In 2015, Corey Lowenstein approached the Lair family of Apex with a delicate question: Could she photograph their daughter’s birth? Their first daughter after six straight sons?
To do so, she’d need to bring a camera into the operating room at WakeMed Cary Hospital – sanctified space with no room for strangers.
To the Lairs, it sounded absurd. But Lowenstein, a longtime photojournalist for The News & Observer, could be persuasive with both her lens and her heart. She not only documented Ruby’s arrival, she filmed all six brothers welcoming their sister home – a moment that circled the globe as 5-year-old Houston confessed, “I’m worried about the pink.”
“She had this ability to be there without interrupting the moment,” said Stephen Lair, now father of seven, “and also capture it in a beautiful way. You could see her passion, her energy. It was never a spectacle. It was easy with her. I can’t imagine what it would be like not having these images to look at.”
Thousands more can say the same about Lowenstein, who died Thursday after a two-year fight with cancer. She was 49, and she died with a pair of her own twin boys’ stuffed animals in her bed at Duke University Hospital in Durham.
“She had a warm, generous personality, a great sense of humor and connected easily with all kinds of people,” said N&O Executive Editor John Drescher. “She left her mark on our journalism and on all of us. We mourn for our loss and especially are sad for (husband) Michael (and sons) Brady and Cooper.”
When she joined the N&O in 1996, she infiltrated a male-dominated photo staff and immediately showed toughness that could withstand any smack talk. She earned a reputation both for grittiness and for immersion into her subject matter that the veterans rarely practiced.
“She was definitely a breath of fresh air – more like a tornado of fresh air,” said Scott Sharpe, the N&O’s visuals editor and her longtime colleague. “Here comes this whirling dervish of energy and ideas. She was far more able to make a connection with people. We were just run-and-gun news and sports guys. Not only did she do that, she helped us learn to do that.”
If she wrote about people in the hospital, she slept in the waiting room. If she wrote about a childbirth, she came back a year later for the birthday party. She cared about her subjects long past her deadlines, staying connected for years afterward.
In 2014, Lowenstein photographed Rusty Wagstaff of Wendell, who lost both legs and both hands to an infection. Her photographs showed him attaching his prosthetic legs, swimming for the first time as an amputee and kissing his 2-day-old grandson. On Thursday, the Wagstaff family mourned as if a sister had died.
“It just breaks my heart,” Wagstaff said. “She is one of the sweetest people we ever met. She came to our house several times, not always to work. When our grandson was born, she brought a gift.”
Having grown up in New England and graduated from Syracuse University in 1990, Lowenstein became the photo staff’s “resident Yankee,” Sharpe said. He nicknamed her “Chitlin,” and said it took several years before she knew the origin of her informal title.
But those who worked with her navigated more than her northern origins. Lowenstein became widely known for what the N&O would affectionately call “Corey-ality,” shorthand for an unwillingness to budge. Colleagues recall that Lowenstein brought, along with her passion and work ethic, a stubbornness about the right way to approach a story.
“Corey-ality,” Sharpe said, “is a little bit of control freak stirred in with ‘I’m going to nod my head as you talk, but I’m still going to do it my way.’ ”
In her 21 years with The News & Observer, Lowenstein won numerous awards for her work. But in more recent years, her greatest joy came through her twin boys, now 6. She paraded them through the newsroom in a double stroller. Working late on the photo desk, she would watch them taking baths via Facetime. Her knack for photographing children grew out of the deep love of her own – obvious to anyone who saw it.
“What was special about Corey was her heart,” said Stephen Lair. “She had little kids that were about the age of ours, and you could see that’s where she got her passion and her joy.”
Her joy remains in a gallery of pictures, on the faces of the Lair boys and her own – there whenever anyone needs it.