Mary Foster Oral History

Dublin Core


Mary Foster Oral History


Mary Foster Oral History


Churchill County Museum Association


Churchill County Museum Association


May 2, 1984


.docx file



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Wally Cuchine


Mary Foster


Fallon, NV




an interview with


May 2, 1984

Although this interview was not a part of the Churchill County Museum Oral History Project, it has been transcribed because of its historical content.

This interview was conducted by Wally Cuchine; transcribed by Glenda Price; edited by Norine Arciniega; final by Pat Boden; index by Gracie Viera; supervised by Myrl Nygren, Director of Oral History Project/Assistant Curator Churchill County Museum.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewer and interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Churchill County Museum or any of its employees.

Interview with Mary Foster

This is Wally Cuchine interviewing Mary Foster on May 2, 1984, for the Shadow Catchers' Project at the Churchill County Museum.

CUCHINE: When were you born?

FOSTER: February 7, 1905 in Colorado, and I grew up in Colorado. And--I don't like to tell my age because I really was a child bride. (laughing)

CUCHINE: (laughing) Well, great!

FOSTER: I ran off to get married, and I spent--well, I was almost eighteen, and my mother would have objected, so I went to Canada for my honeymoon, and I stayed there until I was eighteen and then I cracked my heels, and I'm Mrs. Walker. Well, that didn't go over so good, and our life wasn't too happy in Colorado with all my family.

CUCHINE: Was he a photographer then?

FOSTER: Yes, he was a photographer, and the way we met, he had a beautiful big studio, and every week he changed his display, and I was always interested in photography. In fact, when I was twelve years old, my mother gave me a course in porcelain miniature paintings which is a lost art. They don't do that anymore. Beautiful. So from there I was always looking at photographs and thinking what I would do to that hair or what I would do to those eyes. (laughing) I was constantly in the windows, so naturally after every week seeing me he said, "You're certainly interested in photographs," and I said, "Yes, I am," and he said, "How would you like to be a receptionist?" Well, I didn't know what a receptionist was, you know, I didn't know. So I went in as a receptionist, and then when I wasn't busy with the reception part of the end of it, I was supposed to do some framing. Well, every time I'd start to cut a piece of glass I broke it, so I got eliminated from that job and was just receptionist. Oh, I did some book work and delivery. Those days when you'd have an order often you'd--like if someone had something for advertising or something they'd be in a hurry, why I'd deliver. That's the way I started out. And then I got so fascinated with the darkroom, the doorbell would ring and I wouldn't want to hear it. I wanted to see these prints come out.             (laughing)

CUCHINE: (laughing) Magic.

FOSTER: Yeah, oh, and you know to this day it's remarkable to me to watch a print come out in the developer. There's something very fascinating about [it]. So then it ended to a love affair and marriage which was lovely, and then in 1923, we started out. Well, we's gonna leave Colorado. He sold the business, sold the building, everything. Just sold out and took our little bankroll which was pretty--you know, it wasn't little. It was a pretty good bankroll and just started out looking for a new location so we…

CUCHINE: He'd been a photographer for quite a while, then?

FOSTER: Yes, he had been a photographer--he was twelve years older than I was. That was why my family objected to it, see? Oh, yes.

CUCHINE: Eighteen-year-old girl.

FOSTER: Well, I would, too. I can understand now that I've grown up. (laughing) But, anyhow, we located in Ely [Nevada] which was, at that time, in 1923, Ely was booming. It was really booming. We stayed all night in this hotel right next to the park, and we decided, I decided that's where I wanted to stay. So, went downtown, bought another shop. We had one Japanese competitor which, poor thing, didn't last very long. But he [John] was a marvelous photographer and all we had to do was put out one display, and we had all the work. We had five girls and a man working in the shop most of the time, and I still was receptionist. Well, this little old friend came in and asked me what I did, and I told her. Said I was receptionist and I took care of the books, and I'd see that the orders got mailed out. So she told me, she said, "Well, I graduated from the third grade, and I can do everything you're doing." And I thought, "Well, why aren't you doing something?" (laughing) I'll always be grateful to her. She said, "I know photographs, and your husband is the best photographer I've ever seen, and if you were smart you'd take off that fancy dress and put on an apron and go in that darkroom and learn photography." She said, "How many people know how to mix chemicals and this and that?" And at first I kind of resented it, but the more I thought about it the more I thought, "You know, that old lady has something. You might never need it, but anything you learn will never come amiss," and that's been in my mind ever since. God bless her soul. Then I started working in the shop, and he was so good at teaching me. He was happy that I was interested, and like when we'd make copies, we'd go down after the shop was closed and we'd make copies, and he wouldn't give me any instruction. "Just use your own judgment." Well, I either over exposed or under exposed, and I'd make those copies till I got the right one, and I'd defy anyone to make a better copy than I could.

CUCHINE: He critiqued them for you?

FOSTER: Yes. Then, of course, in 1928, he died, and it was my life saver because I had my three babies to support, and I don't know yet how I did it because-

CUCHINE: You were still in Ely then?

FOSTER: Yes, I was still in Ely.

CUCHINE: You had been a photographer for the mine there, right?

FOSTER: Oh, yes, as soon as we got there. They needed a good photographer that really could, that had, and we did have good equipment. You've got to have good equipment to put out good work.

CUCHINE: What kind of cameras did you use in the field?

