Russell Cresson, a photographer who for 40 years documented life on the Loyola University campus as its official photographer, died Sunday. He was 96.
From 1949 until 1987, Cresson, known as Russ, was a fixture at events on Loyola’s Uptown campus, photographing everything from commencement exercises and athletic events to fraternity gatherings and alumni weddings. He was the first person to hold the full-time position of university photographer and also took portraits of university faculty, staff and administration, including the Jesuits who own and operate the Roman Catholic university.
"For over 40 years he recorded the visual history of Loyola," said Joan Gaulene, an archivist in Loyola's library who also worked with Cresson as former director of university relations. "His collection of photographs of activities, people and a growing and changing campus environment is invaluable. He loved Loyola and the Jesuits and it was evident in the quality and quantity of his work."
Cresson’s photos, many of which are now housed in Loyola’s university archives in its J. Edgar and Louise S. Monroe Library, also include celebrated visitors to Loyola, including Cardinal Francis Spellman; Earl Warren, the former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Bishop Fulton Sheen and Mother Teresa.
"I never planned on a career as a photographer," Cresson told The Times-Picayune in 2005. "I accidentally stumbled into it." When he was a student at Loyola, his older brother, Ray, a longtime photographer for the Roosevelt Hotel and manager of the K&B Camera Center, hired him to work part time shooting photos. "I didn’t know what I was doing but I gradually began to learn," Cresson said.
When Loyola officials found out that Cresson knew how to take pictures, they asked him to take photographs for the school newspaper, The Maroon, as well as for the university’s public information office. When Cresson graduated in 1949 with a bachelor of science in marketing, Loyola hired him as its full-time photographer.
A native New Orleanian and 1938 graduate of Warren Easton High School, Cresson served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He told reporter Ramon Antonio Vargas in a 2007 story in The Maroon that he celebrated his 21st birthday by signing up for the Navy. The ships he served on chased Nazi submarines in the Gulf of Mexico and protected merchant convoys from U-boat torpedoes during the war. Whenever the ships he served on docked in ports like Miami or New Orleans, the former high school third baseman would wind down by playing catcher for service teams.
“They treated the service ballplayers wonderful. Like heroes,” Cresson said in 2007. “They’d hold the cafeteria open so we could come and eat, and they’d have a big drum of lemonade we’d just dip our pitchers into.”
After the war ended, Cresson joined the wave of veterans entering Loyola on the GI Bill. While pursuing a degree in business he also played catcher on the Wolfpack baseball team for four years and lettered in the sport.
Later, as a professional photographer, Cresson also taught courses in Loyola’s journalism school. He also mentored young photographers, including the person who replaced him when he retired in 1987, Tracy Smith, and Harold Baquet, the beloved photographer who held the job of university photographer from 1989 until his retirement in 2014.
In recognition of his character and service, Loyola awarded Cresson its Co-Adjutor Optimus Award as a Distinguished Employee in 1983; its Adjutor Hominum Award as its alumnus of the year in 2004; and the St. Sebastian Award in 2007, awarded to an athlete who exhibits outstanding charitable, community, civic, and spiritual service to humanity.
“I’ve never met a man who lived a life better than mine,” Cresson said in 2007.
Loyola staged retrospective exhibits of his photographs in recent years and dozens of his photographs filled the pages of "Founded on Faith," a book by history professor Bernard A. Cook that celebrated Loyola’s 2012 centennial.
Cresson and his wife, Claire, were married 66 years and had nine children; all but one graduated from Loyola. The couple also had 22 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd. and will continue Saturday at noon at St. Dominic Church, 775 Harrison Ave., followed by a funeral Mass at 1:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Loyola University or to the Sister Servants of Mary, 5001 Perlita St., New Orleans, LA 70122.