Michel and Billye Halbouty, left, Mayor Lee Brown and Evin Thayer at a Wortham Theater Center reception in 1999 for Thayer’s “Millenium Makers” project. The Halboutys and the mayor were among the celebrities whose photographs were on display at the champagne reception, which benefited the Evin Thayer Scholarship Foundation.
Photo: D. Fahleson, Staff / Houston Chronicle
Evin Thayer, a community-minded photographer who captured the evolving lives of countless Houstonians during four decades of portrait studio business, died late Friday of pancreatic cancer. He was 69.
Many of the city’s celebrities went way back with Thayer, including artists, business titans, politicians and socialites; but he was just as familiar to thousands of not-so-famous families who enrolled their children in his Birthday Club for yearly portraits.
“Our first photo shoot was my high school graduation picture in 1982,” said Houston Ballet legend Lauren Anderson.
The first time Thayer took her picture, she was graduating from high school. That was 1982. She last posed for him on Sept. 28, 2019, after she was selected as a 2020 “Houston Treasure” for the annual Houston Social Book.
Publisher Scott Evans thought her portrait for the book should be “something classic, that signifies me,” Anderson said. When she heard Thayer was among her options for a photographer, she didn’t hesitate. “He was a dear friend,” she said. “He touched so many lives for decades — generations of families.”
“His gift was being a connector,” said Kenneth Gayle, Thayer’s partner of nearly 18 years. “He had an immediate rapport with a wide range of people. He was a wonderful conversationalist — open, warm, highly sensitive, humorous, generous and optimistic. That’s what made him so good: He loved people and brought out the best in them.”
Thayer and Gayle met in 2002 at an arts event. Gayle, who then lived in Chicago, had just performed in a Houston Ebony Opera Guild production of “The Magic Flute.” They hit it off immediately. “I jokingly called him the Chamber of Commerce because he was such a lover and booster of the city,” Gayle said.
Thayer lent his talents to many charities, including the AIDS Foundation Houston, the Bayou City Boys Club, the Houston Humane Society and Music Doing Good. He spent several years creating “Millennium Makers,” a book featuring portraits of 100 notable Houstonians that culminated with performances and a gala at the George R. Brown Convention Center to support an arts scholarship fund he founded.
A third generation Houstonian who graduated from Lamar High School, Thayer was the youngest of three siblings born to Betty and Justin Thayer. He gained his love of photography through his father, a refined man who taught him how to use a Brownie camera. Majoring in communications at the Univ. of Houston, Thayer learned artistic rigor in theater classes with professor Cecil Pickett, a legendary acting coach whose students included Dennis Quaid, Brett Cullen, Shelley Duvall and his daughter, Cindy Pickett.
Gayle said Thayer wanted to study film directing and was accepted into UCLA but ventured into the photography business because no scholarships were available, and he lacked the funds to go. Early on, he built a high-volume business taking senior pictures at Lamar. He also worked a number of years as the senior fashion photographer for Foley’s department store.
But portraits became his forte, and Thayer’s simple compositions made him a go-to guy for straightforward, evenly-lit pictures. Thayer moved his business several times during the years, from Colquitt Street’s gallery row to a stately home in Montrose’s Avondale neighborhood to, most recently, a wide-open space at Sabine Street Studios in the Sawyer Yards area.
The age of selfies and Instagram notwithstanding, Thayer’s classical portraiture still found takers. “Even with a cellphone it’s hard for people to do nice family photographs,” said Allison McPhail, who took over the studio about 18 months ago with her business partner, Laura King. They still operate under Thayer’s name.
McPhail said she and King had just opened up their business in one of Sabine Street’s smaller spaces when Thayer’s cancer was diagnosed. “He had a wedding on the books and wasn’t well enough to shoot,” she said. Thayer also was looking for somebody to take over the studio. “I was a little bit star-struck,” she said, “because I grew up in Houston and knew who he was.”
Thayer officially retired in February. In a letter to clients then, his sentiments made it clear why he was as beloved as he was successful. “While I’ve had the pleasure of shooting the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Mary Lou Retton, astronaut John Glenn, George and Barbara Bush, Kenny Rogers, Walter Cronkite, Lynn Wyatt and Bill White among others,” he wrote, “my greatest joy has been in working with you, my local community.”
Thayer had been at home, with hospice care, since early May. He was the last of his immediate family. Along with Gayle, his survivors include his cousin Victoria McLure of Fredericksburg; his aunt, Dot McClure; and nephews Stephen, Michael, John and Mark Quinn.
Thayer’s Facebook page looked like an extended Throwback Thursday by Monday, as clients and friends posted his portraits of them. “There isn’t one pet lover, newscaster or socialite without your work,” wrote local publisher Lara Bell. “Seems like yesterday you shot Roseann Rogers and me for the Fire Museum Gala when we were 28 years old.”
“Evin captured the beauty in human beings because he saw the beauty in them,” his friend Anita Kruse wrote.
Gayle hopes to host a life celebration for his partner in late July, when Thayer would have turned 70. “So many people really feel they’re his close friends,” he said. “The outpouring on Facebook has been beautiful to see, and a little overwhelming.”