Otto L. Bettmann, 1961

Otto L. Bettmann, 1961

Otto Bettmann


Otto Ludwig Bettmann was a German Jewish refugee who emigrated from Berlin to New York City in 1935 and established a unique picture archive in the United States. At a time when photojournalism was on the rise, he was able to channel his personal penchant and obsession for collecting pictures into a thriving business.


Otto Ludwig Bettmann (born October 15, 1903 in Leipzig, Germany; died May 1, 1998 in Boca Raton, Florida) was a German Jewish refugee who emigrated from Berlin to New York City in 1935 and established a unique picture archive in the United States. At a time when photojournalism was on the rise, he was able to channel his personal penchant and obsession for collecting pictures into a thriving business. Along the way, he spun the development of his enterprise into a classic Horatio Alger tale, successfully creating a brand for (and of) himself.[1] The Bettmann Archive grew from a one-room office into a large establishment that supplied newspapers, book publishers, advertisers, and later websites with images to fit any project. Bettmann approached every possible venue to sell his product—a new application for an old picture, a way that publishers could make their works vibrant and alive. His main commercial insight was that such old photographs could have value when placed in contexts in which they took on new meanings. Bettmann successfully took advantage of the surging demand for images in the 1930s and 1940s: books used photographs and drawings to illustrate stories; magazines used pictures as sidebars in their articles; and commercial advertisers—an especially lucrative, new market segment—benefited from the wide range of new possibilities.[2]

Family and Ethnic Background

Otto Bettmann was born on October 15, 1903, in Leipzig, Germany, a vibrant city with a wide range of cultural offerings, well-known for its international book trade. His father, Hans Isidor (1866-1942), was a self-employed orthopedic physician and highly respected surgeon. At the University of Würzburg he studied under Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays and went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1901. Hans Isidor pioneered the use of X-ray technology in Leipzig.[3] Otto’s mother, Charlotte (née Frank, 1872-1950), came from a well-to-do Jewish family. She assisted her husband in his private practice and maintained the books. During his early childhood, Otto lived with his family in Dresdnerstraße 11, then moved to Thomasring 20a (today: Dittrichring) in 1909. Hans Isidor Bettmann also moved his private practice—a thriving thirty-bed clinic[4]—to this new location in the center of town. It was little more than a stone’s throw away from St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche), where Johann Sebastian Bach had been the cantor for nearly thirty years. Otto recalls growing up in “a highly charged musical atmosphere.”[5] Together with his brother, Ernst (1899-1988), and their father, an avid cellist, Otto regularly played and enjoyed music. The brothers sang in the boys’ choir at St. Thomas, and music remained an important part of Otto’s life from his first piano lessons at age six.

Otto attended secondary school from 1914 to 1923.[6] From there it was an easy intellectual transition to attend university. His brother Ernst had opted to study medicine. At first, Otto wanted to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps and become a doctor, too:

I grew up with the smell of ether pervading my father’s clinic and had been fascinated with things medical since my early youth. It seemed a foregone conclusion that I, like my brother Ernst, would enter the medical profession. But fate and the ruinous inflation in the early 1920s decreed otherwise. It was decided in a family council that two doctors in the family were enough.[7]

Thus, Otto enrolled at the University of Leipzig choosing history as his major. University records show he also took classes (and took his final exams) in German literature and philosophy.

By the time Otto began attending university in 1923,[8] he had already established the necessary habits to attain a degree: perseverance, a rabid sense of inquiry, and the ability to concentrate intensely. He was always energized to find out more: the fine details of any subject, the root, the origin, the depth of an idea. He studied paleogeography, history, and philosophy in Freiburg for two semesters before returning to Leipzig to graduate in 1927. His 1926 doctoral dissertation was titled The Emergence of Professional Ethics in the German Book Trade of the Eighteenth Century (Die Entstehung buchhändlerischer Berufsideale im Deutschland des XVIII. Jahrhunderts), a subject whose application was to serve him well as he evolved in his ability to market work he collected from others and sell it for profit (ironically, given the topic of his dissertation, often blurring copyright lines). As he crafted this document, he made mental notes regarding the images in many of the book illustrations, memories that he retained throughout his entire life. He would cut pictures from books that appealed to him, culled from discarded library copies or trash piles to keep as a collection to catalog.

Professional Beginnings

After graduating from the University of Leipzig at the age of twenty-four, Bettmann went to work for C.F. Peters. C.F. Peters is a music publishing house in Leipzig that in its early days had worked closely with Ludwig van Beethoven and in the late 1920s was publishing a wide range of music from collections of well-known classics to original works by contemporary composers. At C.F. Peters, Otto learned all aspects of the business, including buying, selling, advertising, printing, and editing. However, he was particularly interested in retrieving and cataloging materials from the music archives. Owner Henri Hinrichsen had a sizeable collection of musical manuscripts from Bach to Strauss and intriguing ephemera, such as a handwritten envelope from Beethoven. Not only was the work good training for a future as an archivist, but it was interesting to a person who had a musical background and appreciation.

Disappointed that he wasn’t chosen to be the person to establish the U.S. branch of the company which was being planned at the time, Bettmann left Leipzig for Berlin in the fall of 1928. Germany’s capital at that time was a veritable hub of creativity. Avant-garde art, theater, film, music, architecture, and literature blossomed in a progressive culture. The bustling city of roughly four million inhabitants was fertile ground for intellectuals and exerted an irresistible draw for many young people from all over Europe. “A feast of the imagination and the senses . . . a cultural explosion,” Bettmann remembers.[9] He was exalted. Although he didn’t find regular employment, he was asked to write a history of the Rothschild publishing house and his first book—State and Humanity (Staat und Menschheit)—came out in 1929. He volunteered at the Art Library (Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) from November 1930 to October 1931[10] and curated a collection of book art and book illustration for the library’s annual “Day of the Book” celebration on August 28, 1931, honoring Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s birthday.[11] As an afterthought, he started taking pictures of each illustration for his personal reference. Whenever he would peruse books from then on, he would quickly take out his Leica and snap a picture of images accompanying the text.

However, struggling financially without sufficient freelance work, he returned to Leipzig for additional education. A friend, the director of the German Book Museum (Deutsches Museum für Buch und Schrift), Hans H. Bockwitz, had suggested that he obtain a degree in library sciences. By October 1932, Bettmann had pocketed the degree of master librarian from the University of Leipzig.

