History Book: Visionary Talent

May 28, 2015 in front, Summer 2015 Issue by Michelle McAnelly

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From the swamps of the everglades to the urban jungles of New York, photographer and northeast Alabama native Charles Ebbets refused no risk or exertion to capture some of the most iconic images of his time.

Pick up your Phone, Snap a “Selfie,” Shoot a video, post them to friends with the merest flick of a thumb… that is what photography is for most of us today. I was introduced to more complicated processes when my father resolved to travel the world and photograph every major monument, market square, cathedral, building and garden. On these journeys i watched him unpack his camera and, holding his light meter aloft, dance about as he tried to decide on the best spot for his picture.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Simultaneously, my mother placed herself next to the chosen object, since my father refused to take pictures without a person in them. Then he began the thankless task of figuring out all the settings and dials. He made it harder on himself since he refused to wear the bifocals that would have allowed him to look from object to light meter to camera with some degree of ease. Instead, he insisted upon borrowing my long-suffering mother’s prescription sunglasses.

My mother was known for her classic elegance, except in her choice of eyewear. There, some deeply buried, quirky part of her found expression in her choice of enormous, rhinestone-laden, brightly colored frames. Some had stripes, but none were, by anyone’s measure, subtle. Think Swifty lazar, only more flamboyant.

So there stood my serious father, at landmarks ranging from Notre Dame to the Great Wall of China, with the wildest, most feminine glasses perched on the end of his nose, gently cursing his light meter and camera as my mother posed with a fixed smile.

Of course, professional photographers would have snorted at these amateur, if charming, efforts, yet they, too, were once hampered by heavy equipment and endless adjustments of light and focus.

John Dersham, professional photographer and CEO of DeKalb County [Alabama] Tourism, admires the work of early photographers precisely because of the difficulties they faced. “The process of planning the image and making sure that all the compositional elements are perfect leads to better-quality photographs,” he says.

Historically, photographers grappled with many challenges, yet still produced extraordinary images that live with us today. One of Lookout Mountain’s most famous natives, Charles Clyde Ebbets (1905-1978), has been credited with snapping what, according to many, is the most dramatic photograph ever taken – “Men on a Beam,” which depicts depression-era construction workers casually eating lunch on a metal girder more than 800 feet above the ground. How did this Gadsden-born fellow come to do such a thing?

Ebbets earned his reputation for photojournalism, landscape, wildlife and photographic portraits in the wilds of New York City and the equally wild, barely explored “jungles” of Florida.

In the best tradition of creative adventurers from the Lookout Mountain area, Ebbets also possessed a dramatic side, acting in silent movies and being among the first to take aerial photographs as he walked upon a plane’s wings, a popular stunt in early aviation. Despite the fact much of his work was performed elsewhere, Gadsden has every reason to be proud of this native son and to celebrate his successes.

Ebbets’ remarkable career spanned the years when many aspects of photography, including moving pictures, were being explored and exploited. It is hard to imagine another medium that so transformed visual art and in turn began transforming itself, than photography in the early 20th century.

At the end of the 19th century, painters no longer had to replicate an exact image of the thing itself, surrendering that ground to photographers, and could begin exploring the effects of light and abstract line and color.

Briefly, photographers experienced a false image as technicians who simply presented unmediated images, devoid of influence from artistic ambitions. That sterile persona was quickly dashed when, by the 1920s, photographers were exploring a variety of effects, from the action photos created during World War I to the surrealism that transformed photographic images into sometimes bizarre, yet fascinating experiments with the limits of the craft. Ebbets and others seeking to make a living with their cameras were a bridge between the utilitarian and artistic worlds – professionals working within commercial constraints, but always seeking new approaches and in-sights into their subjects.

From an early age, Ebbets was fascinated by his father’s job at a Gadsden newspaper, says his daughter, Tami Ebbets Hahn. He loved nothing better than to spend time after school at the newspaper office and finally became a newsboy himself. The news images seem to have captured his special interest because when the local drug store placed a shiny new Kodak brownie camera in its window, Ebbets stared at it for weeks. He longed for the camera, but was unable to afford it. Family lore recounts that, without permission, he charged the camera to his mother’s account at the store and compounded his crime by skipping school to take all the pictures that the one roll of film that came in the camera allowed. He was punished for his fib, but fortunately allowed to keep the camera. From that point he always seemed to have a camera in his hand, teaching himself, reading and learning all he could from other photography enthusiasts.

After working for a Gadsden newspaper and subsequently a paper in Montgomery, Ala., 18-year-old Ebbets moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., to work in a variety of jobs, including actor, wing walker, pilot and freelance photographer. in 1927, he became the official photographer for the world’s heavy-weight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, and one of his biggest assignments that same year was to document the clearing of the Tamiami Trail across central Florida.

The Essex Motor Company, whose automobiles were among the first travelling the crude trail, hired Ebbets. He documented the motorists’ adventures, the landscape and wildlife along the route. Stories of his progress were picked up by newspapers across Florida and the country.

