by Paul Hester
Day-to-day moments of American life in the 1930s have become familiar to us through the popular distribution of photographs by Farm Security Administration photographers such as Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Walter Evans. In the rush of photography's acceptance into the art scene, the canonization of these photographers has overlooked those steady practioners of the medium who continue to provide this same existential evidence. The marvel of historical collections in local and national archives owes a great deal to these commercial workers.
If you've noticed the walls of Souper Salad Restaurant, you've seen the work of one such photographer. Bob Bailey learned his craft from Cecil Thompson (whose negatives are in the San Jacinto Museum of History), then went on his own in 1929. With over half a million negatives, it is an incomparable resource of this phase of Houston's past.
One significant aspect is 3,100 8x10 negatives that have been catalogued as ". . . when Hollywood came to Houston!". When movie stars like Mae West, Judy Garland, and Joan Crawford were in town to promote their movies. Bob Bailey and his brother Marvin were on hand to do promotional stills for press releases. Movie theaters produced elaborate alterations to their facades for special movies like Gone With the Wind, and the Bailey brothers recorded these efforts. Thirty-eight different theaters are documented from the 1930s to the 1950s, inside and out. day and night. Many were for insurance purposes; others record opening nights, complete with crowds drawn by huge spotlights.
Another major subject was the automobile, and hundreds of negatives show the new Fords and Chevrolets being promoted and paraded. Department stores like Foley's and Sakowitz are represented by fashion shows, window displays, and construction of new buildings.
Bob Bailey began making movies of the Rice University football games in 1934 and did other work that appeared in Pathe newsreels such as the Texas City fire. Bob's brother Marvin took over responsibility for still pictures, and Marvin's son Ken now runs the video division. Amy Terry has taken on the task of organising, identifying, and performing all the other necessities to make these treasures accessible. If you call for an appointment she'll set you up on the light table and you can view the actual 8x10 negatives.
At the end of World War II, returning veterans drastically altered the labor force which had taken shape during the intense military productions. Quite a few veterans had acquired photographic skills in the service, and consequently several new studios opened in Houston.
Harper Leiper was one of those returning veterans and since 1945 his studio on West Dallas has amassed an unequaled collection of aerial photographs. All of Harris County is indexed by street names, and 11x14 prints are in stock of every negative It's an overwhelming mass of information and quite fascinating to trace the changes that have occurred.