Heady from his Berlin experience and now armed with more confidence and education, Bettmann set out again for Berlin. Between the fall of 1932 and May 1933, he worked at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (today’s Bode Museum), the Museum of Prints and Drawings (Kuperstichkabinett) and again, the Art Library.[12] But his joy was short-lived. In 1933, a number of laws beginning with the Enabling Act of March 23 (Ermächtigungsgesetz) were passed giving Hitler power to legislate and govern by decree. The April 7 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums) restricted Jewish participation in organizational, professional, and public life. This law was followed by others which effectively excluded Jews and “politically unreliable” Germans from key areas such as law, medicine, schools, universities, the press, the cultural professions, and farming.[13] Otto’s brother Ernst, who had made a name for himself as an orthopedic surgeon, was fired from his job at the university hospital. Otto, too, was let go on May 13, 1933.[14]

He returned to Leipzig and planned his future. Already owning a number of images from books, photographs, and posters, he began to organize his collection according to his unique worldview. Beginning with a desire to keep these images in order and to cross-index them, he devised an index card system with a reference to the picture by name and, underneath, a series of categories where it could also be found, such as artist, period, subject matter, themes, symbolic application (if any), media, year, and other terms that today would be called “search items” or “key words.” For example, a Thomas Eakins picture of the Gross Clinic where a surgeon is performing surgery would first be indexed under “Gross Clinic,” then have a verbal description of the image such as: “Description: Eakins, Thomas Cowperthwaite (1844-1916); Gross clinic, painting. Picture shows four doctors looking at incision in thigh of patient, one doctor lecturing on how to perform the surgery to remove a sequestrum from an infected thigh, one student covering his eyes and one scribe taking notes on the procedure.” Then underneath, Bettmann would put “indexed under” and have a number of words such as Eakins, Thomas, realism, American medical illustration, medical students learning to perform surgery, nauseated medical student, oil painting, Philadelphia artists, medical education. Bettmann often remarked that his categorization was highly personal and idiosyncratic. His only explanation was that he had always thought it important to organize and cross-reference as much as possible. This system remained useful his entire career (and even afterwards).[15] Thus the Bettmann Archive was born.[16]


Watching how Jewish civil servants and intellectuals everywhere were being fired and discredited, Bettmann accepted—with a heavy heart—that leaving Germany would be a wise decision. In the early 1930s, there were roughly 523,000 Jews living in Germany, one third of them in Berlin. After Hitler took power and introduced the first anti-Jewish legislation, about 38,000 Jews decided to emigrate. This number wouldn’t rise dramatically until the late 1930s.[17] In the United States, the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, had dramatically restricted overall annual immigration to about 165,000 persons per year, with individual country caps at 2% of the number of people of that country’s ancestry living in the United States as of 1890.[18] Although this favored immigration from Western Europe, immigration from Germany remained very low throughout the mid-1930s.[19]

Parts of Bettmann’s extended family had emigrated to the United States and settled in Ohio in the nineteenth century. Alfred Bettman,[20] Otto’s father’s cousin, was born in Cincinnati on August 26, 1873. He and his wife Lillian met Otto in London in early fall of 1934, urging him to apply for a visa. As Otto Bettmann tells it in his autobiography Bettmann, the Picture Man they suggested he try to find work at a library and offered him financial support.[21] For one agonizing year, Otto waited to get his visa. Thousands of German Jews were trying to leave: it was both difficult to stay and difficult to leave. While waiting, Otto had unsuccessfully tried to sell some pictures to Bayer and Schering and to write for Hoffmann-LaRoche.

Finally, he received his visa and embarked for the United States on October 29, 1935, aboard the S.S. Statendam.[22] Nine days later, on November 7, he arrived in New York. He remembers being handed a $200 check (about $3,000 in 2010 USD) from his father’s cousin Alfred.[23] A friend, Julius Held, helped him find lodging. The two knew each other from Berlin; Held would go on to become an influential art historian in the United States.[24] A major shortcoming was Otto’s lack of English skills, so he enrolled in a city college to take a course in conversational English. He would speak with a thick German accent throughout his life.[25]

A truly fortuitous introduction took place on Thanksgiving in 1935, when Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) and Leon Daniel (1902-1974) joined Otto for a modest celebration.[26] They were German Jewish immigrants who had been fired from Associated Press, Berlin, and were to become well-known individuals in the U.S. publishing industry. Eisenstaedt later became the key photographer for Life magazine. Daniel became another “picture man” when he co-founded his photo bureau, Pix, with Celia Kutschuk. The U.S. was sympathetic to the plight of these newly displaced individuals, many of whom were giants in the field of science, literature, music and the arts. The growing threat of Nazi Germany played an important part in both American history and Otto’s life as more refugees tried to obtain entrance into the United States.

Bettmann soon moved to an apartment at 145 West 44th Street, one block from Times Square. He was certain he would find a plethora of images and marketing opportunities there. Trying his luck going from door to door, he was finally able to rent some images to an advertising vice president who requested pictures of early chemical laboratories. But his success was short-lived. The following day a company messenger informed him that there had been a change in plans and returned the images. For Bettmann, this was a lesson learned: the next time the customer would sign a contract and be responsible for payment whether or not the images were used.

In the meantime, Otto received valuable advice from Robert Leslie, a physician by training who no longer practiced medicine. He had been the American editor for the German graphic design journal Gebrauchsgraphik in the early 1930s and now owned a typesetting establishment called The Composing Room. [27] It essentially functioned as a networking facility for newcomers to the United States: Leslie focused his efforts on helping recent immigrants succeed in the graphic arts industries, wanting to “bring out the qualities of all these important refugees . . . who came to New York and needed a boost.”[28] He suggested that Otto create a name for his collection and—rather than trying to sell his goods as a mere street peddler—that he present himself as the unique purveyor of an image collection with a name. Bettmann first considered “The Past in Pictures,” “Historic Picture Emporium,” “Panorama Pictures,” and “The Backward Photographer.” In the end, he settled on “Bettmann Archive.”[29]

Business Development

Perhaps the purest émigré entrepreneur of images was Otto Bettmann, director of the Bettmann Archive, a famous collection of historical photographs.[30]

The newly named Bettmann Archive was by no means the only picture repository in New York City. Brown Brothers, which bills itself the nation’s oldest stock photo agency, was established in 1904 and supplied pictures to newspapers at a time when the large dailies did not have their own staff photographers.[31] Max Peter Haas, a fellow German immigrant and an avid photographer of sports and society scenes, founded European Picture Service in 1931, just four years before Bettmann arrived. By 1941 his collection had grown to 1.5 million pictures and he was getting kudos for his readiness to snap photos at crime scenes.[32] Arthur Brackman founded Free-Lance Photographers Guild in 1937.[33] A reporter for the New York Herald Tribune before he went into business for himself, Brackman acted as the middleman between freelance photographers and magazines and advertisers. And there were several other competitors.[34]

The time was perfect for the emergence of the so-called stock photo.[35] Photojournalism was on the rise, and magazines like Life and Look popularized the heavy use of photographs and illustrations. The demand for pictures came from every type of print media available, especially newspapers and magazines, but also increasingly from advertising agencies.[36] During the early 1930s different kinds of collections emerged to provide businesses with stock photographs. Journalists started to collect pictures for news archives, private collectors saw a commercial use for their fine art and photography, picture libraries grew into advertising agencies (itself a new type of business), and picture agencies, similar to a guild, allowed groups of photographers to form a network where they could pool their resources.[37] Businesses preferred to use (the more cost-effective) agencies rather than hire a photographer each time they needed a picture.

The Bettmann Archive could not be classified as any of the types of agencies above, as Otto Bettmann personally looked over each image to make certain it was worthy of his collection. He had a particular set of criteria, highly personal, that he used to judge a photo. A photo had to be attractive or repulsive; it could not be mediocre. It also had to reflect irony, a social predicament where the tables were turned, or have an element of humor that tempted one to want to look at it again. Bettmann felt that life was full of contradictions and that a photo that captured this essence, this quirk, was worth more than an ordinary scene, no matter how pleasing or beautiful. When asked about his criteria for what makes a good picture, he could only answer that it was a special combination of an art critic’s, social historian’s, and collector’s eye. A picture had to “express the subject . . . have quick readability . . . and be reproducible.”[38] Bettmann explained that he threw away more material than he kept and cautioned that one must do this in order to be successful.

