The Story of Bill Stettner

THE PASSING OF THE REVISIONS TO THE COPYRIGHT ACT IN THE USA, HAD DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES FOR BILL STETTNER AND HIS CO-CAMPAIGNERS.



Portrait of Bill Stettner in his shop 'The Garage Sale', New York © Peter Adams 1991

BILL STETTNER was a very successful New York advertising photographer, with an amazing inventive mind, and many iconic images under his belt. He was also believed a great injustice was being perpetrated on photographers around the world.  

Through the late eighties, Bill and a number of other American photographers fought a battle over the right of a photographer to own the copyright in their own images - the first such action, in what is now accepted as a photographer’s right just about everywhere around the world.

The passing of the revisions to the copyright act had disastrous consequences for Stettner and his co-campaigners.

Many of the committee found it difficult to get meaningful work after the revisions to the copyright act became law (unless they waived their rights) - but Bill, as the main protagonist, was black-balled by the New York advertising industry, and never worked again as a photographer.

He eventually lost everything to his creditors.


'American Flag', © Bill Stettner 1965

Bill’s last career was as a dealer in second hand goods, from a shop called ‘The Garage Sale’ on Columbus Circle (where I made this portrait). Sadly the strain of previous years and progressively deteriorating health destroyed his spirit, and he eventually died a pauper in Mount Sinai hospital.

Our memory of those who have fought battles on our collective behalf are sadly short lived.  In many ways, Bill gave his life for what he believed in – a principle that benefited every working photographer today.

We should not forget that.

 “As a young man,” said Bill, “the glamour of the world of photography was definitely the job for me! I started work, as a photographer’s assistant for $27.50 week - and all the girls I could wrap and carry!"

“I suppose my most memorable pictures were made in the 60’s - the series I did on racial inequality and the Vietnam War.

“Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, as had Kennedy. America was a racial mess. Sure, people were talking about racial integration – as though things had changed. But just below the surface it was as it had always been – all the bigotry and hatred. I suppose my most satisfying image is the double face - but most people never understood it.

I wanted to make a picture that made the point that underneath it all, we’re all the same. 


'The Double Face', © Bill Stettner 1963

“I wanted to make a picture that made the point that underneath it all, we’re all the same.  I wanted to take a picture of ordinary blue-collar workers – a sort of Avedon close up – using a black man for one half of the face, and a white man for the other – so that the black man looked like the shadow side of the white man’s face.

“These days this would simple with computers - but back in 1963 it all had to be done in the camera. I had a huge casting session that went on for ever, and eventually , shot 36 sheets of 5” x 4” film of the white guy – cross lit from the right. At this stage I hadn’t found a black face that matched and I didn’t for quite a while – in fact the film stayed untouched in the slide holders for two months.

“Most of the art directors who saw this portrait thought it was some weird white guy with a fat lip, and threw the print into the bin! When I explained it to them, they got embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it. It definitely wasn’t a commercial success!”
 
Bill used his spare time to experiment with personal photography - images that drew attention to the hatred he saw around him in America. Brought up in a Jewish family – his father was a wedding photographer who had emigrated from Europe – he was well aware of racial persecution and inequality.

Stettner’s collection of social comment photographs was large, but now sadly now lost due to a confidence trick played on him when he was dying. I remember a picture of a black hand holding white jelly baby, another of Martin Luther King’s portrait superimposed on a petrol can (a reference to the Birmingham riots) and many others. Who knows where they are now.

But perhaps it is this one, a comment on the explosive and self-destructive nature of the United States, which has best stood the test of time and is as relevant today as when it was when photographed in 1968.

In many ways, Bill Stettner gave his life so that you and I can now enjoy the benefits of owning our own copyright. He died in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Two days prior to his death, while doped up on Morphine, an unidentified person or persons got Bill to sign away his life’s work – all his negatives, prints and equipment – which disappeared overnight and were never seen again. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Bill Stettner's pictures please contact this website or peter.adams@peteradams.com

We need to remember Bill Stettner and his images.

Written by Peter Adams

By Peter Adams

2012-01-04 14:47:27

Comments

27

Ken Pivak

2012-01-04 01:05:55

I'm absolutely so happy that you posted this about Bill. I knew him and had assisted him for a few jobs back in my old assistant days. How cool to see his famous image of the matchsticks! I was just trying to explain this to someone who thought they had a great idea, only to have me tell them it was already done. Then I couldn't find his image on it... thank you for posting this and about a wonderful photographer who painstakingly fought for our rights! Ken

michael bajko

2012-01-05 17:19:57

Kia Ora Bill! What a Great Man you are. A Man of Principle and Justness, as well as a Fantastic Photographer. Your photos might have been ripped off yet your Spirit looms Large!! Kia Kaha e Tu Ne! Thanks Peter for bringing this to us. Cheers Michael (Aotearoa/New Zealand)

Ashlee Adams

2012-01-06 04:17:16

Thanks so much for posting this - I am always ready to thank our quiet heros from the past who made our lives so much easier in the photography world - I am so spoiled with my digital Canon 40d , and the clicks of my computer - the Double Face picture is magnificant , because they WAS NO photoshop in that day ! Great article - adding to my list of mental thank you notes :) SO thankful for his fight with the copyrighting of my images !

