It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a wedding dress.
The 60 Buffalo brides are clad in white satin and tulle, carrying gardenias and wearing pearls and diamonds as they gaze out from their portraits – images captured in glowing black and white so many years ago.
Seen today, they sparkle.
Who are these women from the city’s past?
And – after the wedding cake was sliced, the bridal bouquets thrown, the honeymoons enjoyed – whatever happened to them?
That’s the riddle Ettore Porreca, who took the pictures, is hoping to solve, with help from the Buffalo History Museum.
The bridal portraits were taken by Porreca, who had a shop on Seneca Street, and then displayed in a well-known Delaware Avenue bridal shop over three decades.
Porreca, now 92, is the reason the brides came to light, after as many as 60 years. ¶ The poster-sized portraits had been stored in Porreca’s West Seneca basement since the 1970s. He recently rediscovered them – and decided that he would like to return the vintage pictures to the lovely young women who sat for their pictures so many decades ago.
“I thought they should have them,” said Porreca, a former war photographer who ran the Ettore-Winter Studio in South Buffalo for many years with the photographer Ralph Winter.
“We used to have a saying, ‘Photographs have the least value on the day they are delivered,’” Porreca said. “As time goes on, they become heirlooms.”
The public can view the portraits virtually in images released by the museum, and today they can see them in person.
The museum is hosting one public showing of the photographs, at an event called “Something Old, Something New,” today at 4 p.m.
Here is the story of how the brides came to be chosen for the portraits.
And, what is being done to find them.
Ettore Porreca grew up in Buffalo, though he was born in Italy. He emigrated to this country with his family when he was 8 years old. His father was a blacksmith, a trade that had run in the family.
But Porreca had a knack, not for metal, but for light and space. He was talented at photography.
During World War II, Porreca spent 2½ years as a combat photographer, much of that time attached to the British Army. In one memorable period, he captured on film the British forces as they retook the country then known as Burma, now Myanmar.
After he left the service, Porreca returned to the United States and began trying to make a new career for himself.
“I had to find a way of making a living,” he said.
He reconnected with an old friend, Ralph Winter, who had attended high school with him at Seneca Vocational – Porreca had been in the class of 1939. Winter also served in the war.
“We got together after the war ... and decided to start a business,” said Porreca. “We bought out a very small business in South Buffalo, called the Hollywood Studio.”
“We immediately changed the name,” he said.
The business was located on Seneca Street, where it remained during the time the two men ran it.
Porreca said that the studio started out doing all kinds of photography: general work, commercial jobs. They soon learned that they had a knack for one particular type of picture: wedding portraiture.
“We did a lot of weddings,” Porreca recalled. “Weddings became a big thing.”
That’s when the idea for the series of large-sized portraits – the ones now at the History Museum – was hatched.
It took a bridal shop to make it happen.
Tegler’s brides were beautiful, as were all brides in the city, then and now, of course.
Tegler’s Inc. – purveyor of bridal wear, as well as fine evening dresses and other clothing – was a tony shop on Delaware Avenue next to where the Pitt Petri shop was located for years. Some of the brides were coming back to show the owner their portraits – the ones taken by Porreca and Winter at their Seneca Street studio.
The quality of the portraits – their simplicity, their beauty – must have given her an inspiration.
The bridal shop owner – her name was Phyllis, Porreca recalls – told the Ettore-Winter photographers that if they gave her copies of photos of brides wearing Tegler gowns, she would display the portraits in her well-known and highly trafficked store.
That’s how a golden period began.
“There were lots of photographers in the city at the time,” Porreca remembered. “[But] the more [work] we did, the more they came. And the more they came, the more we did.”
“It just built on itself.”
Porreca and Winter equipped their studio with features meant to make a young woman feel like a queen – at least for a day.
In the “camera room” at Ettore-Winter’s Seneca Street digs, women posed for their portraits in a 20-by-30-foot room with 12-foot ceilings. The walls, floor and ceiling were all painted white. Behind the subjects, a roll of white paper assured that each young woman received a fresh, crisp background.
“Other studios didn’t have the ability to do full-length shots like that,” Porreca said.
Then there was Porreca’s own method of photographing the women in their bridal dresses. He would position them carefully – either in head-and-shoulder poses, or in full-length postures meant to showcase the gorgeous detailing on their gowns – and then use what he called his “bounce light” to illuminate the image.
“We devised a system of lighting where we used ‘bounce’ light. We’d bounce light off walls, ceilings. No direct light at all, only indirect,” Porreca explained.
The studio even advertised its technique. It produced “Brides with Bounce,” the studio claimed.
In Porreca’s view, those differences are the reason that Ettore-Winter produced so many beautiful images of women in their wedding finery.
“It was not easy to do. It required some knowledge,” he said. “But with bounce light, it was very subtle. There were no dark shadows.”
Over time, Porreca and Winter’s studio became a mainstay on the Buffalo bridal scene. Many of the studio’s photos appeared in local newspapers, as part of wedding announcements.
“We were considered, if not the top, then one of the top,” Porreca said. “We built a reputation.”
After a while, it seemed they had become the choice of generations.
“We’d get girls from everywhere,” Porreca said. “One girl said, ‘Doesn’t everyone come here?’ ”
Along the way, Porreca built a marriage of 62 years with his wife, Louise. They were married in Fourteen Holy Helpers Catholic Church in May 1950, and raised four children. Today, they still live in the same family home in West Seneca.
In the mid-1970s, the owner of Tegler’s retired, and the Delaware Avenue bridal shop closed.
Porreca reclaimed the 60 black-and-white images, mounted on sturdy poster board, and took them home.
Two things are certain about the pictures: they were all taken in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and in each one, the bride is wearing a gown purchased at Tegler’s.
But none of the portraits are labeled with identifying information about the bride, or even a specific date. Porreca and the History Museum staff are hoping people will look through the images, and maybe recognize the face of a family member or friend.
This is the first time the History Museum has offered itself as a point of contact for reconnecting portrait subjects with their images, said Constance M. Caldwell, director of communications and community engagement for the History Museum.
“It’s never been done,” Caldwell said. “So we are discovering, organically, as we go along, what we need to do.”
But the History Museum views the old photos as a delightful addition to the “Something Old, Something New” exhibit, Caldwell said.
And, she said, the public interest piqued by the vintage images has been surprising.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” Caldwell said, adding that calls have come from as far away as Texas.
So far, however, just a handful of the photographs have been positively identified and claimed, Caldwell said. Some of the calls have resulted in “disappointed brides,” she said. The best part of the effort may be this:
For those brides who see themselves in one of the vintage photographs – or for those family members who see the face of a loved one – the reward will be the gift of the portrait itself.
Porreca has decided to give each woman, or each family, the image he captured – all those years ago.
“I was thinking,” he said, “I would like to give some of them back, if I could.”
He might make just one small change, he said. He might autograph the images, down in the corner.
It’s just another way, Porreca said, of reaching out – and touching the past.