FOSTER: Eight by tens. Because you get so much detail out of it, and each order that we would take we'd make five albums. One for Guggenheimers, one for the plant there, and for different stockholders. Five.

CUCHINE: The big stockholders.

FOSTER: Um hum, and one for ourselves. So that turned out to ... oh, that was real good. And as time went on, then we did . . . we always had a camera. We photographed everything. If we saw a sheepherder with a sheepherder's wagon, which I don't have, we used to stop and photograph that and gossip with them. Oh, I didn't have any of my old prospector to show you, did I?

CUCHINE: The guy with the pipe?


CUCHINE: Is that Ely?

FOSTER: No, that's Archie Macintosh's father. That's Aaron Macintosh. A little Scotchman. I should call Archie and ask him permission for this.

CUCHINE: Well, I'm just doing it on a slide. So somebody'll just see it briefly.

FOSTER: Well, we took pictures of everything. That's how we took Lehman Cave, you know.

CUCHINE: Was Lehman Cave a job that you did? Or you just did that for fun?

FOSTER: Well, we didn't do anything for fun. (laughing) Everything for a commercial, and we put these out in the, you know, made it a window display, and then Ely got all excited, and they all was going out there, and John was a very good businessman. He knew how to sell photographs. He knew how to take them. He knew how to sell them and where to sell them because he was Pacific Atlanta News Service for years.

CUCHINE: Did you use the eight by ten camera?

FOSTER: These are taken with a five by seven. This album is five by seven but also have an album of eight by tens. Or did have. So then he was appointed a state photographer, and that's when we went all over the state like for photographing the Lost City, and we also heard about the Hidden Forest which has never been made into a park and I don't why. It's down in the Las Vegas area. Around Mt. Charleston. Beautiful park down there, but it's never been promoted.

CUCHINE: The Hidden Forest?

FOSTER: The Hidden Forest.

CUCHINE: Is that the forest out in the desert of the jeffery pines? They're beautiful jeffery pines. A really nice oasis type of area.

FOSTER: I have a beautiful photograph of Senator McCarran and Governor Scrugham in that park.

CUCHINE: Oh, do you really?

FOSTER: think I still have that. We covered the state. The Cathedral Gorge. A lot of our photographs was the creation of state parks, so that makes you feel kind of good.

CUCHINE: Oh, yeah. You worked and you taught them as well.

FOSTER: Well, no, 'cause the Gorge is-

CUCHINE: No, I know, Cathedral Gorge, but did you do any Zion, or any of those?

FOSTER: Oh, yes, uh huh, oh, yes. We did everything. All the western states. Oh, I had a beautiful collection.

CUCHINE: How did you get around when you were called for a job like that? This is still like the mid twenties, right?

FOSTER: Yeah, but we always had a good automobile. We got an old Dodge truck. I shouldn't tell this. But, anyhow, we made a camper out of it which was really nice. Had it made, you know. Had the thing built on to it. And we named it David. That's my grandson's name. We'd get in David and just go all over the country which was nice because there was a lot of places where you couldn't get hotel accommodations. Like out in Zion's Park or Grand Canyon, you know, the places we'd go. We could sit down and build a bonfire. He'd do the cookin', and I'd eat. (laughing)

CUCHINE: He was the cook?

FOSTER: Yeah, I don't know how to cook. I still don't know how to cook. But it was a beautiful life. And then after his death I carried on with my work, and I had Northeast Johnson help me with commercial, and I know you've got some photographs of old Northeast Johnson, and he wanted to go in partners with me, but I wouldn't go in partners with my dying grandmother because I don't believe in partnerships, so he walked out on me one day which that was all right. I didn't blame him because he did do an awful . . . he was a great help to me.

CUCHINE: Good photographer.

FOSTER: Yes, he was a good photographer, but I did most of the shooting but he would do the finishing. He was a good finisher, too. I inspected every print that ever went out of my shop, and I don't know how in the world I every did it, really. But I did. I never put out a… My motto was, "Never deliver anything that I wouldn't accept if I was on the other side of the counter." That was my motto my whole career in photography, and I'm glad I lived up to that because I Nobody can show me a picture that I took that I'm ashamed of.

CUCHINE: Even the gulls.

FOSTER: Even the gulls I treasured. And then in 1931 I married Bill Foster, and he couldn't stand the high altitude in…

CUCHINE: Okay, you're still in Ely?

FOSTER: Yeah, I was in Ely, and he came out there from Kansas, but he couldn't stand the high altitude, but when I left Ely, I kept the truck here three days and I cried and cried and cried. I couldn't hardly stand to leave Ely because Ely was so good to me, and there is no place in the world it's better for a woman to be if she's alone and struggling to make a living than in a mining camp. I had so much business. The girls on the line and the bartenders. Well, I just had everybody's business. I was very, very fortunate, and I just thank God for the loyalty and the wonderful experience I had in Ely. Ely is always going to be a soft spot in my heart.

CUCHINE: Well, and I'm sure you still have a lot of friends in Ely.

FOSTER: Oh, yeah. No, most of them's gone. Most of my friends are gone.

CUCHINE: It's sad when you start out living all your friends.

