I was waiting in the wings to give a lecture at the Broward CountyLibrary, in Southern Florida, when I heard someone with a heavy Germanaccent say: “Ist Meehster Heller, here?” I turned around and saw adiminutive 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 in1936, the world’s most famous picture collection, which is currentlyowned by William Gates’ Corbis Corporation. Known as “the picture man,” Bettmannvirtually invented what we now call retro, insofar as he uncovered andmade available to artists, designers, and editors of all disciplinesmillions of ephemeral artifacts from the past. Any time an oldengraving or woodcut found its way into contemporary advertisement oreditorial layout, it probably came from The Bettmann Archive. Hisextensive collection, including over five million prints, drawings,posters, woodcuts, and other graphic materials, much of it collectedpersonally, influenced the look of design and illustration for decades.
Today, Bettmann is a somewhat unsung visionary of commercial art. He began hiscollection as a boy in Leipzig, Germany, and was later the curator ofrare books in The Prussian State Art Library in Berlin. After fleeingthe Nazis in 1935 with two trunks full of old clippings and photonegatives, he found that magazine editors and art directors clamored forantique images of all kinds.
He once told me that when using historical images editor’s didn’t have to “think allthat hard, the work was already done for them.” Working out of a tinyoffice in Manhattan he rented his images out for one time use for asliding fees. Meanwhile, he continued to collect from libraries,galleries, collectors, and other sources. Within a short time, heaccumulated a large client list. CBS, a breakthrough for his agency,sought visuals to use in advertisements that would serve as acounterpoint to the high technology of radio.
A meticulous filer and organizer, Bettmann devised methods of cross referencingthemes 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 ownvast knowledge and resources, Bettmann authored or co-authored 14 booksthat 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 aboutwhat he might do with his collection — I was touched that the greatcollector was asking me for advice. When I met him in person a yearbefore he died, he was excitedly talking about a long-range project hehad just begun documenting – thousands of published images of women hewould use for a pictorial chronicle. Again, he wanted my opinion of hisproposal. Alas, I had no time. Immediately after my lecture, I was offto the airport. Nonetheless, I was happy to learn that he was as hardworking 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.