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Shirlie Montgomery: Picturing San José Since 1938

"When the big boys start bouncing over the ropes, it's every man for himself, and that goes for girl photographers as well." Shirlie Montgomery, San Francisco Examiner, August 2, 1953

Shirlie Montgomery
Shirlie Montgomery led a colorful life. Her love of photography, sports, current events and a good time put her in a unique position to document both the historic and the ordinary. From local disasters to high-society gatherings, she captured post World War II culture in Santa Clara Valley. In her quest to capture the moment with her 4x5 speed graphic camera, Montgomery was often adventurous, whether shooting aerial photographs of downtown San Jose or getting close to a blazing fire in her pumps. Later, an assignment to cover a professional wrestling match at the Civic Auditorium led to a multi-year relationship with the sport and its participants. The quality of her images eventually secured her induction as a photographer into the Slammers World Wrestling Hall of Fame. Montgomery passed away in November 2012 at a youthful 94. History San Jose wishes to acknowledge the generosity of Susan and Bob Bortfeld who donated many photographs, documents and personal items from Montgomery's estate. We also wish to acknowledge Robert J. Bettencourt for his generous sponsorship of the exhibit.
A natural talent
Shirlie Alice Montgomery was born on Chapman Street, San José, on June 9, 1918, to parents Rae and Madeline Montgomery. Her artistic and creative abilities blossomed at an early age; Montgomery was a talented dancer who performed with future Hollywood sister actresses Joan (Fontaine) and Olivia De Havilland. In middle school, the local newspaper published her book reviews. Recognizing his only child's interests, her father built a darkroom in their small home. In her late teens, Montgomery began keeping a daily journal; she continued this habit throughout her career to record her appointments with clients. Additionally, she created numerous photo albums of family and friends, documenting her frequent outings to Santa Cruz beach. Never married, Montgomery was known throughout her life as fun-loving and sure of her opinions. Later in life, she enjoyed sipping martinis on her front porch while umpiring neighborhood whiffle ball games, in which she inevitably had the final word. "I was about the only blond in the neighborhood and stuck out, so every time the Queen of the Fairies or the Christmas Angel was being cast, guess who got elected? I've never been able to escape the spotlight." -- Shirlie Montgomery, San José Mercury News, April 11, 1999.
Nights at the De Anza
Montgomery began her career at the De Anza Hotel on Santa Clara Street, where she was employed to create photographic gifts for hotel guests. After photographing guests as they socialized, she would develop the photos in a small, on-site darkroom, then sell the images to guests as they departed for the evening. Because of the De Anza's reputation as one of "the" places to socialize in San José, Montgomery met many servicemen during World War II, whom she befriended, and photographed. Montgomery's collection includes dozens of letters from young men serving their country overseas, writing to request copies of photographs, or expressing their friendship with the vivacious photographer. "'Flash' was my first nickname! I worked in the San José Camera Shop during the daytime, and took nite-club photos at the De Anza Hotel at night. And 'Flash' was what the service-men called me. Those were the days my friend..." -- Shirlie Montgomery, Unsent letter to a friend, August 1989.
Freelance celebrity
As male photographers left to join the war effort, Montgomery seized the opportunity to work as a "stringer" -- an independent correspondent paid by the job. Her photographs were picked up for publication by the San José Mercury News and the San Francisco Examiner. As a newspaper photographer, she met many local and national celebrities, some of whom hired her for personal portraits. "You meet so many people as a photographer. How else could a poor girl meet celebrities like Eleanor Roosevelt and Liberace? As a photographer, you're in all kinds of worlds, worlds you would never otherwise enter." -- Shirlie Montgomery, Rose Garden Resident, July 10, 2003.
The Professional
The flexibility of free-lance photography enabled Montgomery to capture over several decades the opening of new businesses, local disasters, memorable events, and social activities. Working from her downtown shop at 354 West Santa Clara Street, she became a visible fixture in San José with her smart attire and 4x5 camera. Her captivating personality opened up numerous work opportunities within the community. Drawing on her artistic talents, Montgomery took pride in correctly framing a scene, or making her subject look their best -- such as adjusting Bill Hewlett's tie during a portrait session. She took a similar approach while in the darkroom. In today's digital age, the talent and patience required for film photography is often forgotten. As illustrated by these images, Montgomery was a professional and perfectionist. "Unlike other photographers, I could tell Shirlie what I wanted in a shot and not have to be there myself. She knew just what I wanted, how to do things right. And she was always properly attired, in dress and pumps." -- Jane McClelland, client of Shirlie Montgomery, San José Mercury News, April 11, 1999.
Experimentation
Long before Photoshop and YouTube, Montgomery experimented with composition and film. Her annual holiday cards exhibit her technique and humor. The video of the 1960 opening day of Candlestick Park was one of her first forays into motion pictures; her collection includes the hand-made title cards.
Photography Entries at the Santa Clara County Fair
In the ring
After World War II and before the expansion of major league baseball to the West coast in 1958, professional wrestling was a popular sport in San José. Weekly matches were held in the Civic Auditorium, on land donated by Montgomery's great-uncle T. S. Montgomery. Shirlie was introduced to the sport by her father Rae. An acquaintance from the Mercury News invited Montgomery to bring her camera to a match. Her action shots soon began appearing in local newspapers, and she became a regular at the press table. The atmosphere was more interesting than the standard studio work most women photographers were doing at the time. The quality of Montgomery's images was recognized throughout professional wrestling, and she became lifelong friends of many in the community. Wrestler Vern Langdon honored her as an original legend inductee at his Sun Valley Slammers Wrestling Gym's Hall of Fame. Surrounded by many good-looking, heavily muscled bodies, Montgomery often remarked, "I like the big boys."
The Ringside Bar
Former wrestler Glen Neece opened The Ringside Bar at 307 North First Street, San José, in 1951. Angelo Cistoldi, another wrestler, became co-owner shortly thereafter. On the walls were many framed images of Montgomery's wrestling photographs, as well as photographs of patrons of the Ringside who descended on the bar after matches at the Civic Auditorium throughout the 1950s. With her trusty 4x5 camera on the ready, Montgomery was able to capture the moment, returning each week with the prior week's images. "The Ringside became my father's means of support for the family when he was done with wrestling. The highlight was on nights of the fights the wrestlers would come into the Ringside after the matches and mingle. There were names such as Gorgeous George, The Sharp brothers Ben and Mike, Leo Normalini, Dean Detton etc. It was there that Shirlie Montgomery hung out and took pictures of all the wrestlers and the going ons." -- Angi Cirigliano, Daughter of Angelo Cistoldi.
Credits: Exhibit

Exhibit created by History San José Collections & Exhibitions staff and volunteers. The physical exhibit was previously on display at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House in 2014.

Thanks to donors and sponsors Robert J. Bettencourt, and Susan and Bob Bortfeld.

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.