One might question why, with so many other businesses, the Bettmann Archive achieved the success it did. How was Otto Bettmann different? The answer lies in his multifaceted life: Early cultural exposure to art, music, and medicine; training in library science; background and interest in fine art; travel throughout Europe; a personality that craved information; and the ability to remain focused on a project for a long time. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish by persistent habit, dogged application,” he answered when asked about the most basic element to turn his original idea into a business success.”[39] He planned the Archive as if it were a typical library with a card catalog and pictures organized alphabetically by subject, artist, theme, time period, historic significance, and “see also,” assembled in a logical system although it was his distinctive logic. As one writer has put it, it was the “deliberate and strategic merging of traditional art historical and archival methods with contemporary influences and market tendencies” that distinguished Bettmann from his competitors and made for a successful business model.[40]

The time was certainly right for Bettmann’s kind of business as evidenced by the number of competitors and the growing dependence on media and demand for information. The picture man wrote in his autobiography:

I had come to the United States at an opportune time—just when the interest in things pictorial was reaching a peak of intensity. Magazines opened their pages to pictures stories—a journalistic technique freshly enhanced by the arrival of European photographers such as Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Erich Lessing. Advertisers showed a new interest in graphics and tended toward the pictorial. I had arrived just in time to help them in this direction.[41]

One of Bettmann’s best strategies, as an avid reader, was to keep his eyes and ears open to any possibilities where he could suggest the use of a picture. He discovered that Readers Digest was an excellent source of material related to everyday Americans: mass culture as opposed to “high culture.” With its reading level geared toward the masses and its subject matter pertinent to the times, he found articles that led him to creative applications. One of those articles, “Why Not Get Interested?” was about a proprietor of a barbershop located on the ground floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, a prestigious location. Charles de Zemler, the owner and an immigrant from Sweden, was a self-made individual who had begun working in the barbering profession at age twelve. After a walk through the massive collection of his possessions related to the history of barbering, Otto suggested that they collaborate on a project. This appealed to Charles who hired Otto to catalog his pictures, chairs, tools, brushes, and other accoutrements. The two men then collaborated on a book, Once Over Lightly: The Story of Man and His Hair, a 270 page oeuvre with 121 images which was self-published by de Zemler in 1939. Bettmann left with many more images for the growing Bettmann Archive.

His next assignment took him far from the world of tonsorial images to the world of fashion design as a lecturer for the McDowell School of Fashion Design in New York, where he entertained more than educated the girls who attended his talks. With his eye for unusual and amusing subjects, he illustrated how beauty standards changed over the centuries, from chopines (extremely high platform shoes worn during the Renaissance) to bustles, corsets, and flapper dresses, presenting a cross-cultural study of history through images of apparel. One of Otto’s acquaintances, Bernard Rudofsky (1905-1988), perhaps as a result of his knowledge of the Bettmann collection, later wrote a book, The Unfashionable Human Body, capitalizing on the most bizarre of all fashions for both men and women. By the time Bettmann finished his lectures at McDowell, the Bettmann Archive was established and rooted enough to garner the attention of Philip Hamburger, the columnist for the prestigious New Yorker section “The Talk of the Town.” Hamburger interviewed Otto at the Archive and later wrote: “One of the many local enterprises for which we must thank Herr Hitler is the Bettmann Archive….Dr. Bettmann can dip into his archive and come up with a pretty complete photographic history of almost anything that might pop into your head.”[42]

Otto credits his father’s passion for collecting rare books for his own fascination with images. He returned to his childhood memories of a fascinating book series about Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit scholar who was from the same home town—Geisa—as the elder Bettmann. The Bettmanns had owned a ten-volume set of encyclopedic works by Kircher illustrated with pictures of technological inventions. Otto was particularly drawn to one picture, Phonurgia, a seventeenth-century woodcut showing a cutaway side view of a castle and a huge appurtenance, small at one end, huge at another, shaped like a helical seashell. The purpose of the device that tunneled from one room to the others was to talk and have the words amplified enough so that the speakers could communicate easily between rooms. With this image in mind, Otto approached Frank Stanton of Columbia Broadcasting System to suggest that they use this image for an advertisement. The CBS ad, a double-page spread in the February 1938 issue of Fortune, boosted Bettmann’s place in the world of successful image entrepreneurs.

The story about this particular image is an example of how Bettmann’s early background and penchant for a particular type of image—i.e. an image that is almost, but not quite comical; one that invokes interest; and one that often shows a relationship between the ancient and the modern world—became his trademark. The story also illustrates how a scholarly person with no resources other than a huge mental reservoir can create a unique niche in a world where opportunity does not necessarily knock.

A Growing Business

“I have never thought of the Archive […] as being committed to the mere retrieval of facts or material stages of being. More importantly, pictures of the past are stimulants for the imagination and the creative function […] The process of free association (the artist’s stock-in-trade!) which begins to get under way as one examines such pictures often leads to the creative act.”[43]

In 1936, Bettmann met the woman who would become his wife. Anne Clemens Gray, a widow, was a former Boston antique dealer and an avid collector of antiques. She later became an interior decorator. At the time she was a sales person at Macy’s who happened to wait on Bettmann while he was shopping for a gift. Otto describes being “smitten” by the encounter and proceeded to contact her for a date. Anne did not remember him but agreed to go out. After a two-year courtship, the couple wed on March 4, 1938, and Otto acquired a readymade family with her three children Beverly (15), Mel (17), and Wendell (20).

In the meantime, the situation in Germany was getting worse and Jews faced increasing discrimination and harassment. Otto became a naturalized U.S. citizen on September 5, 1939, and was able to facilitate his parents’ emigration.[44] The elder Bettmanns had been forced to shut down their practice in 1939.[45] They arrived in New York via Genoa on March 18, 1940, and moved in with Otto’s brother, Ernst, in White Plains, New York. Ernst had immigrated a few years earlier in 1937 and would continue working in his profession as a doctor for many years. Despite Otto’s initial fears that his parents would not approve of the fact that he had married a widow with three children, Anne’s daughter Beverly and his mother Charlotte became quite close. Unfortunately Otto’s father Hans did not live long enough to see the end of the war—he died in 1942 of cancer, a result of many years of exposure to radiation.

Anne and Otto had purchased a home in Jackson Heights but soon realized that the cost of maintaining real estate and paying rent in the city was too high. To save expenses, they decided to make Otto’s office their home as well and moved to the 44th Street business location. With Otto’s personal life revolving around his work, Anne remained a constant source of advice and an authority on decorum, appropriate attire, and decisions, both business and personal. “Anne was a great influence on the Archive. She had an unerring sense of style and was totally American in her outlook, unlike me,” Bettmann is quoted as saying.[46] He also credits her for transforming him “from a little German scholar into a proud American citizen.”[47] The two remained happily married for almost fifty years. Anne died of cancer in 1988.