FOSTER: Yes, it is. In fact, I went over there last summer, and I couldn't stay all night in Ely. I couldn't stay. I thought it's so depressed, and I don't . . . well, there was one little boy that was playing in the band that used to . . . I don't know how he recognized me, but he used to crawl in my son's window and wake me up on Sunday mornings. The only day I could take a rest. (laughing) There's so few people. However, Tidball [Goodman-Tidball] that opened the store out here. Well, I knew him in Ely and that was really nice to have him over here because I enjoyed him. But I like Fallon. Fallon was good to me, but I never was able to make the money or have the business. It just wasn't here. When you're in a mining camp you go to everybody that has a mine and you photograph it, you know.

CUCHINE: Oh, yeah, yeah.

FOSTER: But here I had a good business, and I did a lot of work with the insurance companies and with the coroner before they started shooting their own pictures. That was the only jobs that I. . .

CUCHINE: How did you meet Bill Foster in Ely? You were in business for yourself.

FOSTER: The first time Bill Foster seen me I was on top of the Ely drugstore photographing a Greek funeral.

CUCHINE: (laughing) Okay.

FOSTER: Yeah, that was it. The Greek funerals over there at that time you took an awful lot of photographs of them so they could send back to the old country, and that was one job I didn't enjoy. But I enjoyed it for this reason that I made people happy to have it, but I never liked to turn out a picture that I knew was just going to bring sorrow, and that's all the people. You take your loved one a casket and there's no joy in that. It's just a heartache, and I didn't like doing that kind of work.

CUCHINE: What brought Bill to Ely from Kansas? Was he a miner?

FOSTER: No, he came out to get a divorce.

CUCHINE: Oh, he came to Nevada to get a divorce.

FOSTER: In fact, he'd started to Las Vegas, and he was in Cedar City, Utah, and he heard about what a good town Ely was, so he just switched from Las Vegas and come to Ely.


CUCHINE: But, that's the only reason he came initially.

FOSTER: Oh, yeah. He intended to go back to Kansas, of course.

CUCHINE: What was his profession?

FOSTER: Did a little bartending at the Sagebrush for Walt Whitaker at one time. Walt and Wayne Whiteman bought that, but not very long, and then he had a paint store out in the village for a while. He just did what he wanted to do, and when he'd get tired of it, he'd do something else. But I never did anything but photography. That's the only thing. And I never got tired of it. I could work long hours, and every order was an excitement.

CUCHINE: Let's go back to your move from Ely to here. You moved here because Bill couldn't handle the six thousand foot altitude there, so you moved to Fallon. How long did it take you to get started in business here? You sold everything out.

FOSTER: Oh, I started right out in business, and, then, I'm not putting Fallon down, but I had been used to just never having a dull moment. Never having a minute.

CUCHINE: Real busy.

FOSTER: Real busy to just normal business. So then we moved to Red Bluff, California.

CUCHINE: Oh, from Fallon.

FOSTER:  Yeah. Went over to Red Bluff, and I almost lost my confidence when I first come over here. I mean I was losing interest because it wasn't what I expected. Wasn't what I was used to. This constant rush, rush. So I moved to Red Bluff and had a terrific business over there, but my daughter had nose bleeds and she had to get out of the low altitude, so altitude fouled me up. (laughing)

CUCHINE: Some of the kids couldn't stand the low, and the husband couldn't stand the high.

FOSTER: So, ended up back in Fallon which was good. My kids all had a nice life here.

CUCHINE: Your kids were young when you were here?

FOSTER: Oh, yes. They all graduated from Churchill County High School. All my three kids, and my son graduated from the University of Nevada.

CUCHINE: Did you have a studio in your house, or did you buy a store, or what?

FOSTER: I started out as a . . . I never had a studio in connection with my home until after John died, and he always said, "Don't ever have it in your home," but when you got three kids that you're supervising and running a business you can't go running from one end of town to the next, so I had to have them under the same roof, so that's why.

CUCHINE: Did you have your studio here?

FOSTER: No, I had a studio downtown, and we fixed an apartment. They've changed it down there, but it was in the Fraternal Hall building, and we fixed an apartment in the rear, and then when the kids got a little bit larger, why I bought a house over on Center Street. That great big nine-room old house. A lovely old place, and my kids really grew up in that house, and then when the kids were all married and gone and it was an upstairs, all the bedrooms upstairs, that was just too much, so we sold that, and in the meantime moved over here, but I bought this property during the war and made apartments out of it and rented to nobody-- only service men with children because nobody would rent to a service man with a couple of kids. But, oh, it just broke my heart because I'd think this might be the only time they'll ever be with their father. I fixed six places for them. That's all I could do, but I've always been happy that I did that, and then it paid out good because now I've got a comfortable home here. It's not . .

CUCHINE: Some rental income.

FOSTER: Yeah, and rental income, so it was a good deal.

CUCHINE: Okay, let's talk about your photographic work here in Fallon. How long were you in Red Bluff? You came here in?

FOSTER: I was only in Red Bluff for a year, less than a year.

CUCHINE: What year? Do you remember?

FOSTER: 1936.

CUCHINE: So, you'd been here for three years, and then you moved to Red Bluff for a year . .

FOSTER: And then came back to Fallon.

CUCHINE: Did you keep your property when you went to Red Bluff? When you left Fallon, did you get rid of everything and move to Red Bluff?

FOSTER: No, I took it with me. I didn't own any property at that time.

CUCHINE: But, you did have a studio here when you moved in 1933?

FOSTER: Um hum. I opened up right away. And it was good because . . . and I really, I guess I was the only photographer that really made a living and stayed in here. It was nice. I made a good living in Fallon, but I didn't have the help that I'd had. I'd always had a, practically always, had a housekeeper, but I did it because I couldn't do the housework and my work. It was . .

