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‘Studio-us’ retrospect of Manteca

Dale Johnson displays photos at City Hall

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‘Studio-us’ retrospect of Manteca

This photograph of a young boy with a cherubic face won a major honor for Dale Johnson when it was selected for exhibition at a professional photographers convention in the early 1980s.

Dale Johnson/


POSTED April 8, 2009 4:44 a.m.
Johnson Studio was a downtown fixture in Manteca for many years. From 1949 to 1984, to be exact.

In the nearly four decades that husband and wife Dale and Pat Johnson operated their photography business, they produced literally thousands of portraits – from glittery high school prom and band pictures to glamorous weddings, portraits of many of the community’s movers and shakers and many others from out of town who were drawn to the studio’s high reputation.

When they sold the business and retired in 1984, many of the portraits they had hanging in the studio were included in the sale. When the studio changed ownerships after they sold it, Dale lost track of what happened to those portraits, many of which were those of Manteca’s notable citizens.

Fortunately, he kept a good part of his private collection including several that have won prestigious awards in professional photography. More than a dozen of these pictures are being shared by the now-retired Manteca photographer in a retrospective exhibit of his works at the Manteca City Hall Council Chambers where it opened on Monday. They will be available for public viewing through July during regular business hours at City Hall Monday to Friday.

The display includes a photo of the young Johnson family – Dale, Pat and their three children – taken during one of Dale’s annual continuing-education stints at the prestigious Brook’s Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara.

“Several times, Pat went with me to hone her retouching skills. On one occasion, we took our children and were used as models in a family group class,” Dale explained.

After they started their first studio in Santa Rosa, Pat, who had finished business college and worked in that field, went to retouching school.

“Retouching was done on the black and white negative with a pencil; a tedious job, no erasing,” Dale said.

Another black-and-white portrait on display is that of their younger son Richard who is now the owner of a deli business in Oregon.

Interestingly enough, the identities of many of the subjects in his stunning portraits have been forgotten by Dale. He said he has done “so many” portraits it was difficult to keep track of everyone who posed before his camera. But he remembered some unique things about some of these individuals.

• The nun in prayerful pose: She was “a real nun,” he said. “She was visiting here from some place; could have been from the Azores. One of the other nuns came in and asked me if I’d take her picture. I said yes, because I thought it would be fun.” The picture was taken inside the studio.

• A serious-looking young man holding an instrument: Dale thinks the man was someone from Escalon and that he was a navigator; hence, the navigator instrument he’s holding in the picture.

• A distinguished-looking bearded man with an impressive profile: Dale called him “Abe Lincoln” because of the man’s facial similarity with the great Civil War president.

The rest of the exhibit may come as a pleasant surprise to those who only knew Johnson Studio as a portrait studio. Dale was also a landscape photographer as evidenced by the number of scenic photos in the exhibit. There’s a black-and-white picture of a building façade and gardens, for example, taken in Manchester, England, in the mid-1940s. Another is a dramatic black-and-white shot in the tradition of Cecil Beaton and the other great masters in photography which shows a tightly symmetrical row of trees in the fog lining the two sides of a narrow curving road that is otherwise devoid of any human presence save for the silhouette of a person crossing the road in the distance. This picture was taken in France, Dale said.

Johnson’s love affair with the camera started with a 50-cent Kodak Brownie
Dale’s love affair with the camera began while he was in high school and bought his first camera: a Kodak Brownie that set him back 50 cents.

“I was involved in a small camera club and worked on the yearbook staff,” he recalled.

While he was in junior college in 1941, World War II broke out. In February the following year, he joined the Coast Guard and was off to Port Townsend, Washington, for boot camp.

“I had been in boot camp about a month, and because of a notation in my file about my photography experience, I was asked to open a photo lab and take identification and base action pictures. I didn’t complete boot camp but remained there for 18 months,” he said.

It also changed the course of his life, for it was there in boot camp that he met Pat, his wife-to-be.

They were married on Aug. 7, 1945. Of this red-letter day, he noted: “This was a historic date, the week between the dropping of the two atom bombs” at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. By this time, Pat had completed her business college and was working. She continued working until Dale was discharged from the service two months later.

After he received his rank and stripe as a photographer’s mate, Dale asked to be transferred to sea duty.

“I was assigned to a new ship, General Black AP135 troop transport. My duties aboard ship were to photograph sailors at work to be published in hometown newspapers,” he said.

A picture of his ship and its voyage, framed in a shadow box, is part his exhibit at City Hall.

Partners in marriage and in business
After his honorable discharge from the service, he and his wife “became a team and started our first studio in Santa Rosa.”

Four years later, they opened Johnson Studio on Yosemite Avenue and Lincoln Street in downtown Manteca.

“We wanted to live in a smaller town where we could raise our children and become an active part of the community. One of our suppliers told us about a studio for sale in Manteca. We purchased that studio and started our Manteca career,” Dale said.

His portraiture style became the hallmark of Johnson Studio.

“I had studied the work of the masters’ portrait paintings and was using their style of work with my portraits, using light instead of paint to shape the face with highlights and shadows. Our photography was well received and we enjoyed our career in Manteca until we retired in 1984,” Dale said.

When they retired, they sold their Manteca studio as well as their studios in Tracy, which they opened in 1957, and in Modesto which they launched in 1970. They had partners in those satellite studios who later bought the business from the Johnsons.

Retirement for the couple simply meant more community involvement for Dale which he started doing from the time they moved to Manteca.

“One of my first projects was chairman of a Junior Chamber of Commerce committee to establish an ambulance in Manteca, the beginning of the Manteca District Volunteer Ambulance,” he said.

His involvements in the community were recognized in 1998 when he was inducted into the Manteca Hall of Fame for Community Service.

Incidentally, the old Johnson Studio is still there – at least its old shell – and just recently has undergone a major transformation. The old studio is now the area where the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and the uniform store are located. In front of it was open landscaping, where the newly opened Ironhorse deli now stands.
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