When World War II ended, the country went from wartime to peacetime economy and with that a growing need for business promotion arose, a perfect time for the picture man. Bettmann moved his office to 215 East 57th Street, and for a while, his wife ran a small antique shop from that location as well. The Bettmann Archive covered, up to this time, historic, fine art, medical, and technological subjects. A shrewd hypothesis on the part of Bettmann resulted in his obtaining an abundant collection of what might be considered seedy images. The time was opportune to build up this genre of pictures. People had always been curious about illicit or immoral information. During the war, there were shortages of everything, particularly paper, books, and photographs—the necessities of publishing. Copyright renewals had decreased because of those shortages and old issues of many publications lay fallow in used bookstores. Bettmann’s next idea was to obtain a group of illustrations about the darker side of American life that would not be renewed for copyright. He guessed there would be a continued market for these because when he worked as a librarian in Germany, there were materials kept in a locked case referred to as “poison cabinets” (Giftschränke): e.g. Japanese erotic woodcuts which patrons had to request, often embarrassed. Another three-volume book, Die Weiberherrschaft(1914) by Edward Fuchs, contained a variety of sexual and reproductive themed images from early Greek line drawings to pictures of chastity belts. When Otto had photographed these, he could not predict how they would be used in the future: he merely wanted them for his own amusement. These later proved to be the perfect illustrations for Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University.

Of course there were no sexually explicit images in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Harper’s Weekly and Police Gazette, but the human propensity to seek the forbidden, the secret, the revealing was a key to another aspect of the Bettmann collection. These were the kinds of magazines that no one wanted to admit to reading but many secretly wanted to peruse, similar to tabloids such as The National Enquirer. He bought up old issues of all three publications and during the evenings enlisted his wife and her three children to cut and paste the illustrations onto cardboard backing to give them a framed appearance.

Bettmann soon discovered two other sources of images that he could use: lantern slides and trade cards. People bought and traded trade cards for their personal use, a collection of ephemera. A trade card was a small 4×6-inch card used to advertise a product. They were the earliest form of advertising and businesses would use them in a similar way that modern day businesses use business cards. Trade cards from the Victorian era were the most interesting because of the detail and subject matter of the images on the cards. People would collect them and paste them into scrap books and those scrap books could be found for sale or even discarded in the streets. Otto was able to save the images by cutting them out and putting them in water to float. After the glue backing dissolved he could take the cards, remove the images and use them in the Archive.

One of the biggest advertisers after the war was the tobacco industry which had colorful graphic images on cigars, cigar boxes, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco, not only of their products but of baseball players. The followers of this quintessential American pastime had obsessive habits of collecting baseball cards, often paying excessive amounts for a particular player’s card. Cigar boxes were a rich source of images with beautiful women, exotic landscapes, decorative borders, or bright flowers. A typical Bettmann marketing technique was to acquire an image or group of images for as little as possible, and then modify, combine, or organize them in a different way and resell them for as much as possible, perhaps in an altered form. For example, he could obtain an image, a print, take a photo of it, frame the original image to sell and offer the photo to a magazine or newspaper for a one-time use. He would have the benefit of reaping multiple fees from the same image. Occasionally serendipity played an important role in the growth of the Bettmann Archive. One day a seller walked into the Archive with a scrap book that he wanted to sell. It contained only tobacco advertisements no longer available. Bettmann bought the scrapbook, took photos of every item and then resold the scrapbook at an auction for more than ten times the price he had paid for it. Not only did he make a profit on the scrapbook but he had the images to rent in perpetuity.

With his Leica camera, Bettmann could take his own pictures and now had set up a dark room and laboratory to develop his film. Two treasure troves of ready images were within a few hours from his office: the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. A third source was in Paris, France, at the Bibliothéque Nationale where in one trip, Bettmann was able to pay for prints of negatives of distinguished intellectuals and artistic contemporaries in French culture originally taken by the nineteenth-century writer/artist/photographer/balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, also known as Nadar (1820-1910). Perhaps he felt a kinship to this journalist who originally studied medicine and had a wide range of interests.

In the 1950s, Bettmann obtained a collection of slides and negatives that documented the Lower East Side of New York City, an area that the sociologist Jacob Riis had studied and written about in his classic, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890). Riis had shown how poverty was rampant and ubiquitous in this part of New York City. The collection that Bettmann purchased from a relative (eager to rid himself of it) of a Dr. Bartlett’s, a hobby photographer, showed a more balanced and less dire social life. The area of New York that the pictures illustrated was called Mulberry Bend. Typical again for Bettmann’s modus operandi, he did not hold on to this collection and instead marketed it as “Dr. Bartlett’s Mulberry Bend,” selling it to the Saturday Evening Post.

Bettmann cultivated his uncanny knack of finding old images to illustrate modern innovations: his early success with CBS demonstrated that. A new opportunity for marketing appeared on Bettmann’s radar. Concomitant with the culture of the Cold War grew a paranoia about “the other” and with it an obsession about aliens, space travel, and the popularity of a new genre in writing: science fiction. He found a nineteenth-century artist, Albert Robida (1848-1929), whose drawings could be used to illustrate the dystopian world with its bizarre technology. He predicted gas warfare, overpopulation, and eradication and replacement of the book.[48] One of his cartoons was a picture of a nineteenth-century explorer riding in a hot air balloon powered by a spray gun that peppered the city underneath with advertising pamphlets. Not only was Robida’s world fearful but it was also prescient. He drew a telephonoscope, a device that would broadcast a lecture from a university, long before the invention of TV and the Internet.

As the Archive kept expanding and now held over a million photographs, Bettmann moved it to 136 East 57th Street in 1961. He had five skilled picture researchers working for him whom he had trained himself. They were usually able to fulfill a request within twenty-four hours—an impressive feat. As one article describes it,

On a typical day . . . the demands will test the resources of the collection from aardvark to zymometer. Vogue wants a picture of a totem pole. A printer wants a sunburst. The New York Times requests a portrait of Sir Francis Bacon. The Book-of-the-Month Club is looking for a musical subject to illustrate a brochure for its record society. Channel Five is doing a documentary on the Russian Revolution and needs sixty-five pictures in that category . . .[49]

Requests usually reflected current fads, or needs to meet visual support for current events, such as the centennial of the Civil War, for example. Bettmann would later remember how Sigmund Freud was always highly desired: “He outsold Jesus.”[50] To satisfy the ever-growing demand for images, he acquired the Springer Collection, promotional photos of Hollywood stars, in 1965, and other collections such as turn-of the-century glass negatives (from an unknown physician), old advertisements, Victorian lantern slides, and complete press runs of nineteenth-century magazines.[51] The Bettmann Archive included anything from images of 17th-century engravings to 19th-century paintings and 20th-century photographs. Some of the best-known images include the iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe on a subway grate, Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, or Rosa Parks on a bus.

