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Noonan in his studio. Photo by Andrea Fischman

Bright Lights, Old City

Saratoga County photographer Michael L. Noonan captures the beauty of his hometown

‘There are some cultures that think comets are bad omens,” says Michael L. Noonan. “For me, Hale-Bopp was a very good omen.” The Saratoga County photographer is referring to his most well-known image, a night shot of comet Hale-Bopp streaking past the Saratoga Battle Monument. Taken in April 1997, the picture has appeared in numerous publications, and prints have been sold to customers as far away as Chile and Japan. The comet’s celestial trajectory past the towering war memorial (first noticed by Noonan’s artist wife, Maeve), couldn’t have been more fortuitous: The evening after Noonan captured its fiery plunge, the historic Phila Street building that housed his studio was torched by an arsonist. The resulting water damage destroyed most of his equipment and closed the studio for 10 weeks, a financial setback that nearly put him out of business.

“We were very lucky; the amount of press coverage we had for Hale-Bopp I never could’ve paid for,” says Noonan. “We had the front page of The Saratogian, because I was donating a print to the March for Parks at the Saratoga Battlefield. They published the photo with a brief article about how I lit the monument with a flashlight.” The article caught the attention of Steve Scoville from Channel 13 News, who filmed a segment on Noonan’s atmospheric use of a six-volt lantern flashlight. The TV broadcast of the photo elicited so many phone calls to the station asking for copies of the picture that Scoville did a follow-up story on the Phila Street fire the next day—and included Noonan’s phone number under the segment’s closing shot of the comet-monument photo.

“It was absolutely phenomenal,” Noonan recalls. “The next morning there were over a 100 calls on our answering machine. With the amount of water damage we had, I thought, ‘That’s it, it’s gone.’ It was the color series that I did on Hale-Bopp that saved the business.”

Michael L. Noonan’s photo of the “Spirit of Life” statue in Saratoga’s Congress Park;

Chances are, if you haven’t seen the comet-monument photo, you’ve seen another Saratoga image by Noonan. His shots of the glories of the area—the grand Victorian houses of Circular Street, Daniel Chester French’s “Spirit of Life” sculpture, the famous mineral springs, children riding the newly restored Congress Park carousel, the Keystone Arch Bridge at Skidmore College, reenactors pitching camp on the Saratoga Battlefield—have appeared in magazines, photography and history books, and numerous tour pamphlets. His elegant Doorways of Saratoga poster is a collector’s item. But previous to that starry, starry night in 1997, Noonan was better known as a photographic archivist, his name inextricably twined with that of his mentor, the renowned Saratoga photographer George S. Bolster.

“The comet did a wonderful job of separating me from the collection,” says Noonan. “Even though I had my own business, people didn’t think of me as a photographer in my own right until after the TV coverage.”

“The collection” is the hundreds of thousands of negatives that Bolster donated to the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs; Noonan worked as an archivist and printer for the society for two and a half years. Consisting of Bolster photos, along with Bolster’s own acquisitions of earlier Saratoga Springs photographers such as Harry B. Settle and Charles H. Hutchins, the Bolster Collection is considered a definitive archive of “old Saratoga,” and requests for reprints, says Noonan, are more popular than ever. Noonan is also the coauthor of George S. Bolster’s Saratoga Springs, a book of photo essays completed after the photographer’s death in 1989.

A fourth-generation Saratogian, Noonan was a 16-year-old student at St. Peter’s Academy when he first met Bolster, who supervised the high school yearbook. Already an avowed shutterbug, Noonan was the yearbook’s photographer. “I kept going over there and hanging around and trying to pick up information,” he says of his fascination with Bolster’s Phila Street studio. After graduation, he was hired as the great man’s assistant, keeping alive a tradition of old-fashioned apprenticeship that dates to the late 1800s.

“George told me, ‘If you’re expecting someone to hold your hand and show you everything, just walk out the door right now,’ ” Noonan recalls. “I watched him for 18 years, and he never actually ‘showed’ me anything. He put challenges to me, and he told me to ask questions.” Noonan adds admiringly: “He was a caustic SOB and a hard taskmaster.” One of the services the studio offers is the printing of archival glass-plate negatives; Noonan attributes his highly respected “kid-glove” skills to this cautionary advice: “Just remember,” Bolster told him in no uncertain terms, “if anything goes wrong, it’s the last time that plate will ever be printed.”

Noonan took over the master photographer’s studio in 1989, just as Bolster had taken over the studio after the death of Charles Hutchins in the mid-1950s. Like his predecessors, Noonan learned by doing, and another of the unusual services he offers is hand painting, a time-consuming craft of blending down light-transparent oils to colorize black-and-white prints. “It’s almost a vanished art,” he says of the painstaking process. The studio is also known for its sepia-tone restorations of old family photos, but more recently, he says, sepia tone is being chosen for contemporary portraits as well. “George always offered it, and I’ve always offered it,” he says. “Sepia isn’t any less sharp than black and white, but it has warmer tones.” Noonan uses a century-old studio portrait camera bequeathed to him by Bolster, who bought it from Hutchins. “It has a soft-focus lens that’s wonderful for portraits,” says Noonan, who adds that the antique tripod serves as a conversation piece and helps clients to relax. “It’s not like getting a modern piece of equipment shoved in their faces.” Noonan also acquired Bolster’s portrait chair and mirror, which have been in use in Saratoga studios for over 100 years.

