Interviews with ASMP Founder: Herb Giles

Interview and transcript © 1993 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.

Herbert Giles was a founding member of ASMP. He was the treasurer for the new organization (and chaired the Bulletin Committee). Later, he served as its president from 1949 – 1951. He died in March, 2005.

Interview

ASMP: How did you get into photography in the first place?

Giles: When I was 19, I led a dance orchestra. I used to front it and sing. It was called a sax band; I had three violins, three tenor saxophones and four rhythm instruments — piano, drums, guitar and bass. My name was on Broadway; they had a big display there. That was in the basement of the Paramount Building.

I had worked in Roseland, which was then on Broadway; it moved later into the Ice Palace. I led a dance band with the same instrumentation. It was soft music: show tunes, rhumbas, tangos and that sort of thing. I was an alternate band, meaning they had two bands, a brassy swing band and mine. I was a fair singer, and I did 11 broadcasts a week at Roseland. At that time, Benny Goodman was coming in, and Tommy Dorsey was beginning to get popular. They were instrumentalists and I wasn’t; I was waving a baton. I was a drummer in the union, but you could always hire a better drummer than me.

“I have a visual interest.”

When that engagement ended, I thought, “This is not going to last for me.” I had an interest in photography, and I knew a man from Brooklyn Tech high school, Alan Fisher, who was a school photographer and did the yearbook and so on. When he got out of high school, he got a job at the World Telegram newspaper as a news photographer. He even photographed me in the Paramount restaurant, as a favor.

So I was interested, and I thought, “I’m going to turn my talent, if any, to photography, because I have a visual interest.” I went to the downtown Brooklyn Public Library, the main branch at that time on Montague Street, and I read Willard Morgan, the Leica manual and this, that and the other book — everything I could get my hands on.

I wanted to know what camera I should get. I had no friends in the magazine business, I didn’t know anything about that. I chose a Rolleiflex — thank God! And I began to shoot a couple of weddings and some children and things like that, just to pay for my materials. I set up a darkroom in the kitchen, I learned how to print, and everything else. And I was getting a few pictures together that I thought were fairly good.

A friend of mine who was an author, Edgar Laytha, had worked with Herb Gehr for his illustrations in North Again for Gold. He said, “I’ll introduce you to a man I know at Black Star called Safranski.” I went to see Safranski, showed him a few pictures, and he said, “You have possibilities.”

“We split 50-50.”

Safranski had been editor of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, which was known throughout the world as a picture magazine. He, Kurt Kornfeld and Ernst Meyer were partners. They had escaped the Nazis and were able to get some money, and they had this organization in the Graybar Building.

Safranski took me over to try to tell me how to improve, which I welcomed no end. He gave me these thoughts, and I would bring back results; I did quite a number of them. And then he even sold one — my first published picture — to the New York Times magazine; it was a night shot of Fifth Avenue.

The magazine had asked Black Star if it had any pictures of that sort. Black Star didn’t have one, but Safranski told me to try it, and he told a couple of the other guys on the string to try it, and it was mine they used. I was delighted.

ASMP: Did they give you a credit line?

Giles: Yes. And Safranski said, “You know we split 50-50?” I said, “Okay. This is the first dollar I ever made out of a magazine.” I think I got $25 out of that. It was a lot of money in 1939.

“It’s a fine contract; very honest, very square.”

I came to Safranski one day and said, “I just can’t afford making prints and buying film, because I’m not earning any money now.” I’d left the band business. He said, “That’s all right; you can draw $10 a week as a drawing account against what we think we may possibly sell for you.”

ASMP: But you were still paying for the materials?

Giles: I was paying for the materials. So Safranski told me of a printer he was subsidizing, Leo Cohen. He was working in his kitchen with his wife’s help, drying on Ferrotype tins over the gas stove. He was making 8x10s for 25 cents apiece, and he developed film by inspection — the guy was great. Safranski had gotten him over here from Europe and was helping him along; later he helped him open a big lab. So he tells me, “You’ll go there.” Well, those prices were very reasonable; I knew this from other labs. So this was fantastic.

Safranski kept nurturing me, and finally he got to the point where he wanted to put me under contract. I said, “What’s that mean?”

He said, “You sign a contract with us for two years and we’ll split any earnings 50-50. But you’ll have a minimum guarantee of $50 a week so that, if we don’t sell a thing of yours, you will always get $50 a week. And if your sales are higher, we’ll pay you the 50 percent difference.”