Although there is no reliable information on the prices paid to acquire these collections, it can be assumed that profit margins were considerable once Bettmann had photographed them and turned them around into a marketable, infinitely reproducible product. He benefited from the fact that many historic images were either in the public domain and thus not protected by copyright (the Copyright Act of 1909 stipulated that the protection of copyrighted works would expire twenty-eight years from date of publication) or they were unattributable to a specific photographer (which didn’t make reproduction legal, but certainly easier). In other cases, an at that time general “established practice, a long-standing ‘culture’ of disregard for the terms of copyright and of unlawful reproduction in the press and publishing business, which commercial picture suppliers used for their own ends” surely played into Bettmann’s business success, too.[52] Once a reproduction had been created, the Bettmann Archive charged prices on a sliding scale depending both on the photo and the person or organization requesting it. In 1939, an article in the New Yorker mentions charges of $5 to $10 (roughly $150 to $300 in 2010 USD).[53] By the early 1980s, they ranged anywhere from $50 to several thousand dollars ($150 and upwards in 2010 USD).[54] Today, the price for reproducing a photograph from the Bettmann Archive is calculated according to an elaborate matrix including use (advertising, online, publishing), duration, reproduction size, and other factors, and quickly runs into hundreds of dollars.[55]

Picture-Text Units

“That old saying, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ That’s baloney. A picture may be worth a thousand bucks, but a thousand words? Never. Flaubert, Henry James, they are artists, not Cartier-Bresson. Photography does not require the total involvement of the creative temperament that true art does. The process is technically interesting, but it’s not art. A picture reaches only a superficial level of consciousness. A Brady photo of Lincoln is an interesting photograph, but it is the Gettysburg Address that teaches us about Lincoln’s mind, which is what made him a great man. Unfortunately we have become a nation of viewers, not readers. I know it is biting the hand that feeds me to say this, but it is only through reading that a human being can enlarge their potential.”[56]

Working with pictures was one part of Bettmann’s creative genius; the other was his philosophy that words were infinitely superior to pictures. As he grew the Archive he recognized that supplying pictures to others was not entirely satisfying his creative need, for “no amount of illustrative material can by itself create a meaningful panorama . . . There must be, in addition to pictures, an intrinsic plan, a unified point of view which the reader can grasp and use to achieve comprehension.”[57] He thus decided to produce a book and contacted Bellamy Partridge, an established author. This collaboration with others would become a Bettmann “trademark”: known literary names authoring works with Bettmann supplying extensive image material. As We Were: Family Life in America, 1850-1900 was published by McGraw-Hill in 1946 after only four months of preparation. Bettmann’s next book, Pictorial History of American Sports: From Colonial Times to the Present was coauthored by John Durant, a sportswriter, and published by A.S. Barnes and Company—a major publisher of sports-related books in the 1950s—in 1952. Appealing to the “novice, the information-packed expert, and the sentimental antiquarian” alike, it provided Bettmann with a blueprint for successful writing.[58]

Bettmann organized A Pictorial History of Medicine, which was published by Charles C. Thomas, soon thereafter in 1956, drawing more than one thousand photos and illustrations from “what is generally recognized as one of the best sets of medical illustrations in the world.”[59] In his foreword, coauthor Philip S. Hench, a medical doctor from the Mayo Clinic, stressed that their publication was “designed less for medical historians than for the practicing physician or layman who wishes to inform himself.”[60] The more than three hundred pages clearly show Bettmann’s lifelong passion for, and knowledge of, the medical profession.[61]

The next venture, Our Literary Heritage: A Pictorial History of the Writer in America with coauthor Van Wyk Brooks, also came out in 1956. Brooks had previously published a five-volume work on writers in America 1800-1915 and based this publication, a “history of American life seen through the literary window,” on his previous research, condensing it to less than one-sixth of the original text. Accompanying the text were more than five hundred images which Bettmann drew from his existing collection but also new sources, such as museums, libraries, and private collections all over the United States. He called this oeuvre his “most challenging book” and also his “most spiritually rewarding book.”[62] In 1960, together with musicologist and music critic Paul Henry Lang, Bettmann wrote A Pictorial History of Music, combining “elements of [his] professional life as a graphic historian and [his] private life as a happy lover of music.”[63] His foreword reinforces the idea that although pictures are meaningful, words are essential to make what he referred to as “picture-text units.” Next came the Bettmann Portable Archive: A Graphic History of Almost Everything (1966), presented, as the subtitle explains, “by way of 3,669 illustrations culled from the files of the Bettmann archive, topically arranged and cross-referenced to serve as an idea stimulator and image finder.”

In 1967, Bettmann purchased the Gendreau Collection of Americana and in 1972, the Underwood and Underwood collection of negatives and prints. From these two collections came the sources for many of his next books. Bettmann chose each ensuing coauthor for his or her prominence or visibility in a particular field, applying the successful formula he had already used for previous publications: pictures by Bettmann, text by a well-known author. He made certain that any coauthor would receive a lump sum rather than royalties from the ongoing sale of the book and drove a hard bargain heaping praise and compliments on the potential collaborator rather than money.

One of the exceptions was The Good Old Days—They were Terrible! which Bettmann wrote himself and Random House published in 1974. Enchanted with American life, he delved into the forgotten details of the past and looked at American history from the Civil War to the early 1900s “to revise the idealized picture of the past and turn the spotlight on its grimmer aspects.”[64] His clever title divided 207 pages into eleven chapters: air, traffic, housing, rural life, work, crime, food and drink, health, education, travel, and leisure. Most of the illustrations were from the Frank Leslie collection, whose copyright had expired.

In 1977,A Word from the Wise: A Sufficiency of Quotes & Images to Brighten Your Day was published by Harmony Books. The basis of this work goes back to Otto’s arrival in the United States when his English teacher encouraged him to keep a book full of words and phrases from classic works of literature that he liked.[65] Over the years, this initial assignment eventually grew into several books. In A Word from the Wise, rather than using his own comment below an image, he used memorable quotes. On the precision of the English language, Otto remarked “I was always enormously impressed by English. It isn’t just another language, it’s another way of thinking. German has exceedingly complex, involuted and obscure sentences. In English, we try to say things, as in the Latin heritage, very clearly, very simply, and very smartly.”[66] One of his favorite pictures was under the category of reading. It is a picture of a woman, preparing food in a kitchen with a harness-type appurtenance strapped to her shoulders so that she can read while she is working. This image appeared in quite a few of his books.

An Active Retirement

“Like a fugue from his beloved Bach—which begins with an initial theme, undergoes increasingly complicated variations and counterpoint, then returns surely to its source—Bettmann’s amazing success story continues.”[67]

Since they had been vacationing in Florida every year, the Bettmanns decided to retire there. However, retirement for Otto only meant moving his body and household possessions to a new location. The formula for success—pictures that evoked interest, captions that were cleverly composed, and coauthors who attracted sales—was to continue. His association with the University Special Collections Department and his leadership in the Archive was fertile ground for the next book, The Bettmann Archive Picture History of the World (1978). Bettmann’s stepson, Manley Stolzman, and Fred Czufin (who also designed The Good Old Days) helped with this publication.

