You are here

Harris and Ewing

Time Period: 
1905-1955
Location: 
1311-1312 F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.
Biography: 

Harris & Ewing was a diversified photographic service founded in 1905 by George W. Harris (1872-1964) and Martha Ewing to give the nation's capital a world-class studio for producing civic portraiture and photojournalism. Welsh-born Harris was the principal photographer from its founding until his retirement in 1955. Californian Martha Ewing, a fine artist and photographer with entrepreneurial instincts, great social skills, some money, and an interest in color process photography arranged the financial backing. Their partnership proved almost immediately successful.

Harris's photographic career began in the 1880s in Pittsburgh. Images he took of the Johnstown flood made a splash with eastern newspaper editors, who used them as the basis for engraved illustrations. When he turned eighteen, he moved to Arkansas, opened a portrait studio, saw that business would not support him, so moved again to San Francisco. There he built his business until 1897.

His work caught the eye of the editor of Frank Leslie's Illustrated who brought him to New York to work as a photojournalist. He preferred the West Coast, returned to San Francisco and worked for the Hearst News Service from 1900-1903. In San Francisco he met Martha Ewing who had opened up the San Francisco office of Bushnell Studio, expanding from Seattle and Portland southward. Ewing employed Harris on a job basis.

According to legend, Teddy Roosevelt urged Harris to come to Washington since the District of Columbia lacked a photographer versed in news work and portraiture with connections to the big wire services. Ewing had gone east in 1904 to work as a portraitist for Marceau Studio in New York City. Harris sounded out Ewing about the Washington prospect and convinced her to join with him in founding a studio in the nation's capital. They moved to Washington and, in 1905, opened a studio equipped with all the trappings of a Broadway portrait palace: several high quality painted flats, an assortment of classical statuary, oriental rugs, and good drapery. Ewing managed the studio.

Their reputation was made by a 1908 series of candid shots showing William H. Taft receiving telephonic notification of his nomination for the presidency by the Republican Party. "The Anatomy of a Smile" became one of the landmarks of the burgeoning field of candid portraiture of celebrities. Soon, Harris & Ewing were so identified with the iconography of American political power that theatrical performers and movie stars touring Washington, D.C., visited the studio to see if they could put on some of the gravitas. In 1915 Harris bought out Ewing's portion of the partnership, yet she remained a valuable presence in the firm, particularly in arranging access to difficult persons.

Running a news service as well as a portrait studio, Harris followed the business model of Underwood & Underwood, hiring numbers of uncredited photographers to cover events. Nevertheless, world historical happenings, such as the Peace Conference ending World War I, he would record himself. By the late 1930s Harris presided over the largest photographic studio in the United States, with 94 employees. He sold the News Service in 1945, but kept shooting photographs until his retirement in 1955.

He gave 700,00 negatives of his store of 5 million images to the Library of Congress. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

George W. Harris of Harris & Ewing became so associated with the ideals of professional society--the social function of portraiture, the aesthetic of formal portrait photography, the dynamism of photojournalistic reportage, that the Professional Photographers Society named its highest award, the Harris medal, after him.

Images of generations of sober-looking public servants lit with flattering, yet undramatic indirection, seated before dark backgrounds with the hint of a halation around the sitter adorn the halls of government, a visual memory of the governing class. With theatrical performers, Harris & Ewing could be more playful, letting the formal aura make the daring display of flesh more shocking.