Otto The Picture Man

 

I was waiting in the wings to give a lecture at the Broward County
Library, in Southern Florida, when I heard someone with a heavy German
accent say: “Ist Meehster Heller, here?” I turned around and saw a
diminutive gentleman, with a bright pink face, white hair and beard,
the spitting image of Sigmund Freud, standing in front of me. “Dr.
Bettmann,” I said surprised. “Yah,” he responded with a smile. “Ist me,
I’m shtill alive.”

Dr. Otto Ludwig Bettmann,
who died on May 1, 1998 at age 94, founded the Bettmann Archive in
1936, the world’s most famous picture collection, which is currently
owned by William Gates’ Corbis Corporation. Known as “the picture man,” Bettmann
virtually invented what we now call retro, insofar as he uncovered and
made available to artists, designers, and editors of all disciplines
millions of ephemeral artifacts from the past. Any time an old
engraving or woodcut found its way into contemporary advertisement or
editorial layout, it probably came from The Bettmann Archive. His
extensive collection, including over five million prints, drawings,
posters, woodcuts, and other graphic materials, much of it collected
personally, influenced the look of design and illustration for decades.

Today,
Bettmann is a somewhat unsung visionary of commercial art. He began his
collection as a boy in Leipzig, Germany, and was later the curator of
rare books in The Prussian State Art Library in Berlin. After fleeing
the Nazis in 1935 with two trunks full of old clippings and photo
negatives, he found that magazine editors and art directors clamored for
antique images of all kinds.

He once told
me that when using historical images editor’s didn’t have to “think all
that hard, the work was already done for them.” Working out of a tiny
office in Manhattan he rented his images out for one time use for a
sliding fees. Meanwhile, he continued to collect from libraries,
galleries, collectors, and other sources. Within a short time, he
accumulated a large client list. CBS, a breakthrough for his agency,
sought visuals to use in advertisements that would serve as a
counterpoint to the high technology of radio.

A meticulous
filer and organizer, Bettmann devised methods of cross referencing
themes and subjects so that retrieval could be accomplished quickly.
Anyone who ever used The Bettmann Archive, either by phone or in person,
knew that the material was just a fingertip away. Drawing on his own
vast knowledge and resources, Bettmann authored or co-authored 14 books
that were staples of most visual resource libraries, including, Our Literary Heritage, A Pictorial History of Medicine, and A Pictorial History of Music. In 1974 he wrote: The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible, a critical view of nostalgia. He was always talking about ways to turn his collection into lasting records.

A few years
before he retired and left New York City we spoke on the phone about
what he might do with his collection — I was touched that the great
collector was asking me for advice. When I met him in person a year
before he died, he was excitedly talking about a long-range project he
had just begun documenting – thousands of published images of women he
would use for a pictorial chronicle. Again, he wanted my opinion of his
proposal. Alas, I had no time. Immediately after my lecture, I was off
to the airport. Nonetheless, I was happy to learn that he was as hard
working as ever, and was planning to leave an even greater legacy.

It has been twelve years. Why recall him now? It is always a good time to remember those people who made a huge difference.

 


About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes a weekly column for The Atlantic online and is the "Visuals" Columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of over 160 books on design and visual culture. And he is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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