Friday, May 01, 2009

Robert Dunn: Making presidents by photography

The other day I posted an update about Robert Lee Dunn, the American photographer who, with Jack London and Frederick McKenzie, was one of the only journalists to get into Korea before the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. I decided to do some more searching, and turned up a great deal more about him (hint: search via Google Books and then look at for the out-of-print magazines that are referred to). One of the articles I found is reprinted below. It has nothing to do with Korea, but is fascinating. In it, Robert Dunn talks about his experiences photographing three U.S. presidential campaigns (1896, 1900, and 1904) and how he creatively used photography to create publicity for his candidates. Adam Curtis' documentary series Century of the Self suggests that it was Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays who created the modern public relations industry, and this may be true - but Dunn's article makes it clear how shrewd - and cynical - those running presidential campaigns were over 100 years ago and how important the new 'Department of Pictorial Publicity' became. The article is as much Dunn's story as it is those of the candidates, and the resourcefulness he puts on display here helps make it clear why he was one of the only ones to make it to Korea at the beginning of the war in 1904 (where he had to work outdoors in freezing weather, as seen below).

The article can be found here, and was published in Appleton's Magazine, September, 1907, Pg 359.




ROOSEVELT was the first statesman to rebel at the notion of president making by photography. It happened at the Philadelphia convention, just after he had been nominated for vice-president, and was starting for the platform, his address in his hand, to make his speech of acceptance. I, who had adjusted my camera on three chair tops, so as to command a view of the scene, shouted;
"One moment, please! I want your picture."

Depew, Roosevelt, Leslie Ward, and Odell halted. Roosevelt was highly incensed, and Platt, who was sitting near by, snickered aloud at his discomfiture.

"Don't you do it!" bellowed the vice-president-to-be.

But I had already snapped my shutter. There was a great commotion at once. My camera was upset, and fell toward a man who shoved it off so that it grazed Mr. Roosevelt.

"Get that man out of here," he commanded, pointing at me, "or I won't speak."

I was unceremoniously ducked under a platform and kept there for over an hour, so that I never got a picture of him in the throes of his oratorical acceptance. I amused myself, however, by cutting a hole through one of the planks with my pocketknife and making through the aperture plate after plate of the convention assembled.

Curiously enough, four years later the camera was adopted as a means of exploiting this same rebellious Mr, Roosevelt, who had long before forgiven the offending photographer of 1900 and had many times aided me in securing important and interesting pictures. To-day the Department of Pictorial Publicity is a recognized factor in the making of presidents, vice-presidents, governors, and the like, and is utilized gladly by the National and State committees.

Up to about the year 1904, the process of newspaper exploitation of the various candidates by means of quickly prepared photographs for press uses was in its infancy; the newspapers in each town had to depend upon their own artists and photographers for pictures of the candidates which would possess a local interest, and though the National Committee flooded the press with staple photographs of their men, these became well known so early in the campaign that they came to possess little or no news of value.

This was the condition of affairs at the opening of the Roosevelt-Fairbanks campaign when I was drawn into service.

I fitted up a dark room at one end of the Campaign special car and had just about arranged my chemicals, supplies, ice, and water — we used thousands of gallons of water and literally tons upon tons of ice, frequently bringing the train to a stop simply to allow me to stock up on these two commodities — when the telegrams began to pour in. These wires came from local delegations up the line telling what sort of an affair the candidate was to expect in this town or that, how many people, how prominent they were, how they were dressed, on which side of the track the depot was located, whether it was in the sunshine or not, and such information. They came in by the peck, and they nearly swamped me at first; but they proved very reliable.

At the smaller towns, where there wasn't much of a crowd present, I stood on the back platform, close to the candidate, and deliberately posed him before their very eyes. At such times he assumed an attitude which gave a sort of "spread-eagle" effect; these pictures, I found, got more space in the newspapers. By having no background except a bit of the car platform, photographs could be palmed off on any community as being taken in that very town, whereas they may have been taken a week before in a town five hundred miles away. The candidate grumbled at being posed in this open-and-above-board fashion, but I got around that difficulty by convincing him that it was absolutely necessary in order to get the pictures, and by making the crowd believe I did not belong on the train with him.

Soon, however, we began to cut out the little five-minute stops and center our efforts on more prominent places, allowing ourselves forty-minute stops in such towns. Here was where quick work had to be done. To take a typical instance, I remember at Salt Lake City, I was out mingling with the crowd before the train had slowed down. Of course, all through the campaign I tried to keep secret the fact that I belonged on the candidate's special train; hence, the need for mingling in with the crowds about the stations en route.

