Church set to display best work of well-known photographer

For many years, the black-and-white, poster-sized prints that Cecil Coke Sr. made of his own work sat in his son’s closet, never seeing the light of day.

Now, as part of Vineville United Methodist Church’s monthly Music and the Arts at Vineville series, 28 prints of Coke’s work will be on display at the church beginning Sept. 14. The exhibition gives a chance for photography fans -- and fans of Macon’s history -- to enjoy both subjects, said Dennis McCleary, director of music for the church.

“We’ve been doing Music and the Arts for 24 years,” he said. “We try to do visual exhibits. We’ve had Nativity scenes and creches and (work from) children who have made Noah’s ark.”

On a visit to the office of Riverside Cemetery, McCleary saw eight of Coke’s photos on display and thought they might make for a good show for the series. Cecil Coke Jr., who works for the cemetery as its president and sexton, said he had many more examples of his father’s work at home, most of which -- but not all -- will be part of the show.

“There were three of dancing girls that didn’t quite fit in with the church,” McCleary said with a chuckle.

The elder Coke and his brother, Joseph, are probably best known as the original owners of Coke’s Camera Center on Cherry Street (now owned by Joseph Coke’s sons), but the brothers also were photographers.

Cecil Sr. became the first staff photographer for both The Telegraph and The Macon News when he was hired by then-business manager Peyton Anderson Jr. in 1937.

During that time, Coke took one of the most notable pictures in the exhibition, a picture of Army soldiers based at Macon’s Camp Wheeler at the outset of America’s entering World War II. The photo isn’t well-lighted, and the photographer noted that it was because of a faulty flashbulb that didn’t go off.

Peter Dennis, chairman of the Riverside Cemetery board, said the photo is one of his favorites.

“It’s very significant because of the role Camp Wheeler played in Macon,” he said. “Its construction was what pulled Macon out of the Depression.”

That photo wasn’t the only time Coke had problems with a flash. In the early days, when the Coke brothers were first starting out -- in the days before flashbulbs -- they were continually experimenting with how much flash powder to use. Once, they loaded too much powder, which caused an explosion that blew out the window of a customer’s house.

Another time, while working as a photojournalist, Coke was taking a picture of then-Gov. Eugene Talmadge during a radio interview at the City Auditorium. Coke’s flashbulb exploded on air, leading some listeners to think that Talmadge had been shot.

Coke, who died in 2003, wasn’t averse to courting danger if it meant getting a good shot. In handwritten notes his son found titled “Dangerous and Dumb,” the elder Coke listed a number of times he had put himself in a risky position to take a photo.

One time he climbed a water tower on Second Street with his camera, climbing over the side and into the half-completed tank. Another time, he soared over the steeple at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on a crane platform with no safety rails.

Coke seemed to court danger even when he wasn’t taking a picture. Once, he paddled a rubber raft at St. Simons Island to rescue a girl who wasn’t able to swim to shore -- even though he couldn’t swim himself. Perhaps Coke’s willingness to overlook danger came from his early years, when he battled heart ailments and asthma. Doctors told him he likely wouldn’t live past 40. In the end, he lived more than twice that long.

Not all of Coke’s work survived over the years. In January 1941, a fire at the brothers’ original studio on Cotton Avenue gutted the building and destroyed many of the negatives they had saved.

That might not have been an issue in later years if Coke had the access to the technology that photographers have today.

“He would have been up to date on it,” the younger Coke said of his father. “He was always following the latest tech. He bought a color processor from England, the first one in the area. ... When the first color picture processing equipment was installed in the camera store, it required him to look at and approve the color balance of every picture, and if it did not pass his close inspection, it was destroyed and printed again. He reviewed hundreds each day. What he did not tell anyone was he was color-blind.”

The elder Coke used the same exacting standards in his personal life as he did in his professional life, which could sometimes prove excruciating for the rest of the family.

“Family photos were always an ordeal,” Cecil Jr. said. “Our father always made the Christmas cards, and they would take hours to get everything just right -- smile, no eye blinking, etc. Also, he made 16mm movies of every activity we did from my mother leaving (the) house to go to the hospital for our births to our Christmas mornings Santa Claus gift-opening. The wake-up and running to the Christmas tree for the presents always took three or four takes before we were allowed to open presents.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.