A Local Life: No Detail on Coins, Birds Escaped Photographer Larry Stevens's Eye

Larry Stevens taught himself bird photography.
Larry Stevens taught himself bird photography. "I had found that bird painters were fudging a lot about bird anatomy. So I made it my job to photograph birds swimming and diving and walking," he said. (Family Photo)
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By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Larry Stevens spent his early years as a professional photographer covering celebrities in Hollywood and Washington. He was a member of the White House press corps and took photos for some of the most popular magazines of the era: Time, Life, Parade and the old Saturday Evening Post.

In the 1960s, he left behind the world of bold-faced names. He forged a new career, one that brought him lots of money -- literally.

Mr. Stevens, 87, who died Feb. 25 of cardiac arrest, became a leading photographer of coins.

"I had discovered that nobody can remember a Cabinet member's name when he's in office, let alone when he gets out, so there wasn't a very good secondary market for much of my photography," the Falls Church resident told COINage magazine in 1997. "I sat down to decide what I could photograph that would be of permanent value on film, something that could be sold over and over. And I decided on coins, stamps and birds."

Mastering the art of 35-millimeter film, the numismatic photographer learned how to capture the fine details of coins, paper money and medallic art and how to produce photographs that required very little retouching. He would spend hours making sure he caught the correct grooves, shadows and dimensions of a coin, including how faces and images were raised ever so slightly from the coin's surface.

"Larry was able to focus on the nuances of the coin," said Scott Travers, the author of coin books that include some of Mr. Stevens's photos. "Coins are very small, and the photographer needs to capture a lot of artistic info in a very small space."

"Just for a coin to appear circular, it has to be tilted in a certain way," Travers added, noting that Mr. Stevens "would use props to tilt a coin at just the right angle so as to not appear oval in the photograph."

Through his work, according to COINage Magazine, where Mr. Stevens freelanced for many years, he had built up one of the largest private photo collections of rare coins, including photos of U.S. commemorative coins, Colonial-era coins and nearly all the coins created by the U.S. Mint since the late 1970s.

According to his daughter Wendy Stevens, Mr. Stevens had file cabinets filled with thousands of photos of coins, plus the negatives. When COINage or Coin World magazine would call him to request a specific coin, he would either pull from his file or photograph it.

By the mid-1970s, Mr. Stevens had photographed much of the National Numismatic Collection, rarities from the Philadelphia Mint and coins from the Chase Manhattan Bank Money Museum. He also photographed the coin collection of Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur.

"It was a real challenge to photograph that collection, but I never had a failure. If I put a coin down, I had a picture," he told COINage magazine in 1997.

Frank Lawrence Stevens was born in Chicago and headed an Air Force photography combat team during the Korean War. He refined his skills after the war, when he settled in Southern California and attended the old Fred Archer School of Photography. Besides his daughter, of Falls Church, survivors include his wife of 54 years, Mary Taylor Stevens of Falls Church; two other children, Lee Stevens of Falls Church and Lisa Forte of Annandale; a sister; and two grandchildren.

In the 1970s, he started to photograph wild birds to create a reference library, similar to the one he had created for coins, that bird carvers and artists could use. He also began to paint and carve wildfowl.

He also approached the art of bird photography from a technical viewpoint and taught himself how to take the best photos for bird carvers to use. He worked hard to capture exact feather patterns and color detail.

"I had found that bird painters were fudging a lot about bird anatomy. So I made it my job to photograph birds swimming and diving and walking," he told COINage in 1997.

Each year, he attended the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition and Art Festival in Ocean City and sold his prints to world championship carvers and artists.

By the late 1990s, when he was forced to give up photography, carving and painting because of Lewy body disease, a degenerative disorder that causes the loss of mental functions, his bird library included about 40,000 photographs.

"Larry's 35-millimeter photography far eclipses even the very best computer technology we have today," Travers said. "He was a master of his trade."

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