Now over seventy years old, with a collection of five million images and “a business with profit margins any Harvard Business School graduate would envy,” [68] Bettmann reevaluated how he should spend the rest of his life. In the 1950s, he had established a business relationship with Hans P. Kraus, a rare book dealer and fellow emigré (from Austria). At that time, when Kraus offered to buy the Archive, Bettmann was not willing to give it up. Now after more than twenty years, he was ready for a change. In 1981, Bettmann sold the Bettmann Archive to the Kraus-Thomson Organization, a small publishing firm.[69] By 1992, the Bettmann Archive was employing over fifty people and held more than eleven million images. In 1995, Bill Gates of Microsoft bought the Bettmann Archive from Kraus-Thomson under the name of his subsidiary company, Corbis, promising to keep the name Bettmann attached. NPR announced the sale and Otto, now ninety-two, listened with rapt interest and amazement, delighted “to have seen [his] original acorn nourished and cultivated into a formidable digitized oak.”[70] The price was never officially revealed, although one newspaper article put it at $6 million, one of the “highest prices ever paid for a photo archive.”[71]

Bettmann’s relationship with Florida Atlantic University (FAU) expanded to include an adjunct teaching position in the history department in addition to his home-like office in the special collections department, overseeing donations and making decisions regarding their worth. As the curator of rare books at the university’s Wimberly Library, he could be found sitting behind his personal desk which he brought to the library, surrounded by bookcases, a distinguished-looking gentleman with a white beard and a balding white pate. In 1979 he received an Honorary Doctorate of the Humanities from FAU. In 1987 The Delights of Reading: Quotes, Notes & Anecdotes was published by David R. Godine in association with the Center of the Book in the Library of Congress with a foreword by Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin. The quotes are accompanied by a selection of images from the Bettmann collection, all of them related to reading or books. The time for his autobiography had come in 1992: Bettmann: The Picture Man, an optimistic narrative of Bettmann’s life with photographs and pictures from the Archive, was coauthored by Skipp Sheffield and published by University of Florida Press. Bettmann’s last oeuvre, Johann Sebastian Bach: As His World Knew Him came out in 1995. At the time of his death in 1998 Bettmann was working on a book tentatively titled The Eternally Feminine: The History of Women Retold in Masterworks of Art.[72] He credited his active retirement for his “total inability to become bored.”[73]

In 1995 Bettmann returned to Leipzig for the first time since his forced emigration in 1935, clearly with conflicting feelings. By all accounts it was not an easy trip for him to make, having previously rejected all efforts at reconciliation (invitations by the German government, even book gifts from Leipzig) and sworn never to return to the country where he had once assumed that “Nazism would blow over.”[74] Thirteen years earlier, in an oral history interview, Bettmann described how “a distrust, a dislike – not of individual Germans but of Germany as a whole still is in [his] bones” and discussed how “a sort of gut reaction . . . keeps [him] . . . from ever setting foot on German soil.”[75] However, sixty years after emigrating, persuaded by friends to make the trip, he made his peace with his native country:

I must admit I’ve gone through a reversal . . . I’ve developed a certain guilt complex. Leipzig was destroyed in a pretty brutal way. Maybe the city deserved it, but so many people did not. I’ve become much more conscious of that. I admire their gumption here in wanting to rebuild. This is quite remarkable, and you cannot help but respect it . . . I see now that there were so many innocents who were not part of the game, and who simply lost it all.[76]

Social Life and Personality

Bettmann’s love of the arts, literature, music, theater and his intellectual proclivity were developed very early in his life. With educated parents and extended family, a home in a fashionable district of Leipzig, a mother who read to him from the earliest age, and a family who owned and played musical instruments, it would have been difficult for him to not be focused on achievement and appreciation of the cultural offerings in affluent society.

The Bettmann family was not strictly Jewish Orthodox in their practices, but they did honor the Sabbath on Friday evening and attended Jewish services on Saturdays. Their friends were a heterogeneous mixture of individuals with little attention or concern paid to each individual’s private choice of worship. In his autobiography, Otto recounts suffering an unexpected insult when a classmate, in front of the entire class, marched up to the blackboard and stated in large letters “All Jews are swine. Bettmann is a Jew; hence Bettmann is a swine.”[77] Although Otto had been the only Jewish child in a class of forty students, he had never experienced such overt hostility. As an adult, Otto would state that after this childhood trauma, he turned inward to his fantasies and dreams, finding solace in being alone. This allowed him to spend a great deal of time delving into books and studying.

Consistent with the teachings and rituals of the Jewish tradition in his family, Otto Bettmann was barmitzvahed at age thirteen. While not overtly or obsessively religious, he was respectful of the obligations and respect of his heritage, and his romantic relationships were generally with women of the same religious background. While living in Berlin, he met a Jewish divorcee, Elisabeth Gergely, who designed jewelry. Their relationship lasted seven years but did not include marriage. After Otto left Germany, Elisabeth escaped to Yugoslavia until after the war.[78]

Otto identified with his Jewish heritage because of his forced exodus from Germany, but never dwelled on the political circumstances that had led to his emigration. He often attended performances of oratorios during Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays. To him, music was an art, perhaps a spiritual expression but certainly not limited to a worldly religion. In sum, it might be said that Otto Bettmann’s religion was more similar to a transcendentalist philosophy than either a Judeo-Christian tradition or any other theistic rhetoric. “I may be irreligious in the sense of a practicing Jew – but I am certainly not an agnostic,” he explained.[79] His many charitable acts included donating freely to cultural and environmental organizations on the local, national, and international level.

Bettmann rejoiced in being able to live in the United States and to take part in its freedoms. “I’m 150% pro America, proud to live here and privileged to do so,” one article quotes him as saying.[80] In interviews he spoke frequently about his “passionate Americanism.”[81] He liked to talk about his first experience in the New York Public Library when he discovered that he could actually remove a book from the shelf and take it home rather than being forced to remain in the building. He loved the ability to browse the shelves rather than filling out forms and waiting while a library page searched for a book. He never got over the amazement that he could borrow as many books as he wanted without paying for anything, simply at the presentation of a library card:

I was startled upon my arrival in America to find its libraries groaning with books liberally available to all citizens, with no questions asked. This struck me, accustomed to the lean library diet of the old country, as one of the most remarkable features of American democratic life.[82]

Bettmann appears to have been full of joie de vivre, inquisitiveness, enthusiasm, and optimism throughout his life. Contemporaries noted his “strong presence, impeccable demeanor, and ‘smiling eyes’.”[83] He never gave up his love for the droll, strange, paradoxical, or quixotic. A constant was his passion for Bach. Until the end, Bettmann played Bach preludes and fugues in his free time, as if in accord with an inner discipline that demanded he remain faithful to his early training. Eager to promote the composer in his local community after retirement, he put together and maintained a Bach collection at Florida Atlantic University encompassing more than one hundred publications. He loved listening to Bach on his Walkman and marveled at all the other changes that had ensued in technology since the Leica camera had been used.


In many ways Bettmann’s story lends itself to the classic immigration myth, the Horatio Alger rags to riches tale. “There are few businesses in the United States so fully imprinted with the hand, mind, and spirit of a single man, a once-penniless, tenacious German immigrant, armed only with two trunks full of old pictures and an ambition to make it in America,” the introduction to Bettmann: The Picture Man claims.[84] Bettmann is variously described as having had only $5/$10/$100 in his pocket and little more than his father’s old suit on his back upon arrival. Again and again, in articles and interviews, he conjures the image of the poor refugee who comes to America with only two steamer trunks of images—supposedly deemed worthless by the German immigration official but greeted with enthusiasm by his American counterpart—and subsequently pulls himself up by his bootstraps.[85] Everything in his personal trajectory, from his early interest in images and the pictorial history of medicine he reportedly gave his father for his birthday when he was thirteen years old[86] to his work at the Art Library in Berlin, is woven into the narrative as forebodings of the entrepreneurial venture to come. One article even has him remembering “breathing lungfulls of entrepreneurial air upon entering New York harbor.”[87] It is a narrative that Bettmann himself carefully crafted and cultivated. “It’s a very American story. It could have happened nowhere else,” he said about his life and career in the United States.[88]