As the delegation moved up to greet the candidate he quite naturally made room for them on the platform of the car, unostentatiously disposed the local dignitaries about him in a hail-fellow-well-met group, while others of our party gently maneuvered them into the sunlight (all by previous arrangement with me), and I did the rest.

I snapped several views and then, while he was delivering the speech, I hurried around the front of the car to the dark room, developed those plates, and my assistants printed dozens of the photographs and actually made a score or more of very large bromide enlargements before the train was ready to leave the town. With these under my arm, and some of them hastily autographed by the candidate, I jumped down into the crowd again, presented the various local dignitaries with photographs of themselves and the candidate, scattered others around among the citizens, and even had a number of the enlarged pictures displayed in the shop windows of the town. The various newspaper representatives were each given an exclusive plate, made right in their own city, you know, and as a consequence we left behind us a highly satisfied lot of people.

In another town, where the entire population had gathered around the public square, I climbed a pole and took a comprehensive photograph of the whole gathering, hastened back to the car, made several enlargements at least four feet high, and stuck them up in store windows with the query above them: "Can you find yourself in this picture?" It mattered little to us whether they could or not so long as they stopped, looked at the photograph, and recalled the occasion. This whole business was also accomplished before the train pulled out.

The matter of dress, alluded to heretofore, is a thing which may appear humorous rather than important. But if you will look closely at all campaign pictures (not necessarily those reproduced here) you will see that the candidate invariably wears the same style of hat and clothes as do the members of the visiting delegation which welcomes him. This is not always due to a freak of chance. The secretary on the private car frequently receives a telegram ahead of time "tipping us off" as to what to wear. Thus, on one occasion, the wire ran:
Arrangements perfected; train will remain outside station in sunlight; committee wearing high hats, frock coats, will greet party on arrival.
(Signed) State Reception Committee.
When Fairbanks went through Indiana he wore a slouch hat and slouchy clothes, as any native son should do, but when he got across the line into Illinois, out came his high hat, Prince Albert coat, and white vest.

The accompanying photograph of Roosevelt in a mirth-provoking pair of trousers shows him unconsciously "doing as the Romans do," The audience on that occasion was a plain, everyday audience.

As for adapting appearances to the country through which a candidate is traveling, I have known times when even the train has been changed, the luxurious private cars being discarded and the cheapest, tawdriest coaches possible being substituted.

Bryan, of soft-hat fame, did not need to make any change, as everybody knew his invariable rule. Indeed, the "Great Commoner" made no appeal by this perfectly legitimate method of "faking"; the enthusiasm which he aroused for his democracy was always natural. He really got along better with the local press than any other candidate, but he did not get the advantage of new methods of photography as he might to-day. In 1896, when he was jocularly known as "The Boy Orator of the Platte," only the big dailies had perfected a rapid system of half-tone reproduction. The smaller papers could not afford the expense, and hence, though Bryan frequently had me on board his train, the photographs were generally unused by the papers.

The mania for souvenirs has often caused candidates considerable trouble. On one occasion some one stole Mr. Roosevelt's half-hosiery, on another his supply of handkerchiefs, on another his shirt, and on the occasion of a famous Waldorf banquet, some one made away with his evening coat. The resourceful Oscar at once took in the situation and at the last moment, Mr. Roosevelt walked into the banquet room in a coat, the sleeves of which were three inches too short for him.

The main point about campaign photography is the press publicity it can obtain for the candidate. Newspaper space is practically invaluable; there is no way of computing how much it is worth. And although the cost of maintaining a completely equipped photographic apparatus en route is very heavy, the National Committee does not grumble. It costs probably $50 all told, counting the expense of a private car, to make a dozen pictures on the train, which would cost but $3 in a local gallery — and in some towns we turned out these pictures in great numbers.

Such pictures as they are, too! What reader does not realize the marvelous characterizations of Theodore Roosevelt that have been caught in the open air by the campaign photographer, showing the vigor and energy of the man — an effect impossible of attainment in a tamely posed gallery picture. Sometimes 1 reproduced these pictures life-size and sent them ahead to be hung in the hotels where the candidate would lodge, thus helping to work up local interest in him several weeks before he put in an appearance. For the enlargement work of some of my candidates I carried the usual arc light, and the electricity to supply this, of course, had to be generated on the train. Thus by day or night we could get our enlargements, and it was generally by night while the candidate slept that we were busiest. Sometimes, though, the great man would sit up overtime himself, autographing the more imposing photographs.