CUCHINE: You worked six days a week.

FOSTER: I worked seven days a week.

CUCHINE:  Oh. (laughing) Okay. (laughing)

FOSTER: I did for years until one time . . . I'd take appointments on Sundays, and one Sunday a group had gone into a big party, and I couldn't leave until 'cause I had an appointment at two o'clock for a baby, and then I was to drive in and join them after I got through with my work, but I never made an appointment and cancelled, and I never walked out on an appointment. Never. That was a no-no. And when we got through, they said, "You know, this was nice. We had nothing to do, and this filled in our afternoon," and I keep thinking, "Will you ever go? Will you ever go?" so from then on the only thing I did on Sundays was weddings. I'd do a wedding on Sunday, but I didn't do anything else.

CUCHINE: For years you must have done almost every wedding in town didn't you?


FOSTER: Oh, yes. I did lots of beautiful weddings.

CUCHINE: You talked about the fact that the town didn't seem to support you as much when you came back from Red Bluff. Did you start getting that feeling back?

FOSTER: Yes. See, that was good for me to move. I had a real good business over there, but when I come back, it was just like I entered the town, everything just come my way. I'd photograph rodeos. Gee, I used to sell a lot of rodeo pictures. I'd get right out in the arena and photograph.

CUCHINE: How did you do in Red Bluff? Did you do fairly well?

FOSTER: By the time I got my lights on, I had all the county and city employees in for portraits, and I started right out with weddings, and I got the school work. I had a hard time getting the school work here. See, they had people from . . . well, there was a guy in Reno that had done the school work for years, and I went down and asked for the school work, and they said, "Oh, we don't want to change. We're satisfied," and I said, "But, I live in the town. I support the town. I send my kids to school in town. And whether you like it or not, I'm going to do the school work," (laughing) which I did. Oh, gosh, that was a terrible battle.

CUCHINE: (laughing)

FOSTER: And then I did the school work for years, and I really loved working with the kids. They're still friends.

CUCHINE: Well, and you did club work and stuff like that, too.

FOSTER: I did anything that was to photograph anything that they asked for. If they wanted the panel on an airplane, I'd get out on the wing and shoot it, and if they wanted a jack underneath a truck I'd lay down on the ground and take it. (laughing)

CUCHINE: Let's talk about some of those jobs, then. Just some of the more memorable things that you remember doing.

FOSTER: Well, I did all kinds of work. I don't know which group I enjoyed more. I loved working with children, and I liked animals. I had a beautiful dog collection. For Father's Day I used to run an ad for Dad's best friend, his dog, and I got a lot of response from that, and I didn't do too much advertising because I kept busy. I really kept busy. I didn't need to advertise. My work advertised for me.

CUCHINE: Had you going six days a week and seven sometimes. (laughing)

FOSTER: Seven when there was weddings, but I limited to weddings. Oh, well, I didn't just limit it to that. I'd do family groups like if someone was going to be here just for the weekend, and they wanted family group pictures, I'd take it. Like at golden weddings or anything like that I would take.

CUCHINE: What about going out of town?

FOSTER: Well, I was years and years ago, but I haven't been out since they've started exploring it [Hidden Cave].

CUCHINE: You were there before they actually did the digging?


CUCHINE: You didn't take photographs during the dig?

FOSTER: No, I didn't. Just the Bat Caves. [Fish Cave]

CUCHINE: What about your work as state photographer? You showed us some photographs.

FOSTER: I did a lot of work for the state.

CUCHINE: When did that start?

FOSTER: That started in 1928, I think.

CUCHINE: Before you left Ely?

FOSTER: Yeah, I did that while I was in Ely.

CUCHINE: Was it a period of years?

FOSTER: Four years.

CUCHINE: So then when you left Ely and came to Fallon, that job was pretty much over.

FOSTER:  Yeah. The only thing when I come here to Fallon, I still did a lot of the confidential work for Nevada. They'd bring their confidential work over and I'd rush it out, and they'd stay in late until . . .

CUCHINE: It was done.

FOSTER: And as far as weddings, I'd photograph weddings from Las Vegas. Never did one in Hawthorne, but weddings in Tonopah and Las Vegas, Elko, Lovelock and Reno. I never wanted to go to Reno because they had a lot of photographers there, and I didn't think it was right for me to do it. There was only two that I did in Reno, but they were real friends of my kids' friends, and I really didn't do it for the money part. I didn't charge them the regular price because I didn't feel that was fair. I never wanted to go infringe on someone else's property, you know, their territory. And I wish more people felt like that. I think it's horrible the way they cut people's throats today. That was one thing about Ely. Nobody could come in there if they made them put up a five hundred dollar bond and five hundred dollars per license, so you never had any tramps. That eliminated the tramp photographers, and they are a disgrace to the profession.

CUCHINE: Oh, yeah.

FOSTER: And I don't care who hears me say it. (laughing) Never trouble with my customers.


FOSTER: I never did.

CUCHINE: That's great.

FOSTER: I think there was two. Maybe two in my whole time that argued, and I'd try to do anything to please them.