In the end, what made his business venture so successful, and the Archive stand out from its competitors, is that Otto Bettmann combined in his persona a unique mix of knowledge through personal interest and robust education/training; a discerning eye and good intuition; a sensitivity to current market demand; access to world-class libraries, archives, and collections in a multitude of countries; perhaps a dose of being in the right place at the right time; and—last but not least—a lax attitude to copyright laws. He promoted not only pictures but a whole “package” which included meticulous research, quick retrieval thanks to a diligently developed and maintained indexing system, personal service, and the idea of selling inspiration along with the physical object.[89] Today, his original snapshots, and the millions of photographs, negatives, contact sheets, transparencies, glass plates, and copper engravings that followed are stored at Iron Mountain, a large, temperature-controlled underground facility in Pennsylvania.[90] The Bettmann Archive is being digitized continuously as new images are uploaded to the Corbis website, easily accessible for anyone interested in the vast collection that the picture man amassed.[91]


The authors wish to thank Victoria Thur and Teresa Van Dyke, Special Collections at Florida Atlantic University; Dr. Andrea Lorz, Leipzig; Roy Lämmel, Universitätsarchiv Leipzig; and Beate Ebelt, Zentralarchiv Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz for their time and generous assistance in providing important information for this article.

[1] For an excellent discussion of Bettmann—man, archive, and myth—see Estelle Blaschke, Photography and the Commodification of Images. From the Bettmann Archive to Corbis (1924-2010), thèse de doctorat de l’EHESS, sous la direction d’André Gunthert et Michel Poivert, 2011, 55-195, online at (accessed August 19, 2013).

[2] “His business flourished because he filled a niche even as the niche was developing. Using his uncanny sense of what was needed in the commercial world of visuals, his archive developed the niche as much as the niche developed his archive,” one author has aptly remarked. Lorraine Anne Davis, “Corbis/Bettmann,” in Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 2006), ed. Lynne Warren, 332-335, here 333.

[3] For a good overview of Otto Bettmann’s family background, see Andrea Lorz, “Die Medizinische Fakultät der Universität Leipzig nach 1933: Von der schleichenden Diskriminierung zur offenen Ausgrenzung, Vertreibung und Vernichtung. Erzwungene Brüche und Zerstörung beruflicher Karrieren und persönlicher Lebenspläne dargestellt am Beispiel des Orthopäden Dr. med. Ernst Bettmann,” Studia Humanistiyczne, vol. 2, Wydzialu Farmaceutycznego Akademii Medycznej we Wroclawiu Akademia Medyczna im. Piastow Slaskich we Wroclawiu, Wroclaw 2009, 371-391.

[4] “Otto L. Bettmann,” Current Biography 22.10 (November 1961), 5.

[5] Otto Bettmann, Bettmann: The Picture Man (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992) 6.

[6] Sources yield conflicting information on which school Otto Bettmann attended. In his autobiography Bettmann claims to have been a student at the König Albert-Gymnasium, a prestigious secondary school with a strong focus on Greek, Latin, and modern languages. He goes to great lengths to describe his classical training (Picture Man, 12). However, research into König Albert-Gymnasium school records and student lists—albeit partially incomplete due to war destruction—did not turn up his name. Leipzig University records, on the other hand, clearly state attendance at an Oberrealschule, a school form which also led to a diploma granting access to university studies, but interestingly offered no Latin language instruction (see Bettmann’s university records from 1925 and 1927). Bettmann himself, in a brief handwritten and signed biographical abstract for his dissertation (1926), confirmed attendance of the Oberrealschule.

[7] Bettmann, Picture Man, 124. Quoted in Lorz, “Die Medizinische Fakultät der Universität Leipzig nach 1933,” 7 (unpublished German manuscript).

[8] Contrary to the information that university records yield, Bettmann claims in his autobiography to have enrolled at university in 1921, Picture Man, 14.

[9] Bettmann, Picture Man, 20, 23.

[10] From Otto Bettmann’s application for reparations, 1960. See Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv, SMB-ZA, II/VA 13110.

[11] Bettmann, Picture Man, 26. Efforts to verify this exhibition were unsuccessful. A lot of documentation was lost in the war (cf. email correspondence Jessica Csoma with the archivist at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, October 2, 2012).

[12] From Otto Bettmann’s application for reparations, 1960, SMB-ZA, II/VA 13110.

[13] Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: Harper Perennial. 1998) 27-33.

[14] See Otto Bettmann’s application for reparations, 1960, SMB-ZA, II/VA 13110. His Jewish boss at the Museum of Prints and Drawings, Jakob Rosenberg, at first was exempt from the decree as a veteran of World War I. He resigned two years later, in 1935, but not before diverting certain priceless selections from the Renaissance collection which Hermann Goering had requested for his personal collection to less valuable works. Rosenberg was later able to obtain a permanent position at the Fogg Museum at Harvard. See (accessed July 3, 2012).

[15] For an in-depth look at Bettmann’s indexing and classification methods, see Blaschke, 151-173.

[16] On the beginnings of Bettmann’s collection, also see Interview with Otto Bettmann, 1982, The New York Public Library-American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 24-27.

[17]German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1939,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, (accessed October 19, 2012).

[19] For example, the statistics of the Census, International Migration and Naturalization (C 89-101) show only 5,201 immigrants arriving from Germany in 1935. See U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1. Washington, D.C., 1975, 105 (accessed October 26, 2012).

[20] The American Bettmans altered the spelling of their name.

[21] This was not the first time the Bettmann émigrés had generously offered their financial assistance. They also had helped Otto’s father Isidor and his uncle Max to pay for medical school. Max would later become a top surgeon with the German navy. See Lorz, 5.

[22] Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY 1897-1957. National Archives microfilm publication T715, microfilm roll5730.Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives, Washington DC. Online at (accessed July 26, 2013).

[23] Unless otherwise indicated, all 2010 USD values calculated by using MeasuringWorth (accessed August 8, 2012).

[25] In an article detailing Bettmann’s emotional return to Leipzig for a visit more than half a century later, the author would note that Bettmann had retained his Saxon dialect in German but subconsciously kept slipping back into English. Rick Atkinson, “Still Pictures, Moving Times,” Washington Post, May 18, 1995.

[26] Alfred Eisenstaedt is the photographer best known for his picture of the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day.

[27] Bettmann, Picture Man, 50.

[28] Robert L. Leslie in an interview conducted by Herbert Johnson about the beginning of the Composing Room and PM magazine, September 23, 1981, see (accessed November 8, 2013).

[29] While in English “archives” are usually used in the plural, the German word is singular (Archiv). People often made the mistake of referring to Bettmann’s establishment as “Bettmann Archives” but it gave him the opportunity to explain how and why he named it such. When asked years later by a journalist to explain his word choice, he said “I like words of resonance: Empyrean. Epochal. Eponym. Archive.” Quoted in Marcia Maze, “Otto Bettmann,” Gold Coast July/August 1994, 72.

[30] Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the Present (New York: The Viking Press, 1983), 217.

[31] Cf. (accessed July 26, 2013).

[32] “Cameraman on the Spot,” Time (January 27, 1941) 45.

[33] “Arthur Brackman,” (accessed July 26, 2013).