The method we pursued with these large, signed pictures might prove of interest to the reader. If we were due in San Francisco, say, in a short time, I would look up the editors of the various papers and send each of them one of these autographed pictures — each, of course, being a different pose. With it would go a note;
Dear Mr.____: Mr.____ (naming our candidate) happened to remember his old acquaintance with you, and has requested me to send you the inclosed photo. It is considered one of his best likenesses, etc.
The result generally was that, before this photograph was framed and hung in the office, it was run in that editor's paper.

I have told how we posed the candidate and the local committeemen and turned out dozens of prints from the negative inside of forty minutes. This is by no means a record. Upon one occasion I left New York City after my candidate had been speaking there at the Broadway noonday meeting. By the time we had made the run from Jersey City to Newark, some fifteen minutes, I had my photographs of that meeting finished, sealed in packages, and ready for our porter. He took them and met a porter on an incoming train going back to New York.

"Carry these to Jersey City," said our porter, handing the other a $10 bill. "A messenger boy will meet you at the train."

This messenger boy was on hand when the train pulled into Jersey City, took the bundles, and delivered them in turn to a score or more of boys who were waiting at the ferry. These then spread out and delivered the photographs to the newspapers designated, all in time for the afternoon issues.

The New York Tribune also printed a flashlight of the Ohio Society dinner, held on Saturday night, March 3, 1900, at the Waldorf-Astoria, which was taken by me at 7.03 P.M., rushed downtown (almost an hour's ride in those days) up to the top of the Tribune building, there developed and printed, twelve duplicate half-tone plates were engraved from it, and before the banquet had ended a messenger boy was delivering printed copies of the Tribune, with the picture on the front page, to the various banqueters. President McKinley autographed each copy. It was considered quite a newspaper feat at the time.

One way of working the press occurs when the candidate arrives in a city too late for a photograph to be taken. He is going to speak that night, we will say, and intends to leave early the next morning. This happened at Cincinnati once, when I was out with another one of my candidates. About seven o'clock in the evening the train pulled in, and was besieged by a band of newspaper men. They were referred to me for photographs.

"Fellows," I said, "we haven't anything exclusive but a lot of half-tone plates, already made up,"

“All the better," was the chorus.

Of course, by pre-arrangement, these plates were enormous affairs, twelve or fifteen inches high, and depicting the candidate (another trick) with outspread arms. All in all, each plate must have covered the half of an ordinary newspaper page. They were dealt out to the various newspaper men, put on the presses, and the next day the town was simply plastered with enormous reproductions of the campaigner in various of his perfervid, spread-eagle moments. It was a very impressive exhibition, and we obtained about five times the usual pictorial publicity.

Another subterfuge which the campaign photographer works — he must never, never associate himself publicly with that private car down in the yards — is to walk into a newspaper office casually and say, "I see that So-and-so (who, by the way, is his candidate) is in town tonight."

"Yes," replies the managing — or perhaps city- or art-editor.

If the photographer happens to be known in the office, then the conversation takes a personal turn for a while. At last, drawing a bundle of photographs from under his arm, the "pictorial publicity" agent says:

"By the way, I've got some good pictures of So-and-so here that I took myself some time ago. They're exclusive stuff, and I thought they might come in handy to you. Just happened to be in town on some private business, I'll make you a present of them."

Naturally enough, the photographs are accepted with avidity, for they really are exclusive and generally very good, expressive likenesses.

In the year 1900, when I was in Kansas City at the Democratic National Convention in Convention Hall there, a rather amusing circumstance took place, Bryan had just been nominated amid the most tumultuous sort of hullabaloo, and people were jumping to their feet, tossing their hats, and shouting. I took a flashlight of the New York part of the celebration, and started to move my camera toward another part of the house, when a messenger approached me.

"Didn't you just take a picture of that bunch?" he asked, pointing his finger at the Empire State delegates.

"I did," I answered.

"Well, Mr, Croker asked me to ask you not to print it. Take another." He disappeared.

I looked at Croker. He was on his feet, cheering and roaring louder than the rest, in anticipation that I would come back and photograph his enthusiasm. Later in the dark room I understood.