Jack Reznicki

2012-01-06 11:08:48

Thanks for this article. I knew Bill and sat with him on the board in the early days of Advertising Photographers of America (APA), with Bill fighting for a standardized estimating/billing form in the industry. For the hard work he did in those early days, there wouldn't be an APA without Bill. I heard his girlfriend at the time of his death got all his stuff. I pretty sure that's accurate. I don't remember her name. I'll ask around and see if anyone remembers her. To clarify the copyright is

Peter Adams

2012-01-07 17:09:23

HELP NEEDED: All of Bill Stettner's prints and work were removed from his studio just after his death by persons unknown. If anyone knows the whereabouts of any of his work, please contact me at peter.adams@peteradams.com. His family would love to own a few of his memories - no questions asked. Regards Peter Adams More of Bill's work on www.peteradams.com

Peeter Altosaar

2012-01-07 11:48:59

Thank you, Peter Adams, for that short and touching biography of Bill Stettner. I had just finished my degree at McGill University in 1968 and was working in Canada's far north, when Martin Luther King JR was shot. I was then a photographer as well, not professional mind you, but I love the art. I've read a lot about famous photographers but have never heard of Bill Stettner. I'm glad that you brought him to my attention. All the best.

Merlyn Vergara

2012-01-08 06:55:46

Your the man Sir I want to be great Photographer like you..I work as a Photographer before in Kodak but I was not professional photographer like you I really admired you Sir for your wonderful and meaningful work..and thanks to Sir Peter

Larry Chiger

2012-01-08 03:06:44

I assisted Bill, and then became his studio manager, from 1977-80. I had been completely unaware of the terrible losses (financial, prosessional and joyful) that he suffered in his later years. During my years working with him, Bill was a larger than life, peripatetic, table-top and illustration photographer who wanted to get the most out of every minute he was alive. He was a funny, irreverent, generous to a fault, driven, substance enthusiast, woman adoring, perfectionist, principled, husba

Alan Devins

2012-01-08 12:06:01

Just came across this site and read this article as it was the first on the page. I admit that I hadnt heard of Bill before but can certainly appreciate all that he had done for photographers. Very sad to read about his last days. Really disgusting what some people can do!

Mike Wishart

2012-01-09 00:34:56

Thank you Peter Adams for this illuminating article on Bill Stettner and his huge and largely unsung contribution to all photographers around the world. His images " American Flag " and " The Double Face " are truly exceptional and show what a shame it is that his life's work has been 'lost'. Hopefully someone comes forward with informational leading to the recovery of his negatives and prints. They deserve to be on public display. I'll remember Bill Stettner and his images.

Maria Turley

2012-01-09 00:17:35

I came across this article by accident and Im sure glad I did - I too had never heard of Bill and now I can thank you for the article and mostly thank Bill for the work in fighting for the 'copyright' in photography. I will definitely remember his name. RIP Bill.

Mike Stoba

2012-01-01 16:21:30

Thank you Bill Id say thankyou Peter Adams, but which one? Web has USA based and Australia based . This blog copy is attributed but not sourced, kinda messing with the whole theme of it.

Kambourian

2012-01-01 20:57:08

My father Ron was a good friend of Bill's in NYC being an ad man from way back he was lucky enough to be sent an original one of only 20 i believe. My Dad hung onto the photo through 4 countries and over 40 years and reading Bill's story makes me sad to see how many of the original ad and photo men from that generation never got the kudos they deserve. The photo is in excellent condition and i still have it today

Chuck Adorney

2013-01-01 10:02:41

Peter, it is very kind and thoughtful of you to put this biography of Bill Stettner together. I had spent a great deal of time trying to get in touch with Bill during the past couple of years with no success. My son, Mark, who is much more adept at searching through the internet, sent me your tragic biography of him. I first met Bill when he was doing a photographic assignment for me. Although I am retired, at that time I was an Executive Art Director and Creative Director at Ross Roy Adverti

Gary Kane

2013-01-01 16:19:21

I worked for Bill Stettner in the early 80's as an assistant right out of FIT. The lessons and the humility that he taught me are still with me today. Bill had a gruff exterior but a giant heart. Especially if he liked you. I unfortunately missed the heyday of the sex, drugs, and rock n roll, and had to witness all too painfully the demise of a great illustration photographer. His studio was like the Taj Mahal, complete with an office likened to a kasbah above the studio. The bulk of work t

Ray Garcia

2014-01-07 20:19:00

I was an assistant of Bill's back in the early 70's. The greatest lesson I got from Bill was "Do it now". He taught me not to procrastinate, ever. Bill was definitely into the ladies, even tho married to a stone fox. Both his mistress and his studio manager happily seduced me. Good times. Bless you Bill Stettner.

