R. W. Heck Studio
by Thomas Robinson
Draft Version. 1 Sept. 1998.
The story of the Heck studio is an intertwined saga of photographers, operators, and owners who succeeded each other (and printed each other’s negatives) in Burns, Oregon. Located in the southeast corner of the state, Burns is the county seat and business center of Harney County.
By the middle 1890s there were a handful of photographers operating in Burns - about as many as there are today. W. N. Jorgensen ran a photo studio in the back of his watch repair shop. J. F. Boyle was an itinerant who drifted in and out of town. He arrived in July 1894 and advertised he would be "located here three or four weeks ". Business was good and he wound up staying 13 months. Boyle then moved on to Prineville, and the Burns newspaper noted "(the returning wagon driver) reports Prineville as slow and dull as our own town ". In 1898, Boyle reappeared in Burns for a short stay then wandered into the world of ambiguity inhabited by itinerant photographers.
Into this world arrived John McMullen, circa 1897. The photograph of him shows his tent studio set up on the main street in the middle of downtown Burns (the picture is a film test, just as modern photographers shoot Polaroids to verify their equipment performance). The table on the right held his negatives and paper in contact printing frames to expose them by sunlight. His chemicals were in wicker covered glass jugs to protect them from breakage during their wagon rides over rutted roads. Like most traveling photographers, he was frugal in his allocation of gold chloride in the toning bath so his prints came out reddish instead of black when new. His fixing and washing times were abbreviated, resulting in exaggerated fading. His portraits were shot on the standard cabinet card size negative, 4.25 x 6.5 inches, and most of his view work was done on the then-obsolete 5 x 8 inch format. He also offered "penny pictures" (sixteenth plate, or "gem" size) with a multiple lens camera.
McMullen settled in Burns, the 1900 census indicating that he was 43 years old, renting his space and living with Sarah Hall, a 39 year old divorced woman whose occupation is listed as a photographer. By 1902 he had graduated to the then-current camera sizes for view and group work; 6.5 x 8.5 and 8 x 10 inches. His prints were, as he advertised, "finished in an up-to-date style upon application", meaning that he would produce the silver gray tones of platinum and aristo platino-type and eliminate the passé brown tones that had all but disappeared in the western part of the state five years prior.
McMullen attended the 1907 Photographer’s Convention in Seattle . Across the country the entire photography industry was undergoing major technological changes. Professional photographers were converting to portable reflex cameras with focal plane shutters instead of the traditional view camera. Enlarging prints from smaller negatives instead of contact printing was changing the darkroom. Brown tone prints were looked upon suspiciously by the public, who presumed them impermanent. Photographers found their equipment, their techniques, and their personal styles obsolete. The market for frequent portraits of children was being eroded by inexpensive snapshot cameras. Photography trade magazines noted these trends in great detail, and their classified ads were filled with liquidation notices from the photographers who didn’t. . McMullen offered his studio for sale in a 1908 Burns newspaper classified ad.
The buyer was R. W. Heck, a 28 year old Navy veteran who had been around the world and learned photography on the way. After Heck’s discharge from the Navy in 1902, he likely worked as a photographer and moved to Burns in 1907, where he settled.
Heck modernized McMullen’s operation, and soon picked up a 5x7" Graflex camera to shoot real photo postcards. When he needed to set up an important shot he used glass plates, and when fast operation was essential he used nitrate roll film. The illustration of the Indian camp shows his swinging lens camera which made panoramic (double width) postcards. The years of 1913 to 1916 established his career as Harney County’s principal photographer, during this time he photographed some of his most famous views. The Sagebrush Symphony is a classic image in the history of Oregon photography, and the rabbit drive and street scenes of the 1914 Burns fire are examples of well known images from his hand. By this time Heck had two competitors; the Sayer Studio (Agnes Sayer) who made soft-focus studio portraits on fancy mounts, and A. D. Browning of nearby Crane, OR., who made real photo postcards from a Kodak type postcard camera of moderate price (judging by the optical quality).
A small town photographer’s business is unlikely to win them the monopoly game, and Heck’s advertising is punctuated with occasional threats of financial embarrassment. A 1916 newspaper posted his last chance announcement: "Owing to the enormous rise in the price of chemicals, I will be forced out of business unless something is found in the immediate future to take their place... " During the first World War, the prices of precious metals skyrocketed. Heck used them as toning baths for his portraits.