You will observe from the picture I give here (the one that Mr. Croker didn't wish reproduced) that he kept his seat morosely during the first pandemonium. Croker never was for Bryan, and I happened to catch him. He was sitting very languidly in his chair, the only man of the crowd who wasn't on his feet and cheering. That was what was the matter.

"Dressing the part," as I have said, is one of the features of a campaign. Roosevelt in baggy trousers, Roosevelt in military uniform with a "dee-lighted" smile (one of the hest "dee-lighted" photographs ever taken of him, and one which I tried for months to get before finally obtaining it), Roosevelt with a sunflower in his buttonhole (could this occur in any other Stale save Kansas?) are not always circumstantial happenings.

There are other tricks of the game, there are other ways of being democratic, of being "all things to all men." Senator Dolliver, of Iowa, had a habit of appearing with a "quid" of tobacco in his mouth. The audience tittered as he stood before them, rolling his "chaw" in silence. Gradually the titter spread to a guffaw. Dolliver spoke not a word. Finally, when the merriment had reached its highest, he would dig a finger into his jowl, extract the "quid" and throw it on the floor amid a burst of democratic applause. By expectorating profusely as a finis to his ruse, he gained his point. Everybody was in a high good humor when his speech began.

Senator Charles W. Fulton, of Oregon, was another "stumper," whose methods were as effective as Dolliver's. He would begin something like this: "Well, I must say I'm disappointed at this crowd! Look at all the ugly men! Not a good-looking man in the whole convention! How does it happen that such a lot of misshapen features on the masculine side have been able to attract so many beautiful female partners? Here I've been a bachelor for forty years; but if I had known you fellows could do as well as you've done I'd never have been a bachelor for fifteen minutes," etc. By this heart-to-heart method he placed himself on the best of terms with his hearers and then took a dive into politics. The joke of it all was that his wife was probably sitting in the audience listening to his remarks. [...]

Such were the subterfuges by which the campaign orators held the crowds in good humor until they could get at the meat of their speeches, and, incidentally, until I could get my plates and have them developed.

Roosevelt, from a photographic point of view, has always been an almost impossible subject. He has a mode of address which makes it extremely difficult to catch him. The grotesque picture of him here given, with his mouth wide open, speaking off the rear end of his train, was taken at a time when he was delivering himself of his favorite "personal appeal."

"You" he would say in impassioned tones, pointing his finger directly at some one in the audience, "you of the Blue —" — everybody craned his neck to look — "and you," continued the speaker, pointing in an opposite direction — "you of the Gray!" By this time half the town audience would be on its feet to see which of its citizens had been designated. The speaker's appeal would immediately follow, burning with patriotism. It is highly probable, but hardly necessary to add, that there wasn't a war veteran within forty miles of his voice. Or, if it was another subject under discussion, he would point down and shout, "You, mother with your baby in your arms!" and perhaps there was no such person in the hall.

Speaking of the soldiers reminds me of the fact that the committees and their adjutants are prone at all times to assemble the veterans, the lodge members, and other uniformed bodies and parade them prominently about with the candidate. They are placed on the speaker's stand, appealed to in the oratory, always photographed, and otherwise raised to honor because of their votes and their influence. It is a great card to play.

And that is the way the business of making a president is conducted. No small part is played by the man behind the camera. If you get a glimpse of statesmen hurrying into old pantaloons and slouch hats in the aisle of a railway car, or hustling their local delegations out on the rear platform to get their pictures taken arm in arm with the great ones, or if you can imagine a hot night in a dark room with the camera man developing negatives and the candidate autographing pictures while the train makes sixty miles an hour, this bit of reminiscence will not have been written in vain.

If you made it this far, then here's something Korea related: An excerpt of a letter Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Hermann Speck Von Sternberg on August 28, 1900, before he became vice-president, referring to the Boxer Uprising:
I hope the Powers do not get embroiled in a war in the interior of China. Surely any Chinese troops that now come to attack Peking will be little more than an undisciplined mob. I should like to see Japan have Korea. She will be a check upon Russia, and deserves it for what she has done. But I do earnestly hope there will be no slicing up of China. It will be bad for everybody in the end.

* The obituary H.L. Mencken wrote for William Jennings Bryan may be the most mean-spirited ever written.


dokebi said...

Interesting photo. I knew from reading 1 of Wikipedia articles that some important US politician had visited Korea during the early 1900s.

Charles Montgomery said...


I had forgotten about that Mencken piece...