Courtesy of Nadia Price Family Collection
Dear Vance: I’ve noticed that old school yearbooks often carried ads for “Photography by Nadia.” Who was Nadia, and what happened to her business?
— P.K., Memphis.
Dear P.K.: Oh, I wish I had hired Nadia to photograph the various members of my family before they were hauled off to prison. The mugshots would have made the Lauderdale scrapbooks complete, and it would have given me the chance to meet a most remarkable woman — one of the most talented photographers and artists in our region, and a person who was apparently quite a character.
After all, this was a lady who once told a reporter, “A photographer is the only person who can shoot someone, frame him, hang him, and be thanked and paid for it.”
Nadia Price (above) was born in Memphis in 1919, the daughter of Olive and Raymond R. Price, who owned Southern Motors, the largest Cadillac dealership in the Mid-South. Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: She pronounced her unusual first name (a Russian word that means “hope”) with a long A: NAY-dia.
She was the older sister of Billy Price, who (perhaps better known as Billy Price Carroll) became one of this city’s most acclaimed painters. The family lived in Hein Park, and later moved to a bungalow on Central, and I assume Nadia had a pretty good life growing up. Photo albums and scrapbooks lovingly preserved by her niece, “Pixie” Woodall, contain images of Nadia and Billy perched in fancy cars, riding horses, and enjoying outings at various camps in our area.
Both sisters attended the old Memphis Art Academy, with Billy studying painting and Nadia taking classes in sculpting and drawing. When she was 16, her father gave her an old Speed Graphic press camera, and she told reporters, “Naturally, I photographed everything I could capture on film. My favorite shots were ‘human interest’ photographs. Thus began my collection.”
She took pictures and also began to hone her sculpting and painting skills while attending Miss Hutchison’s School. She graduated from there in 1937, and began an internship paying $12 a week with a local commercial photographer named Avery N. Stratton, where she first learned film processing, printing, and retouching skills.
Nadia would probably have stayed with that job, but when World War II started — that would be December 7, 1941, for my younger readers — she enrolled in a drafting school (I’m not exactly sure where that was) and began working as one of the first — and quite possibly the only — female draftsmen (or should I say draftswoman?) for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
She was fond of saying that her life “came in thirteens” and sure enough, she was employed by Stratton for 13 months, worked for the Army for 13 months, and then took an assignment that lasted — yep — 13 months as a photographer for the Fisher Aircraft Works, a former General Motors auto-body factory in North Memphis that had been converted to making parts for B-25 bombers. Working in a man’s world, she photographed the production lines, made ID tags for workers, and performed other duties, again making the news as quite possibly the only female photographer for the Army — and General Motors — until the war ended.
In 1946, she teamed up with another photographer, Caroline Jenkins, and opened a studio in the basement of an old house on Union. They called the business “Photography by Nadia” and at first their specialty was children’s portraits, but they soon branched out to include all kinds of photography: commercial, architectural, family portraits, camp meetings, church groups, weddings — even insurance claims. By 1949, the two women were doing so well that they opened their own studio in a corner of the old Baggott Sheet Metal Works company at 187 South Cooper.
Courtesy of Nadia Price Family Collection
Nadia Price Photography Studio
With her distinctive touch, Nadia converted that corner of the hum-drum building into an eye-catching art-deco-style studio (shown here), complete with pink neon lighting and an apartment on the second floor. She had a special talent, it seems, for working with restless kids, even putting her little dog on a platform next to the camera to catch their attention. Jenkins left the partnership after a few years, and Nadia continued on her own. She was quite a success, in such demand that clients often had to book her services as much as a year in advance, and one client told a reporter, “Nobody seemed to have a wedding photo in the paper unless it said, ‘Photography by Nadia.’”
One of the few women in Memphis known only by her first name, Nadia caught the attention of the Downtown Association of Memphis, which in 1966 named her one of the “Five Outstanding Women Who Work.” A newspaper reporter noted, “Capturing the essence of Nadia would equate to catching water in a sifter.” In addition to her photography, in her spare time she worked on incredibly detailed drawings and paintings of plants and flowers, illustrated cartoons, and sculpted animals (usually horses, her favorite) in ceramic and bronze. At one time, she even hand-painted scarves that were sold at Memphis department stores and produced a line of picture postcards of Arkansas scenes.
Why Arkansas? Well, at the age of 52, she met William Bates, a sales executive for Republic Steel, and they married in 1971 and moved to the Bates family farm near Quitman, Arkansas. There they lived in what Nadia called their “bouse” — a custom-designed combination house and barn. She shut down her popular photography business in Cooper-Young, but continued to take pictures of anything and everything that suited her. By the time she officially retired in 1974, she estimated she had photographed more than 50 weddings a year (sometimes two in one day) and had filed away more than 100,000 negatives.
Bates passed away in 1982. Still living in Arkansas, Nadia had spent time in Heber Springs, where she met Oscar Strid, a retired railroad executive. They married in 1985, and moved to a lovely home on Greer’s Ferry Lake. But it wasn’t a sit-by-the-lake-and-fish kind of retirement. They purchased a 35-foot Airstream trailer and roamed the country, visiting almost every state and Canada, until Oscar’s death in 1995.
With her health finally beginning to decline, Nadia returned to Memphis in 2005, moving into an apartment and studio behind the home in Central Gardens where her niece “Pixie” lived with her husband, Richard Woodall. Still painting and sculpting, she passed away at home on September 27, 2013, at the age of 94.
More than 600 of her images that captured African-American life in this region, part of an exhibition called “A Delta Era Gone By,” along with some of her cameras and equipment, were donated to Arkansas State University. Another large group of her photographs now comprise the Nadia Price Collection at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
“Photos by Nadia were coveted and cherished,” her niece recalls. “With one camera to her eye, and the other over her shoulder, Nadia’s style was to flit around a crowded room snapping every possible angle and expression. The result was wonderful memories for those who were her subjects.”
Nadia was fond of saying, “God has been good to this chick” and she hoped others benefited as much from life as she did. She had a simple aspiration: “I hope that through my photographs people will feel inspired to love each other.”
In a letter written to friends and family after the death of her aunt, “Pixie” had this to say about Nadia: “She was a pioneer. She was undaunted by challenges, never saying no to whatever she faced in life. She made use of every moment. If she wanted something done, nothing and no one could get in her way. She was bold, yet gentle. Wiry, yet feminine. … She genuinely wanted everyone to love one another. So, she spent her life trying to show them how.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NADIA PRICE FAMILY COLLECTION
Got a question for Vance?
Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103