CUCHINE: Some people are unpleaseable. Well, I like the story about the guy that needed a picture of the jack under the truck. (laughing)

FOSTER: Yeah, and he asked . . . when I went on this government job, all the established photographers in the state got a notice to put in a bid, and I don't why I did. I thought, "Oh, well, I won't get that, but after all, it won't hurt me to use my brain a little bit and put in a bid," so I put in a bid and these two guys come by, and a lot of people come by and want to look at this and that, and a lot of times it's boring, you know. Well, I don't want to waste the time, but I just was in a good mood, and I had just done auctions and stuff and a bunch of airplane shots and they were laying there available, so I just let them run through them and discussed them and here they were coming around to take a look at your work, you know, and I had no idea. I just thought they were guys that might want some pictures taken or something, you know. (laughing) Thank God, they got me in a good mood. So then a few days later I got a telegram, and everybody in town knew it before I did, you know. Mary Foster got the job with the Atomic Energy deal, and that was wonderful, and that come at a time when I really needed a boost, and we really covered the state of Nevada from the hilltops in a four-wheel jeep. Five men and myself.

CUCHINE: Do you still have some of those photographs?

FOSTER: Well, some of these are. You know, these mines.

CUCHINE: So, it was basically just photographing .

FOSTER: All the mines, in and out. The exterior and interior.

CUCHINE: Oh, okay, this is the job that you did that's underground. The one that we're going to display. The mine that . . .

FOSTER: Mm huh.

CUCHINE: It would have frightened me to just go down in there with those timbers cracking.

FOSTER: But, you know, I never had any fear.

CUCHINE: That's amazing.

FOSTER: Now I look at them and think, "My God, I had guts to go in there," (laughing) and the old mining inspector, he'd say, "Now, Mary, you don't have to go in there." I said, "If you want a photograph of it, I'll get it." So I'd go in and take it. Some of those I went in completely by myself.

CUCHINE: (laughing) They wouldn't go with you. Oh, good! Now, that would frighten me. (laughing) And I think just your cave pictures are . . . how many people would go in them, let alone take down all that camera equipment you must have had to take just to take those photographs?

FOSTER: And at that time, you know, your equipment . . . when I started out in photography--it's a lot easier today than it was then because now you can buy your developer pre-mixed, your fixing bath mixed, your tones mixed. When I started out you had to weigh your everything, you know, you mixed your own chemicals and get right down to the grain. I had my scales, but I can't find them., I guess they went with the wind, too.

CUCHINE: (laughing) Do you ever do any photographs with the smaller than the larger format negative type stuff? Did you every use any like 35mm or…


FOSTER: No, I always used a four by five because everything that I photographed, I photographed for sale. Not everything, but you photographed that for sale and that way you could get a lot more detail out of it than you can a 35.

CUCHINE: Well, and everything that you took, whether you took it as a job or not, was potentially for sale.

FOSTER: Yeah, uh huh. In fact, I have a little amateur camera, and I don't think I even shot a roll on it. I don't take pictures anymore, but I'll see . . . I have a friend that thought she's going to go into camera photography, but she'd never make it. In order to be a successful photographer you gotta be enthusiastic over all your work and you've got to have that strength to get it out. So many are too lazy to work, and they won't be successful.

CUCHINE: Well, and it's a job.


CUCHINE: And you obviously looked at it that way.

FOSTER: Well, I wasn't a greedy person. I'm not greedy.

CUCHINE: You had to make a living.

FOSTER: I had to make a living, and when I was doing the school work, some kids couldn't afford to pay, and I'd say, "Bring those kids in." I'd call the parents, and they'd say, "Well, we just can't afford to spend money for photographs." "Well, you bring them in and if you ever get flush, you can pay me, and if you can't, well, we just don't want a blank spot in the album, in the annual."

CUCHINE: These were for a high school annual? So most of the annuals that we have down at the museum are your photographs?

FOSTER: Yeah. One year I was ill and wanted them to get somebody else in and they waited 'til I was able to take care of it. God! Nice little write up in there about it. But I loved working with them, and I liked the kids.

CUCHINE: Did you do sporting events, too?

FOSTER: I did everything that was in the annual.

CUCHINE: Oh, wow.

FOSTER: All those things, and I never sat through a football game in my life, but I'd go up and shoot shots of the football teams and the plays, and I'd think, "Well, that looks exciting," (laughing) but the first time I've seen a really football game, my son called me up and he said, "You got a . . . the University of Nevada is playing Santa Clara and I've got seats on the fifty-yard line." He got six, so we could take some friends. I told Bill, "He got seats on the fifty-yard line. If we have to be that far away I don't see any sense in going." (laughing) Now that's what I knew about a football game. (laughing) I never will live that down.

CUCHINE: (laughing) Can't take pictures from there. Oh, that's funny. When did you retire from photography? When did you stop taking pictures?

FOSTER: In 1975.

CUCHINE: Was it just one day?

