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.

William H. Bass (1851-1936)

William H. Bass (1851-1936) 


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.


(Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Co. Collection, neg. 30164)

(Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Co. Collection, neg. 30164)

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.

Bass Photo Company, 1906 (Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection, neg. 6737)

Bass Photo Company, 1906 (Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection, neg. 6737)

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.

Bass Photo Company, 1933 (Indiana Historical Society, Wm. H. Bass Photo Company Collection, 226575)

Bass Photo Company, 1933 (Indiana Historical Society, Wm. H. Bass Photo Company Collection, 226575)

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.

Bass Photo Company, Sprint 2012 (Courtesy of the Bass Photo Company)

Bass Photo Company, Spring 2012 (Courtesy of the Bass Photo Company)

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.


Special Invitation
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)

Click here for more details and to RSVP


Links and Resources
Bass Photo Company
Victorian Society of America – Hoosier Chapter
Indiana Historical Society:    Bass Photo Company Collection Guide / Bass Photo Company Digital Images

9 responses to “Indianapolis Then and Now: Bass Photo Company, 308 S. New Jersey Street”

  1. Tom Davis says:

    Joan, great article. Do you or any of the readers know if William Bass was a relative of Herbert Bass the architect and his sister Mamie Bass of the Altrusa Club?

  2. Robert Bass says:

    We Basses are really getting the coverage recently!. Last week the Laurel House (S Fletcher mansion) designed by my Grandfather Herbert L Bass and now the Bass Photo Company named after William H Bass, my Great Uncle. Yes they were brothers. Next you may want their sister Mamie Bass who founded the Altrusa Clubs. She has a monument at Crown Hill.. She was the office manager for Bass-Knowlton
    architect firm.


  3. Joan Hostetler says:

    Reminder: Please register here for the “Photography in Victorian Indianapolis” program on Friday, September 20, 6:00 pm at Bass Photo Company.

  4. Joan Hostetler says:

    Robert: You come from a very interesting family and I’m sure you could provide more information for articles. Do you have any of the architectural records or photographs from your grandfather’s business? In particular, I’d like to write an article about the Test Building and would like to find more photos. Also, historic records show that William H. Bass was the uncle to Herbert L. Bass (whose father was George F. Bass who quite his teacher career to become an architect). Interesting that both William and George gave up teaching in their 40s to start new careers.I wonder if they were “following their bliss” or had become frustrated with the school system.

  5. Joan Hostetler says:

    Thanks, Tom. Yes, William H. Bass is related to the Bass architects. His older brother George F. Bass was a teacher until 1893 when he became an architect at age 48 (similar to his brother becoming a photographer at the same age). George’s son Herbert L. Bass (1877-1926) was the better known architect and his firm Herbert L. Bass & Co. is known for buildings such as Laurel Hall, the Allison Mansion, and the Test Building. Late in his career his engineer cousin Lynn O. Knowlton (son of Mary Elizabeth Bass) joined the firm which became Bass, Knowlton & Company (at one point it was Bass-Knowlton & Graham). They were a very accomplished family. It makes me quite sad that William H. Bass is buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill Cemetery.

  6. Robert Bass says:

    Unfortunatly I don’t have anything from my grandfather as he died in 1926 at the age of 46 when my father, Dr. R. Randall Bass was 15. I was born in 1940, 14 years after he passed. I do know that my dad and his two brothers were great friends with Hoagy Charnichel, Grandfather Herbert also had two more sisters, Florence who wrote children’s books about the old west and Helen Bass Keller who was a Professor at UCLA who wrote spelling books using a method she developed and also was famous for working with severely Autistic people. The other sister Mamie has already been mentioned as founder of the Altrusa clubs. She and Helen were the two siblings I knew as they lived into the 60’s and 70’s. Lastly, another brother, Uncle Walt sold lumber. He was a great old guy with a white beard. When I was young he took me out in his old car that was an older model ford. I almost think you had to crank start it.

  7. Joan Hostetler says:

    Robert, You might already know this, but there is a collection at the Indiana Historical Society that contains the paper “My Early Childhood” (ca. 1900) by your great-great grandmother Mary Jane (Crane) Bass. She was the mother of William H. and George F. Bass. It is collection SC2095. There is also another collection containing letters from your Crane family dating to the 1850s. I recall reading a letter that said that William H. Bass’s uncle Alex Crane took classes to make daguerreotypes in Columbus, Ind. in 1854, but sadly he died two years later and I’m not sure if he ever took up the craft. I’m sure IHS staff could help you locate the letters.

  8. Tom Davis says:

    Joan, as Robert undoubtably knows, all three of these accomplished members of the Bass family (and others buried on the same lots) did not have monuments at their grave site until about ten years ago when members of the Altrusa Club paid to have a nice black granite obelisk erected at Mamie’s grave. I have always assumed it was by choice of the family members, though Robert surely knows more than I do. As you noted, William is near John Dillinger, but Herbert and Mamie are on the western end of Section 37 a good distance away.

  9. hillary bayne says:

    Hello! My name is Hillary Bayne. My Great Great Grandfather was James Bayne. I am looking for information on the James Bayne company that might help me in my genealogical quest. To date, I cannot find information, deeds, business papers or photographs of James Bayne, his brother Alexander, or more specifically his Father, John (A?) Bain (Bayne). Do you by chance have any early beginnings on the James Bayne Company being founded, names or otherwise that may help?

    Thank you for your time and dedication to keeping history alive!
    Hillary Bayne

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