Heck married Mary Caldwell, of Burns, in January 1918. Soon after the marriage, Mary became ill and was quarantined in a Josephine county hospital. By late 1919, Rufus had moved to Portland and was working as a photographer, living in a Park Ave. apartment close to Burnside. Heck wrote a letter to Florence Brenton (Mary's aunt) to sell everything except for one machine used for photography. He mentions "if we ever come back to Burns we can buy some more furniture". Mary Heck passed away on January 19, 1921 in Josephine County, likely from the influenza epidemic. Heck lived in his Portland apartment through the beginning of 1922.
Around 1922, Heck moved back to Burns, and resurrected his photography business. He bought a building off the main street and set up his studio. The portrait of Heck posing with the Louie and Kennedy families against the brick wall of the Safeway market (located just across the street from his ground level shop) is a film test, shot on several sizes of nitrate sheet film. His crisp new white suit sharply contrasts the dark skinned Paiute Indian faces obscured in deep shadow, and constitutes a light value range of at least 15 f-stops. The exposure and development of this film demonstrates state-of-the-art skill for its time. It was made around 1929 , several years after he permanently converted his cameras from glass plates to film.
The conversion to film enabled him to double his postcard production, especially for his well known series of rodeo riders at the Harney County Fair. For a full decade, Heck marketed at least fifty views per year, showing each rider and horse in action as well as specific races, groupings of winners and the parade. Heck was still shooting with his 5x7 inch Graflex, and although many postcard photographers had converted to smaller cameras, contemporary trade magazines indicate this was the king of the cameras for rodeo work . The fast 1000th speed shutter combined with the advantage of a large negative -- that was easily lettered for captions -- produced sharper images than most cameras today are capable of giving. The Graflex was his favorite camera for the duration of his career.
The beginning of the Great Depression occurred at the peak of Heck’s career, and he commenced his largest project - the writing, editing and production of a photo history book. Titled "Harney County Pioneer Album", each of the fifty pages contained a series of photographs of early scenes and significant settlers. This remarkable tome shows his initiative and foresight in preserving history and his ability to edit a coherent picture essay. The book hit the market with a paid announcement in the September 26, 1933 edition of the Burns Times Herald. "Attention Pioneers! Heck’s studio announces that the Harney County Pioneer Album is now completed, and on sale at the studio," and further noted the "price is only $4.50. The most unique collection in the state". Each octavo page was photographically produced and printed in his darkroom. Not one page, not even the text, was printed on a conventional press. The owners of the only printing press in the area happened to be the Times Herald, and their weekly newspaper responded with not a single editorial mention of the project.
In 1932 Heck began to "visit" Idaho, spending progressively more time there and finally hiring another photographer to look after his Burns studio . The new manager was Fred Hall, who had been a broom-maker in Hillsdale in the early 20’s and a professional photographer in Portland from 1925 to 1930 . The new management marked an abrupt hiatus in postcard production, but this changed again around 1936 when Hall moved to Bend to work at the Photo Art Studio, and Heck’s studio was taken over by O. W. Lubcke. His initials spell "OWL" and that is how he signed his real photo postcards in 1937-1938. Lubcke used a simple 3.25 x 5.5 inch amateur camera to make postcard-size negatives of notably lower quality than the professional gear of Heck’s, but it yielded interesting street scenes, disaster pictures of the Welcome Hotel fire, and views of the new Indian village.
In case anybody was unaware of the reason for Heck’s absence from Burns, the local newspaper left no doubt with the 1939 headline "Jilted says Rufus Heck, Asks $12,000". The ensuing article details Heck’s complaint filed against defendant Ethel Walsh, who was alleged to have "promised in 1931 to marry Mr. Heck" and caused him to give up the photography business to live and work on her dairy ranch. "For six years, Heck sets forth, they had an agreement to marry ‘as soon as possible’, but that the defendant ‘by various excuses’ postponed until May, 1938, when she told him she would not marry him". Heck further alleged "the defendant made promises of marriage without any intention on her part of performing them to gratify her desires and induce him to look after the ranch. Sought in the suit is $3000 for money advanced, $3000 for services he performed on the ranch, $4000 for the damage to his Burns business and $2000 for his being deprived of opportunity to marry someone else during the time ".