Emily Watlington

2014-01-01 06:54:27

To Peter and all who knew Bill Stettner, I'm writing from the JFK Library and am unable to contact Peter via this website or the email listed. We have a collection of wedding photographs from the 1940s and 1950s by a William Stettner. If you have any pertinent information, please contact me: emily.watlington@nara.gov

Dave Smith

2015-01-01 17:37:38

What a sad story, even without his advocation of Photographers rights this would be a dark sentence in the history of photography. The bullying and greed of the corporations is truly shocking and their hold on the rest of us should really be wrested completely and irrevocably! Dave

hogan a roma

2015-01-04 02:31:13

Nommé le 20 mars dernier à la tête du conseil de ville de Conakry, le gouverneur Soriba Sorel Camara, a une recette miracle face à l'énorme défi que représente l'assainissement de la capitale : ''le franc guinéen''. Là où son prédécesseur, usant de campagnes d'assainissement opportunistes ou d'intimidation à relents propagandistes à l'endroit des élus, avait échoué, Soriba Sorel compte réussir en misant sur une généreuse distribution de billets de banque.

Frank Zimmermann

2015-01-06 12:52:03

wow is all i can say - we all owe him who license work today - i would like to know more. I hope his work is will preserved and that maybe the new owners have some good intentions and are not completely evil.

Hunt Smith

2016-01-05 11:54:17

Hello All, I was Bill's assistant when he and his then partner John Paul (Buddy) Endress had a studio on 29th Street in NYC. 1967 - what days those were!!

Anne Stettner Lalley

2016-01-08 15:14:15

Bill Stettner and I were married on August 4, 1962, unfortunately, our marriage dissolved in 1965. I was truly happy to read the article about him. He was a talented individual with strong ideals. I am still in touch with his sister in San Francisco, but unfortunately cannot shed any light on his missing work. Thank you for a fitting tribute to Bill.

Jack Lardis

2018-01-01 19:32:10

Bill did a lot of work for me at J. Walter Thompson until he challenged the copyright inequity that destroyed his commercial photography career but helped photographers control their copyright. I have a signed dye transfer of his iconic match flag and as I am divesting by art and photo collection I am looking for a home for this historic and relevant image. I can be contacted by Email at: jackart31@aol.com Jack Lardis

Nick Newton

2019-01-01 17:17:46

I had the pleasure of art directing Bill on a photoshoot in his studio for a couple of days in September of 1985. We shot Todd Rundgren, Herbie Hancock and Jan Hammer. Aside from being an amazing photographer he was an animated riot. It was a challenging shoot and he and his crew made it fun. That shoot stands out among many...RIP Bill.

Jonathan Schachter

2020-01-04 23:41:33

On a whim I decided to see if there was any new information on the web about my cousin Bill. Bill and my mother, his first cousin, grew up together and I have fond memories of visiting him in his studio as a kid. The studio was an old converted sound stage and the rest of the old building was filled to the rafters with stuff he had collected as props. These became the starter stock for Garage Sale, his high end junk store. Years later, in the 80's, while a law student, I did background research on copyright law for him to help him in his quest for photographer's rights to their work. To me he was bigger than life and to this day I think of him often. I'm glad I found your post.

Steve Langerman

2020-01-07 23:09:09

Thanks Peter for posting this terribly sad story - I never met Bill, but heard a little (very little actually) about him from his former partner Buddy Endress when I assisted Buddy during the second half of the ‘70s - based on the description of his demeanor, he actually sounds like Buddy: tough on the outside, but soft on the inside. The 3 1/2 years I worked for Buddy remain the most extraordinary experience of my life - he taught me so much more than commercial photography! Great to see all the familiar names here in the comments section...

Chris Denney

2020-01-01 19:18:26

I was Bill's studio manager from around 1984-1985. After we agreed to part ways, I ended up starting to shoot for my own clients but came back to renovate the basement of his 25th Street studio and shoot there for a couple of years. I witnessed his demise, and it wasn't just the black balling. His 8000 sq ft studio became the second hand shop for a while until he lost it. I think I helped him move. We lost touch until his girlfriend - Trish was her name if memory serves - and I saw him at Mount Sinai just before he died. He was a shell of a man. Trish was closest to him, and she would know what happened to his work, and a good chance it is she who has/sold it (tall redhead, had a punk look at the time, maybe some piercings). I have a couple of pictures with Bill at the Matterhorn, where we shot skiers for a Canadian cigarette brand. Incredible shoot, many stories. Remember, Bill got attention for and was eventually ruined by his work with Winston cigarettes. It was here that he used the contractual language in his billing that he ended up charging the agency (can't remember the name) for improper usage. He found 100's of such illegal usages, and billed in excess of $250,000 for the usage. That is who black balled him, and tagged him with the moniker of a hard ass, which Bill certainly was. If this sounds a little lacking in emotion, I mean it not to be. I loved Bill. I know he loved me. I still reference the things he taught me, which was how to think and find solutions and to organize. I also helped him start a business that automatically put the R mark and year and name on each image - way before digital. We went to a couple of trade shows to sell this product. He was a complicated man, too smart for his own good yet stupid in his addictions and inability to hold his temper, which was formidable. But he had a heart of gold, and on good days was the coolest dressed man in the room. He walked across that studio with a tempo of a chased penguin, chest out and his little legs pumping. He was an icon, they broke the mold when Bill died.

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