I had a dear friend, a boyhood chum, who was a lawyer. He read the contract, asked me questions and then said, “It’s a fine contract; it’s very honest, very square.”

ASMP: But you paid the expenses still?

Giles: Yes, it’s only the net that they would divide 50-50.

ASMP: That’s what they were famous for.

Giles: Lo and behold, Kornfeld was selling like crazy to Life magazine. He’d had contacts in Germany for their propaganda photographs, and the credit would appear of this German military stuff from Black Star. He was visiting them every day with new material and telling them about his staff of photographers: Gene Smith, Fritz Henle (bio), Charles Rado, Victor de Palma, Fritz Goro (bio) and me.

“I’ll lend you my Leica.”

One day, Kornfeld told me, “They have a job they’re not too sure about, and I suggested you.” So they gave me a chance. They sent me to Washington to take pictures of celebrities, Henderson and Marshall and all, for Time magazine.

Then I was send to Kentucky to shoot a folk festival that was held once a year by the “traipsin’ woman” — I think her name was Taylor — who held it every year. It was in a natural amphitheater with a hillside that people could sit on. They came from miles around, even from other states. I got a big spread, maybe four pages. And I shot color for the first time in my life.

ASMP: In Life magazine?

Giles: No, this was for Click. John Whiting was the manager of Click, and he had told Safranski that he wanted some color. I had never shot it. But he said, “I’ll lend you my Leica, you’ll shoot slides, and it’s outdoors; you won’t have to worry about flash.” I took the Leica with slide film and, sure enough, they printed color pictures. I was delighted, and the fees were good.

“The only ones that that were ringing a bell…”

How I got to be in the big time is that Marshall Field had PM newspaper with a weekend edition that had photos. A promoter by the name of Ari Lassely sold Marshall Field the idea of having a magazine supplement, called Parade, that was syndicated to newspapers. He had the sales force to place it; he did the research and had the proof that they would accept it. Just using a pair of scissors on the weekend edition of PM, they would do a mockup and they would sell the advertising. Marshall Field went for it.

Parade had an editor by the name of Chellis, who had worked as editor at Collier’s. He wanted to get a little more stuff in there than he could get with his scissors, and this Black Star salesman came in at the right time and said, “We have a staff of excellent magazine photographers.”

I was getting interested in continuity stories. So I did something for them, some nonsense, but I put a story line in it. Of course, they had writers to caption it. I got four pages, and they were paying 50 bucks a page. I did several stories for them while I was still at Black Star.

They were doing research on it with Starch Research to see the readership in this thing. And every time, the only ones that that Starch said were ringing a bell had “Photography: Giles” on the bottom.

So when my contract with Black Star expired, I worked for Parade. Every week I was knocking something out, and I was getting 200 bucks for a day’s work. Then, when I found that Starch was still saying “number one,” I raised my rates.

Then I spread out a little. I got in American Home regularly, because I worked with a woman who was doing a child’s story; I illustrated that. And I learned a lot about makeup; I got so I could plan my stories out when I was on location, so that a transition would occur when you turned the page.

ASMP: You were still using Rollei.

Giles: It was the greatest. You could easily make horizontals or verticals out of it for layout purposes, so Rolleis were very widely used at that time. The 35 was just beginning to come in.

“People could print it well.”

I got to be such a whiz at multiple flash that I could light four planes. They had to be wired; it was not like today. The other thing is, I was using Fritz Henle’s film, because I admired his prints as being the finest grain and the loveliest stuff.

ASMP: This was black-and-white?

Giles: Everything was black-and-white then. He was using Ansco Supreme, ASA 50. Eastman came out with a Double-X, which was 100, but it was grainier. The reason 35 wasn’t too popular was that they had to use the slow films of the time, plus paraphenylene-diamine staining developer, because they had to break up the grain. It was terrible.

Then films began to improve. Kodak brought out Plus-X and developers that could handle it with a grain that would still give some sense of sharpness. It wasn’t like Paul Wolf’s books from Germany when Leica first started, which were miraculous. But you could do magazine work rapidly and people could print it well because the negatives had good density, not those thin little things you used to get with the fine-grain developers.

“Some of the guys have gotten together.”

ASMP: Why did you join ASMP?

Giles: I had met Ewing Krainin at Black Star. He was not working for them, but he had some stock pictures of his in there. Krainin had opened a studio on Fifth Avenue between 45th and 44th Streets. A Stouffer restaurant was on the main floor and he was in the penthouse; he had a big area. So, to help pay the rent, he divided it up into cubicles with darkroom sinks and he would rent them out. He rented me this cubicle; Nelson Morris was my next-door neighbor.

