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Otto The Picture Man

By: Steven Heller | August 27, 2010

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.