Within three years, Ebbets had been lured to New York City, and in 1932, he was hired to cover the building of Rockefeller Center. His photography would be used to garner publicity that would boost leases as the massive project neared completion. In addition to his job as photographic director for the Rockefeller Center, he had become an official Associated Press staff photographer and still worked as a freelancer. Publications including The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, The Augusta Chronicle, the Norfolk News Service and The Miami Daily News were picking up his photographs.

It was in New York that Ebbets is believed to have taken the photo of 11 workmen perched on a construction beam, their feet dangling 69 stories above downtown and no safety harnesses in sight. The men were working on the RCA Building (now the GE Building), the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. Shooting primarily with a Speed Graphic press camera (commonly used by press photographers), Ebbets had a bit more flexibility than my father with equipment weight and bulk, but he still would have faced considerable challenges working at that height and with unsteady footing, Dersham explains. “men on a beam” first appeared in the New York herald tribune in 1932. The workers appear so comfortable sitting on their perilous perch, and the drama and skilled composition of the shot somewhat obscured its commentary on the Great Depression. To date, it has sold more copies than any other image in stock photography history. In 2012, Time magazine named the photo one of history’s “100 Greatest Images” and placed it on a special-edition cover.

As with most of the photographs taken by professionals and sold to news-papers in those times, the photographer did not apply for a copyright. Many times, photographers’ names did not even appear with images. This was the case with “Men on a Beam.”

However, in 2003, after Bill Gates bought the famous Bettmann archives of photographs and investigated proof of attribution, his company, Corbis Corporation, declared the photograph to be an Ebbets original.

 

In 2003, Corbis published a coffee-table book honoring the Bettmann collection – with the beam photo and a credit to Charles Ebbets on its cover. “The men on the beam image is one of the most popular pictures in our collection,” Ken Johnston, manager of the Corbis historical collections, told The Florida Quest, a project of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, in 2003. “it ́s one of the most recognizable images in the world that captures the feel of the time. it ́s like a time capsule.”

For Ebbets, it was just another picture among thousands he took, Hahn says. After her husband died, Ebbets’ wife found boxes full of thousands of his images and their supporting documents. These boxes are being organized and the images preserved by his daughter. “Dad was a pack rat,” Hahn declares. “He saved everything!”

Ebbets continued to work the circuit of sporting events and social pages all around the South and East Coast, but by 1933, he settled in Miami and focused most of his professional life and work there until his death in 1978. In 1935, while on assignment to document the building of a railway through the Everglades, Ebbets found himself in the midst of a Category 5 hurricane that swept through the area. Commonly known as the labor day hurricane, it killed more than 400 people, and Ebbets sent the first photographs of the devastation, body recovery and cleanup efforts to the Associated Press.

In exploring and documenting the beauty of the Everglades, Ebbets came to know and be trusted by the Seminole Indians whose villages dotted the newly mapped lands. “He was one of only a handful of white men or women to be offered unlimited access to their people from the newborns to the tribal leaders,” Hahn says. “These historic collections of photos taken throughout the 1930s to 1950s offer an unprecedented look into the life of a proud people that few outsiders even knew existed.”

Ebbets publicized the Seminoles’ extreme poverty and desperation through photographs and es-says. The Bureau of Indian Affairs could no longer avert its eyes from their plight and eventually provided new schools, roads and programs offering opportunity. Many of Ebbets’ photographs from this time featured the people, animals and swamp lands of the everglades, and the Department of the Interior used them to justify preserving the area as a national park.

After World War II, Ebbets and long-time friend Ben Jacobs decided the city of Miami needed a full-time publicity department. They founded the Miami Publicity Bureau, which became known as the Miami Metropolitan News Bureau, and Ebbets helped run it for 17 years. His photographs continued to appear in newspapers and magazines including National Geographic, Field & Stream and Look and were used extensively on postcards and in publicity brochures for the city of Miami.

 

Ebbets promoted Miami beach in glamour-girl, bathing-beauty photos that were provided to the Associated Press wire service and, from there, to newspapers around the country. By the time he retired as the city of Miami’s chief photographer in 1962, he was recognized as an energetic promoter whose passionate advocacy on behalf of Florida beauties, in both human and landscape form, had helped to create much of Florida’s mystique as “paradise,” a reputation enjoyed to this day.

Although he spent the greater part of his adult life in Florida, Alabama and his hometown were the foundations of Charles Ebbets’ character, Hahn says. “his word was his bond,” she remembers. “he photographed, shook hands and hobnobbed with the greatest leaders of his day, but he remained a true Alabama country gentleman. he was proud of his heritage from the Lookout Mountain area.”

 

Editor’s Note

In recent years, Corbis Corporation has reversed its decade-long attribution of the “Men on a Beam” photo to Charles Ebbets, again listing its author as unknown. The Ebbets family has expressed dismay at this decision and cites evidence – including more than 35 pieces of Ebbets’ personal and professional records, original glass negatives, historical documents and private investigators’ reports – they say supports Ebbets’ authorship. This article is not an investigative piece concerning ownership of a particular photo; rather, it is a reflection on the life and career of Charles Ebbets.[/s2If]