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Clifford Norton Studio History


Zooming in on 95 years
Norton studio marks anniversary, moves to Solon


Picture a barefoot family clad in pastel or white clothing comfortably lounging against a stark white background. Now picture this image exquisitely framed and hanging in the family’s home. It’s a look that’s become as classic as the Clifford Norton Studio, which celebrates its 95th anniversary this year.

The studio has survived the Great Depression, two world wars, a devastating fire and a change of ownership, said Betty Norton Greve, the daughter of Clifford Norton. And as the studio grew and expanded, it had to move several times to locations that better suited its needs.

Tomorrow it will move again, going from Mayfield Heights to a studio at 26801 Miles Rd. in Solon. It’s twice as large and has more natural lighting, says Michael Lichterman, who bought the studio in 1995. The look Clifford Norton pioneered has withstood the test of time. When he opened his studio in 1906, he made a name for himself by being among the first to take portraits outside, said his 84-year-old daughter, who, along with her brother, carried on the tradition.

Now Lichterman is the one snapping family portraits in that same familiar style. “What we’re doing is a photojournalist kind of photography,” Lichterman said. “But Don [Clifford Norton’s son] and [his wife] Carol were doing it 30 years ago. They just didn’t have the label. If you look at old Clifford Norton’s photographs, they could have been taken 40 years ago or today.

Don Norton, 82, who (at time of interview) now lives in Chicago, said he felt at ease with Lichterman taking over. “His enthusiasm for it was wonderful. The idea that he wanted to work with us for a year before taking over the studio and knowing how he would work made a smooth transition,” he recalled.

Greve said one of the things she likes best about Lichterman’s work is that it is so similar to Don’s. And to her own.

Greve began taking pictures for her father in 1942, when Don Norton left to serve in what was then called the Air Corps. At the time, a female photographer was unusual, she said. “There was an undercurrent of ‘What’s this girl doing here?’” she said, drawing out and emphasizing the word “girl” while scrunching up her nose. “Very shortly this passed. Girls were doing everything pretty soon.”

Greve almost didn’t have the chance to work for her father because a fire nearly destroyed the studio in 1926. The blaze began when her father was trying to make proofs by exposing them to a special light called an arclight. Sticks of carbon burned brightly from the center of the huge circular light, and a spark from one of the sticks started the fire. Although many people encouraged Clifford Norton to declare bankruptcy, he was determined to rebuild the business. The studio eventually did well enough that Clifford Norton was able to move it from 96th St. and Euclid Ave. to a larger location in Shaker Heights in 1950. He died in 1959 and never got to see what Greve calls one of the studio’s most elegant locations, in La Place, where the studio moved in 1969. As the studio changed through the years, so did the technology.

“In those days, you pulled the film out of the camera” to advance the film, Greve said. She recalls one wedding in which she forgot to pull out the film. The end of the ceremony was a flurry of activity, she said. She quickly snapped the bride and groom as they moved from the balcony, down the stairs and out the church. Later she realized all three images were on the same exposure. Luckily, Greve said, the bride and groom liked the photo because they thought it captured the motion and speed of the moment. Despite the advancements in technology and the new studios, one thing never changed, Greve said. No matter how many weddings she photographed, she was nervous before every one. Still, Greve said she’d love to do it again. “It’s in my blood, I think,” she said.

Above: Katherine Alday reaches down to her nephew in this wedding photo taken by Michael Lichterman, current owner of the Clifford Norton Studio.

Below: This bridal photo, circa 1929, was taken by Clifford Norton.The studio he founded has been taking wedding photographs and family portraits in Cleveland since 1906