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The Trackers´ Treasure Trove: Article

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Mystery Solved

Search for photographer who captured famed Depression-era image leads to Ormond Beach family
By AUDREY PARENTE
News-Journal Staff Writer

A photo of 11 lunching workmen dangling on a steel beam high above the Manhattan skyline has been an American icon for more than 70 years. Until recently the photographer´s name remained unknown. But Joyce Ebbets High of Ormond Beach knew.

Charles C. Ebbets, her late husband, an adventurous hunter, fisherman, one-time actor, auto racer, wrestler, pilot and photographer was hired to chronicle the Rockefeller Center´s construction during the Depression era. The photo first appeared in the New York Herald Tribune in 1932 and has continued to be a sought-after poster.

Ebbets created a photographic record of a good deal of American history from the 1920s through the 1970s. In October he was recognized for his life´s work by one of the world´s most respected photo licensing companies.

Corbis, founded by Bill Gates in 1989, has acknowledged authorship of 17 Ebbets pictures already in its collection.

The company also has begun licensing more images from thousands stored until recently in High´s Ormond Beach garage. Corbis soon will archive the Ebbets collection at its film preservation facility in Pennsylvania.

“Charlie walked on the wings of planes, drove race cars, raced boats, was a pilot and taught Eisenhower how to cast for bass,” said High, who was a 15-year-old Miami bathing-suit model when she met the Alabama-born photographer. Besides newspapers, Ebbets´ pictures appeared in such magazines as National Geographic, Field & Stream and Look.

During his career, Ebbets, who lived from 1905 to 1978, contracted as work-for-hire with the Hamilton Wright Features syndicate. He also snapped black-and-white pictures for the Associated Press and The Miami News as he tramped through the Florida Everglades.

He captured Frank Lockhart, “boy wonder” of the 1926 Indy 500, who flipped his “Blackhawk Special” on Daytona Beach in 1928 and was killed.

He chronicled the aftermath of a 1935 Florida hurricane.

A flier, Ebbets was Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute´s (in Miami at the time) photographic director during pilot training for World War II.

Ebbets and High married in 1951 when she was 18. They had four children who appear in some of his pictures: Chobee Ebbets of Ormond Beach; Toby Ebbets Bagley of Tavernier; Bruce Ebbets of Georgia; and Tami Ebbets Hahn of North Carolina.

“He was one of those real men you just don´t see anymore,” said Ebbets Hahn, the younger daughter.

Hahn connected with Corbis in September after her mom read in a local periodical about the company marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Otto Bettman, one of the world´s leading photography collectors.

Corbis owns the Bettman collection, including 11 million pictures, and invited anyone who took a picture for or was depicted in the collection to contact the company. The write-up included the grainy black-and-white picture of the men on the beam.

Corbis was publishing a coffee-table book honoring the Bettman collection -- with the beam picture as its cover.

“The men on the beam image is one of the most popular pictures in our collection,” said Ken Johnston, manager of Corbis´ historical collections. “It´s one of the most recognizable images in the world that captures the feel of the time. It´s like a time capsule.”

Johnston said Hahn contacted him about five years ago about the photo, but there was no follow-up of proof. This time when Hahn contacted him, she described what other materials the family had and he agreed to meet with them.

Ebbets Bagley, the photographer´s older daughter, hopped into her pickup and sped from South Florida to her mom´s house. Overnight the women loaded boxes with negatives, pictures, newspaper clippings and rotogravures and drove north.

“I stayed three days, and Mommy, Tammy and I stayed up 12, 13 and 14 hours a day, with cotton gloves on our hands, picking up the fragile 4-by-5 negatives. You would put them down on the light box and say, ‘Oh my god, here´s Eisenhower,’” Ebbets Bagley said.

They categorized 17 notebooks with negatives and related newspaper articles.

“It was just the threshold of what we had,” Bagley said.

Johnston said the most convincing proof that the beam photograph was taken by Ebbets was the shot of Ebbets crouched on a steel beam, poised to take the famous shot, with the Empire State building looming in a misty background.

Corbis hired a private investigator to double-check all the evidence, which included an original work-for-hire receipt of $1.50 hourly to risk life and limb on the beam.

Once the company was convinced, they flew High and Ebbets Hahn to New York for the Bettman anniversary event at the Joseph Javits Convention Center on Oct. 28, where several reproductions of the beam poster appeared, including a 10-foot version above the stage.

Hahn´s husband and Ebbets´ younger son, Bruce, also attended, but the oldest son, Chobee, couldn´t make it.

Ebbets Bagley, who stayed behind in North Carolina to baby-sit, said: “Our family is so enriched and blessed that Daddy loved Mommy and us. He was world class and renowned, but what´s so cool now is that he is getting the recognition for eternity.”

Did You Know?

The world-renowned Bettman Archive of photographs was founded by Otto Bettman.

Born in 1903 in Leipzig, Germany, Bettman first worked as a curator of rare books at the Prussian State Art Library in Berlin. He emigrated to the United States in 1935.

He brought with him two large trunks filled with photographs, drawings, engravings and art reproductions.

In 1936, Bettman founded his business in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City. He collected and classified images for publication.

By 1938, the collection was made up of 15,000 pictures. Today, it contains more than 11 million images, many of which are more than 100 years old.

Bettman wrote nine books and eventually retired in Florida until he died in 1998.

Corbis purchased the Archive collection in 1995 and will eventually make many of the most important photographs available online.

Compiled by Megan Gallup, news research editor. SOURCE: www.corbis.com

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