FOSTER: No, I was forced to. You see, Bill was ill. He had these heart attacks, and he was in and out of the hospital, and I'd got to where I'd take an order, and I'd say, "If you're in a hurry for these, go somewhere else. I've got to do it at my time," and, luckily, I kept busy. But I wasn't able to work because I'd be at the hospital and then I'd come home and work at nights. Lots of nights 'til three or four o'clock getting out my orders. Well, he was home, and I was in the darkroom, and he called me, and I said, "Well, I can't come out for five minutes." I was developing film. "I won't be out for five minutes," and I just went on developing the films, and then when I got out, he was sitting here, and I said, "Well, what did you want?" And he said, "Well, I just wanted you to have a cup of coffee with me." And I looked at him and I thought, "You poor guy. If you'd been laying there in the floor,"---which lots of times he did, pass out right here on the floor, and I would always pick him up, and then I'd call the ambulance.           I didn't have sense enough to call the ambulance first because I had to get him off of the floor. So that was an awful strain on me, and I thought, "He could have died while I was . . in five minutes 'cause I've got to get those films out." See, I had been trained, "Don't you ever open the darkroom door when your films are in the soup." And I thought, "This is it," and I went in the darkroom and I had developed all the films I had exposed. Went in and I ditched all my chemicals, poured it all down the sink, and I finished the orders that I had taken, and I never clicked a shutter since. When I quit, I quit

CUCHINE: Bill died ten years ago?

FOSTER: He died in 1975.

CUCHINE: 1975. So you've been retired, basically, for…

FOSTER: Nine years.

CUCHINE: Nine years. We're going on ten years. And I think that's viable. People retire from everything else and don't go back into it again.

FOSTER: You can't moderately retire from photography after Fifty years because I still have calls.

CUCHINE: Well, you would not be able to take a camera and just take family snapshots, though. I mean, that wouldn't work for you because of your professionalism.

FOSTER: No, I figured a rich magazine would buy this picture. (laughing)

CUCHINE: (laughing)      

FOSTER: It's just like that. Now, that picture's been in magazines. That took first prize in the Denver Post.

CUCHINE: That's great.

FOSTER: Well, you look at it differently, and, yet, it always makes me feel good when people ask me to do work for them. And I'll see people I don't even have any idea who they are, but something about me, I guess, that they recognize 'cause people still recognize me. The other night I was up to my daughter's and she had this company come in, and he said, "Mary, I haven't seen you for ages." I didn't know who he was.

CUCHINE: What do you perceive happening to your photographs? I realize that you feel like the calls are there, and, fortunately--I feel that it's very fortunate--we now have some negatives at the museum of some of the things you've done because you've allowed us to do that and even though it's just for research purposes, what do you perceive happening to your photographs after you're gone? I mean, do you see them as important historically for this county? For Ely even.

FOSTER: Oh, yeah. What I have left, I have two kids that will, they're always picking my brain. (laughing)

CUCHINE: They're interested in your life's work.

FOSTER: They're interested in it, uh huh, to a point, but I never trained any of my youngsters to photograph, but they weren't interested.

CUCHINE: You told me the story about your daughter being fired. (laughing)

FOSTER: (laughing) Well, there's no use in putting in your time with somebody that's not interested because they're no good to you. Really grieved over mine. No, I felt like this. God, let me keep some of the things that was very important like my father's tobacco jar and my gold water set. Different things. I think God did spare me things that I couldn't live without, but I wasn't doing anything but my photographs. They were just boxed, but you do have nice memories.

CUCHINE: Oh, yeah, and things like the photographs of Lehman Caves. Friends. Your photography album of Lehman Caves is an extremely important archival type of thing. That's the kind of thing if I were doing some research I would love to see photographs like that. That's very important to be able to document. You took these in 1926?


CUCHINE: To be able to go in and take those very same photographs, you cannot take that photograph again because it's changed. It either grows or disintegrates or something happens to the cave, so you captured a moment in time, and even something as simple as a limestone formation doesn't stay the same from moment to moment even though the break that you made. The dumb photographer. The break is still there.

FOSTER: (laughing) This was a real good job. This is the one that we got a radio in and got a reception, Oh, My God to Thee.

CUCHINE: That lighting. How did you do the lighting?

FOSTER: Believe it or not, the lighting for this big a column you had to use that old flash where you put your…

CUCHINE: Powder in and you light it.

FOSTER: Yeah. It has a spark in it just like flint, so whenever you open your shutter, you just pull that and the powder explodes. There's a lot of powder put in this one because that was a big area to cover.

CUCHINE: Oh, yeah, well, and you can see that those men are what, six feet tall.

FOSTER: So that was taken, really, with one of the old, old type flash things because that was the only light that would have covered that much.

CUCHINE: Okay, what about the Lehman Cave shots? Were those taken with flash powder or were they taken with…

FOSTER: They were taken with a different type of metal. Magnesium metal that you go through alcohol and gives your light. You can control it. Well, it's an old time outfit. It's a little gadget that you put your alcohol in the top, and then there's a little tube that comes by here, and down at the bottom you put this metal. Magnesium metal, and then it has a tube on it, so you light this thing and then you can…

CUCHINE: Control the flow of the alcohol?

FOSTER: You blow it, and you can light this part here and go here and light this side to get the . .

CUCHINE: Well, it must have been fun doing this because the limestone itself picks up the light, and it's translucent, right?

FOSTER: A lot of things were photographed with a time exposure and Coleman lanterns.

CUCHINE: Oh, wow! Here's the famous broken one. (laughing)

FOSTER: See, that's why this is good photography. See, 'cause all those lines come out in there. What if you didn't have a back lighting in that, it would be just like this.

CUCHINE: You had a Coleman lantern behind that, and then you did a time exposure.

FOSTER: That's the way I broke it crawling in there. I crawled in there with the lantern.

CUCHINE: And you hit it with the lantern accidently or yourself or something.

FOSTER: I think I slid. (laughing)

CUCHINE: (laughing) Did you get a piece of the limestone from the cave? I saw one the other day.