The circumstances behind this interesting story began when Rufus became friendly with Ethel in the 1920’s during the Prohibition era. Ethel operated a moonshine still on her ranch near Burns. Around 1930, Ethel and her husband moved to Ada county, near Boise, where they bought a ranch. When Ethel’s husband died, Rufus became a regular visitor, finally moving in.
It is notable that after Heck’s love affair came unglued, Ethel had a man friend who was a German attempting to emigrate here to avoid Nazi persecution. Once his money was gone, the wedding was off. Ethel called the immigration authorities and the sheriff came to the ranch, arrested and deported the man .
Heck returned to Burns a much poorer man. He resumed ownership of the studio and production of real photo post cards. But at age 60, Heck found that speculating in stock photography was not a priority; over the next five years he simply did the things small town photographers do to make ends meet. In 1945 he sold the studio to Bob Lemons. Two months later, on 13 July 1945, Rufus W. Heck died from a heart attack .
The new owner became interested in marketing real photo postcards. He arranged with Sawyer, a high volume photo printing operation in Portland, to letter his negatives and manufacture the cards. In the process he combed the back files of negatives and re-lettered "Lemons’ Studio" on Heck’s better negatives. He also shot new images of the Edward Hines lumber company, and updated the views of area scenery. After managing Bob Lemons’ Studio for a while, Ross W. Johnson bought and operated it until the building was sold in 1963.
The building was slated to be razed. The clearing of the detritus prior to demolition was entrusted to the son of the new owner, Dan Jordan. In the rafters he discovered countless tens of thousands of negatives, an accumulation resulting from six and a half decades of daily photography jobs by eight succeeding photographers. Jordan inquired if the county historical society would be interested in them. Like most rural museums, the Harney county historical museum is practically unfunded and inadequately staffed, entirely lacking specialized handling skills, darkroom technicians and storage spaces. Overwhelmed by such a large group of unidentified negatives in no apparent order, the lot was declined by the society. But Jordan realized their importance, and preserved them in his own storage for the next twenty years .
By 1983, a newspaper advertisement placed by Bend resident Bob Ward offering to buy photographs and postcards took the Harney county negatives away from their birthplace. Ward assembled a darkroom and began printing the images. After ten more years, the negatives moved again to Portland.
The Heck archive is a complete visual record of a county, a rare circumstance shared by only a few other surviving collections. Often finds such as this are sorted by museums down to a manageable quantity, or divided by dealers into collector-size doses and are forever dispersed. What is lost is the sum total of a lifetime's work; the minutely detailed vision of a city and its inhabitants. This entire group has managed to evade any selection process. The original negatives are virtually the only way to find a photographer's complete work and to make it accessible to future users.
Many images that have no apparent value are potentially important. This was demonstrated when Ed Gray, an author who was writing about the Wagontire Mountain murders came to examine the plates. He was aware that Heck was the official photographer for the police, because he had a copy of the 1925 affidavit for Heck's subpoena. Pictures that at first glance seemed to be routine views of a garage interior and farming equipment turned out to be important crime scene photographs. Another crime scene negative in the collection, a 1903 autopsy photo of Warren Curtis with over 80 shotgun holes in his back, was the subject of a Supreme Court decision that permanently settled the admissibility of post mortem photographs in evidence and is still cited in law books.
The files contain virtually every picture that a small town photographer would be called upon to make. There are glass negatives of everything from product to police photography. Thousands of citizens share the pleasures of picnics, the triumphs at the local basketball games, and the disasters of fires and floods. Many negatives are for the production of postcards: town views, rodeo riders, wonders and blunders of the area. Weddings, funerals, homes and stores round out the collection, and it is unlikely that any longtime resident of Burns escaped the lens.
The final resting home of these negatives will be the University of Oregon. More so than any other institution in the Pacific Northwest, UO has preserved large groups of negatives from Eastern Oregon, including the work of Lee Moorhouse, Walter Bowman and O. G. Allen. With the addition of this group and over five hundred other photo studios collected over the past two decades, it will be the largest collection of Western Americana negatives in existence. The entire third floor of the Knight Library has been converted to a vault for permanent storage of negatives at 40 degrees. Under these conditions, all the negatives can last thousands of years.