[34] For an overview see Blaschke, 113-119.

[35] On the historical development of commercial image services both in Germany and the United States, see for example Blaschke, 17-54; or Paul Frosh, The Image Factory: Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry (London: Berg, 2003).

[36] By the early 1960s, 75 percent of Bettmann’s clientele came from television and advertising, as opposed to the publishers that had approached him in the earlier days. See John Tebbel, “Picture-Man on 57th Street,” The Saturday Review, February 11, 1961, 87. Also see Blaschke, 108-113, on the development of the American picture market.

[37] See Frosh.

[38] “Dr. Bettmann and His Picture Archive,” Publishers Weekly, September 25, 1961, 32-35, here 34.

[39] Interview with Otto Bettmann, 1982, The New York Public Library-American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 44.

[40] Blaschke, 66.

[41] Bettmann, Picture Man, 59.

[42] Philip Hamburger and Russell Maloney, “Bettmann Archive,” New Yorker, April 8, 1939 (accessed August 21, 2013).

[43] From the introduction to Bettmann Portable Archive: A Graphic History of Almost Everything (New York: Picture House Press, 1966), 3.

[44] While in his autobiography Otto Bettmann describes them as arriving with no more than “two suitcases and the clothes on their backs” (Picture Man, 72), immigration records report they entered the country with $350, which would be roughly equivalent to $5,600 today. See MeasuringWorth (accessed July 29, 2013). Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, National Archives microfilm publication T715, roll 6451. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives, Washington DC. Online at (accessed August 19, 2013).

[45] Lorz, 18.

[46] Skip Sheffield, “It’s all in the timing: Author-Archivist Otto L. Bettmann, ‘the picture man’,” Culture, March-June 1996, 25.

[47] Moira Bailey, “Otto Bettmann: Pictures of Success,” Suburban People, December 3, 1989, 9.

[48] Bettmann, Picture Man, 89.

[49] Tebbel, 87.

[50] As quoted in Maze, 72.

[51] Sheffield, 24.

[52] Blaschke, 45, also 82-94.

[53] Hamburger/Maloney.

[54] Helen Markel, “The Bettmann Behind the Archives,” New York Times Magazine, October 18, 1981, 120.

[56] Scott Eyman quoting Otto Bettmann in “The Picture Man,” Palm Beach Post, September 2, 1992, 4D. In a similar vein, Bettmann laments the decline of reading when he notes that “[e]normous strides in visual communication have made possible the accelerated presentation of facts and the broadening, if not deepening, of knowledge. On the negative side, increased reliance on visual aids raises the danger of relegating into the background serious reading (notwithstanding glowing statistics of book sales) and the exposure of the young to the character-forming influence of the literary classics,” as quoted in Current Biography, 7.

[57] From the foreword to Otto Bettmann and Paul Henry Lang, A Pictorial History of Music (New York: Norton, 1960), vii.

[58] From the introduction by John K. Hutchens to A Pictorial History of Music, vi.

[59] Jack H. Colldeweih, “Otto Ludwig Bettmann,” Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism, ed. Joseph P. McKerns (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 44.

[60] Hench, foreword to Otto Bettmann, A Pictorial History of Medicine, (Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas, 1956), viii. Interestingly, this is the only publication in which Bettmann’s academic title, Ph.D., is prominently displayed on the front cover (as well as Hench’s M.D.).

[61] A New Yorker reviewer wrote: “This review of man’s pertinacious attempts to understand the infinite complexity of his body is one of the scant handful of picture-and-caption books whose visual impact, intellectual stature, and entertainment value fully justify this so often debased form.” Quoted in Current Biography, 6.

[62] Bettmann, Picture Man, 122 and 128, respectively.

[63] From the foreword to A Pictorial History of Music, vii.

[64] Otto Bettmann, The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible (New York: Random House, 1974), xiii.

[65] Carol Smelser Perry, “Words from Otto—from Advice to Zodiac,” Boca Raton News, May 3, 1977, 1.

[66] Carolyn Riley, “Quotes to Brighten Your Day,” Sun Sentinel, May 10, 1977, 3B.

[67] Sheffield, 25.

[68] Markel, 120.

[69] “Art: From Freud to Bicycling Monks,” Time, March 23, 1981.

[70] As quoted in Jesse Birnbaum, “Gates Snaps Top Pix,” Time, October 23, 1995, 82.

[71] Brigitte Werneburg, “Mit der Leica in die Emigration,” Tageszeitung, February 3, 1998. The sum would be equivalent to roughly $8.8 million in 2011, see MeasuringWorth (accessed July 22, 2013).

[72] Cf. notes from Otto L. Bettmann Personal Papers Collection, 1976 – 1998, Florida Atlantic University’s Special Collections & Archives, box 1, folder 15.

[73] As quoted in Jim Leggett, “Bettmann, Boca and Bach,” Boca Raton 34 (Mid-winter 1987), 65.

[74] Atkinson, C8.

[75] Interview with Otto Bettmann, 1982, The New York Public Library-American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 57-58.

[76] Atkinson, C8.

[77] Bettmann, Picture Man, 13.

[78] Bettmann, Picture Man, 36.

[79] Interview with Otto Bettmann, 1982, The New York Public Library-American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 64.

[80] Leggett, 68.

[81] See, for example, interview with Otto Bettmann, 1982, The New York Public Library-American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 47, 56.

[82] Bettmann, quoted by Daniel J. Boorstin in the foreword to Otto Bettmann, The Delights of Reading, xiii.

[83] Ann Page Nova in a letter on Southeastern University letterhead to Dee Coel of Florida Atlantic University’s Special Collections & Archives dated May 27, 1998, from the Otto L. Bettmann Personal Papers Collection, 1976 – 1998, Florida Atlantic University Libraries, box 1, folder 9.

[84] Skip Sheffield in Bettmann, Picture Man, viii.

[85] At closer inspection, it turns out he was able to bring his grand piano and apparently also a sizeable collection of books, as photographs of his “modest abode” on West 44th Street show. Bettmann, Picture Man, 49.

[86] Current Biography, 5.

[87] Bailey, 9.

[88] Ibid. He also falls back on some rather stereotypical observations about Americans (“[U]nderneath all that there is such goodness, such neighborliness. There is a basic benelovence that underlines American life”) and Germans (“The Germans are always accused, rightly I think, of being very correct, very orderly. I guess that helps somewhat in forming an archive”). As quoted by Eyman and Atkinson, respectively.

[89] Cf. Bettmann being quoted in “Dr. Bettmann and His Picture Archive,” Publishers Weekly, September 25, 1961, 32: “We try to make it more than a picture archive. . . I think that when they’ve been here they go away with some modicum of inspiration.” Also see Blaschke, 141.

[90] For an excellent article on the challenges of preserving all this material long-term, see Mary Battiata, “Buried Treasure,” Washington Post Magazine, May 18, 2003 (accessed August 20, 2013). On Iron Mountain, also see Roland Lindner, “Wo Bill Gates seine Fotosammlung lagert,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 24, 2007 or Susanne Mendack, A Photography Treasure: The Legendary Bettmann Archive (Düsseldorf: Feymedia, 2009).

[91] For more information, see (accessed August 7, 2013).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Otto Bettmann
  • Coverage 1903-1998
  • Jessica Csoma
  • Author Lana Thompson
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018