I was fortunate to have known Fonville for a brief period of time in the mid 1970's when I was a student at LSU. I thought you might be interested in a few of the details.
At the time I was an aspiring young photographer who had just landed a job as photographic editor of the LSU yearbook. I was looking for a position after graduation so I went to Fonville's studio with some of my prints hoping he might hire me. Well, he didn't. But I was welcomed very warmly and with open arms.
Despite my being a complete stranger, he took quite a bit of time to visit with me, to look at my prints and to give me many useful tips, even pulling out his spotting brush and showing me some of the finer points of finishing a portrait, which included him actually touching up some photos of my model and then-girlfriend.
He told me a bit about his early history coming to Louisiana, his wild mushroom hunting and a little of the general "bon vivant" lifestyle, as he termed it.
Then he offered to give me a tour the darkroom. When we got to the amazing film development machine, which I believe he said he designed and built himself, I was stunned, thrilled and impressed beyond words. I knew immediately how unique and special his talents were. Being a bit of a tinkerer geek type myself -- this was heaven.
But, all that paled in comparison to what I saw in one of the main rooms. Above my head, almost completely covering the walls were what seemed like dozens of the most beautiful portraits of lovely young women and distinguished men that I'd ever seen.
At that time I was trying to learn all I could about photography and I'd devoured every book I could find on the works of greats like Yousuf Karsh. But several of Fonville's portraits of those young women were every bit as beautiful as any Karsh portrait I'd seen, and they still remain etched in my memory as some of the most beautiful photos I've ever had the privilege to view.
I've seen tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of photographs in my lifetime, yet I'd still rank Fonville's portraits of those young women at the very pinnacle produced by any photographer.
After what seemed like hours, I finally had to say goodbye.
In passing I'd mentioned to Fonville that a few student-artist friends and I were renting a little rundown building on Government Street which we used as a studio. Fonville apparently remembered even the address, because he would sometimes ride his bike down to our place and leave a care package of photography magazines and articles. What a lovely, thoughtful human being!
After graduation I got a job working for a few years with Frank Lotz Miller, who was probably the leading architectural/commercial photographer in New Orleans, before finally moving on to another field.
I didn't know him well or for very long, but Fonville made a lasting impact on me, both because of the power and beauty of those delicate and oh-so-tastefully done portraits and no less because of his amazing warmth and kindness.
It seems Fonville has become quite a legend, and deservedly so. Yet, I've never heard anyone discuss or write about his studio portraits, except in passing, and I've never seen even a single formal portrait replicated in any publication or on display in any gallery. As much as I admire his other work, I think it is Fonville's portraits, particularly those rare, inspired examples I saw that day in his studio, that set Fonville so far apart from other photographers. It would be an honor to be able to look upon them one more time.