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“’Never Let It Rest’: The Adventures of Del Hall, Louisiana Photojournalist”

[review of Richard Campanella, The Photojournalism of Del Hall:  New Orleans and Beyond, 1950s-2000s.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.]

In today’s selfie-saturated (and self-centered) world of social media, and even, to a large degree, the world of mass media, everyone seems to be working overtime to sell themselves and their own personal brand:  self-promotion as “news.”  But it has not always been so.  Tulane Professor Richard Campanella’s engaging and energetic biography of New Orleans native Del Hall recounts a time – and a mindset – when media professionals understood that the news story was more important than a newsperson’s on-camera personality, and that work-ethic defined your professionalism more than your digital profile. 

Delos Frederick Hall was born in 1935 in New Orleans, to a family as culturally-diverse as New Orleans itself.  His father was from a Mexican-American family who had moved to New Orleans during the 1920s; his mother was a New Orleanian with French, German, and Anglo-Saxon ancestors.  Del’s family, like many working-class families during the Great Depression, struggled financially, and were forced to move in with his mother’s parents at their third floor apartment at 129 South Rampart, a 19th century renovated storehouse near the intersection with Canal Street.  Living here for the first six years of his life, often under the watchful eyes of his loving grandmother “Na-Ma” (to whom this book is dedicated) and his grandfather “Grandpa Fred,” young Del encountered a bustling multicultural environment.  As Campanella astutely argues, Del’s childhood along the cultural margins of New Orleans society, “between rich and poor, neighbor to white and black, privy to elegance and decadence and everything in between” was a perfect place for him to develop a cameraperson’s eye and a temperament “to observe and bear witness” to the infinite variety of human society. 

While born and raised and beginning his chosen profession of news cameraman in New Orleans, Del Hall would become a highly-respected national figure in his field (assisted by his equally-talented wife, Ginger, from the mid-seventies).  In a long-time relationship with CBS News, stretching from his early days at WWL (1960-66), the New Orleans CBS affiliate, to working in Chicago with the CBS Midwest Bureau, to freelancing for CBS and working with Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Charles Kuralt, and Walter Cronkite, Hall developed a reputation as a Emmy Award-winning consummate professional. As Walter Cronkite inscribed to him once on a photograph, “To Dell Hall, All the best, to the best.” 

As the person behind the camera, Hall never became a celebrity in the way that an on-camera broadcaster like Rather, Wallace, or Cronkite could become.  So Campanella, as a biographer, has a challenge:  how to tell a compelling story of a (relatively) unknown professional who’s lived an extraordinary life?

Campanella meets this challenge in several ways.  First, he clearly loves Dell Hall’s story and personality and his enthusiasm in conveying this life is contagious.  Having access to a living (and willing) subject allows for a concreteness and specificity of detail that makes this book a spirited narrative.  One way in which Campanella animates Hall’s story is that he consistently uses Hall’s first name in describing his activities, thus creating an intimacy more usual in autobiography than biography.  An example is a scene from his Western Union “messenger boy” high school job:

Another time, Del was dispatched to intercept Senator Estes Kefauver as the candidate made his way to address an audience of skeptical New Orleanians in his bid for the 1952 presidential election.Del sneakeda peak at the telegram:NEW ORLEANS DOES NOT RHYME WITH BEANS, it read.“I quote that line to this day,” he [Del Hall] says, whenever an uninformed soul makes the mistake of saying “New Or-LEANS.”Whether Senator Kefauver heeded the oratorical counsel is unknown, but history records he lost the election.

Campanella also chooses wisely to focus more than half of the book on Hall’s time in New Orleans, even though Hall moves to Chicago to work for CBS at the age of thirty-one (he returns often, however, on assignments and to visit family and friends).  This decision is a shrewd one on Campanella’s part as Hall’s power of imagination and eye for detail make this Louisiana section of the book particularly lively and revealing about how media coverage interacted with and affected certain events.  One particularly striking example of Campanella’s style is in recounting a moment during the August 1963 clash between civil rights marchers and police in Plaquemine (the home of notorious segregationist Leander Perez) in which Hall and WWL-TV reporter Bob Jones were involved:

Townspeople on both sides eyed the pair curiously, almost opportunistically; when they saw Del’s camera, both blacks and whites reacted with ingratiation, savvy to the power he wielded. To be sure, civil rights activists had well understood the power of the press…but what Del’s experiences in Plaquemine and New Orleans reveal is that segregationists often times felt the same way….The town sheriff, to whom Del introduced himself, succumbed to the camera’s spell as well: next time they met, Del noticed the lawman had adorned himself with a diamond-studded badge, wanting to look his dandiest, Louisiana style, for his moment in the limelight.

Another way in which Campanella brings to light Dell and Ginger Hall’s world is through the numerous photos included in the book, virtually all from the Halls’ private collection.   While the photos are generally snap-shot quality, taken often between Hall’s film shooting, they give us a strong visual reference to his life and times.  From early fifties street scenes of New Orleans to Governor Earl Long toasting the crowd at his successor’s inauguaration (Jimmie Davis of “ You Are My Sunshine” fame) in Louisiana, from Pope Paul VI and the revolutionary Vatican II proceedings in Rome to the rice terraces of the war in Vietnam, from being On the Road with Charles Kuralt to walking across Red Square in Moscow with Walter Cronkite for the CBS Evening News, the photographs – all black and white – remind us of some of the most memorable moments in U.S. and world history from the last half of the 20th century – and Dell Hall was often there.

The Photojournalism of Del Hall ultimately functions (very successfully) on several levels – as biography, as (post-WWII New Orleans ) history, as inspiration for would-be photojournalists, and not least of all, as an American success story.  And at the core of Dell Hall’s very American story is the key to that success, the pragmatic work ethic that the Sisters of Charity at St. Joseph’s elementary school at 417 South Roman taught him, a philosophy that always guided his life: 

            Good, better, best.

            Never let it rest.

            ‘Till your good is better

            And your better’s best.

Reviewed by Jefferson Hendricks, Centenary College of Louisiana

Jefferson (Jeff) Hendricks is a Shreveport native who received his Ph.D. from The University of Illinois and returned to teach  English and film studies at his undergraduate alma mater.  He currently holds the George A. Wilson Eminent Scholars Chair of American Literature at Centenary College.