Krainin comes to me one day and said, “Some of the guys have gotten together and we think we ought to have a magazine photographers’ society. Can I count you in?” I said, “Of course. Who’s putting this together?” And he said, “Ike Vern, Nelson Morris, Alan Gould, Bradley Smith and me.”

ASMP: Did you go out to Freeport to Bradley’s for the first meetings?

Giles: No, the first meeting was not in Freeport. If Bradley said that, he may have meant the first meeting of the group I just mentioned. But the first meeting where others were invited, where the organization was formed, was at Krainin’s studio. He had John Adam Knight — Pierre de Rohan was his real name — who was writing a camera column for the World Telegram. And he had a friend, Stanley Katcher, who was a lawyer.

We kicked it around, and both the lawyer and de Rohan spoke and said, “We should put this together, and we will encourage you and we will help you.”

“He wrote a child’s book about this little cockroach.”

ASMP: Was Philippe Halsman there?

Giles: Oh, sure. He was there. He was a charter member, that’s for sure. I first met Philippe when I had been with Black Star for maybe a year or so. Philippe had a friend that he did some Russian translation for, into English or French, and his name was Dick Simon, of Simon & Schuster. Simon knew somebody at Woman’s Home Companion and had suggested a story on the lying-in ward at New York Hospital. That’s where the babies are.

Somehow or other, Halsman got in to talk to Safranski. After Safranski introduced us, he told me, “He doesn’t know flash. He bought a flash, but he doesn’t know how to do it. I’ve shown him some of your stuff with multiple flash and he admired it. He agreed to take my suggestion that he team up with you. You will not take a credit on it; it’s all his. But you will help him in lighting and possibly composing. And you’ll split 50-50 on it.” It was a fat assignment; they were paying something like $350 or $400. So I said okay, and we went off together on this thing. Halsman paid attention to my suggestions and he got a nice set, and from then on, he knew what to do.

Halsman was very talented. He wrote a book called Piccoli, a child’s book about this little cockroach. It was charming. Simon published it for him. He did the Jump book later, and Simon & Schuster published that.

“We all began to call him ‘Constitution Morris.’ “

So, back to the first meeting. Right away the lawyer says, “You must have a constitution, and I will help you.” Nelson Morris said he would like to help too. Since he was one of the originators, why not?

We had a vote of those present, maybe 20 people. John Adam Knight was made temporary president until we could get a formal organization together. I was nominated to be treasurer, because we were going to collect dues. They made Nelson Morris secretary, and he welcomed the idea.

He was going to get together with Katcher and produce a constitution — which they proceeded to do. We all began to call him “Constitution Morris” because he participated in the writing of it. He was great for ethics, too.

“None of this picture-story business.”

After a while, Parade sort of dwindled out for me. Marshall Field’s money man, Cushing, gave up on it. Then a man who had worked for Collier’s as an ad salesman, Red Motley, proposed buying Parade because he felt it was a great advertising medium. By that time, it had grown from two million to maybe ten million in circulation.

Marshall Field wasn’t interested in holding onto it, and he had lost money on PM. So Red Motley brought in a guy who had worked as one of the editors at Look magazine. And the whole direction changed. I think it was Motley’s idea that this photography-magazine business was well covered by Life magazine and it was damned costly. So he wanted to just start easing out of the photography. The magazine would have single illustrations and so on, but none of this picture-story business.

So it became as it still exists today. It’s a text magazine, not a photo magazine. But I had some other contacts. I had shot for Town & Country, and Jack Whiting, the editor of Popular Photography, knew me from ASMP.

“I staged my stuff.”

On one job, I met Willard Morgan, who liked my work and set up an exhibition of my pictures in the Museum of Modern Art Photography Center. The show was a success, and the next thing I know, Morgan contacted me with another proposal. He said, “I would like you to have a lecture in the auditorium of the Museum, speaking against Weegee (bio), and the subject will be Realism in Photography. We will project lantern slides of your stuff, and Weegee will come through with his news pictures.”

We got together with Weegee at the Photography Center, and Weegee pulled me aside to say, “I know you’re a pretty slick photographer. I don’t think I’m a slick photographer, but there’s one thing: Let’s not pick on each other or anything like that.”

