Photographer and travelogue lecturer Branson DeCou journeyed the world for thirty years before his death in 1941 at the relatively young age of 49. He was born October 20, 1892, in Philadelphia, a city with a long history of photographic invention, from the pioneer Langenheim brothers to the work of Thomas Eakins. The city also has a tradition of collecting and publishing photographs--the Library Company of Philadelphia, American's oldest cultural institution, had exceptional holdings of photographic works well before 1900--as well as active associations for professionals and amateurs such as the Philadelphia Photographic Exchange Club and the Philadelphia Photographic Society.
DeCou's father was in the wholesale shoe business in Philadelphia, but the family relocated to New Jersey where Branson attended Blair Academy in Blairstown. Upon graduation in 1910 he entered the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken where he more fully developed his interest in photography. After a year, however, he left to initiate what would become a lifelong pursuit of touring the world.
The fabulous Panama Pacific International Exposition of San Francisco's 1915 World's Fair attracted an enormous number of visitors, including Branson DeCou, who in a series of photographs recorded the Fair's night effects so effectively that they were brought to the attention of Underwood and Underwood, a leading American photographic concern, for publication. The wide circulation of these images encouraged DeCou to begin his own work in travelogue lecturing, allying his interests in travel and photography. He embarked in a field that was widely popular at the time as a form of entertainment and education. Since the mid-1800s, public and private lantern slide shows were put on by photographers in clubs, schools, lodges, and museums on a variety of themes including world travel, religion, temperance, comic subjects, or literary retellings. DeCou traversed America speaking to local community organizations such as the Union League Club of Chicago, the New Jersey Orange Women's Club, and also lecturing in academic and cultural institutions such as the University of Hawaii and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
In each venue the travelogue was illustrated with an average of 150 hand-colored lantern slides and the images synchronized to music. He called his shows "Dream Pictures" and advertised them as a "fascinating new form of entertainment." His promotional brochures exclaimed "with the aid of the dissolving shutter and double stereopticon exquisitely colored slides are projected perfectly synchronized to the music of the masters reproduced on the Victrola, the combination of the two inspiring emotions." DeCou was available for single engagements on selected subjects such as "Jungle Bound Angkor" or he could be booked for a complete series given in the form of a continuous trip "Around the Southern Hemisphere: South Africa, South America, Australia, Tasmania, and the South Sea Islands."
DeCou was apparently highly successful, as these testimonials from several engagements convey. "The slides were the most beautiful that we have ever had the opportunity to view. As for the lecture, you had them so spellbound that they forgot to get uneasy and restless even in the uncomfortable camp chairs. Your enunciation is clear and the little witty personalities that you inserted were very kindly received. You have the gift of side-stepping the stereotyped line of talk usual in travelogues," observed a reviewer for the Newark Camera Club of New Jersey. "You surely have reason for a swelling of the chest over that magnificent audience and its evidence of deep satisfaction with the evening," wrote Charles Atkins, Director of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Each of the programs had its own title: "Alluring Bali: The Last Paradise," "Ever Captivating Paris," "The Garden of Allah: Algeria and Tunisia," and also its special music: Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor for "Nature's Supreme Spectacle: The Grand Canyon of the Colorado," the second movement of Haydn's Trio in G Major for the "Wonders of San Marco."
In March of 1932 DeCou made a second marriage to Elsie Vera Stanley, a fellow lecturer. For the last nine years of his life they traveled extensively, and together they continued to present what then were called "musical travelogues, illustrated with masterpieces of art and photography." Often Elsie, in a booked two week long engagement, would lecture one evening on a specific country and Branson would perform on the next. For reserved single admission the price would be 75 cents, for a series ticket the cost was $2.00. Ever the constant travelers, the DeCous appear to have established temporary residencies in several cities, including Hollywood, California, where they held screenings for cultural notaries. "I must tell you how delighted we all were with the lovely DeCou pictures and music. My guests included Rex Ingram, Mr. and Mrs. William DeMille, etc.--all of who enjoyed them tremendously," wrote Ruth St. Denis of Los Angeles.
Branson died of a heart attack on December 12, 1941, at the home of his mother, Mrs. Charles Berwin of East Orange, New Jersey. He had come to New Jersey after completing a lecture tour in the Eastern section of the country. Elsie continued to lecture for several years using Branson's slides. She lived in California in Carmel, Laguna Beach, and eventually San Marcos, where she died on the first day of January, 1997, at the age of 96. In the decades after Branson's death she continued to travel, often observing the changes in culture and landscape, and frequently commenting that the pollution of some world regions made her heartsick. Some of her correspondence, for example, notes that in 1984, at the age of 83, she had spent the winter in Europe, three months in Nairobi, and had also been to Manila and Hong Kong.
The days of lecturing with lantern slides were long over, however. Commercial color slides had been available since the 1940s, replacing the magical, hand-tinted and luminous lantern slides as a more accurate and expedient way to provide instruction and entertainment to viewers. Elsie, at the suggestion of fellow Carmel resident Ansel Adams, proposed that the newly inaugurated campus of the University of California in nearby Santa Cruz be the recipient of her late husband's photographic work. In 1971, UCSC's University Library received Branson's artistic inheritance of 10,000 photographic images. The works covered every part of the world: from Laplanders to South Pacific Islanders, from Japanese pagodas to Egyptian pyramids. Through DeCou's vision we, who have inherited the images, can see life before industrialization, the destruction of World War II, the effects of urbanization, and the loss of local craft and cultural traditions.
Biography by Christine Bunting, Head of Special Collections and Archives.From the finding aid for Branson DeCou Archive, 1920-1941 (University of California, Santa Cruz. University Library. Special Collections and Archives)