Harry J. Patton, 85, curator, puppeteer and photographer


Harry Joseph Patton, whose varied life included stints working as a puppeteer, child portrait photographer, museum curator and Smithsonian Institution specialist in the history of photography, died July 6 of osteoporosis at Broadmead, the Cockeysville retirement community. He was 85.

Several years ago, reflecting on his life, Mr. Patton told Harry Scott, a friend and fellow Broadmead resident, "It's the variety of things that have happened in my life that's important."

Mr. Patton was a stocky man whose round face was often highlighted by a white beard or lamb-chop whiskers and who was seldom without a hand-tied bow or bolo tie.

For nearly 25 years until he closed shop in 1969, his specialty was photographing children. He would pack his green 1950 Plymouth station wagon - Patton Photography painted in red on its flanks - with cameras and boxes of equipment, including two puppets, which he used to amuse the children he was to photograph.

"He used them to distract the children from looking directly at the camera," said his son Christopher D. Patton of DeBary, Fla.

During the 1930s, he and his brother Roy developed an interest in puppetry. Their production of "Peer Gynt" with Tatterman Marionettes was described in the book "Puppet Theater in America" as "the most ambitious puppet theater in the annals of American puppetry. This elaborate production ... with puppets made by Roy and Harry Patton and Carl Saleske, was built and sent on tour in 1937."

Mr. Patton's first wife, the former Mary Louise King, sewed the puppet costumes. Her death 18 months after their marriage and the coming of World War II ended his association with puppet theater.

After marrying Genieann Parker, a child analyst, in 1939, he went to work in Baltimore for Blakeslee Lane Studios. Mrs. Patton died in 1979.

"This was commercial photography not the usual weddings and babies stuff," Mr. Patton told Mr. Scott. "Nobody taught me photography. I just talked my way in. You hang around long enough and someone jams a camera in your hands and you're off."

In the1950s, while employed at Blakeslee Lane, he photographed mannequins and fashions in the downtown show windows of the Hutzler's department store.

As often as the windows changed, he arrived at 2 in the morning when Howard Street was largely free of traffic and trolley buses that might reflect back on the plate-glass windows.

He recalled that he was not the only one on the street at that hour. As soon as he set up his tripod and camera, curious street people would appear and get in the way. To get them to step aside, he would have them step before the camera and pretend to snap their picture.

A resident of a home on York Road in Towson that dated to the Revolutionary War, Mr. Patton had outfitted a Civil War-era-milkhouse as a studio, decorating its walls with his extensive collection of Early American tools.

After closing his studio, he worked as an administrator at Lyndhurst, the home of Jay Gould, the 19th-century Wall Street financier and Erie Railroad baron, in Tarrytown, N.Y. He returned to Maryland a year later and joined the staff of the National Colonial Farms in Accokeek, Prince George's County.

He was a specialist in the history of photography at the Smithsonian, where he helped complete five period settings in the Hall of Photography. He retired in 1984.

Mr. Patton was born in Springfield, Ohio, the son of a barber. His Quaker great-grandmother, Jan Wilson, used her home as an underground railroad station to hide runaway slaves.

Raised largely in Dayton, Ohio, where he often frequented the Wright brothers' bicycle shop, Mr. Patton graduated from Steele High School.

A conscientious objector during World War II, he was imprisoned at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., where he was assigned to farm work, caring for the dairy's three bulls and driving the dairy's truck. He was paroled in 1945 after serving 11 months and four days. He was pardoned by President Harry S. Truman in the late 1940s.

"Like everything else in his life, he made his experience in prison entertaining," said the son.

Mr. Scott described him as a "wonderful mixture of Robin Hood and St. Francis, of Gandhi and of Jacob, who wrestled with the Angel of the Lord. Who but Harry would put on his application for Broadmead that he was a graduate of the 'Federal Crime School,' at Lewisburg?"

Mr. Patton was a member of the Gunpowder Friends Meeting in northern Baltimore County.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Broadmead, 13801 York Road.

He is survived by two other sons, Derek W. Patton and Kevin C. Patton, both of New Zealand; and eight grandchildren.

More obituaries next page

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad