Otto Bettmann: Father of Retro

Essays by Steven Heller
626 words4 min read
Bettmann Archives

Last Spring I gave a lecture at the Broward County Library, in Southern Florida. As I was waiting to begin I heard a voice with a heavy German accent ask: ‘Iz Meester Heller, here?’ I turned around and saw a little man, with a flush pink face, white hair and beard, the spitting image of Sigmund Freud, standing in front of me. ‘Dr. Bettmann,’ I said surprised. ‘Yah,’ he said with a smile. ‘Itz me, I’m shtill alive."

Dr. Otto Ludwig Bettmann, who died on May 3 at age 94, founded the Bettmann Archive in 1936, the world’s most famous picture collection, which is currently owned by William Gates’ Corbis Corporation. Bettmann virtually invented what we now call ‘retro,’ insofar as he uncovered and made available to artists, designers, and editors of all disciplines millions of ephemeral artifacts from the past. Any time an old engraving or woodcut found its way into contemporary advertisement or editorial layout, it probably came from The Bettman Archive. His amazing collection, including over five million prints, drawings, posters, woodcuts, and other graphic materials, much of it collected personally, influenced the look of design for decades.


Though well known, Bettmann is a somewhat unsung visionary of commercial art. He began his collection as a boy in Leipzig, Germany, and was later the curator of rare books in The Prussian State Art Library in Berlin. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935 with two trunks full of old clippings and photo negatives, he found that magazine editors and art directors clamored for antique images of all kinds. He once told me that using historical images editor’s didn’t have to think all that hard, the work was already done for them. Working out of a tiny office in Manhattan he rented his images out for one time use for a sliding fees. Meanwhile, he continued to collect from libraries, galleries, collectors, and other sources. Within a short time, he accumulated a large client list. CBS, a breakthrough for his agency, sought visuals to use in advertisements that would serve as a counterpoint to the high technology of radio.

Bettmann was a meticulous filer and organizer and devised methods of cross referencing themes and subjects so that retrieval could be accomplished in quick time. Anyone who has ever used The Bettmann Archive, either by phone or in person, knows that the material was just a fingertip away. Drawing on his own vast knowledge and resources, Bettmann authored or co-authored 14 books that were staples of most visual resource libraries, including, ‘Our Literary Heritage, ‘A Pictorial History of Medicine,’ and ‘A Pictorial History of Music.’ In 1974 he wrote: The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible,’ a critical view of nostalgia. And in 1995 he published Johann Sebastian Bach as His World Knew Him.’ He was always talking about ways to turn his collection into lasting records.

A few years before he retired and left New York City we spoke on the phone about what he might do next with his collection — I was touched that the great collector was asking me, a neophyte, my advice. When I met him in person last year, he was like a school boy, excitedly talking about a long-range project he had just begun documenting thousands of published images of women for a pictorial chronicle. He wanted my opinion of his proposal, but I told him that my lecture and subsequent immediate departure made a visit impossible. As he left the library, I was happy to learn that he had not simply faded away, but was as hard working as ever, and was planning to leave an even greater legacy.