Elinor Cahn , a documentary photographer much praised for her depictions of 1970s daily life in East and Southeast Baltimore, died of Parkinson’s disease complications March 20 at Roland Park Place. The former Stevenson resident was 94.
Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Ralph Bonwit, a Bonwit Lennon department store executive who died while she was a child, and his wife, Leona Frank. She attended the Park School and graduated from a Florida boarding school.
At age 19 she married Charles M. Cahn Jr., who went on to serve in World War II. She was a volunteer Red Cross ambulance and truck driver. She later also volunteered at the Hopkins Tumor Center and at a day care center associated with Lida Lee Tall School.
She also insisted that her husband further his education at Harvard Law School. She completed his application to the school, where he was accepted.
After raising a family, she decided to earn the college degree that was interrupted by her wartime marriage.
In her late 40s she enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She majored in photography and took classes from MICA photo department chair Jack Wilgus, who recalled her.
“It was an interesting time at MICA because we had some older students who were returning from the Vietnam War and Elinor fit in well,” Mr. Wilgus said. “She was an outstanding student and took pretty much every course I taught. She used a Hasselblad camera and learned to use a flash with it.”
She also took a social documentary course taught by Linda Rich, with whom she would later collaborate on a project that examined the lives of persons living in East and Southeast Baltimore.
“Elinor was a strong person and was easy to talk with. She was enthusiastic and would take me to meet the people she was photographing in East Baltimore. It became a social thing. They would soon be feeding us. People liked her too. It was one of the reasons they let her photograph the intimate moments of their lives.”
He said she admired the work of Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine and Edward L. Bafford, a Baltimore printer and photographer.
She also went to New York and took private lessons from Lisette Model, a photographer whose students included Diane Arbus.
“My mother respected Lisette’s work, and Lisette was tough on my mom,” said her son, James D. Cahn of Riderwood. "I think Lisette wanted my mother’s work to be more dark — and that was not what my mother did.
She also worked with Joan C. Netherwood, another student, and her teacher, Linda Rich. The three women photographers secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We were all dedicated to the project,” said Mrs. Netherwood. “Elinor and I were meticulous in our work. Elinor was also a very hard worker.”
Mrs. Cahn learned the streets and side streets of Canton, Greektown, Fells Point, Highlandtown and Little Italy. She became familiar with the residents there and gained their confidence.
While she photographed some well-known personalities, such as Edith “Edie” Massey of John Waters film fame, and then-Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, she found herself at home with the persons who could walk to Patterson Park and often did not drive cars. She photographed her subjects as they lived — women in housecoats and men dressed in their Sunday best for a family gathering.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has a large archive of her work.
“Cahn’s photographs provide a rich glimpse into life in East Baltimore in the 1970s,” said a UMBC library description.
“They documented the life and history of some of the most colorful and interesting lifelong residents of East Baltimore,” said her son, James. “The three photographers spent four years documenting this neighborhood.”
Colleagues said their book did not try to preach or invade the lives of blue-collar persons.
Mrs. Cahn posed the Polish War Mothers on the steps of St. Casimir Church on Memorial Day in 1979. She did a portrait of Solomon Faiman sitting outside his East Lombard Street new and used clothing store. She documented an All Souls’ Day religious procession at St. Stanislaus Kostka Cemetery.
He said that once completed, the book was published by the Johns Hopkins Press. The Library of Congress now maintains 100 photographs from this project. In addition, The Baltimore Museum of Art keeps her photographs in its permanent collection.
She inherited her love of photography from her father, Ralph Bonwit, her son said. “He must have been good. He belonged to the Pittsburgh Salon of Photography.”
Mrs. Cahn exhibited her photographs at local galleries, including the Baltimore Museum of Art. She continued with her love of photography by taking portraits of fellow residents of Roland Park Place.
A memorial fund has been created in her name at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
In addition to her son, survivors include another son, Charles M. Cahn III of Timonium; a daughter, Deborah C. Carroll of Adamstown; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her husband of 66 years, the managing partner at the Blades and Rosenfeld law firm, died in 2014.