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January 19, 1996 - Image 36

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1996-01-19

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Close Up
The Picture Man

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THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE

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38

"A brass band couldn't have given me
a more heartwarming welcome."
The aspiring archivist could not have
arrived at a better time. Photojournal-
ism was just developing in the United
States and big, glossy magazines like
Life and Look were creating an insatiable
need for the kinds of images he carried
in his steamer trunks.
"(My American friends and relatives)
told me that America would not be in-
terested in history — it was a nation that
concentrated on the future," he said. "But
I found there to be an enormous interest
not only in history, but in the develop-

ment of things and the prediction of
things to come."
Dr. Bettmann refused to be discour-
aged by family and friends who warned
him to abandon his images. He asked his
parents to send him "shoes with inde-
structible heels" and set out to make his
fortune. Four weeks later, he sold his first
pictures to an advertising agency for $15.
"My pictures added a third dimension
to advertising because they were edu-
cational," Dr. Bettmann said. "People
didn't only want sales talk; they wanted
to be informed."
There were a few hitches along the

way. Once he returned to his tiny flat in
New York to find his Leica cameras
stolen. Fortunately, the thief had deemed
the pictures worthless and left them be-
hind. His first sale also turned out to be
a bust. After Dr. Bettmann splurged on
dinner with friends, the ad agency re-
turned the pictures and asked for its
money back.
But he continued to peddle his un-
usual fare. And as he collected increasing
numbers of photographs and illustra=
dons, his situation brightened. Soon he
had even earned enough money to hire
a small staff.

A short article about his struggling
business reached Max Lincoln Schuster
of Simon & Schuster. To Dr. Bettmann's
surprise, he appeared one morning with
an assistant and asked to see the col-
lection. He did not purchase any pictures
at the time, although he later became a
regular customer. But he sent the young
archivist a copy of a picture history he
edited inscribed, "With warm good wish-
es from one picture historian to anoth-
er.
Dr. Bettmann's first big break came
from a publisher who wanted to illus-
trate a 10-volume history of the world.
The project was exactly what he need-
ed to establish a reputation for the
Archive, he said.
"I asked him for $750," Dr. Bettmann
recalled. "He seemed stunned by the
price and I thought I had blown my
chance by being too greedy. But then he
said, 'Let's make it an even thousand.'
"It was the first and last time anyone
offered me a larger fee than I asked for."
But Dr. Bettlliann's fortune came with
a price. The publisher shattered his il-
lusions about the ethnic tolerance of the
United States.
During a luncheon at the exclusive
club at the top of the Empire State Build-
ing, Dr. Bettmann innocently asked the
publisher about his weekend plans. The
man excitedly described a beautiful
Maryland retreat. "And the best part of
it is," his benefactor added, "no Jew ever
settles there."
Dr. Bettmann never did business with
him again.
But word of his picture business con-
tinued to spread, and increasing re-
quests trickled in. He continued to
scour libraries, museums, theaters and
private collections for interesting im-
. ages.
Some of the photographs would be-
come instantly recognizable, such as a
vivacious Marilyn Mon-
roe pushing down her
A "robber baron" billowing skirt or a vic-
nervously watches . torious Harry Truman
the ticker tape
brandishing a Chicago
during a stock
paper that trumpeted
market panic
in the United
his alleged election loss.
States.
But some of the most
popular images came from surprising
sources. One of Dr. Bettmann's most
valuable finds was sold by an unhappy
heir eager to dispose of a relative's 'junky
glass plates." The pictures, which de-
picted daily 19th-century life in New
York's Lower East Side, are regarded to-
day as a priceless documentation of
American history.
"I taught my staff that a fireman's
scrapbook, a circus employee's photo
album — the discarded bread wrappers
of daily life rather than the official photo-
graphs — are the archivist's gold," Dr.
Bettmann told The Washington Post.
There was competition from other pic-

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