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Frank J. Davis World War II Photographs: Autobiography

DeGolyer Library

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Davis' Personal Account

Frank J. Davis Collection

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Davis' Autobiography

I was born July 14, 1924, in Baltimore, Maryland. I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, an all-male technical high school where the main courses were science and engineering, including math, physics, electricity, chemistry and so on.

While in high school I received a small camera as a gift and I became interested in photography, processing the film and making prints in my home darkroom. I joined the school camera club and was able to use the school darkroom, which was equipped with an enlarger. I photographed school activities (such as the annual "Poly Follies," with male chorus "girls"), and many of my photos were reproduced in the school yearbook. So I decided to become a professional photographer -- though my father insisted I was crazy and demanded to know "who would pay" for the photographs I produced!

After graduating in 1941, I entered the photographic profession by answering an ad in the newspaper, and was hired by the University of Maryland's hospital to take photographs of patients under treatment, of specimens like brain sections and body parts, and photomicrographs. During the very first movie I filmed (of a cancer operation on a man's face), I fainted. But I quickly got used to handling body parts, filming operations, and seeing bloodied and burned patients. Because this was a teaching hospital, many of my photographs were used to accompany research articles written by the doctors, or were made into lantern slides that I projected during their lectures. At the time I had no idea this was preparing me for a future as a medical photographer for the U.S. Army.

I was drafted in 1943 and sent to Camp Crowder, Missouri, where I received Signal Corps basic training. I was assigned to Signal Corps because of my photographic background, but the training was on things like operating a telephone switchboard, climbing poles to install wires, camping and surviving in the snow, and shooting a carbine rifle. The Army knew about my medical experience, however, and after a couple of months I was transferred to the Army Medical Corps at Camp Barkley near Abilene, Texas, and then to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C., where I joined the 6th Detachment of the Medical Museum Art Service, known as MMAS. We were soon on our way to Italy to work with the MMAS 3rd Detachment, already operating in Naples. From there I went to France and then, once the European war ended, to the Mariana Islands in the Pacific.

After returning home in February 1946, I worked as a commercial photographer for a studio in Baltimore. After a year or so I was asked to manage their branch studio in Washington, DC. In 1949 I purchased that studio and then did advertising, commercial and industrial photography for 22 years. In 1971 I sold the studio and moved to Williamsburg, VA, where I was a staff photographer for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for 15 years.

I retired in 1986, and since then have toured 25 countries, taking thousands of photographs, including some scenic "gems" that now enable me to relive those trips many times a week. At 79 years of age [note: in 2004] I enjoy playing my electronic MIDI accordion with a guitar player, bass and drummer. We play melodies from the Big Band era for folks our age in retirement, convalescent and nursing homes.

I have often wondered what happened to all the photos I took with my PH-104 (the official Army version of the Speed Graphic). Most of the photographs in this collection were taken with my own 35mm camera that I strapped to my belt. I’m glad I chose photography as a profession – it beat working for a living!