The Daily Heller: Otto Bettmann, the Father of Retro

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In 1997 I gave a lecture at the Broward County Library in Southern Florida. I was mingling with the audience when a voice with a heavy German accent said: “Iz Meester Heller here?” I turned around and there was a short man with a white beard—the spitting image of Sigmund Freud—standing in front of me. “Dr. Bettmann?” I asked. “Yah,” he said with a smile. “Itz me, I’m shtill alive.”

Dr. Otto Ludwig Bettmann, who died on May 3, 1998, at age 94, began collecting prints and photos as a young boy and later earned a doctorate at Leipzig University. He was curator of rare books in the Prussian State Art Library in Berlin until Hitler came to power in 1933. He fled to the United States in 1935 and founded the Bettmann Archive in 1936, the world’s largest copyright free picture resource. The archive began with Bettmann’s personal collection of 15,000 images that he brought with him in suitcases when he left Nazi Germany. His archive was sold to Microsoft/Corbis in 1995 and years later was acquired by Getty, with a catalogue of over 15 million images of all descriptions.

Bettmann virtually invented so-called “retro,” insofar as he uncovered and made available to artists, designers and editors of all disciplines ephemeral artifacts from the past. Any time an old engraving or woodcut found its way into a contemporary advertisement or editorial layout, it probably came from the Bettmann Archive. His amazing collection included prints, drawings, photographs, posters, woodcuts and other graphic materials. It decidedly influenced the look of graphic design for decades.

Though his imprimatur is well-known, Bettmann, the man, is a somewhat unsung visionary of commercial art. He began his collection as a 10 year old in Leipzig, Germany. After fleeing Nazi Germany with two trunks full of old clippings and photo negatives, he realized that American magazine editors and art directors clamored for antique images. He told me that by using historical images, editors didn’t have to think all that hard, and the work was already done for them. Working out of a tiny office in Manhattan, he rented printed images for one-time reproduction using sliding fees based on size and how they were used. Until the sale to Corbis he continued collecting 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.

Bettmann was a meticulous filer and organizer and devised methods of cross-referencing themes and subjects so that retrieval could be accomplished in quick time. Anyone who ever used The Bettmann Archive, either by phone or in person, knows that the material (and often Bettmann himself) was just a dial 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 Pictorial History of Music. In 1974 he wrote The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible, a critical view of nostalgia. A Word to the Wise … A Sufficiency of Quotes & Images to Brighten Your Day, revealed his quirky wit and humor. He pursued a wealth of eclectic interests. In 1995 he published Johann Sebastian Bach as His World Knew Him and was always conceiving 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 options he might explore with his collection—I was honored that the master collector was asking me, a neophyte, for my advice. When I met him in person at the Broward Library, he was like a schoolboy, excitedly talking about a long-term project he had just begun—documenting thousands of published images of women for a pictorial chronicle. He wanted my opinion of his proposal, but I told him that my immediate departure after the lecture made a longer discussion impossible at that time. As he left the library, I was happy that he had not simply faded away, but was as hard-working as ever, and was planning to leave an even greater legacy. He died before we had another chance to chat.

After I returned to New York I received a package he sent to me. It was a book he conceived in 1963 with Peter Max and Tom Daly titled Panopticon. In 1962, the two artists started the Daly & Max Studio, designing and illustrating for publishers and advertising agencies. Their work incorporated antique photographic and graphic images for signature collages. Max’s interest in astronomy contributed to his self-described “Cosmic ’60s” period, which featured what became misconstrued as psychedelic, counterculture imagery. Max referred to this work as a panopticon, constructing his images from photographs, magazine illustrations, old engravings and decorative papers, pasting together a segment of composition and then mechanically reproduced, mirror fashion, numerous times in circular form. In 1963, Bettmann, Max and Daly organized an exhibit titled Panopticon, an invitational for popular illustrators and designers (below) to employ Bettmann materials in their work. It was great promotion for the Archive and a unique way to transform something borrowed into something brand new.

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