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The Amazing Michigan Photography of Steven Donahue

Researching topics that interest me in the Upper Thumb sometimes takes a turn to discover something truely amazing. This is one of those cases. I was in the Detroit Public Library digital collections, looking up if there was any material on the Historical Bay Port Fishing District. I had written an article last year and wanted to freshen it up. I was disappointed as there were only a few black and white shots taken in the 1970s. It wasn’t much to build on, but I downloaded them to look at them later.

Who Was this Photographer?

The next day I was in a frame of mind that wanted to know who took those photographs. I discovered that the photographer was Steven W. Donahue. Steven was born and grew up on his family farm near Port Hope. He moved away and started studying the arts, including photography, in Chicago. He was in the military during the Vietnam War and became an MP. Part of his job was to photograph deaths and burials. A job I’m sure was not pleasant.

From time to time, he would come back to his parent’s farm and photograph the area. Below are a select few of his shots taken from the 1000’s now in various collections.


The Fishing Boat Patsy - Bay Port Michigan
“The Patsy, Bayport [sic], Mich., 1976. Steven W. Donahue.” – Courtesy Detroit Public Library – Steven W. Donahue Collection –

Tawas and Rover in Bay Port 1970s
“Michigan Thumb area–Water–Fishing boats onshore, Bayport [sic], MI, 1977.” – Courtesy Detroit Public Library – Steven W. Donahue Collection

Bay Port c1970 Fishing Boat Sea Captain
Bay Port c1970 Fishing Boat Sea Captain – Courtesy Detroit Public Library – Steven W. Donahue Collection

Past Its Prime Oldsmobile Grill
Michigan Thumb area–Past its prime–Tractor or truck or car grille and headlamps.” – Courtesy Detroit Public Library – Steven W. Donahue Collection

DeSoto, Port Hope, Mich., 1976
“DeSoto, Port Hope, Mich., 1976. Steven W. Donahue. – Courtesy Detroit Public Library – Steven W. Donahue Collection

Blue Sky Drive In
Michigan Thumb area–Small towns–Blue Sky Drive-In. – Courtesy Detroit Public Library – Steven W. Donahue Collection

About Steven Donahue

Steven was born in Harbor Beach, Michigan July 28, 1944. While growing up, he spent many hours playing and studying nature in the wooded portion of his parents’ 160-acre farm near Port Hope in Michigan’s Thumb and was an amateur astronomer.

When he took pictures through the telescope the local drugstore didn’t process the shots because they said there was nothing there, just spots. That caused him to ask the local photographer in nearby Harbor Beach to teach him how to print his own pictures. This began his over 50-year career as a photographer and master of the darkroom. 

While living in Chicago during the 1960s Steven became very interested in the blues. He studied blues harmonica with Corky Siegel.

Steve and Paula in Harbor Beach

I was fortunate to contact Paula Donahue, and she gave me more insight into their time in the Upper Thumb.

Steve met Paula in Chicago in 1971 then got swept up in the back-to-the-land movement. They moved back to the family farm with its 100 acres of woods. The 1800s brick farmhouse was built after the Michigan fire and had beams made of burnt wood in the basement. The beams were low, and Steven kept hitting his head on them.

Paula considered it was a safe choice for two starry eyed young adults in their 20s. She was an avowed city gal with an arts degree.

Paula used the upstairs of the house as a fiber arts studio and then took an audio visual librarian job in the Harbor Beach School system. She noted, “I defined the job loosely so that I could get the kids involved in doing art projects.”

Becoming Established in Harbor Beach

He opened Steven’s Studio in Harbor Beach and photographed the area during the 7 year period they lived at the farm. Steven loved the mist and fog and greys and greens of the Michigan Thumb. All photos were extensively in black and white: towns, people, woods, farms, old machinery, winter, and water shots. They are all silver gelatin black and white prints archivally printed in the farmhouse basement with well water.

He exhibited photos of the Thumb Area in local art shows in Lansing in a show called “Past Its Prime.” They also exhibited in Port Huron and Canada, winning juried awards.

In the 1980s, he established Central Photographic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Paula became a city planner. Late in his career, he focused on portraits, mythology, nudes, and abstract nudes.  Steven Donahue died on June 14, 2013.

He was said to be a kind, gentle man with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. He was a working artist and photographer for over 50 years, teaching others about the art of the darkroom and studio.

Paula and Steve were married for 42 years. After Steve’s death, Paula began to achieving and arranging his work for donation. This task is still being done.

His collections can be found at the Detroit Public Libary, University of New Mexico Center for Southwest Research, and Ryerson and Burnham Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Steven Donahue Photography website contains details of the artists life and links to his many collections.

Outdoor Skillz

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