Portrait of an artist: Preserving the U.P.'s past

It’s not often people are able to turn one of their passions into a life-long career. But for Jack Deo, what began as a hobby has led to an exciting opportunity to help capture and preserve history in the Upper Peninsula and throughout Michigan. 
Jack Deo
Earlier this month, Deo – who has a photography collection spanning over 100 years, was a recipient of the 2022 Upper Peninsula Folklife Awards given by the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center, a historical museum and educational facility on Northern Michigan University’s campus. 

Alice Johnson, a regional quilter and textile preservationist, was also honored at the in-person event, which took place at the college.

Why Deo was nominated

“At first glance, some might wonder why a collector of historic photographs would be a good recipient for a folklife award, which typically goes to creators of folk culture such as music, craft, dance, etc.,” said Dan Truckey, director of NMU’s Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center. “I think Jack is a perfect example of how a person can make a major contribution to the preservation of the Upper Peninsula's traditional culture (because) the images he collects show a vanishing landscape and way of life in the U.P., though one we everyday try to recapture in our lives.”

Deo’s library consisting of hundreds of thousands of photographs encapsulates the “occupational folklore of our citizens from the mid-19th century as well as their leisure lives,” Truckey said. 

“We see hunters at their camps, geologists in the field, women fly fishing, fishermen mending their nets, the clothing that people wore, and so many other examples of the folklife of our region,” he explained. “People will be using these images for the next century and beyond to understand what life was like in the U.P. during the 19th and early 20th century. His work, and collection, is an important repository of the ‘Yooper’ way-of-life.”

Deo’s introduction to photography

A Dearborn native, Deo credits his 10th-grade photography instructor at Edsel Ford High School for fueling his admiration of the art.

“The school truly had a great humanities program which included a photography class where you rolled your own film, developed and printed it,” he said. “My teacher, Lee Bartlett, changed my life forever because I started taking photos then and I’ve had a camera ever since.”

Deo moved to Marquette after high school to attend NMU, where he majored in sociology and graduated in 1975. “I was still taking photos, though,” he said. “Mostly nature photography because I lived on Lake Superior then. I wished I would have majored in photography, but I didn’t know my passion would turn into a career, but I got lucky and it did.”

Views of the past 

Deo worked in a youth home for a short period before “taking a radical turn” and, along with the support of his wife, Cindy, opened Superior View Studio, on the second floor of Donckers, a candy shop on Washington Street in Marquette, in 1978. 
Jack Deo at his Superior View Studio.While preparing to open his studio, Child’s Art Gallery – a 110-year-old business that received numerous awards for its well-known photographs of the region – shuttered its doors. All equipment and thousands of old glass negatives were sold to an auctioneer, which Deo later purchased. 

In 1997, Deo opened an additional studio in Mackinaw City, which he ran for 10 years. During that time, he “started collecting as many photographs” of the Lower Peninsula as possible.

After 25 years, the Marquette studio moved from its original location to the corner of Third and Washington streets – to a building that now houses Yoop-phoria – until 2013. Deo has since worked from home in a studio built adjacent to his house.   

Collection and online store

Through close relationships with historical societies and museums, attending auctions, trading with others and people donating their own albums, Deo’s collection has grown substantially over 40 years. 

“Every day I’m scanning images, but people keep bringing me stuff, which is the best part for me because I’ve met so many great people,” he said. “I’d say just last year I got another 20,000 images. I collect negatives. Prints are great, but negatives have all the original data. I have glass slide collections and stereo cards, stacks of CDs and DVDs, bags of jump drives, external hard drives, you name it.” 

Chances are, you’ve seen a small portion of Deo’s collection if you’ve read regional articles or books with historical photos, visited the Art of Framing, Portside Inn, Iron Bay Restaurant, The Courtyards in Marquette or Pictured Rocks Cruises’ gift shop in Munising. 

The aforementioned, among many other organizations, proudly display old photos used from his personal archive. Marquette Mountain, a popular ski resort, has a few shots of moose displayed, which Deo photographed while on Isle Royale National Park. He’s also known for his skill with a camera.

Deo has an eBay Store, website and prints for sale in stores all around the U.P. “The eBay store keeps me busy,” he said. “I package and send out photographs almost every day.” 

While some people scoff at the idea that “every person with a cell phone is a photographer,” Deo’s optimistic about it.

“I think it’s great, the more photographers the better. I’ve never seen so many wonderful pictures. The ore dock and lighthouse in Marquette are two of the most popular landmarks, but you’re seeing them all at different angles now and they’re taking them all from their phones,” he said. “It’s amazing, I bring my phone with me everywhere. It’s nice because I don’t always have to lug my big digital Canon anymore.”

Helping local history 

Deo, along with local historian and well-known radio personality Jim Koski, have been instrumental in hosting annual fundraisers for the Marquette Regional History Center. 

Deo will be part of an upcoming event in January, “Lights, Camera, Marquette: The Silent Films.”

“We’re going to show old movies of the Marquette area that I discovered in the alley behind Donckers. The Delft Theater, when it closed, threw out all these old films from 1914-1949 and I had saved them years ago but recently had them digitized,” Deo said, adding that he already has an idea for another fundraiser. “I would eventually like to do a show about logging, too. I must have at least 500 photos in my collection from places like Seney, which had 24 saloons, fights every day, killings. Logging camps were wild places back then but extremely interesting.”

Deo’s involvement with the history center goes much deeper than hosting events, however.

“I started working with Jack in the late 2000s when we were still in the Front Street museum. Our first collaboration was with stereo cards from his collection and our collection. The crowd wore 3D glasses to see the show while listening to Jack tell the stories behind each card,” said Cris Osier, director of the MRHC. “Once we moved into Spring Street, Jack came up with themes for shows starting in 2013. We are in our 11th year of pairing Jack's photo collection with our collection and Jim Koski has joined in to tell the incredible history of Marquette County.”

Deo has contributed immensely to the history center’s main gallery and special exhibits throughout the years, Osier said.

“Jack has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to photography, cameras, knowing people in our community and the history of our area,” she said. “I'm lucky to know Jack and consider him a dear friend. He has helped us make history fun and exciting for our community and I cannot thank him enough for all he does.”

Other honors

Deo, 69, would not have been able to do what he loves if Cindy “didn’t have a real job,” he joked. While his wife worked as a school teacher, “she’s always been supportive.” 

Jack and his wife Cindy pose in vintage clothing.To honor the Deos, the Lake Superior Art Association’s gallery in the basement of Marquette’s Peter White Public Library was named “the Deo Gallery” in December 2018. Deo was also presented with a lifetime achievement award during the ceremony. 

Over the years, he has also received the Peter White Award from the MRHC, three awards from the City of Marquette Arts and Culture Department, including the first-ever Visual Artist Award in 1997, and several others.

For more information about Deo, visit his website at viewsofthepast.com.

Upcoming events with Deo 

“Lights, Camera, Marquette: The Silent Films,” will be held at 7 p.m.  Jan. 26 in Kaufman Auditorium at Graveraet School in Marquette. Tickets can be purchased on the history center’s website or in person at 145 W. Spring St., Marquette.

“Sunburns to Snowstorms,” a presentation based on a book co authored by Deo and meteorologist and author Karl Bohnak, on Dec. 15 at the Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay Originally built in 1911 and converted to an inn by Henry Ford, the building is adorned with old-time photos that Deo supplied.