"Nothing Missing but the Voice.”
This was the motto of Foster’s Photographic Gallery (later Foster Studio), opened by Walter Washington Foster in 1890, at 112 North Ninth Street in Richmond. The go-to photography studio well into the 1960s, Foster was hired by many Richmond families to document their lives in the form of portraiture and event photography. Foster’s work portrayed predominantly white Richmonders in private and group portraits, sporting events, parades, graduations, and weddings.
During the studio’s earliest days, Foster’s partner was Arthur Wellington Orpin, who married Foster’s daughter Nellie Virginia in 1907. When Orpin left to work with another photography business in 1921, Foster found a new partner in Anthony L. “Tony” Dementi. Foster handled most of the portraits and studio photography while Dementi, who was quoted as saying “Any photographer who sits behind a desk never made a success of himself,” covered events around town and provided photographs to the local newspapers. Dementi left Foster Studio in 1924 but continued to work locally, merging with William H. Faris to form Faris-Dementi Studio at 403 East Grace Street, and a bit of a rivalry developed between the two studios.
Adding to the competition, when Foster built a new studio in 1928, it was at 404 East Grace Street – just across the street from Dementi. The new Foster Studio was notable in that the building was intentionally designed to be a photography studio rather than it being retrofitted for this purpose. It boasted a Spanish Revival interior with a grand staircase for wedding portraits, dressing rooms for guests, and office space. Foster had several employees, including designated staff (likely women) for retouching and colorizing the black and white prints.
After Foster passed away in 1935, his son-in-law, Arthur Wellington Orpin, returned to manage the business until his death in 1966. Orpin’s son, W. Foster Orpin, then continued to manage and operate Foster studio. In 1972, the business merged with former competitor Dementi and became Dementi-Foster Studios, operating out of 121 Grace Street. Anthony Dementi served as president, and his son Robert Dementi and Orpin as vice presidents. When Anthony Dementi died in 1980, and Orpin retired shortly thereafter, the studio reverted to the singular name of Dementi Studio, which continues to operate today.
At the time of the Dementi-Foster merger, the glass plate negatives were acquired by the Virginia Historical Society (now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture), and the remaining film negatives and studio equipment remained at 404 East Grace Street while the building fell into disrepair over the years. When the negatives were offered to the Library of Virginia in 2010, many were unsalvageable due to water damage and a collapsed roof where they were stored. Damage to the negatives is visible on several of the negatives at the Library of Virginia. But the Foster Studio building was restored in 2017 and is now the site of a web design company, Foster Made. The restoration retained some of the unique details of the original studio space, including a faux travertine floor, sculptural elements of the ceiling and moulding, dressing rooms, dumbwaiters, and water fountains.
While the vast majority of the Foster Studio Collection consists of portraits and weddings, there are some intriguing outliers. One such collection is the series of 77 photographs of F. W. Woolworth Company stores in Richmond. The first Woolworth’s store opened in Richmond in 1891 on the 400 block of East Broad Street, but moved to the middle of the 500 block in the mid-1920s, around the same time the new Foster Studio was built on Grace Street. Meanwhile, as the Woolworth’s building underwent a major renovation in 1953-1954, the retail operation was temporarily moved to the 300 block of East Grace Street, just a block away from Foster Studio.
As the grand opening of the expanded F. W. Woolworth Company inched closer in 1954, Foster Studio photographed this new International-style building at the corner of East Broad and 5th Streets, as well as the salesfloor and retail displays. The Woolworth’s store originated in 1879 as a five-and-dime store, meaning a wide variety of goods were offered at low and fixed prices. While the cost-limiting model had been eliminated by 1935, the store continued to be referred to as “the five-and-dime,” and the signature variety of merchandise is on display in these photographs — from hosiery and jewelry to lawn furniture and deli meat, home permanent kits to model car kits, faux flowers and (real) houseplants.
This collection also includes several views of the store’s lunch counters. The renovated store at 5th and Broad boasted two: one that ran along the back and side of the main salesfloor, and a second mezzanine counter above. Such lunch counters became symbols of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960 when sit-ins were staged across the South to protest the whites-only policies. In Richmond, students from Virginia Union University staged such peaceful protests at Woolworth’s and Thalhimer’s lunch counters.
In addition to the Broad Street location, Richmond had F. W. Woolworth Company stores on Hull Street (first at 1317 and later in Southside Plaza), 3018 West Cary Street, and in the Willow Lawn Shopping Centre. Some of the photographs from this collection depict these locations, as well.
The photographs of the F. W. Woolworth Company by Foster Studio collection give us a snapshot in time, providing a glimpse into the downtown shopping experience of mid-century Richmond, as well as insight into the products made available to meet consumer needs and trends of the time.
Quite interesting as Foster Orpin was living at Cobbs Creek, Va when I was Postmaster there. While I knew he had been a photographer retiring and moving from Richmond, I didn’t know anything about his history.