Merl LaVoy

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(b.Royalton, Wisconsin, 14/12/1885 – d. Johannesburg, 06/12/1953). American photographer, cinematographer, director. One of the first internationally famous news photographers, Merl LaVoy was born in 1885 in the small town of Royalton, Wisconsin. By 1907 he was working for the Great Northern Development Company, which was prospecting for copper on the Kotsina River in Alaska. In 1912 he was a member of the Parker-Browne Expedition that made an attempt to climb the summit of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America, though bad weather forced them to turn back just 125 feet short of reaching their goal. While the United States only entered World War I in 1917, by 1915 LaVoy had already left for France, covering the war under the auspices of the American Relief Clearing House. His first film, Heroic France (1917), was widely shown and this was followed by Victorious Serbia (1918), made for the American Red Cross, as was The Children of the Sahara (1919-20). During the war he also visited Turkey, Macedonia, Transylvania, Greece and Siberia. At some stage during this decade he was also in Mexico to photograph the revolution that was taking place.

In 1927 Pathé appointed him globe-trotting cameraman and in this capacity he indeed travelled the world. When, in 1928-29, President-elect Herbert Hoover went to South America on a good-will tour, LaVoy was on board the U.S.S. Maryland to cover the journey. During the 1920s he also visited Australia, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and China, and was responsible for a comprehensive photographic study of Inuit life. Many of the photographs he took in China were taken in Nanking during the Kuomintang rule of Chiang Kai-shek, from 1928 onwards. Back in Alaska in 1932, he was a member of the Lindley-Liek Expedition on a return journey to Mount McKinley to recover the frozen remains of Theodore G. Koven, who died in an accident during an expedition the previous year.

In 1935 the International Photographer reported that he was off to New York, London and Africa, and by 1938 he was in South Africa. According to The Forum of 29th August 1938, a few months earlier he had made a proposal for the establishment of a production unit on a national scale (in effect a National Film Board) and in 1939 he shot the documentary Electricity: spirit of progress for the Electricity Supply Commission. In 1944 he and David Millin filmed a short documentary about salt production made by African Film Productions. In the same year the Afrikaans feature film Donker Spore, directed by Thomas Blok and J.F. Marais, was released and one of the cinematographers was Merl LaVoy. It is not known how he became involved in this project, which was initiated by a small group of Afrikaner Nationalists. He seems to have stayed on in South Africa, as in 1952 his local contact address was given as c/o Gaumont-British Africa, but he died in Johannesburg in December 1953. According to a brief obituary in The Star, he had worked first in the State Information Office and subsequently as a freelance photographer. (FO)


The International Photographer, March 1935

The Forum, 29 August 1938

The Forum, 5 August 1939

Davenport, Delbert - Around the world with a globe-trotting cameraman (The International Photographer, June 1930)

Mould, David H. & Veeder, Gerry K. - The "photographer-adventurers": forgotten heroes of the silent screen (Journal of Popular Film & Television, Fall 1988)

Veeder, Gerry K. - The Red Cross Bureau of Pictures, 1917-1921 (Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 1990, Vol. 10, Issue 1),_Merl

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