Much of Indianapolis’s visual history from the past century is known due of the foresight of one commercial photography studio: The W. H. Bass Photo Company, located at 308 S. New Jersey Street from 1897 to the present. Because of the weight of hundreds of glass negatives, not to mention the space taken up by images that no customer is likely to order again, many nineteenth-century photographers either discarded or sold off their old glass plates to companies that specialized in reclaiming the silver from the photographic emulsion and reusing the glass (reportedly for greenhouses, but this use is questioned by some photo historians). Very early in the studio’s history, William H. Bass and his colleagues saw the historic value of this growing collection of negatives of Indianapolis street scenes, businesses, and houses and today the first place one looks for old photographs of the city is the Bass Photo Collection now preserved at the Indiana Historical Society.
The south-side studio is the second-oldest photo company in Indiana (nearly forty years younger than the McDonald Studio established in South Bend in 1861). Bass Photo has roots in the James Bayne Company, a Grand Rapids commercial photography business that opened a branch studio in Indianapolis in 1897. Bayne specialized in commercial work, photographing furniture, harnesses, caskets, and other products for catalogs. The company built a 3,000 square foot brick structure at 308-310 S. New Jersey Street where a frame house once stood, but by 1899 sold the company to Walter J. Woodworth, a former employee, and William H. Bass, a forty-eight year old teacher who evidently desired a mid-life career change.
The company’s namesake was born into a milling family in Bartholomew County in 1851, but like several of his siblings he eventually came to teach in Indianapolis Public Schools, after attending the State Normal School in Terre Haute in 1874 and 1875. He worked his way up to principal at primary schools and helped introduce Indianapolis High School to the concept of manual training (an early type of vocational training that emphasized hands-on work, such as wood and metal work, drafting, and domestic science). In the late 1890s Bass taught woodworking and pattern making at the newly opened Industrial Training School (located at Madison Avenue and Meridian and Merrill Streets and later known as the Charles E. Emmerich Manual Training High School), but somewhere along the way he became interested in photography and for a short while in about 1894 he operated a photo studio on Massachusetts Avenue.
When Bass joined with Woodworth in 1899 the business was named Woodworth and Company, but that changed in 1901 when it was renamed Bass and Woodworth Company. In 1905 Woodworth left to start his own business and since then the studio has been named the W. H. Bass Photo Company.
Bass Photo Company continued the tradition of photographing furniture, machinery, and other products, seen above being delivered to the New Jersey Street studio which was said to have had one of the largest skylights and “operating” rooms (studio space) in the state. However, Bass and his staff, including manager Charles C. Branson, encouraged photographers to capture street scenes and stay alert to changes such as soon-to-be demolished landmarks and new construction. Advertisements promoted a large selection of photos of Indianapolis buildings, parks, houses, and streets, and during the state’s 1916 centennial the studio sought out and copied the oldest images of the city. The company took very few portraits throughout much of its history.
When the business started in 1897, large dry-plate glass negatives were made from which staff contact-printed multiple paper prints. Negatives were placed in direct contact with light-sensitive photo paper in wooden printing frames that were exposed to the sun for several minutes in the angled windows on the second floor (note that the hinged windows are raised with pulleys). Although not as laborious as making daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes a few decades earlier, within a few years this “printing out” process would be replaced by the faster “developing out” processes involving electrically-lit enlargers removing the need for the second-floor windows. (For a hint of what the interior might have looked like, click on this 1904 image of the Miner Studio in Fort Wayne…soon to come to life in a “You Are There” exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society). Employees, including Sadie Branson (wife of manager and board member Charles Branson) and later their daughter Margaret (Branson) Abel, enhanced the images in an era long before Photoshop. The sunny third-floor work space (added to the building in 1902) is where staff, mainly women, masked and retouched negatives, painted wood grain on furniture images, and hand colored black-and-white prints. An important part of their work included numbering each negative in the corner and tracking images via a card index system that recorded the date and name of the customer (ladies…catalogers and historians thank you for your attention to detail!). If you have a numbered Bass photograph, staff at the Indiana Historical Society can provide details to you based on the index cards that were acquired with the collection.
Smart business decisions and good marketing helped Bass Photo weather the lean Depression years without laying off employees. The company kept up with the latest trends, processes, and formats. Through the years they provided panoramic photographs, cyanotypes, glass lantern slides, and of course switched from glass to film-based negatives. William H. Bass and his wife, who never had children, built a house at 847 East Drive in Woodruff Place in 1908 and lived there the rest of their lives. Bass remained on the board until his death in 1936, at which time Branson, his wife, and son-in-law Theodore Abel became key players in the company. Abel worked primarily as an accountant and business manager and was supported by long-time employee I. H. Schafer.
Today a third-generation owns and operates Bass Photo Company at the original location. Ted and Margaret (Branson) Abel’s two sons studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and joined the business. Older son Fred Abel, who was also a mechanical engineer, joined his father in 1963 and worked both in the darkroom and behind the camera. He left to focus on his own business, Firehouse ColorLab. Son Gerry Abel and his wife Kathy joined the business in about 1975. The massive change to digital imaging has put many locally-owned studios out of business, but the Abels continue to adapt to the changing field of photography. Seeing that it was here to stay, they purchased digital equipment in 1996 and have a thriving commercial and corporate business, which now includes portraiture. With much of the work and processing happening via computer, darkrooms have been removed and some of the space is leased to another photographer and a video crew.
Still valuing the historic importance of over eight decades of negatives and prints of Indianapolis, in 1988 the Abels sold the Bass Photo Company archives of approximately 180,000 negatives and 12,000 prints to the Indiana Historical Society. IHS has rehoused the images in photo-safe sleeves and boxes and continues to catalog and digitize this priceless collection for future generations.
Bass Photo Company is hosting
Photography in Victorian Indianapolis: Secure the Shadow Ere the Substance Fades,
a slide show about dating and interpreting local historic photographs presented by Joan Hostetler
Sponsored by the Hoosier Chapter of the Victorian Society of America.
Where: Bass Photo Company, 308 S. New Jersey Street
When: Friday, September 20, 2013 — 6:00 Refreshments and Exhibit — 6:30-8:00 Presentation
Admission: $10 general public, $5 members (proceeds support the Victorian Society)
*Attendees are encouraged to bring along interesting or mystery photographs
to show the speaker before or after the program
*Bass Photo owners Gerry and Kathy Abel are available to answer questions about
the 1897 photo studio (the oldest in the city)
*Susan Sutton, Indiana Historical Society, author of Indianapolis: The Bass Photo Company Collection,
will autograph books (available for purchase)