Jack E. Boucher, longtime National Park Service photographer, dies at 80

(Photo by James Rosenthal) - Jack E. Boucher, a self-taught photographer who documented America’s architectural heritage for the last surviving New Deal-era work project, died Sept. 2.

(Photo by James Rosenthal) - Jack E. Boucher, a self-taught photographer who documented America’s architectural heritage for the last surviving New Deal-era work project, died Sept. 2.

Jack E. Boucher, a National Park Service photographer who documented America’s architectural heritage, including presidential homesteads, old carousels and a former leper settlement in Hawaii, died Sept. 2 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. He was 80.

He died of cardiopulmonary arrest, said his sister, Joan Klein.

Mr. Boucher took more than 55,000 photographs of an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 buildings during his 47-year career at the Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

The range of his subjects was vast: the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wis., designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the historic Bradbury Building in Los Angeles; the oval stairway of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York; mansions in Newport, R.I.; old mills and armories of New England; and the notable Wheeling Suspension Bridge in West Virginia.

For his work, he carted around hundreds of pounds of equipment, working in later years from a battered red minivan.

“My whole philosophy is, I regard the building I’m doing as the most important one in my life,” he once told the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., “even if it’s a single-seat log outhouse.”

The Buildings Survey, among the first federal preservation programs on a national scale, was established in 1933 as a job-creation effort for unemployed architects, draftsmen and photographers during the Depression.

In addition to documenting the evolution of building styles, the pictures have served as a useful tool in restoration and renovation efforts.

Photographers, preservationists and historians praised Mr. Boucher for his ability to capture not only a building’s appearance, but also its spirit and purpose. “He compelled viewers to step into the space and made them feel like they both belonged and lived in that place,” said former Buildings Survey colleague and fellow photographer James Rosenthal.

One of Mr. Boucher’s favorite assignments took him to Kalaupapa National Park on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, where in 1991 he spent three weeks living among the former leper colony’s 81 residents. Mr. Boucher was said to have developed a strong connection with the people in Kalaupapa’s tightknit community while taking pictures of the historic settlement.

His photographs have appeared in dozens of major newspapers and magazines, and his negatives remain in the permanent collection at the Library of Congress.

Jack Edward Boucher was born in Buffalo on Sept. 4, 1931, and raised in Atlantic City. He began his career as a photo lab technician and engraver at 18 at the old Atlantic City Tribune, a newspaper where his father was a reporter.

The next year, he spent 18 hours outdoors shooting pictures of a hurricane that battered Atlantic City in 1950. “I was the only professional photographer out in the elements photographing the havoc,” he once wrote, “at times by boat, at times literally up to my armpits in the swirling waters holding my 4 x 5 Speed Graphic over my head.” The shoot landed him on the front page of the Tribune and a headline that read, “Jack’s Camera Kept Clicking.”

He was hired in 1952 to photograph the construction of the Garden State Parkway and historic structures in its surrounding areas. “I rode crane buckets to the tops of 150-foot booms and girders being placed into position atop 135-foot-tall piers, all with a 4 x 5 Graphic in one hand,” he recalled in the book “A Record in Detail: The Architectural Photographs of Jack E. Boucher.”

After six years with the parkway project, he worked for the National Park Service in Philadelphia and directed New Jersey’s historic preservation office. He moved to Park Service headquarters in Washington in 1970 and retired as chief architectural photographer in 2009.

For many years, Mr. Boucher was the sole HABS photographer. Rosenthal, a lab tech assistant for Mr. Boucher, succeeded his mentor until leaving the post last year.

Mr. Boucher’s wife of 35 years, Margaret Mary Sullivan Boucher, died in 2004. Survivors include two sons, a sister and four grandchildren.

Mr. Boucher, a Silver Spring resident, lectured on architectural documentation photography and received one of the Interior Department’s highest honors, the Meritorious Service Award.

In 1997, he described his work and motivation to the Providence Journal-Bulletin: “Why do you think I do it? I make a respectable salary. I’m my own boss. I get to travel. My expenses are taken care of. And when I get there I’m treated like royalty. I don’t want to sound like I’m on a soapbox. But I feel I’m doing something constructive, something that will help humanity.

“To retire from that, I would need the services of a shrink the next day,” he said.