I staged my stuff. For instance, I did a story of the U-boats sinking oil tankers off the Jersey shore; people on the beaches would take their small boats and go out to pick up survivors from the torpedoed tankers. They’d be covered with muck and everything else. And my boss at Parade asked, “Why can’t we do something like that? Can you stage a rescue?”

So we went out to Monmouth. We found some hangers-on, young men, and we told them we wanted to stage a rescue. Did they know anything about rescues? Oh, yes, they’d done it a few times — they were kind of bragging. And I took one guy aside and said, “If you jump in the water, I’ll give you 10 bucks, because I need a photograph.”

What he didn’t know was that we had to coat him with junk. We had powdered soap beads and black-face makeup, and we got this guy all mucked up and pulled him out of the water.

Remember, in those days there was no such thing as slaves on strobe; there was no strobe, it didn’t exist. I had a flash wired to my camera with a synchronizer that Marty Forscher made, cut through the body of the Rolleiflex, with a solenoid. I would press a button on the battery case, but the shutter wouldn’t open for 20 milliseconds after the impulse, because it took that long for all the foil in the glass enclosure to come to a burn. So I had to have a wire down to the dock — I was doing a medium-long shot — where there was a guy holding a flashlight, so apparently the source of the light was the flashlight.

“My stuff is realism.”

At the lecture, I was on stage first. I said, “I do series because, for example, if you see a photograph of a guy leaning off a cornice of a roof, you think he’s going to jump. But you don’t know. Maybe there’s a pool of water below and he’s not going to get killed. If you have another picture of him in mid-air, you know he’s falling, but what he’s going to hit, you don’t know. But if you show him on the ground not moving, you know damn well he made the trip. And that’s why I’m interested in series: because you can tell a story to its completion, without guesswork.”

“What I’ve described would be realism if some cameraman were covering a thing like that. But here are some slides where I’m shaking the camera, using slow shutter speeds and making this thing look exciting — like a news photographer would sometimes have to do. I used lousy technique on this story, not because I don’t know how — you’ll see on other slides that I can do slick — but because it’s the appropriate thing for this kind of situation: the rescue of a man who has been put in the drink by a German submarine blowing up an oil tanker. He’s a mess.”

Then Weegee came on, and he said, “That guy is such a faker!” He was attacking me, after he’d begged me not to pick on him. So he showed his stuff, and it was very interesting. At the end, people got up to ask questions. Some were technical, and some were “How did you feel?” Then Paul Strand stood up and asked, “Weegee, do you ever do any staging?”

Weegee replied, “No, my stuff is realism, not like Giles’ stuff.”

Strand said, “But Weegee, did you ever, on one of those world-famous bodies of yours under the El, take the man’s fedora and put it on his chest?” And Weegee just turned away.

“He wasn’t supposed to look too disreputable.”

At Collier’s, I was asked to get illustrations for a story about a man who cheats insurance companies by hiring a “flopper.” I didn’t know what that was, but they told me. The flopper stands at a street corner and waits for a guy with a spiffy car. He acts like he’s gotten the light wrong or something, and he hits the fender hard and takes a flop on the ground. The police come, an accident report is made and so on. The man goes to a doctor, gets x-rays of multiple fractures, because the doctor is in collusion. The lawyer sues for negligence and gets a big settlement from the insurance company to keep it out of court.

Some good insurance investigator found out and exposed the whole thing. The lawyer went to jail, the doctor went to jail, but this was the instigator. He wasn’t the flopper; he’d hired some poor son of a bitch for 20 bucks to take the flop.

So they had the crook; he’d just been sentenced to six years in jail, but he wasn’t going to start serving it till next week. He was willing to tell his story to the staff writers, but they needed illustrations.

ASMP: Did you stage the accident?

Giles: We did everything. For the lead shot, I wanted his face. He came with an escort and posed for me on Park Avenue, with his collar up. He wasn’t supposed to look too disreputable, by any means, but there was the feeling that he was kind of nasty and might do something crooked.

Another time, they wanted a story on the effect of barbiturates as an addiction. I proposed a picture from the patient’s viewpoint, someone who’s been hospitalized because of this. Standing at the foot of the bed would be a nurse and a doctor, and it would look, like, screwy.

I found an empty jug that used to contain apple juice that was distorted and strained by its structure. I held it up and turned it and, God! it distorted things. So I propped it up with a slide stand and when the distortion looked best, I shot the thing.

It was a great shot. Later, Weegee did that same kind of thing. But I did it first.

“I never saw the film they made with that machine.”