As of last year, however, these iconic Saratoga Springs artifacts are now at work in Ballston Spa, in Noonan’s new studio in the recently converted Bischoff’s Chocolate Factory on Prospect Street. Noonan moved out of his memory-laden Phila Street studio due to a large rent increase. “It was a blow,” he says of the decision to relocate. “More and more, the business environment in Saratoga Springs is not for mom-and-pop operations.” After surveying the spacious old factory by the side of the Kayaderosseras Creek, however, he quickly got over his disappointment at being priced out of his native city. “Overall, this location is better than what I had, or what any other photographer had, at Phila Street,” he enthuses. “The high ceilings, the gorgeous 12-by-12 trusses—it has an open air effect that’s uplifting, you feel taller.” Noonan also notes that around the turn of the last century, it was commonplace for area photographers to move back and forth between Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs, probably for similar economic reasons.

Noonan now considers himself a county photographer, and has expanded his realm of expertise to include Stillwater and Schuylerville, “the original Saratoga.” Noonan’s love of history and experience with night lighting have stood him in good stead this year, the year of the 225th anniversary of the battles of Saratoga. “I understand the mentality of reenactors,” he says. “You don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb, so when I photograph them, I dress in early-American frontier garb to blend in better. The frontier frock hides a lot of the photographic equipment,” he adds, which is a courtesy for other photographers and videographers who may be shooting the same reenactment. For torchlight marches, Noonan uses time-delay exposures. “If I used a flash, it would be cold and harsh,” he says, adding that camera flashes are distracting for the actors.

Nighttime photography is something Noonan particularly enjoys, even for downtown shots such as his classical portrait of the historic Adirondack Trust building lit by Christmas tree lights. “It requires more patience and creativity,” he says, “but it’s a great deal of fun. Because it’s not during normal work hours, it’s more like playing.” For one of the comet-monument photos, he created long ghostly shadows by placing his fingers over the flashlight. “Painting with light is old-time photography,” he says.

Asked if he could imagine being a photographer anywhere else, Noonan answers yes (photos from his trips to Ireland have been exhibited in New York City), but quickly qualifies the answer. “I’ve been all over the continental United States, but Saratoga is my favorite place,” he says, praising in particular the area’s architecture, history, and the visual opportunities of its changing seasons. And despite his enthusiasm for other areas of the county, his loyalty to his native city is undiminished. “There’s seven Saratogas in the United States,” he says, “but there’s only one Saratoga Springs.”

A joint exhibit of works by Michael L. Noonan and Bruce Harding honoring the 225th anniversary of the Battles of Saratoga will be on view from Sept. 5 through Nov. 5 at Borders Books and Music, 395 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1200.

This Week in Saratoga

Thursday, Aug. 22

Thursday, Aug. 29

Catching Babies, Saratoga Springs County Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga. 8 PM: One-act play based on the life of Saratoga midwife Mariana Ferrara. $12. 583-2158.

Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan, Broadway Joe’s Off-Broadway Theatre and Grille, Congress Street Plaza, Saratoga Springs. 8:30 PM: Cabaret performance with Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs Award-winning singer/comic. $20. 587-3456.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 7:30 PM: WTRY Endless Summer concert with Frankie Valli, Lou Christie, Jay & the Americans, Lesley Gore. 476-1000.

Friday, Aug. 30

Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan, Broadway Joe’s Off-Broadway Theatre and Grille. 8:30 PM: Cabaret performance with Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs Award-winning singer/comic. $20. 587-3456.

A Nash Rambler, Saratoga County Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8 PM: A one-act staged reading of the works of Odgen Nash, one of America’s greatest wits. $8. 583-2158.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 6:30 PM: B.B. King Blues Festival with B.B. King, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Susan Tedeschi, Albert Cummings. 476-1000.

Saturday, Aug. 31

Saratoga Springs Farmers Market. High Rock Park, High Rock Avenue. 9 AM-1 PM.

Final Stretch Music Festival, various locations along Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 7 PM: Various artists will perform. stretch2002.htm.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 7:15 PM: Creed, 12 Stones. 476-1000.

Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan, Broadway Joe’s Off-Broadway Theatre and Grille. 8:30 PM: Cabaret performance with Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs Award-winning singer/comic. $20. 587-3456.

Sunday, Sept. 1

Final Stretch Music Festival, various locations along Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 7 PM: Various artists will perform. stretch2002.htm.

Alsop Hall, Davidson Drive, Saratoga Springs. 3 PM: Final performance of the Annual Summer Concert Series season will feature Beaux Arts Piano Quartet. Reservations are strongly recommended. $22. 584-4132.

Wednesday, Sept. 3

Saratoga Springs Farmers Market. High Rock Park, High Rock Avenue. 3-6 PM.

Saratoga Race Course
134th Season

Open daily through Sept. 3, except Tuesdays.

Location Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 584-6200

Admission $5 grandstand, $8 clubhouse, children under 12 free.

Parking $7 per car at the main gate and across Union Avenue at the Oklahoma Training Track.

Racing At least nine races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time 1 PM

Major Stakes Races Spinaway Stakes (Aug. 30); Hopeful Stakes (Sept. 1).

Promotional Item Giveaways T-shirt (Sept. 1).

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