye or is from Rye, without doubt, has an Al Porto photograph or two tucked away in their family archives. They are kept with an unspoken plan: to pass them on to future generations.
I have only one photograph of me as an adolescent alone with my father, which Al Porto took in his shop many years ago. I was a pudgy 12-year-old, so it is not the most flattering picture I have of myself. I had just received my Confirmation. We went to Al to commemorate the occasion. My dad and I are cheek to cheek, a pose Al must have thought of. Nonetheless, there is something about that photograph that is endearing. Most importantly, it is a picture I love.
Occasionally, a famous person or two stumbled through Rye, but in the main Al Porto captured everyday Rye people living their day-to-day lives. Countless issues of The Daily Item and The Rye Chronicle during that timeframe are heavily sprinkled with Al Porto photographs. Al used a large format camera known as a “speed graphic,” because he felt the photographs reproduced better in newspapers.
It seemed like Al never missed a parade or a sports event. He took what seemed like a zillion publicity photographs for all of Rye’s civic groups: the Twigs, Rye Garden Club, St. Monica’s Mother’s Club, Dad’s Club, Rye Police and Fire departments. He photographed Rye’s local politicians running for office, winning an office seat, and out of office. Hardly a soul in Rye did not end up in one of Al Porto’s photographs.
Before World War II, Al worked at his first love, a small photography studio in Harrison. Drafted into the Army-Air Force during the war, Uncle Sam put his talents to good use. He was involved in reconnaissance work, taking aerial photographs.
Discharged from the service in the fall of 1945, his dream was to continue as a photographer and have his own shop. He found the right place at 6 Elm Place, where he set up shop with a studio where he could take family photos on the premises. That was the beginning of The Rye Camera Shop.
Al’s younger brother, Larry, was discharged from the Navy in 1946. After graduating from photography school, Larry joined his brother in the photography business. While Al photographed community gatherings, everything from parades to City Council meetings, weddings, and family portraits, Larry’s forte was commercial work, primarily advertising. Rye Camera operates to this day around the corner at 55 Purchase Street, continued on by Larry’s son Rob and his wife Anja. For many years, Larry’s daughter Pat Porto has run her business, The Framing Corner, at 6 Elm.
It’s a corner of Rye with so many good memories kept alive by a family that continues to capture our lives and frame them. It has continued on by the next generation of the Porto family.
Al had the knack of not getting in the way, so people could be themselves and natural when he took their picture. He connected with people. Children loved him and that enabled him to photograph them with ease.
I remember Al, his large format camera in hand, patiently waiting for a group gathering to settle down or getting ready to snap the most memorable scene at the pie-eating contest at the annual William H. Ball Memorial Field Day.
He always had a pleasant smile and dressed in soft brown tones, not wanting to upstage his subjects. Al let the picture come to him; that took a special patience and discipline. His photographs have a simple, straightforward quality to them, which was their genius. They are not contrived. His work reflects his love of people, especially Rye people.
His wife, Lucille, to whom he was married for 50 years, and his daughter, Suzan, both remember how Al photographed everything in their house, including them, always practicing his profession and perfecting his skills.
He never stopped learning the art of photography. He studied photographs of famous people and how they posed. He watched how light reflected on people and objects. His mission was to be as superb a photographer as possible.
I have often thought that if all of Al Porto’s photographs could be exhibited at one time — an impossible feat — what a joy it would be to relive, through his great photographic “eye,” the essence of Rye for those four decades and some.
—Photos by Al Porto