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Revoir's life work becomes a legacy

Joan and Phil Revoir are pleased that the vintage photos he collected and restored are being preserved at Red Wing’s six historical museums. The collection is featured this weekend during the Red Wing Museum Crawl. (Photo by Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor)

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Phil Revoir came by his love of photography naturally. When he was growing up, someone was always getting out the old box camera and taking family photos.

His love of history was a natural outgrowth, because he always made a point of getting the story that went with a photo.

Over the years, Revoir amassed a huge collection of historic images that tell Red Wing’s story — enough photos to fill displays at all six of Red Wing’s history centers for the city’s first Museum Crawl this weekend.

Now retired, Revoir had a lengthy career as a professional photographer and a restorer of vintage photographs.

He got an early start on that career. According to daughter Kay Miller, he purchased his first camera at age 11 with money he earned on a paper route, and was active in the school camera club.

While attending Red Wing High School, Revoir worked in the photo and engraving department at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, using his own camera equipment while on assignment.

He served in the National Guard during the Korean War, then went to work for Brown & Bigelow in St. Paul as a commercial photographer. In late 1953 Revoir studied at the Ray Vogue School of Photography in Chicago, then returned to Red Wing to again take photos for the Republican Eagle in addition to doing freelance portrait photography.

For the next 15 years, he pursued more learning and developed his photography business with his wife, Joan, at his side. They opened a studio at 524 West Ave., and both she and his mother, Esther Revoir, took classes so they could help hand-color early black-and-white portraits.

“I did a lot of traveling for commercial photography,” Revoir said. His biggest customer was Meyer Industries in Hager City, which sent him all over the East Coast and the South to take pictures wherever company-made poles were being erected. The photos would be used in ads and catalogues.

“It was work,” he said, pointing out that taking photographs in the pre-digital age required him to haul lots of equipment with him, from film to chemicals for developing the pictures he took.

“I’d check in the motel” with all that paraphernalia, he recalled, then hang towels in the windows to create a dark room. Each night he’d develop the pictures he took that day and load film holders for the next stop. He even brought along an enlarger so he could make prints.

Some of those industrial photos will be featured in a special exhibit at the Goodhue County History Center.

As the business grew, the Revoirs built a new studio on South Service Drive and relocated there in 1966. He continued studying his craft, and was one of the first Minnesota photographers to do his own color printing, his daughter noted.

Family history

Revoir started working on his family’s genealogy in the late 1960s, “which really piqued his interest in preserving the past,” Miller said.

During the Great Depression, Revoir’s parents, Raphael and Esther Revoir, did farm work wherever his dad could find a job. They lived in different places, and he often would go and stay with his grandfather John J. Tomhave of Riverside Dairy in Hager City.

“The Tomhaves took a ton of pictures,” Miller said, noting that there were 13 children who loved to clown around for the camera.

Revoir looked for the family story in those old pictures. He copied them and blew them up, retouched them and incorporated them in the Revoir and Tomhave family history, Joan Revoir said.

His interest expanded, and Revoir began going to auctions and antique shows in search of vintage photo albums and historic photos, which he restored.

“He was diligent in collecting the history and information about the photos,” Miller said. “He would ask who the people were, who was milking the cow, who was jumping in the river,” Joan Revoir added.

Over the years, Revoir acquired more than 7,000 photos, plus postcards and items such as ferry tokens, 1800s newspapers, tickets to ski jumping tournaments, wagon toll cards, bus tokens and other memorabilia.

By the mid-1970s, photographic restoration had become the mainstay of Revoir’s business.

“At that time, he was one of the few photographers who did the restoration work himself, instead of sending it in to a lab,” Miller said. “He was able to restore people’s damaged heirloom photographs with techniques such as air brushing, dye retouching, etching and masking.”

Typically, Revoir would keep a copy of the vintage photo or the family would give him the original. He thought that one day he’d put them all in a book about Red Wing.

“At one point he would buy almost anything Red Wing to save it for history,” Miller said.

Revoir collected until he retired from business in 2003. He continued doing occasional restoration work until 2010, and continues to take family photos today.

When the family decided to put the collection up for sale, some out-of-area dealers showed interest. “He preferred it to stay in Red Wing,” Joan Revoir said. A local donor came forward with a plan to make the collection available to the community through local museums.

The family also donated all the negatives of his restoration work to the Goodhue County Historical Society “to ensure there were no copyright restrictions,” Miller said.

“We’re content,” Joan Revoir said. With images at all of the museums, people can come any time to see the photos. Miller agreed: “This preserves history for the next generation.”