Photographer remembered for humor

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

A distinctive sense of humor and a quiet charm helped longtime Juneau photographer Joseph "Joe" Alexander get his models to relax and show them to good advantage.

Alexander, 87, died of liver failure in Anchorage on Friday. At his request, his ashes will be scattered in Gastineau Channel.

Alexander attended the Winona School of Photography in Chicago, and mastered photography in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. In Anchorage during the war, he photographed Hollywood celebrities on USO tours to entertain troops stars such as Olivia de Havilland, Ingrid Bergman and Bob Hope.

Alexander worked for Ordway Photography in Juneau after his honorable discharge from the Army in 1945. He opened his first studio on the second floor of the Shattuck Building downtown with the help of a veterans' loan. One of the high points of his career was taking a portrait of territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening that made the cover of Time magazine in 1947.

In 1951, he took over Amy Lou Barney's photography studio on Front Street and named it Alexander's.

"He turned the studio mostly into portraiture," Barney said.

Photographer David Gelotte studied under Alexander and kept in touch professionally when he went into the same line of business.

"I was his studio assistant when I was in high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s," Gelotte said. "I definitely learned a lot of things in his studio and respected his work. He did wonderful work in portraits. He certainly captured a whole era of time here from babies growing up to high school graduation to weddings."

Alexander made a point when he retired in 1988 to try to distribute negatives to people and families he knew, Gelotte said.

"For a long time (Alexander) was the only photographer in town," said Cameron Byrnes, who has been in the photo business for 15 years and in Juneau for 26. "My wife (Laurie Clough), who grew up here, got her photographs taken there when she was small and growing up. He was a fixture down on Front Street for many years."

After Alexander retired, he loved taking daily walks around Juneau, said his daughter, Susan Alexander Derrera of Anchorage.

"He was a very private person, but I think he loved human beings," Derrera said. "He had a little routine of going to the bank and reading the paper there so he didn't have to buy it. Then he would go to Foodland and visit the checkers. It was hard to move him (to an assisted-living home in Anchorage two years ago) after he had a stroke, but my children were able to have a grandpa, which was wonderful."

A year after his stroke, Alexander broke his hip, she said.

"But he recovered from both of those things, although it was a little hard to understand him. He was positive all the way. He was something. The nurses always loved to talk to him," Derrera said.

Alexander's humor tended to the mischievous, Derrera said.

"He'd pretend he was in the assisted-living home because he had been injured during the war. Or he would talk about Nixon being president, or pretend to be a Democrat. People would think he was having 'senior moments,' but he was just being funny," she said.

Derrera's parents were divorced in 1960, when Susan was 2. Her mother, Katie Hurley, moved to Palmer. But Susan spent every August in Juneau.

"He wasn't one for giving a lot of advice, but he told me to 'find something you really love doing.' He never saw photography as work," she said.

"He was a wonderful dad, a really sweet man," said his son David Alexander, a Seattle resident. "He began taking me to Las Vegas on my 21st birthday, and we did that for 30 years."

There was something of "Peter Pan in never-never land" about Alexander, his son said. "He was great with kids. He used puppets in the studio to get their attention. He would talk in a funny voice. He would keep the puppet behind his back, bring it out at just the right moment and get the wonder in the child's face and snap it.

"My dad thought anybody could do anything," David Alexander said. "I worked for Congressman Nick Begich and Sen. Ted Stevens in Washington. After Begich was lost in a plane crash (in October 1972), I tossed it out to Dad that I wanted to go to acting school in New York. By golly, he said, 'I will help you.' He was always that way. The fact that I got the opportunity to try was everything to me," said Alexander, who works in a law office.

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