But after a while, the publisher told me, “We’ll have to go to every two weeks.” They didn’t try to cut my price or anything, but they said that television was now taking the advertising dollar. And sure enough, all the magazines I’d been working with were going.

By happenstance, I met a guy in the movie business, Frank Thayer. His outfit was Science Pictures, in the basement of a brownstone around 46th Street on Lexington Avenue. I went over there and met his partner, Rene Bras, a meek little guy with a mustache and bags under his eyes. He’d invented a machine to photograph an ear operation called fenestration; it would not interfere with the surgeon, but would give an extreme close-up. He called it the Lempertscope, because Dr. Lempert had ordered it.

I never saw the film they made with that machine — not that I’d like to. But they were also doing business films and TV commercials. They’d rent the camera, rent the lights, hire the people if they needed help. I showed some of my photographs to Rene, and he liked them. So they came up with a commercial for me. Cigarettes were still being advertised on TV, so I did one for Camel cigarettes.

ASMP: So you just started out cold.

Giles: But I knew how to light. You can’t see the light when you’re using multiple flash; you’ve got to know where you’re placing it.

ASMP: So even though it was motion …

Giles: Well, I was still a beginner; I hadn’t done any motion pictures. But I tried. One of the shots they needed was a line of people in front of a movie theater. I don’t remember why, but that was the shot.

I went to the casting person that I used to use for models, and I got a line of people. I knew where to rent lights; the cameras you could rent from either Foreman & Babb or Zucker. I used an Eyemo, which is a 35mm hand-held camera that some of the newsmen used to use.

This was in 1950. I worked a while for Science Pictures and for U.S. Productions. I did stuff for You Asked For It; I shot all the East Coast stuff for them, on location. But I wasn’t making money, and I had two children.

“The insurance company wanted the FBI to have a picture.”

So I gave it up. I went to Harry Winston and I got in to be the staff photographer. He was originally a diamond man, but there was beginning to be a demand, even in rings, for emeralds. So they wanted to sell this less-expensive jewelry they called “Posey,” nothing over $40,000.

ASMP: So you photographed the jewelry on the models.

Giles: And I became an 8×10 photographer. Everything was 8×10 because they manufactured there and they wanted a record, actual size, of everything. I didn’t have to use swings or anything, but I learned how to get it absolutely one-to-one for contact prints of their jewelry. In an 8×10 areas, a necklace will fit, and if it doesn’t, you can overlap it just a little. Everything had to be recorded. In case somebody stole it, the insurance company wanted the FBI to have a picture. And they also wanted to refer to what they did last year.

They were very nice to me for 21 years. I retired in 1987 with a nice severance pay and a small pension. And I had major medical, which I am still allowed to continue by paying a small premium.

“We deny the denial.”

ASMP: ASMP was having an effect on the industry. Did you think it was an effective group, or was it just a chowder and marching society when you were there?

Giles: I had served on the Executive Board from the beginning, and it was customary for every president to be on the President’s Council. When I ran for president, talk was coming up about whether we should do something about having some clout with the magazines.

ASMP: Get a day rate.

Giles: And get minimum guarantee arrangements, and stuff like that. Our original lawyer, Stanley Katcher, retired to Arizona shortly after the organization was formed. But we worked with one of the other people in his firm, George Chernoff; he knew his stuff. He told us that we had to amend our charter with the state to include bargaining with employers.

ASMP: Did that make you a union?

Giles: It would essentially be a union. We presented the idea to the membership. And the next thing I know, Chernoff tells me we have to go over to the Empire State Building to have a hearing about the granting of our charter amendment.

At the meeting, there was someone opposing us. It was an AFL local that had darkroom workers in its membership and had no relation to what we magazine photographers were doing. Yet their representatives were trying to get denial of our charter amendment. Chernoff and I spoke to the three-man panel and tried to indicate that those people didn’t do the same kind of work as we did, and our people were unrepresented.

The panel huddled, and then they came back and said, “We deny the denial,” or something like that. So we got the charter amendment through.

Well, Pete Martin spoke at one of the meetings and said that he didn’t think this would get us anyplace. There were too many guys out there who would step in our place, even if it was only temporary, just to break the union. He made a lot of sense. So I don’t think the amendment was ever utilized, but the membership wanted it and I helped them get it. We had been told by Chernoff that you can’t fool around with demanding minimums or anything without the charter amendment.

ASMP: No, you’d be up for restraint of trade as independent contractors. So it was very important.

Giles: It did help, then. I’m glad.