By Tom Burton
When a photography intern started at the Toledo Blade, picture editor David Cantor would ask if they knew the work of Walker Evans. If they had not heard of the famed photographer known for his documentary work in the 1930s Great Depression, Cantor made sure they knew those images before the young photographers finished their internships.
His love of photography, history, and a passion for teaching were the keystones of Cantor’s personality. The educator and former photography editor died in Toledo, Ohio on September 6 after a battle with cancer. He was 61.
Throughout his career, Cantor was a newsroom advocate who could be contentious during “strong discussions,” according to Larry Roberts, the former director of photography at the Toledo Blade.
“He was a New Yorker by temperament, by design, by background - you name it,” Roberts said. Cantor would argue for pictures that would add to the storytelling and his involvement would sometimes rankle desk editors who weren’t used to visual editors making the decisions. And Cantor, Roberts said, was always right.
“I never saw David Cantor make a bad decision in which picture to use,” Roberts said.
Born in Staten Island, NY, Cantor lived most of his early life in the area, with a short time in Boston as a child where he became a Boston Red Sox fan. In 1979, he was back in Manhattan at a laundromat in SoHo when a young woman caught his eye. He asked if he could borrow her Arts & Entertainment section from The New York Times, knowing that asking for the sports section wouldn’t impress her as much.
Jeanne Gatoura was the woman in the laundromat and that day, Cantor asked her to dinner. He was “always making me laugh,” she said. They were together ever since, marrying in 1990.
Cantor loved photography, but he also had a passion for jazz. He had a large music collection and had done album photography for guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. He also had hundreds of books in his home library, including an extensive collection of photography titles. He had been a volunteer firefighter in Clinton, NY and was a super fan for the AAA baseball team, the Toledo Mud Hens.
Professionally, he had been a stringer for the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse and had worked for The New York Times. Cantor meet Roberts while covering the United Nations and when Roberts took the photography director's job in Toledo, he brought on Cantor as a picture editor. There, Cantor edited the historical photographs that accompanied stories on atrocities in the Vietnam War, a series that won the Blade its first Pulitzer Prize in 2004.
Friends and family describe him as brilliant, with a talent for recalling historical details for almost any situation, but especially for photography. He was also very direct, often sarcastic and he knew that others thought he could be a bit of a curmudgeon. His social media avatar was a portrait drawn by a cartoonist. When examined closely, one could see the heavy eyebrows dawn as knitted scowl.
Cantor was also generous, giving time to upcoming photographers in various ways, including the National Press Photographers Association's Mentor program. Many of those he advised have gone on to success.
“I credit David with really helping me with my career,” said Gerry McCarthy, a staff photographer at The Dallas Morning News. McCarthy had decided late in his senior year at college to focus on photography and it was too late to take the right courses. Cantor, as his mentor, helped McCarthy through his early years in the profession.
McCarthy said one Cantor’s lasting insights pertained to finding picture stories and projects to work on. McCarthy was finding stories, but was put off because other photographers had covered the same subject. Cantor said that if McCarthy hadn’t done the story before, it would be new to McCarthy.
“Something about the experience will be important to you whether now, or later in you career,” McCarthy said Cantor told him.
In 2008, Cantor was laid off during staff cuts at the Blade and for awhile, he wasn’t working. Lori King, a staff photographer for the Blade who also was a adjunct instructor at Owens Community College in Toledo, called Cantor to speak to one of her classes about the history of photography. And he was great.
Cantor didn’t have the degree needed to teach at the college, but a lab manager job came open and King pointed him in that direction. He would go on to run the wet darkrooms and manage the equipment room that ranged from large format film cameras to DSLRs. And, of course, he would mentor and teach.
“It was a really nice fit for him,” King said.
Gatoura, Cantor’s wife, said he loved his most recent job so much that he was devastated when his illness took a bad turn and he knew he would miss the start of the fall semester. Protective of his private life, he had not told most of his coworkers about his illness. His passion for the profession, described as “inexhaustible” in one LinkedIn recommendation, was still burning.