Julia Scully, Influential Photography Editor and Memoirist, Dies at 94

Julia Scully, Influential Photography Editor and Memoirist, Dies at 94


Julia Scully, who after 20 years as the editor of Modern Photography magazine wrote an acclaimed memoir about her Depression-era childhood, when her mother put her and her sister in an orphanage before moving the family into a roadhouse in a remote part of Alaska, died on July 18 at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.

Her death was confirmed by Jana Martin, a daughter of Ms. Scully’s companion, Harold Martin, a photographer.

Ms. Scully began working at photography magazines in the 1950s and was hired to be editor of Modern Photography in 1966. The magazine was as devoted to the technical side of photography as it was to its aesthetics. Ms. Scully focused on the latter, and under her tenure the magazine was instrumental in the emerging recognition of photography as art.

She started a section of the magazine called Gravure that asked renowned photographers like Irving Penn about the circumstances and artistry of their pictures, wrote a column called “Seeing Pictures,” in which she described the work of photographers she admired, and reported on exhibitions.

“Gravure and different series that we did later just kind of took up the idea of photography as an art form,” Andy Grundberg, a former picture editor at Modern Photography and later a companion of Ms. Scully’s, said in a phone interview.

He added, “Julia was friends with photographers, had been married to a photographer, and was in the swing of things at a time when galleries were being established for photography and museums were getting more interested.”

While leading the magazine, she published a series of arresting portraits by Mike Disfarmer, an obscure photographer from rural Heber Springs, Ark., who had died in 1959. Mr. Disfarmer’s customers came to his Main Street studio, with its plain backdrops, to celebrate life’s transitions — for 50 cents a shot — in black and white.

Ms. Scully was alerted to Mr. Disfarmer’s work by Peter Miller, a local newspaper editor.

She and Mr. Miller collaborated on a 1976 book, “Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946,” which presented 66 of his photographs. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Peter C. Bunnell wrote that the pictures “are not nostalgic, but haunting, suggesting daguerreotypes of strangely familiar yet unknown relatives. ” He added, “Julia Scully’s sensitive text illuminates both the man and the place.”

In an essay the next year in Aperture magazine, Ms. Scully wrote that there was a “conscious intent, rather than a naïve artistry,” behind Mr. Disfarmer’s portraiture, helping him to create photographs with a “piercing clarity.”

Ms. Scully was also the project director of “The Family of Woman,” a 1979 book of pictures of women from around the world, for which she sifted through 300,000 photographs. It was a response to the photographer and curator Edward Steichen’s popular book “The Family of Man,” which spun off a successful exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955.

Julia Silverman was born on Feb. 9, 1929, in Seattle, but it was in San Francisco that her life took a dramatic turn. Her parents, Julius and Rose (Hohenstein) Silverman, had owned several failed businesses. Walking home from school one day in 1936, Julia, 7, and her sister, Lillian, 9, stopped at their parents’ coffee shop, which wasn’t faring well. Mrs. Silverman told the girls to go home — an apartment nearby — to see if their father had returned from a doctor’s visit.

Arriving home, they saw their father’s wooden leg propped against a wall, then their father, who had died by suicide, on the kitchen floor.

“Nothing is said about how my father died, or even, in fact, that he is dead,” Ms. Scully wrote in “Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood” (1998). “He just disappeared, and I wasn’t really sure that he had ever been there in the first place.

“Did I remember him?” she continued. “Did I remember the scratchy feel of his cheek when I leaned over the front seat of a car and rubbed my face against his?”

After trying to get by for two years, Mrs. Silverman placed Julia and Lillian in an orphanage and headed on her own to Alaska’s wilderness, where she ran a summer roadhouse in remote Taylor Creek, on the southern coast. The girls traveled on a boat, alone, to reunite with their mother in 1940.

Julia, then known as Billie, became acclimated to Alaskan life, serving whiskey in the road house to gold miners at age 11; exploring the tundra and observing reindeer; and encountering a parade of rough characters, many of them miners. Julia and her sister spent winters farther north in coastal Nome, living with Mrs. Silverman and her companion. They later lived with a couple in inland Fairbanks.

Reviewing “Outside Passage” in The Times Book Review, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote, “The props are few, the poses are natural, the mood is one of unforgiving acceptance.”

Mr. Grundberg, who is also a former photography critic for The Times, recalled that the Disfarmer book “got her more interested in writing than photography.”

“She had this story of her childhood,” he said, “and couldn’t understand how her mother had made the decision she did and ended up in Alaska.”

Julia graduated from high school in Nome, but left Alaska to enter Stanford University. She studied creative writing and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1951. Seeking to be a magazine writer, she tried to join Sunset, a Bay Area magazine.

But when Sunset did not hire her, “I just got on a train and went to New York,” she told Stanford magazine in 1999.

She found a job as secretary to the pictures editor at Argosy magazine, which sparked her interest in photography. She later held editorial positions at two other magazines, U.S. Camera and Camera 35, before Modern Photography hired her. While working there, she earned a master’s degree from New York University’s School of Education in 1970.

After leaving the magazine, Ms. Scully wrote a syndicated newspaper feature in which she analyzed unusual photographs, like one taken in 1899 of a 20-foot-long camera that weighed a half-ton and rested on a large platform. She described how a photographer, George Lawrence, had been hired by the Chicago and Alton Railroad to use the camera to capture a newly acquired six-car train.

The camera, with a photographic plate that measured 8-by-4½ feet, was built in 10 weeks by a crew of 15 men. “Ironically,” Ms. Scully wrote, “the picture of Lawrence’s camera is now more widely admired than the picture of the train he made with it.”

In addition to Jana Martin, she is survived by Mr. Martin; his daughter Nancy Martin; a niece, Carla Ciau; and a nephew, Mark Castro. Her marriages to Edward Scully and Marvin Newman, a photographer, ended in divorce. She was also a companion to Marvin Tannenberg.

As vivid as Ms. Scully’s memories of Alaska were, they did not change the relationship of her sister, Mamie Lillian Castro, to their past. (Her sister died in 2013.)

Ms. Ciau, Ms. Castro’s daughter, said by phone that her mother had been “delighted” to read “Outside Passage,” but that it had not helped her conjure any of her long-repressed memories of her time there with her sister and mother.