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Photographer Louis de Planque

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Like many creative types, Louis de Planque had his eccentricities.

He expressed his artistry on the glass plate photographic negative; he indulged his penchant for the mildly outlandish in his dress.

Born in Prussia on April 18, 1842, de Planque and his wife Eugenia came to Vera Cruz, Mexico during the Civil War. The couple did not tarry there long before moving moved to Matamoras, then the largest city anywhere on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Don Louis, as he came to be known, opened a photographic studio in Matamoras and soon enjoyed such a flourishing business that he set up another shop on the American side of the river at 14th and Elizabeth Streets in Brownsville.

Judging from a couple of surviving self-portraits, de Planque was a dapper sort who parted his hair down the middle and wore a full beard. In a photo believed to have been taken in his Mexican studio, he wears a dark suit, a gray derby and jauntily leans his six-foot, 200-pound figure on a fancy cane.

In another self-photo, probably taken on the Texas side of the river, he sits in a chair reading a copy of the Weekly Ranchero, Brownsville's pro-Confederate newspaper.

As an exhibit in the Stillman House Museum says, de Planque captured the photographic image of the "famous and infamous."

Among his more famous customers was John S. "Rip" Ford, former Texas Ranger who as a Confederate general fought and won the last battle of the Civil War near Palmetto Ranch along the lower Rio Grande. Not one to turn away business, the cigar-smoking de Planque later also photographed Union officers.

One customer realized a measure of eternity in sitting before de Planque's camera. Photographed in Brownsville in 1863, Confederate Maj. Matt Nolan died the following year - murdered in Corpus Christi on Christmas Eve 1864.

Though de Planque seems to have done most of his work in his studios, he sometimes took his equipment outdoors.
W hen a powerful hurricane struck Brownsville on Oct. 6-7, 1867, both of de Planque's studios sustained severe damage. Despite that, de Planque managed to take some shots of the damage in Brownsville and Matamoras as well as the wild and wooly port city of Bagdad, which the storm had destroyed.

Those surviving images, now in the collection of the Brownsville Historical Society, are among the earliest known disaster photos in the U.S.
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Rather than rebuild after the hurricane, de Planque relocated farther up the coastline to Indianola, another bustling port. Like Bagdad had earlier, the town suffered a direct hit from a powerful hurricane in 1875. Don Luis and his wife barely made it out of town to save their lives. He rebuilt his studio, but after a second hurricane wrecked Indianola in 1886, he decided to make Corpus Christi his permanent base. He also had satellite studios at various times in Refugio, Goliad, Victoria and San Diego.
(Historians Jerry Thompson and Lawrence T. Jones III, in their 2004 book from the Texas State Historical Association, "Civil War and Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier: A Narrative and Photographic History," have a well-written and -researched chapter on de Planque and include many of his photographs.)

As a 1939 story by Bill Barnard in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times put it, "No celebrity or near-celebrity ever visited…without being tracked down…and dragged off to his photo art studio. He was the only photographer in town and took thousands of pictures."
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De Planque displayed some of his images in his shop window, making his place a popular stopping place for passersby.

Don Luis doubtless already had a reputation when he arrived in Corpus Christi, but how folks saw him is better documented. "Louis de Planque liked a good time and he loved celebrations," Barnard wrote.

Corpus Christi used to go all out in observing the anniversary of Columbus' trip to the New World, partying not only on October 13 each year, but also on July 4. Folks came to Corpus Christi from as far away as New Orleans to join the festivities, which featured sailboat races, horse races, baseball games and free fish chowder for all comers.

Celebrants liked to dress up for the Columbus observances, and Don Louis set the tone. "He would arm himself with his knives, pistols and gun," one old-timer who remembered the colorful shutterbug told Barnard. "He would decorate his hat with a feather, sling an Indian blanket over his shoulder and carry a braided lariat in his hand. His tie flowed down his chest and his leather leggings reached above his knees."

Don Luis stayed in Corpus Christi until his death there of a stroke on May 1, 1898 at the age of 56. He lies in an unmarked grave in Bayview Cemetery. But much his work lives on, glass-plate windows to history.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
February 1, 2007 column
Email: mikecoxtex@austin.rr.com

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