FOSTER: I had a lot of it, but…

CUCHINE: It's disappeared with things. Yeah. Do you still have any of the equipment, the flash-type of equipment that you used. Those flash-type things?

FOSTER: No, I have no idea what's happened to it.

CUCHINE: Of course, strobe lights are the things now, and you carry a strobe with a battery pack now.

FOSTER: Like those of the mine. That's all taken with strobe light.               That's all strobe light, but this is a… now's that beautiful lighting in that thing.

CUCHINE: Oh, yeah. Oh, they're all gorgeous lighting.

FOSTER: Beautiful lighting.

CUCHINE: It's amazing. Your husband was down there with you, and, what, there was like a group of friends.

FOSTER: See this thing here? That was fixed up as a…

CUCHINE: Oh, that's David?

FOSTER: That was a Dodge, and we fixed up the back of the steering wheel with a little gasoline stove and then the bed was across like this, and it had a clothes closet in it on one side and windows all the way (laughing) he designed it and that's David.

CUCHINE: John, your first husband, designed it.

FOSTER: We didn't know what to name it, so we named it David.

CUCHINE: Oh, that's great. This was the Lehman Ranch?

FOSTER: No, this is not right at the cave. This is one of the places on the way up to the cave, or around the cave down at the end. This must be one of the places at Baker, isn't it?

CUCHINE: It could be. I don't know. It's changed quite a bit since 1926. (laughing)

FOSTER: We had a motorhome before they had motorhomes.

CUCHINE: A 1926 Dodge motorhome. Oh, that's great! But it was a new car?

FOSTER: Oh, yeah, bought a new Dodge truck and then had this built on it.

CUCHINE: A camper built on the back.

FOSTER: And everybody thought it was so .

CUCHINE: I like this. Those are nice.

FOSTER: There's your shadows.

CUCHINE: Don't they call these the Seven Dwarves or something? I think there's a group of them that they call something, I remember.

FOSTER: Is this the one, or is it another group?

CUCHINE: I don't know. It's amazing.

FOSTER: This one, I think, this is like a hyacinth.

CUCHINE: It's beautiful. Some of the most unique formations around in caves are at Lehman Caves.

FOSTER: Now, here's the bridal altar. They really had weddings in there. They actually had weddings in there after it was opened up as a cave.

CUCHINE: That's amazing. That's great. When did you take a picture of Sand Mountain?

FOSTER: Oh, that was in the forties. This was the mining. They were up there, they thought there was some mineral up there.

CUCHINE: Isn't that just precious? I love that. Forty-two hundred people.

FOSTER: But, you know, this is really a spectacular . . . after they left, I took this, and the wind . . . see the shifting sand? You don't always see that in it. I love that picture.

CUCHINE: That's a great photograph. Prospector photograph. You were going to show me one.

FOSTER: The old prospector? Oh! We went down to this old prospector's . . . it was down in the edge of Death Valley and we stopped there. It was Easter Sunday. He didn't know it was Easter Sunday, and I took him some colored Easter eggs and a cake with Happy Easter. He didn't know it was Easter, and he come in, oh, he was so pleased with it, and he had some mountain sheep, so he cooked us a mountain sheep dinner, and, 'course, I wanted to take the head, but John wouldn't let me take the head because it was out of season, you know. God! (laughing) Well, I don't think they were allowed to be killed at any time during that period, but that's the first time I ate mountain sheep.

CUCHINE: And you liked it?

FOSTER: Well, so so.

CUCHINE: (laughing)

FOSTER: And he had this mountain sheep and biscuits made in an old Dutch oven. God, they were good! Sourdough. God, I wonder how they make those. Do you know how to make sourdough biscuit's? I've tried them, but mine were disaster.

CUCHINE: Do you have the photograph of the guy?

FOSTER: Yeah, I've got some beautiful pictures of him where he's watering his . . . I gave one to the Waterhole where the old prospector and he's filling up his water cans and his burros in the background. He had four burros that he took with him. He was a prospector, but he had a little old cabin down there, and we spent the…

CUCHINE: He had to go how many miles to get water?

FOSTER: Twenty-seven miles for water.

CUCHINE: And when he hauled it back to his…

FOSTER: And hauled it back to his mine with his burros.

CUCHINE: And he rode one and led the others.

FOSTER: One was a parkin'. Well, he did have a big burro canteen, and he gave me a burro canteen, but Betty's got it. A burro canteen is about this big around, and I think it holds four gallons, and then he had these five-gallon cans. So when I got in the building you can see him pouring the water in it.

CUCHINE: You gained a lot of respect from a lot of people obviously.

FOSTER: Oh, yeah, and here's it funny. You'd have a salesman call on you maybe three times a year. When I was in Ely, I had a salesman every month. Every month a salesman would come by. A lighting demonstrator. Any new equipment that come up they'd bring it out and . .

CUCHINE: Were there other photographers working here in town? For instance, do you remember . . . you came in 1933.

FOSTER: Well, Jurgens opened a little shop, but he didn't stay very long, and, really, they just come in and go out, you know. Nobody has stayed. I'm the only one that stayed.

CUCHINE: Well, and once you put your roots down you had no urge to leave, I guess.

FOSTER: No, but I'll tell you it was pretty darn tough to get broke into here. This was a hard place to get broke into. Took me two years to get the school work, and then I finally decided I was going to do that school work because that was . . .

CUCHINE: They had a photographer from Reno.

