One of the first “two-figure” antiques I purchased in my early collecting years was a view camera complete with a case with holders for keeping and exposing glass negatives. It was $15. We were visiting my grandmother and there was an antiques shop, not too far away, where I spied the camera under a table where “real” antiques were on display. The sum of $15 was a big deal for me then. I was making 75 cents an hour as a runner at a local auction barn, so it was a 20-hour purchase, or about five Saturdays’ work. I still have it. I never ran across a “pan” for the flash powder that would have been used alongside the camera for indoor photography.
Also in my collection is a 4×5 “Speed Graphic.” That camera was the workhorse of press photographers for decades, and the first camera I used as a “professional” newsman when I worked one summer for the community newspaper I now own (where did that half-century go?).
What started this trip down memory lane was a book Collector contributor Bruce Austin sent to me about commercial photographer Lejaren A’ Hiller. Bruce is director of the RIT Press, which published the book “Sutures and Spirits.” It’s a fascinating look at Hiller’s life and career as an artist and photo illustrator, primarily in the Commercial field. The book’s author is Doug Manchee, a professor at RIT, and the source material was secured decades ago by another RIT professor who realized that work of early Commercial photographers was not well documented. The Hiller collection was literally snatched from a New York curb and shipped to Rochester, New York.
Hiller built elaborate theatrical-style sets, used models dressed for the scene and was obviously an expert at lighting. Sometimes he used the photos as the basis for an artistic rendering and sometimes they were used as photographs.
The convergence of improvements in photography and printing in the early 1900s changed the way we see the world. While color film, movies, and digital videos and photography are commonplace today, it is interesting to see the evolution where technology and art converged in commercial messages at the turn of the previous century.
Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Weegee, Diane Arbus and others frequently mentioned today are known for their specialty, be it landscape or portrait or documentary. Few Commercial photographers make a list of the photography famous. Their work was marked up, sent to the printer and maybe filed for a time and probably discarded at some point. Today, with the small screen and data-tracking dominating advertising, we may never see the kind of advertising photo-illustration that once graced the pages of Life or Look or Fortune magazines. Fortunately, Hiller’s work was saved and now is documented. He was no flash in the pan.