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Photographer Johnny Donnels, 84, dies

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Photographer Johnny Donnels, 84, dies
By Dominic Massa / WWL-TV Eyewitness News

Noted New Orleans photographer Johnny Donnels, a fixture in the French Quarter art community, whose works were exhibited and collected worldwide, died Thursday. He was 84.

Family members said Donnels fell last week at his home and broke his hip. Donnels’ wife Joan said surgery and time in intensive care followed before his death early Thursday.

Donnels was the focus of a recent documentary, The Pink Satin Suit, produced by Anastasia and Will Lyman. The program, featuring commentary from Donnels’ friends and colleagues, will be shown next month on PBS affiliate WYES-TV Channel 12 in New Orleans.

“I don’t know whether I’ll ever become a New Orleans character like him, but he’s what they call a real New Orleans character,” said Pete Fountain in an interview for the Lymans’ documentary.

Though he was a renowned photographer, Donnels’ artistic career actually began as a painter, an avocation he took up after returning home to New Orleans after World War II. In the 1960s, he bartered a painting for a camera, and a career change followed.

His photographic images of the city, its characters, and the French Quarter in particular won him acclaim for more than 50 years. For much of that time, Donnels lived and worked in the French Quarter, operating out of a gallery at 634 St. Peter Street, just steps from Jackson Square. In the 1940s, his neighbor was playwright Tennessee Williams.

Donnels’ work, chronicled in a 1999 book, has been exhibited at the Kennedy Center, Harvard University, the Ford Times Collection of American Art, the National Academy of Design, the New Orleans Museum of Art and Historic New Orleans Collection.

Donnels’ talents were also put to use by law enforcement agencies, in the specialized field of forensic art, as a police sketch artist.

In addition to his wife of more than 48 years, Donnels is survived by a son and two daughters.

Mrs. Donnels said a memorial service is planned for him on March 27.