Tuesday, October 25, 2011

George Harris: Photographer of Presidents

George William Harris was a photographer of Presidents. Originally from Dowlais he and his family left Wales for the USA where he embarked upon a career as a snapper. From 1900-1903 he worked for the Hearst News Agency in San Francisco. Later he was part of Teddy Roosevelt's press entourage. The president personally urged him to start a photographic news service in Washington DC. It would help disseminate pictures of political events and personalities from the capital to the rest of the USA.

So, in 1905, along with Martha Ewing he co-founded the Harris & Ewing photo studio in Washington DC. Within a year it was the largest studio in the city, selling photographs to media outlets throughout the US and beyond. In 1915 Martha Ewing sold her interest in the business to Harris. He continued to run the news service until 1945 and stayed in the portrait game until 1955.

By the outset of WW2 George Harris had 100 employees working under him and five million pictures in his files. When he sold the news service in 1945 it was the busiest studio in the USA, photographing an estimated 10,000 people a year. His studio took official portraits of American presidents and many other figures from the political (and occasionally non-political) world.

Harris, though, never forgot his Welsh roots. Down the years he was a regular visitor to his homeland. Not that he ever viewed Wales through rose-tinted spectacles. On a stay in south Wales in 1929, for example, he lamented our lack of initiative; our lack of education; and in our mean streets and terrible housing conditions, our lack of civic pride. He continued: "It is heartbreaking to see the potentialities of the Welsh nation, the excellent material from which the nation is made, all running to waste simply because the Welsh people fail, or perhaps refuse, to see the power that is within them. I am glad of the fact that the American people have no tradition and no aristocracy. Value is set upon the man rather than on his lineage or his calling." Commenting on the American-Welsh, he said: “We certainly have our Welsh societies, but the Wales we pay homage to is that of Llewelyn the Last and Owen Glyndwr. The Wales of today – no!”

George Harris died in 1964, at the age of 92, leaving 700,000 negatives to the Library of Congress. The above photograph of Harris was taken by George Skadding for Life magazine and is the copyright of Time Inc.