FOSTER: Oh, yeah, and I had my albums that I had taken. See, I did the high school work in Ely, and I brought those down to show them that I knew what I was doing, but they didn't want to bother with me because I was a woman, but they did. You know what the old guy told me? I told him, the professor. He was very well liked, and I think a lot of the people really loved the old guy, but I went down and he said no, they were satisfied. He didn't think I could do the work, and I said, "Well, I'm doing it whether you like it or not. I'll go over your head. I'll go to the school board, and I'm going to the newspaper, and I'm going to get this job, so you might just as well expect to be bothered with me." So, I finally got in, old Claude Smith who was at the Standard, beautiful newspaper man, he went down and told McCracken, he said, "Well, I hear Mary Foster's going to do the school work," and he said, "It's nice for a lady to do that," and he (McCracken) said, "I wouldn't call her a lady," (laughing)

CUCHINE: (laughing)

FOSTER: I said, "Damn, you old fossil. I'm going to do it whether you like it or not.” (laughing)

CUCHINE: Did you find a lot of prejudice when you were working because you are a woman?

FOSTER: Well, not really. No. Because my work spoke for me. No matter what they wanted photographed I could show them a sample.

CUCHINE: They'd walk into the studio then and asked to see the photographer.

FOSTER: Oh! This guy that I did the mining work for he come by about seven--oh, God, it'd kill me to have to get up at seven o'clock—and knocked on the door, and he said, "I'm looking for the photographer," and I said, "I'm all ready." Oh! I never saw such a dejected look, and he never said a word to me. I had to ride with him that morning. Never said a word. Just pouted. Two days later he shook my hand, and he said, "You're one of us. I thought, my, God, what have I got to take care of?" He thought I was just going to be a burden to him.

CUCHINE: You weren't afraid to do anything.

FOSTER: No, I knew what I was doing. I didn't go at it blind. That wasn't the first time I'd been underground.

CUCHINE: Was the first time you'd been underground when you did Lehman Caves?

FOSTER: Oh, yeah, I guess Lehman Cave was.

CUCHINE: I still think you should become a spelunker. You'd do well.

FOSTER: Oh, I want to go to Carlsbad. I really gotta go see Carlsbad before I die. I got to see the zoo last year. No, it's Carlsbad. The Heart of Tippanocas is one of the prettiest springs.

CUCHINE: Did you photograph that, too?

FOSTER: Yes. I just took little camera shots of that. I didn't take a big camera. I took that picture like I took of the coke ovens. I used that camera. Speed graphic. That was taken with a speed graphic. All of the dentists took x-rays. Adjoining my darkroom--I made just a small darkroom 'cause you use concentrated developer for x-rays. Gee, lots of times at two o'clock in the morning there'd been an accident and they'd take x-rays or something that happened up at the pit or someplace. They'd call me up and I'd get up and put it [the negative] in there and they'd stay there and wait until I could put it in the water and they'd take it out wet and I'd say, "Well, hang it out the window and flip it and it'll dry (laughing) by the time you get there."

CUCHINE: They needed them right away.

FOSTER: Oh, yes, and I was always available because I had my special little room for x-rays. And all the dentals--they were a nuisance. Those little old small things, you know. It was hard to get a hanger, a clip, that'd…

CUCHINE: would not distract.

FOSTER: You had to adjust it to keep it from flipping out 'cause the film wasn't big enough to . . . you know, you had to watch the dental ones more than you did the big ones. Eleven by fourteens you could just stick in the thing on the . . . I had holders that I'd just stick my film in there and put it in the developer and then another little tank for the fixing bath and another little tank with running water in it. They didn't have to be really permanent but say five minutes in the water and then they could take them. You know, the water'd drain off of them and then they'd dry by the time they got to the hospital. They'd flip it out the window . . . (laughing) "Don't forget to bring back my frame." (laughing) I think I had eight frames.

CUCHINE: You did a lot of it

FOSTER: Oh, yeah, I did all of that work.

CUCHINE: Well, and another thing that I was saying, not everybody had a camera and took pictures then.

FOSTER: No, and we had one competitor. But the poor thing, he didn't last very long. It was a Japanese but he just shot. He didn't photograph. He'd just shoot.

CUCHINE: Take your picture.

FOSTER: If you went In for a portrait, he wouldn't tell you to sit straight. If you went sit like this, well, that's the way he photographed you. Poor thing. He didn't last very long.

CUCHINE: But just the average person didn't go out and take pictures?

FOSTER: Oh, no, and I worked with the dstrict attorney and the coroner. They never took pictures. Gee, if somebody got shot I had to go photograph the body and the mess where it happened, and all the wrecks I had to photograph.


CUCHINE: Did you do that here in Fallon?

FOSTER: I did that here in Fallon and in Ely, too. I got so sick and tired of seeing dead people 'cause it's depressing to do that kind of work.

CUCHINE: And all the dead just became permanent file, though, for the county. So, see, some of your photographs are around Fallon. The ones you dislike the most. (laughing)

FOSTER: Our sheriff in Ely had to kill a man, and that was tough because I had to photograph the body and where the bullet went in and all that. Well, I had to do that for all of them, I don't like to think about some of that.


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Mary Foster Oral History Transcript.docx


Churchill County Museum Association, “Mary Foster Oral History,” Churchill County Museum Digital Archive: Fallon, Nevada, accessed August 17, 2022,