October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Between his arrival in Fresno in 1911 and his death there fifty-five years later, Claude “Pop” Laval devoted all his energy, every day, to photographing the people, places, events, industries, and farms of Fresno and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley. The result was a remarkable pictorial record, one of the most extensive ever produced by a single man—approximately one hundred thousand negatives and more than one hundred and twenty thousand prints. What is even more remarkable is the fact that most of them have survived.
Laval’s beginnings were a long way from the land he recorded and came to love. He was born in New York City in 1882, the son of an inventor/engineer. In 1896 the family moved to Braddock, Pennsylvania, where, at age fourteen, Claude took his first job as an architect and civil engineer—this without even a high school diploma. Two years later, he became foreman at the Cochocton Iron Works in Monongahela.
It was during this period that he first became interested in photography. An acquaintance who had an apparently broken 8- by 10-inch “crackerbox” camera sold it to Laval for five dollars. He examined it, found that the ground-glass focusing screen had been reversed, corrected it, and had a fine piece of equipment which he would use regularly for more than sixty years. “Nobody will ever get that old box away from me,” he said many years later. “People always make fun of it. A friend of mine says a pawnbroker wouldn’t give me five dollars for it. But I can do with that old thing what he can’t do with $350 worth of equipment.” In 1901 he took himself and his crackerbox to the R. W. Johnston studios in Pittsburgh, where for the next nine years he learned the basics of his new profession. But the opportunities there were limited and the winters brutal. “I wanted more than anything to see real sunshine and enjoy it,” he recalled.
In 1911 he found it in Fresno, a busy little town smack in the middle of some of the richest agricultural land in the world. After a brief stint as a handyman and janitor for the Fresno Republican , he knocked together a primitive little darkroom in an abandoned cow barn—it would remain his “studio” for the next sixteen years—and became the paper’s news photographer.
His timing hardly could have been better. California always had been a boomer’s state, and no region was more fervent in this regard than the San Joaquin Valley. In 1914 the San Joaquin Counties Association made Laval its official photographer; his assignment was to portray the valley and all its glories for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He did not squander the opportunity. During the next year he shot hundreds of pictures, and sixty-four of these—enlarged to forty inches by eight feet—were chosen to adorn the San Joaquin Valley and California State buildings at the exposition.
That assignment ensured Laval’s success, bringing him the kinds of clients that would be the mainstay of his career—farmers and farm-related industries, including everything from raisin cooperatives to tractor factories, from wineries to the county horticultural association, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, the American Cyanamid Chemical Corporation, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
All of this spelled incessant activity for Laval, who became a common sight as he bicycled to and from jobs over the unpaved Fresno roads with his heavy tripod, glass plates, and big box cameras strapped to his handlebars. When the paraphernalia became too cumbersome, he purchased a car, loaded it with equipment, and turned himself into a one-man mobile photographic studio. In 1927 he bought out his chief competitor, moved out of the old cow barn into a larger building (though keeping the barn as a personal studio), reorganized, and incorporated himself as the Laval Studios —a business capitalized at $75,000 and employing a staff of five. By now, he had become, and would remain, Fresno’s principal commercial photographer.
In 1936, when he moved into an even larger studio, Laval had the good sense to construct a brick vault in which to store his precious negatives. The wisdom of that decision, and its consequences for future generations, became apparent one night in January, 1964, when a teen-aged arsonist set fire to the basement of the storage building. The blaze flashed through the first floor and up an open stairway before firemen were able to put it out, but most of the negatives survived heat, smoke, and water damage.
After the fire, “Pop” seemed to lose strength. He entered Fresno Community Hospital for tests on May 13, 1965, and again on December 6. Several weeks later, he underwent major surgery, but never left the hospital. He died at the age of eighty-three on February 20, 1966.